The Rap on Whites Who Try to Act Black

By Stacey P. Patton
Sunday, March 16, 2008

It was a tale of sex, violence and a young girl crossing the color line. It was raw, gripping, sad and triumphant, tracing the heroine's successful escape from an environment of abandonment, abuse, poverty and gangs. It was supposed to be true.

Not a word of it was.

The recent media frenzy over Margaret Seltzer's "Love and Consequences," yet another hoax memoir published by yet another respectable publishing house, has subsided, but the perplexing questions remain: Why would a writer take the huge risk of publishing an easily discredited story, and what enticed a respectable publishing house to buy and promote it?

As a former foster child who actually lived the reality of some of the kinds of black dysfunction that Seltzer put forth as her own experience, I find the answer in a long history of white Americans' voyeuristic fascination with -- and perhaps sometimes even envy of -- black people.

The appeal of Seltzer's work lay in the way she positioned herself between America's two races, black and white: She claimed to be a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up poor in a dysfunctional black world. In fact, she is the daughter of a white, upper-middle-class California family. And her story is only the most recent in a long line of literary narratives, entertainments and ethnologies in which white people put on blackface to act as messengers to their white brethren, telling them what life is or was like in the 'hood or on the plantation. The messages they bring back are of black dysfunction, crime and violence, but also of black sexuality, athleticism and soulful musicality. These stories may then reaffirm white audiences' perception of black dysfunction and allow them to use blacks as a negative counterpoint for their own images of normalcy and to affirm their sense of superiority.

Stories written by blacks about blacks, on the other hand, don't seem to offer the vast white reading public that same sense of well-being. Like Seltzer, I write about dysfunction. My own memoir, "That Mean Old Yesterday," actually mirrors some scenes that Seltzer described in her bogus book -- being sexually and physically abused, carrying my possessions in trash bags from foster home to foster home, enduring painful hair-braiding rituals, handling illegal guns.

But unlike hers, my book was scrupulously vetted by my publisher. I was asked to provide police reports, medical records, witness statements and the names of social workers and foster parents. And unlike Seltzer, I actually had to sit down and meet my editor in person. Nothing I wrote was taken at face value.

When Seltzer lied about being a mixed-race foster child reared in a dangerous neighborhood by a black foster mother, she seemed to be revealing her own secret admiration of and desire for blackness while catering to prurient and voyeuristic consumer appetites. She tapped into that long-standing white fascination with blackness whose roots stretch back to the 1600s and that reached its apotheosis in the minstrel show.

Those shows, in which white performers with their faces caulked black sang, spoke and acted like African Americans, rose in popularity in the 1850s and '60s. As issues surrounding the abolition of slavery intensified, the performances allowed whites to portray blacks as stupid, lazy, sexual and unfit to participate in democracy, reinforcing and cementing dominant views about black inferiority. These racist spectacles played before mostly native-born and immigrant working- and middle-class white male audiences. They were most popular with Northern laborers, many of whom had never seen or interacted with blacks.

"Blacking up" as a widespread form of entertainment held sway into the turn of the 20th century but began to die out by the early 1920s. But the popular minstrel stereotypes -- the lazy coon, the dandy, the happy darkie, the mannish mammy, the wanton jezebel, the watermelon and chicken thief and the pickaninny -- all moved to comics, radio and film.

These images influenced the music and films of Al Jolson, who performed in blackface singing songs such as "My Mammy" and "Swanee." Listeners were captivated by the famous "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show, featuring the voices of white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Singers such as Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland appropriated black cultural aesthetics into their acts.

The most familiar expression of white fascination with blackness was Elvis Presley. Though most widely known as "The King," he was also referred to as "The White Negro" by detractors who feared that his lyrics and bodily gyrations were a corrupting influence on white middle-class youths.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Bob Dylan and others would also borrow from black music. To make themselves sexually alluring, white female singers including Mae West and Janis Joplin mimicked the styles of black performers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Most of these white artists made undeniable contributions to American popular culture, and their gifts and the value of their work, unlike Seltzer's, are not in dispute. At the heart of the matter, though, lies the question of whose voice should speak about and interpret the black experience in America -- and whose voice white America wants to hear.

As a member of Generation X, I've witnessed the trend of whites' embracing and interpreting black culture for white audiences continue with the likes of Eminem, the discredited rapper Vanilla Ice and, more recently, the white character "Buckwild," a.k.a. Becky, from the modern-day coon show "Flavor of Love." Even Paris Hilton put on blackface to transform herself into a black woman on an episode of her reality show "The Simple Life."

Today it appears to be cool for white middle-class youths to spit rap lyrics, wear sagging jeans and call each other variations of the N-word. It's cool to act black without having to live with the reality of actually being black in America. Blackness has become a commodity, along with crime, violence and other kinds of social dysfunction. And even black artists and writers have trafficked in black dysfunction, seeing that they can make money by using the stereotypes in their own work. Think of gangsta rap, or former Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who had to return a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for concocting a story about an 8-year-old black heroin addict.

At the same time, the black middle class has persistently challenged white depictions of its experience with counter-narratives of its own. Black leaders and their communities have emphasized respectability, thrift, domesticity, hard work, religion and education. But positive images of blacks and their aspirations have been largely written off or ignored by the white media and entertainment establishments. Uplifting depictions of black progress apparently aren't very marketable to white audiences, while black failure, pathology, sexuality, criminality and music-making continue to fascinate.

The folks at Riverhead Books seem to have embraced Margaret Seltzer's minstrel act because they thought it would sell. I can imagine that the idea that a vulnerable white girl had operated in a black community must have appeared to the publisher to be a new and sexy variation on an old theme -- something it might not have if there were more diversity in publishing's editorial ranks. Those of us who do circulate in the kinds of worlds that Seltzer imagined would have seen the red flags and challenged the veracity of her story.

Unlike Seltzer, I didn't write my memoir purely to win literary fame and strike financial gold. I wanted to tell the truth about my experience, the experience of a world I lived in and was part of. I wanted to give voice to the thousands of anonymous foster children and abused children who slip through the cracks, and to effect some kind of change so that they, like me, might find a way out of their world of dysfunction and sorrow.

That Seltzer appropriated their story makes me angry. But that white America appeared ready to lap it up as an "authentic" account of a world it knows so little about is what I find really troubling.

Stacey P. Patton is a PhD candidate in African American history at Rutgers University.

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