Love and Theft, by Eric Lott
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995): 314

Reviewed by Lane Eastland


In Love and Theft, Eric Lott criticizes as reductive the argument that blackface minstrelsy, an outgrowth of aversion, is simply the borrowing of black cultural materials for white dissemination and capitalistic gain, as a means for whites to control blacks. He complicates this standard theory by his argument that minstrelsy developed out of racial desire, allowing white culture to "try on" blackness. According to Lott, minstrelsy introduced the white northern male working class to black culture, forcing their identification by equating them.
Part I reconstructs blackface minstrelsy in the context of pre-Civil War popular culture and class strife. Lott defines love and theft as minstrelsy's mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation (6), which allowed blackface performers to commodify often inauthentic black cultural practices, disseminating them to a white northern working class audience (39). However, Lott provides examples of how ridicule distinguished between true blackness and racial counterfeiting, foregrounding the minstrel shows expropriation and subtexts (39, 62). The gimicky antics and popularity of blackface with the masses led to the upper classes' disdain, while it placated the anxiety of its large working class audience by catering to their sense of white superiority. This working class anxiety developed into fears about their own whiteness, as the ridicule of minstrelsy emphasized the gap between the races. On a national level, America searched for its own art form, having borrowed most of its culture from Europe. The only national popular available at the time was minstrelsy. White America claimed as its representative national art form a cultural expression of blackness, making the display of minstrelsy primarily about white audience response to black culture (101). Then, as conflict mounted between North and South leading up to the Civil War, the blackface Zip Coon and Jim Crow characters onstage increasingly antagonized each other in regional strife.
Whereas Part II collectively consists of readings of various minstrel forms' embodiment of and interaction with race, class, and Jacksonian politics, the chapter on Uncle Tom dramatizations best portraits the mimicry of sectional opposition manifested by Zip Coon and Jim Crow. Lott chronicles the competition of blackface between George Aiken's and H.J. Conway's stage adaptations of Uncle Tom. Both versions merged minstrelsy and melodrama onstage, which progressed naturally from Stowe's sentimental narrative about race (213). Minstrelsy in the Tom plays echoed ambiguous racial feeling on many levels, one example being laughter at Topsy one moment and lament at Tom's condition the next (218). Psychologically, when seeing blackface characters onstage, the white audience was poised for laughter associated with the ridicule of minstrelsy, then doubly shocked by the serious theme of the drama when laughter seemed inappropriate (217). Contrarily, the Tom plays transformed minstrelsy while minstrelsy was informing Uncle Tom, giving blackface a new respectability because of its serious subject matter. For Lott, the relationship between Conway and Aiken's Tom plays and their form made the equivocalities of blackface fully contradictory, reappropriating minstrelsy for an abolitionist agenda and reflecting the social contradiction that was an 1850s historical theme (219).
Although both versions of the play employ minstrelsy and melodrama, Aiken's emphasizes the sentimental melodramatic quality of the narrative and brings out blackface's radical irony, whereas Conway's Tom play started with a minstrel show and maintained minstrelsy's most offensive racial representations. In New York City, Barnum produced the Conway version at his American Museum, pitting it against Aiken's adaptation at Purdy's National Theatre. Although productions of the play were staged ranging from proslavery to abolitionist, the Tom plays universally emphasized the regional tension between North and South, redefining Stowe's antislavery sentiment as sectional opposition. Conway's version, emphasizing blackface ridicule, becomes the southern Tom play, and Aiken's dramatization becomes the northern representative of antebellum sectional tension (226). The competition between these two dramas played itself out along the same lines as the brewing national conflict, and abolitionists were in more in favor of the shows than the book, since popular forms of minstrelsy and melodrama attracted millions of the white northern working class to the Tom plays, aligning them with black slaves, and thereby converting them to abolitionism, especially in Aiken's dramatization. Lott argues that Aiken's play is designated the northern one because it sensitively aligns the white northern working class with the slaves by forcing empathy with George Harris when his master fires him from his factory job and demotes him to slavery status (229). According to the book, Aiken's play intensified the racial debate among factory workers.
Peppered with relevant trivia about minstrelsy and Tom plays, Love and Theft broadens the original explanation of minstrelsy Lott sets out to refute. He allows for blackface tradition's complexity and contradictions in its economy, refusing to simplify his theory for the sake of argument. The book establishes the dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin, among other minstrel forms, as an embodiment of racial and class politics in the 1850s. However, Lott admits as impossible the question whether Uncle Tom's Cabin onstage was a cause or just a mirror of the political division that would lead to the Civil War (232). Will we never know?

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