Avoiding the agony

I’ve been reminded a lot lately of a cartoon that was widely circulated when I was in graduate school in the 1990s. Those of you of a certain age will remember Matt Groening as much for his weekly comic strip Life Is Hell as for the seemingly deathless The Simpsons:

groeningIt’s the panel on the center right that became a sort of wry refrain when we were all doggedly trying to finish our dissertations: Can’t face writing? Read another book!

Well, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

It’s been fascinating reading–don’t get me wrong. I’ve been doing research on minstrel shows and vaudeville, which contributed to what was called “The New Humor” of the early twentieth century, (along with comic strips, of course). In the chapter I’m working on, I am trying to show how aspects of the minstrel show tradition infiltrate comic strips by George Herriman and James Swinnerton, the artists I was researching in June at the Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum. I have all the strips chosen that I want to analyze, and have lots of notes, and have done the biographical research on the artists, and, well, pretty much everything I need in order to write this chapter. I’ve even written the introduction. But for whatever reason, I can’t quite get any farther. So I’ve lapsed into classic grad-student-thesis-writing avoidance behavior–I keep picking up another book. And each book leads me to more books. I have amassed quite a collection in the past few weeks. I know that if I actually read them all, my sabbatical will be over and I will not have even finished another chapter, let alone the whole manuscript. So something’s gotta give.

Writing this blog has been immensely helpful to me this summer. I think I’ve already written more than I have ever succeeded in writing in three months, not just here on the blog but for my book as well. It is true that writing begets writing, as they say. So I am hoping that I can use this entry to write my way through this current block. It’s a version of doing what Joli Jensen, a professor of communication and blogger at Vitae, an academic career website, calls “inviting your demons in for tea.” So come on in, demons.

Maybe it’s obvious why it’s so hard to write about minstrelsy and vaudeville. There’s no denying that these forms of entertainment–entertainment, mind you! Fun! Whee!— depend on, are produced by, and perpetuate appallingly racist beliefs. It’s almost impossible to believe that people ever thought this was funny–much less socially acceptable.

I have to admit that I know I’ve seen some of the movies and cartoons excerpted above (the Bugs Bunny ones, for sure!), but do not remember being offended by them, or even noticing that some of them incorporated blackface minstrelsy. Of course, I remember being shocked by The Jazz Singer and other films that depicted white actors in blackface. But films with African American actors channeling minstrel dances and speech? Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd in “brownface”? Monkeyface? What is that? Whatever you call it, it goes to show how tightly racism is woven through the fabric of this country’s entire history, its entire being.

The idea of writing about something so racially charged is pretty scary. And I am not only writing about minstrelsy, but arguing that Swinnerton and Herriman used minstrelsy to turn racism on its head. In other words, contra Audre Lorde, I want to argue that they dismantle the master’s house using the master’s very own tools. Or at least, they try. Here’s one strip by Jimmy Swinnerton that I especially love (in order to read the text, you may need to click on it to see the full-size image):

"Sam as a Magician's Confederate," 1905. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum.
“Sam as a Magician’s Confederate,” 1905. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum.

In my view, Swinnerton depicts Sam acting like an ignorant, inarticulate buffoon (as he is perceived to be since he is, of course, black) in order to send up the actual buffoon, the magician. Making such an argument, of course, runs the risk of being misinterpreted, to be taken to be defending the tools themselves–defending racist depictions of buffoonish, ignorant, inarticulate blacks.

So I suppose that in order to make sure I don’t get interpreted this way, I am trying to find out all I can about the form, not just what it is, but what other people have said about it. Maybe that’s it. I am hoping to defend myself from criticism by putting up a palisade of “experts” (including as many African American ones as I can find, I will freely admit) so that I can ventriloquize my ideas through them rather than having to say what I have to say, full voice, name attached.

And now that I’ve said it, I can see that this is pretty much what most academic scholarship is: a series of palisades hiding some very insecure ventriloquists. It’s kind of sad, really.

But I do feel much better now, having said it. Maybe I can actually start writing now.


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