Rachel Dolezal and minstrelsy … or, the thoroughly depressing week that was, Part 4.


Ten years ago, I finished an informative book, and wrote these words in this space.

My friend Jon gifted me with “Where Dead Voices Gather,” by Nick Tosches, whom I consider one of the finest American writers of our time. Tosches specializes in biographical portraits of entertainers (Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin) and doomed outcasts (Sonny Liston), and he also writes novels.

In “Where Dead Voices Gather,” Tosches manages to top his own lofty standard, basing an entire volume of compelling historical, musical and cultural testimony around the almost completely undocumented life of one Emmett Miller, a stalwart of blackface minstrelsy in the 1920’s. As in all his non-fiction works, Tosches does not fail to address the simultaneously disturbing and exhilarating essence of what it means to be an American.

At some point on television last week, now perhaps almost quaint and nearly forgotten amid various other vile outrages occurring shortly afterward, Rachel Dolezal made a point.

“I don’t put on blackface as a performance,” Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Washington, branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told interviewer Matt Lauer. “I identify as black,” she said.

The history of minstrelsy in America may or may not be relevant to any of this, but as a white male desperately trying to parse the nuance produced by the Dolezal case, notions of masks and disguises seem plausible in part. For a balanced overview of the genre, a History of Minstrelsy exhibition at the University of South Florida library looks very solid, indeed.

Also, earlier in the week that was, local free-lance writer and activist Erica Rucker pointed to this article.

Black Like Her, by Jelani Cobb (New Yorker)

I pass it along, unsure whether it matters at all. There was Dolezal unfinished, then the church shooting — horrifying.

The past week was depressing and also frustrating, because I don’t like the feeling that comes with the realization of knowing so very little about the whys and wherefores of our community, assuming it is even proper to continue viewing it as a community.

All that’s clear to me is that I have a lot to learn.