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Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Race and American Culture) [Kindle Edition]

Eric Lott
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

For over two centuries, America has celebrated the very black culture it attempts to control and repress, and nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the strange practice of blackface performance. Born of extreme racial and class conflicts, the blackface minstrel show sometimes usefully intensified them. Based on the appropriation of black dialect, music, and dance, minstrelsy at once applauded and lampooned black culture, ironically contributing to a "blackening of America." Drawing on recent research in cultural studies and social history, Eric Lott examines the role of the blackface minstrel show in the political struggles of the years leading up to the Civil War. Reading minstrel music, lyrics, jokes, burlesque skits, and illustrations in tandem with working-class racial ideologies and the sex/gender system, Love and Theft argues that blackface minstrelsy both embodied and disrupted the racial tendencies of its largely white, male, working-class audiences. Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear--a dialectic of "love and theft"--the minstrel show continually transgressed the color line even as it enabled the formation of a self-consciously white working class. Lott exposes minstrelsy as a signifier for multiple breaches: the rift between high and low cultures, the commodification of the dispossessed by the empowered, the attraction mixed with guilt of whites caught in the act of cultural thievery.

Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

To this original and erudite study, Lott (American Studies/University of Virginia) brings a mass of obscure information and a multidisciplinary approach, interpreting the meaning of black-face minstrelsy to the white working classes who invented and performed it. The appropriation of black music, dance, humor, and narratives for commercial entertainment, says Lott, expressed the deep racial conflicts suffered by the white working classes, especially in the North in the decades before the Civil War. Their parodies reflected their admiration and contempt, their envy and fear, their remoteness and--as the economy changed--their impending identification with the dispossessed, whom they represented as absurd. In their imitation of blacks, and in the cross-dressing that minstrelsy required, whites males gained control over the alien and the threatening (especially black sexuality) and changed the way they experienced themselves as men. Lott's study ranges through folklore, history, sociology, politics, economics, psychoanalysis, theater history, popular music, even film theory, but it's based clearly on contemporary and technical studies of race, gender, and class: The ``stars'' of minstrelsy, Lott says, ``inaugurated an American tradition of class abdication through gendered cross-racial immersion.'' In the course of his analysis, Lott places Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the music of Stephen Foster in new and interesting perspective, and reveals the significance of an art form, a ritual, that has fallen into neglect after a period of universal popularity. A clever, disciplined, and resourceful reading of the commonplace: a pioneering study that, though somewhat academic, will no doubt influence more popular studies. (Eight halftones, eight line drawings) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


"Terrifically smart and unexpectedly timely."--New York Times

"One of the most stimulating and nuanced accounts of 19th-century blackface minstrelsy."--Boston Phoenix

"Original and erudite....A clever, disciplined, and resourceful reading of the commonplace: a pioneering study."--Kirkus Reviews

"Love and Theft is an original and absolutely brilliant contribution to understanding the politics of cultural production. Lott makes an incisive, provocative, and stunning analysis of the complex and contradictory ways in which minstrelsy embodied and acted out the class, racial, and sexual politics of its historical moment. As readers we come to understand for the first time how blackface performance imagined and addressed a national community and we realize the extent to which we still live with this legacy. An enthralling and important book."--Hazel Carby, Yale University

"The author adroitly leads us through minstrelsy's maze of complex relationships....Ground-breaking work."--Theatre Survey

"This spectacular book, a history of blackface from the bottom up, offers a gripping, original interpretation of the first and most popular form of nineteenth-century entertainment. Placing minstrelsy at the center of class, race, and political relations, and seeing blackface as a contaminated form of interracial desire, Love and Theft will stimulate vigorous debate. To dissent from portions of the argument in no way diminishes the subtlety and importance of Eric Lott's achievement."--Michael Rogin, University of California, Berkeley **** do not cut ****

"[Lott] offers a stunning, provocative interpretation of the minstrel tradition....I found his insights into white male desire to appropriate or step into black bodies utterly fascinating and pretty funny."--Robin D.G. Kelly, The Nation

"Lott's commitment to connecting the cultural to the political, and to exploring rather than castigating the structure of feeling behind blackface, make Love and Theft a model for how to study popular culture."--Alice Echols, The Village Voice

"Love and Theft is relentlessly suggestive, thorough, learned, and smart: and most impressive of all, its reach doesn't exceed its grasp."--Michael Bérubé, American Literature

Announcing an important new series:
General Editors: Arnold Rampersad, Princeton University and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, University of Texas, Austin
Examining aspects of the interplay between the idea of race and the phenomenon of American culture in its many forms, the books in this series will contribute significantly to our understanding of the complex place of race and racism in American history and American society as a whole. Exploring a wide spectrum of the factors involving race, the series will not be limited to any particular ethnic group. Although it will regularly publish books in African-American literature and culture, it will also feature studies of Chicano, Native American, and Asian-American culture, as well as how issues of race shape and are shaped by the cultural mainstream.

Product Details

  • File Size: 5043 KB
  • Print Length: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (October 28, 1993)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000W0ZPWG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #959,786 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lott's Love and Theft--- Brilliant and Informative December 10, 1998
By A Customer
Eric Lott provide us with an incisive analysis of a long ignored and conflicted history of the American Minstrel Traditon. Readers will be impressed with Lott's deft handling of history and critical theory, crafting persuasive and cogent arguments that reveal the ambivalence of a tradition that cloaked racial antagonisms and sexual insecurities. Lott, an English professor at the University of Virginia, did his graduate work at Columbia University and this book is an extension of his dissertation. Non-academics may find Lott's prose somewhat dense but this should not hamper anyone from gleaning Lott's clear message: the American Minstrel Tradition represented a contradictory and problematic art form that granted Whites a forum through which to articulate their "admiration" of Blackness while appropriating it for political ends. A must read!!!!! A major contribution to critical race studies scholarship. 5 stars!!!!
Matthew Abraham (Dept. of English-- Purdue University)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambivalent June 27, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An unquestionably serious study of an undeniably significant manifestation of race in the 18th century, with ramifications a century later, but a very dense and overly academic text makes this tough going. Somehere in here is an argument that minstrelsy was far from the purely racist phenomenon that many would take it to be then and now, but it often seems as if Lott makes the case for its ambiguity by citing such abundant and seemingly contradictory documentation and opinion--- everything from Walt Whitman to the Frankfurt school, and with (as some readers point out) a great deal of Freudian babble--- that one might conclude that a minstrel show, after all an unsophisticated form of mass entertainment6--- might be about just about anything. And, though I have read a good deal on related subjects and on the period, I was lost in Lott's case for the interconnectness of minstrelsy with working-class politics before the Civil War. Sean Wilentz's book on the subject was complex enough without blackface, racial, or sexual ambiguity thrown into the mix. A too ambitious effort, I think.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting perspective December 6, 2004
By AmyP
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I chose to use this book in a paper that I wrote for my Race and Realism class. I was not able to grasp everything that the author had to say about blackface minstrelsy but what I did find was an interesting perspective. I don't necessarily agree with the whole phallic aspect and the need to "size up" to the African-American race, but I do want to agree with the fact that there was a fascination in the race and I think that is what Lott is trying to get across to the readers. There were many angles that could be taken with this book and it was incredibly useful to my paper. I enjoyed it and it was easy to apply to many of the novels written by Twain, Harper, Crane and Chesnutt.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting subject January 16, 2012
By d mac
The subject of the book is fascinating, and the author is clearly very knowledgeable. My one complaint is that the writing style is at times impenetrable, seemingly on purpose, as if the author is hinting at things he does not want to say in plain English. But the book is well worth the effort.
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