Jim Crow, Air Banjo, and the Performance of Disability

I just finished Sean Murray’s article, “That ‘Weird and Wonderful Posture’: Jump ‘Jim Crow’ and the Performance of Disability” (2016). It builds on much of the work by Lott and Cockrell, regarding blackface minstrelsy, and it draws attention to the fact that T.D. Rice’s racist caricature was derived from a disabled stablehand, who had a limp, disjointed knee, and uneven shoulders. Blackface minstrelsy, which involved whites caricaturing black music and black people to shore up their own whiteness, involved impersonations of disabled black people (the disabled part being often left out of the discussion):

“Sometime in the late 1820s to early 1830s, a little-known white theatre performer named Thomas Dartmouth Rice modeled a blackface song and dance on a ‘crippled Negro’ he observed singing while he worked in a stable. Daphne Brooks calls this possibly apocryphal encounter a ‘primal scene in minstrel history’ (Brooks 2006, 17), and there are numerous, sometimes conflicting, versions of the story that circulated in the nineteenth-century press. But most agree that Rice appropriated the stableman’s song and stilted dance for his ‘Jim Crow’ act by putting on a pathetic limp and crooking his shoulder while he sang and danced the chorus (one story even asserts Rice borrowed the man’s clothes).” (Murray 2016, 357).

Murray’s article places disability in the conversation about race and blackface minstrelsy, demonstrating how pathologized black bodies emerged in these performances. He also draws attention to the participatory aspect of blackface.

First, participatory audience performance was critical to the act’s popularity and reception. As Rice himself noted, his triumph was that he got people’s ‘whole bodies to jump about and wheel about like a set of teto-tums’ (‘Letters from Jim Crow’, 1837). Second, Jumping ‘Jim Crow’ demanded extravagantly caricatured performances of a ‘deformed,’ ‘grotesque,’ crippled’ (black) body: the pleasure of jumping ‘Jim Crow’ was in fact rooted in the spectacular performance of disability by presumably able-bodied people (usually white and usually male).

Indeed, one can imagine that miming the banjo figured centrally in these acts of participatory dancing, and I found plenty of instances in which people played imaginary banjo in other contexts: mesmerism, musical theater, pantomime games, etc.

img_7806.jpg The figure here that depicts T.D. Rice as the “Foreign Prince” draws attention to this kind of racial and disability ventriloquism, as Rice holds an imaginary instrument with hunched posturing.

The long history of imaginary instrument playing and its connection to pathologized bodies (see previous posts on this blog) point to the ways pantomime enabled people to conjure or assume resistant identities that served a kind of middle- and upper-class white desire for transgression, through representing and assuming the identities of exoticized, racialized Others. It’s no surprise today that air guitar competitions continue to be marked with examples of blackface, see this example and that example.

Brooks, Daphne. 2006. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Murray, Sean. “That ‘Weird and Wonderful Posture’: Jump ‘Jim Crow’ and the Performance of Disability.” In Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies (Eds. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph Straus). New York: Oxford University Press.


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