In the wake of the “great” scandal of Coates v. West, I made the decision to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years in Power. I had, as I’ve mentioned, read Between the World and Me, a book that makes me feel weird for reasons I have yet to understand. The agita the two eminent intellectuals was fueled by the poignant albeit ill-advised comments of Jelani Cobb and a slew of thinkpieces either condemning West for his “envy” or making weird, seemingly unfitting historical analogies between Black men of yore vying for the single spot assigned by left-leaning public to Black men intellectuals. I must say that I found it difficult to silence the rhetoric about Coates when reading Eight Years, and I cannot say that I finished the text without my own reading being colored by some external ideology. Let this be a warning for what I am about to say.
On minstrelsy, Ta Nehisi Coates and cultural hopelessness
The word minstrel in English, coming to the shores of Dover by way of the Norman conquest, is a relative of another word in English, the high-born minister as in Prime Minister Theresa May, yet both were begotten by the same idea – servitude. The minister is the definition of a public servant; the ministerialis of yore were servants (serfs) elevated in status through kingly or courtly intervention. The term would go on to evolve, taking on specific ecclesiastical and, through there, governmental connotations until it became the word minister in English. Its dark-half, the minstrel from the Old French menestral (handyman, worker) never really left the bondages of enslavement and subjugation; even the medieval pre-American minstrels of Europe were bound to the whims of the crowds whose amusement they sought to rouse, public performers, but also servants to the crowd. In the United States, the singing, dancing, storytelling minstrel took on the dimensions which a history of antiblackness imbued with vicious ideas of the lowly, servile Negro. The minstrel’s exaggerated face is a specter of our history; it appears in our beloved children’s cartoons (You didn’t know that Tom’s owner in Tom & Jerry was a Mammy, a minstrel caricature?) in the reverse of our cultural icons (Don’t tell me you didn’t know Mickey Mouse was also a minstrel caricature? Or that the Jim Crows in Dumbo were supposed to be Black men?), in the lingering mist of your favorite amusement rides (You’re kidding me when you say that Splash Mountain, your favorite water slide in the entire world, is based on Song of the South, a film notoriously maligned for its racist depictions of a Black actor as a literal Uncle Remus). While its physical body fades from the American conscience due to a long and not-yet-won battle against the appropriation of Black skin (blackface), the image of the servile, sycophantic minstrel lingers in our cultural conscience, refusing to die.
How do you banish a cultural ghost?