RACECHANGES by Susan Gubar

RACECHANGES

White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

KIRKUS REVIEW

 Synthesizing the remarkable work over the last 15 years of scores of cultural historians, theorists, and critics who have been engaged in documenting and analyzing the ubiquitous legacy of blackface minstrelsy and racial posing in 20th-century American culture, Gubar has assembled a comprehensive catalog of cross-racial iconography. The paradox that despite our preoccupations with social divisions by race, the identities and psychologies of black and white Americans are inextricably interdependent is nowhere more evident than in modern popular culture. Gubar, coauthor with Sandra Gilbert of a groundbreaking work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), examines the pervasive role of cross-racial impersonation in the development of American melodrama (beginning with Uncle Tom's Cabin) and musical theater, motion pictures (D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer), popular radio shows (Amos 'n' Andy), and new journalism (John Howard Griffith's 1960 study Black Like Me), as well as in European experimental literature, painting, and photography. She also clearly identifies the ethical issue at the center: ``How can white people understand or sympathize with African-Americans without distorting or usurping their perspective?'' Of course, who is the subject and the object of the gaze has a great deal to do with whether the act of ``racechange'' is transgressive or regressive, but there are persistent ambiguities in the act. Gubar appreciates and articulates multilayered complexities and ironies that evolve along with American cultural expression, although occasionally she comes up with an interpretation that seems overdetermined. Gubar addresses the major issue of why potentially liberating acts of racial masquerade so often end up serving racist ends and are only now being used to envision postracist ways of being and seeing. This is an important book for the way it highlights an active but underacknowledged field of cultural inquiry, and a study bound to prompt further debate. (96 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-19-511002-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1997




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