Saturday, September 8, 2007

the new (york) minstrel show

i know what you're thinking and no, this is not a post about hip-hop. good guess though. no, this is about an experience i had today in central park. maybe experience is the wrong word. this is about a spectacle i saw today in central park. the story unfolds...

it was actually my first time IN central park (i know, i'm slow to do the touristy things. what can i say?) and i was psyched to go see the Bethesda fountain. ever since Tony Kushner introduced it to me in "Angels in America," i've felt like its a place i would really like. my plan was to go see the fountain, maybe sit in the shade for a bit and ponder it's beauty, and then move on. of course the HBO mini-series probably closed off the park for shooting, so in my head i was gonna have the place all to myself, and obviously my head was wrong. when we arrived at the fountain, there was a huge crowd covering the steps and spilling out into the plaza in front of the fountain. the crowd was clapping and cheering to what, from a distance, appeared to be three young black teenage boys dancing. as we got closer, we discovered a much more fascinating and problematic scene.

if i were to guess, i'd say the performers were around twenty years old. the three young black men were dressed in matching basketball shorts, nikes, and white tank tops. they had three members of the audience standing next to each other in the center of the "stage:" two european women and an asian man, all young. the performers were speaking - shouting, rather - in unison and encouraging the audience to cheer. we stopped, intrigued by what seemed like an increasingly likely probability that one of the performers was planning on leaping over all three of them. they made several racist jokes that received uneasy laughter from the audience, which further drew us in to watch the unfolding scene: "if you have a camera, now's the time to take pictures," they proclaimed to an already photo-happy audience. "if you are japanese with a camera, take-photo-now," they continued in a generic "asian" accent, clapping their hands together and bowing. i had to wonder: was the audience laughing because they were amused by the "joke," or because black men were saying it? if a black man makes a racist joke, does a white man feel obliged to laugh? does he feel that he's been given license to laugh?

what made me stick around for the second show, though, was the money-collecting. before the big jump everyone seemed to be waiting for, the performers wanted to get audience donations. they turned it into a strange game, challenging the audience to give as much as they had in their wallets. They took a large bill from a black man and turned to the white people asking if they were going to let a black man be the biggest donor. Then they started asking people where they were from. "The last donation came from New Jersey," they yelled. "New York, are you going to let that happen?" the fact that I didn't think it would work clearly means that I'm no businesswoman, because within five seconds a new yorker was waving two twenty dollar bills at them. when a couple from montreal threw $40 more into the bag, the same man pulled out another $40. he continued to rep new york until he was down to his last seven dollars, and then tried to pull out a credit card. I saw a child get $20 from her parents to rep new jersey, and i saw a man give $100. i figured the show up til that point must have been something to see, and decided to stick around.

he did his jump, which was impressive, and several more jokes were made, all either intensely racist or completely degrading to women. the show ended, and the performers waited about five minutes for the crowd to disperse, then turned on their speakers and started to dance. that's when i realized just what was going on.

there was no show at all. i had actually already seen the entire thing. the boys put red shirts on over their tank tops, and each shirt had a nickname written on the back. the jumper was "skillz," the one with all the jokes about women was "meek da freak," and the one with the charming but uncomfortably wide smile was "sugar ray." they didn't even have to try. they let the speakers continue to blast a mix of old school and new hip-hop while they pranced around and grinned huge empty grins, and within five minutes they had a crowd of almost a hundred. that crowd was 99% white. these black men were making money by simply displaying themselves to white tourists. i'd like to say it wasn't as dirty as that just sounded, but within twenty minutes, they had taken off their shorts as part of a "joke."

"there's a naked indian in that tunnel over there. so you've seen a naked indian and a naked cowboy, now see the naked negro." and the shorts came off. by this time, the crowd was more like 300. they jumped and danced from audience member to audience member, cracking jokes in unison and objectifying the women in a way that was really uncomfortable. "hey baby, you like chocolate?" was a favorite phrase, followed closely by "you know, it doesn't always have to be money," and the implication that if you were a young white female in the crowd, they'd just as soon have sex with you as take your cash.

the pointed way in which these men used their race to entertain the white audience was shocking. they made jokes about being in jail, they made jokes like "ladies, i'm single...with five kids." they played hip-hop. they objectified women. they smiled. they pretended to steal their volunteer's purses. they danced (badly). they shucked. they jived. they did everything the worst stereotype of a black man would do. and the audience just lapped it up. scanning the audience, you saw middle-aged wealthy white men and women in their polo shirts and khakis, young twenty-somethings with their sundresses, and families with children. almost all white, almost all having the best time of their lives. these people were thrilled. so thrilled, they thought that $40 was a reasonable amount of money to pay for the privelege of watching these boys act a fool and then do one admittedly impressive jump.

so the question is, what's going on here? i stopped one of them after the second show and asked him how long they'd been doing this. since they were six, he said. and today was a pretty small crowd. a "small" crowd of no less than 400, i'd estimate.

i know the description of this scene doesn't portray the three performers in a great light. and it's true, the performance wasn't "great" by any stretch of the imagination. but i'm not trying to vilify them here. if i could make a thousand bucks a day by pretending to dance in front of a fountain, don't think i wouldn't do it. my question is, why does it still work? why is it that a black man in the year 2007 can still make more money by shucking and jiving than he can working for a living? why is it that a middle-aged white man from connecticut sees three black men making fools of themselves and gets excited for the show to come? looking at those fake smiles flash across the perfomers faces, i couldn't help but see a cartoon sambo in my head. and i couldn't help but feel that they knew that just as well as i did. how could they not? remember, they've been doing this since they were six. now i'm no mathematician, but i think that might mean they've been a spectacle for longer than they've known what a spectacle is. and now that they know, it's still their best bet for a paycheck. the fact that this kind of complete debasement and prostitution of the self is still considered entertainment says to me that we are not much closer to "solving" america's "race problem" than we were a century ago. and that, my friends, is a tragedy.


Brittany said...

This was sad when I read it in front of you, and sad again as I read it alone. Sadness. :(
I guess Hustle is as Hustle does.

kidbonita said...

i wonder if the man from new york who keeps giving his money is part of the act? i could see that he would be encouraging people from other places to give after he has done so. or maybe he just got scammed like everyone else.
well, we all gotta eat so i guess we do what we must and we do what we know.