Cover: Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, from Harvard University PressCover: Raising Cain in PAPERBACK

Raising Cain

Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop

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$35.00 • £30.95 • €31.95

ISBN 9780674001930

Publication Date: 05/19/2000


288 pages

5-11/16 x 8-7/8 inches

15 halftones


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[Raising Cain] is a bravura performance, an astounding feat of intellectual detective work that—at its best—reassembles the world in new ways that challenge our assumptions… It’s always provocative, as when Lhamon finds evidence of awareness of blackface minstrelsy in works like Benito Cereno, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Martin Delaney’s novel Blake… Connections between the past and the present are no less provocative. Lhamon invokes Al Jolson, rock-and-roll, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, M.C. Hammer (remember him?) and even talk shows and stand-up comedy as substitutes for vaudeville, claiming all descend from blackface performance… This is a rich and enduring work, a secret history of how the world we live in came to be.—David Nicholson, The Washington Post

In this animated scholarly performance, W. T. Lhamon Jr. creatively challenges some of our deepest assumptions about blackface minstrelsy… He argues that…instead of dehumanizing stereotypes of African-Americans, it offered an image of ‘complex blackness’…[and] that blackface minstrelsy’s legacy is manifest in contemporary hip hop, film and literature… Raising Cain is cultural criticism at its most innovative and engaging because it offers insightful ways of imagining the past.—Leigh Raiford, The Times Literary Supplement

Raising Cain is a provocative look at how the outcasts of official culture have made their own place in the world through stand-up comedy, rock ’n’ roll, talk TV, and hip hop.—J. Ahmed, Awaaz

What was the first Atlantic mass culture? In this stimulating study, W. T. Lhamon argues that the black minstrel shows—an evening’s entertainment based on ‘songs, dances and patter purporting to be the behaviour of southern [American] field hands’—enjoyed such booming audiences in the 1840s that they can be envisaged as outcasts who took the popular stage by storm. To the standard account of the beginnings of black minstrelsy in 1843, when Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels first performed at the Chatham Theatre, Lhamon adds an interesting discussion of precursors, such as the open-air performers in New York’s marketplaces and the more improvised ‘plantation frolics’… Raising Cain is full of fresh insights into the meaning of performance—from the cultural significance of whistling to the use of elaborate winks by satirical performers… In political terms, Lhamon’s project is to reevaluate the once-scorned aspects of black culture in general and blackface performance in particular, and in Raising Cain he delights in reviving them in all their rude vitality… [Readers] will enjoy a writing style that excels in passionate advocacy, scholarly comment, imaginative sympathy and political acuteness… Raising Cain may raise hackles among the politically correct, but it also deserves to encourage debate about the politics of pop culture.—Aleks Sierz, The Times Higher Education Supplement

W.T. Lhamon seeks to look beyond the shukkin’ and jivin’ of minstrelsy to delve into its roots and its historical import—not just to blacks, but to all Americans. In doing so, he provides an in-depth history of blackface performance that begins with New York Negroes dancing for eels and porgies in that city’s Catherine Market, takes us through the development of the now maligned Jim Crow character, and examines those modern performers who unwittingly carry on the blackface performance legacy (Hammer time!).—Kemp Powers, City Pages

Lhamon is a cutting-edge historian… He makes excellent use not only of song lyrics and theatrical plots, but of illustrations and playbills. Using them, he shows how the dance steps that still excite American youth, whether Michael Jackson’s moonwalk or the ‘run step’ and ‘market step’ featured in MC Hammer’s popular MTV videos, were first danced by slaves and appropriated by minstrels. As Lhamon notes, you can never tell where these elements will turn up; they are deeply embedded in both American popular culture and black culture.—Joel Dinerstein, American-Statesman

Lhamon’s provocative thesis gains persuasive momentum by enabling readers to empathize with early artists and audiences, a goal he pursues through interpreting a variety of fascinating texts… [Lhamon creates] a synthesis [between interpretive voice and historical analysis] that offers a model for scholars of cultural history…and offers the conceptual foundation for a new, process-oriented paradigm for the study of cultural history.—Howard L. Sacks, American Quarterly

[A] pathbreaking book…[and] a rich trove of fresh meaning and flashing insight… [Lhamon is] an acute sensor on whom nothing is lost.—Thomas Cripps, Journal of American History

[W. T. Lhamon] examines the emotions that helped to generate blackface, a form of performance that in the 1830s erupted across the industrial world. In so doing he directly counters those historians who have lambasted minstrelsy as a purveyor of racial abuse. Blackface, as he sees it, was a liberating ritual, a proletarian cultural form through which marginal peoples made sense of themselves… The book is exhilarating in its command of the topic, in the stylishness of the writing, and in its ability to read in a wink or a whistle or a bent kneebone the traces of profound social and economic change.—Marybeth Hamilton, Journal of Contemporary History

Freely and elegantly moving between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and between high culture (Melville and Stowe in particular among earlier figures) and popular entertainment, this is an engaging and passionately personal study of blackface minstrelsy and its radical agenda and lasting importance in the continuing creation of United States culture.Nineteenth-Century Literature

Lhamon…look[s] primarily at ‘the links blackface performance made across race and class,’ and thus investigate[s] ‘struggles over interracial fascination, against and for it, leading to [the form’s] transmission, recombination, and cultural work.’ He succeeds admirably… The strength of Raising Cain is its reconsideration of long-held and often skewed views of minstrelsy, its author’s contextualization of the topic with historical data (as a cultural historian) and literary allusions (as a literary critic), and the lively and thought-provoking explications that spring from Lhamon’s fertile, questioning mind.—D. B. Wilmeth, Choice

W. T. Lhamon’s dazzling book is an extraordinary piece of work that offers much. By turns he is marvelously erudite, probing, poetic, witty, and politically incisive. This is a book about race in America which distinguishes itself by conceding nothing to the pieties that regulate what can be said openly on the subject. The history and historiography of minstrelsy and mimesis are folded into powerful readings of texts, performances, and films that are both well-known and entirely unfamiliar. Throughout, ‘theoretical’ commentaries on culture and its transactional workings are skillfully interwoven with Lhamon’s own observations and critical expositions. Raising Cain will obviously become a central reference point for future discussions of race and culture.—Paul Gilroy, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London

Jim Crow is our Punch and Judy—every one responds to it. But Jim Crow, unlike Punch and Judy, is by its nature explosive, dangerous, unresolved, and coded. The language of Jim Crow is a set of secret languages hidden within everyday talk, indications of sin, guilt, domination, violence, and fate communicated through seemingly meaningless gestures. One of the truly fascinating aspects of Raising Cain is the way Lhamon shows how these gestures retain both their shapes and meanings as they travel through the decades and from one century to another, from one part of the country to another. In my reading of contemporary American cultural criticism, or cultural criticism generally, Lhamon’s ability to supersede the barriers between cultural forms that most writers take for granted is very nearly unique. Beyond his consistently forceful, lucid, jargon-free, careful, an enthusiastic prose style, I think this is the most striking aspect of his work. Lhamon’s book locates the sources, practice, and reception of minstrelsy as a cultural battleground, and takes it as seriously as other historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have taken religious revivals.—Greil Marcus

Awards & Accolades

  • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 1998

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