Book excerpt: Whiting Up, by Marvin McAllister

Marvin McAllister is author of Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, which explores the enduring tradition of “whiting up,” in which African American actors, comics, musicians, and every-day people have studied and assumed white racial identities. In the following excerpt, McAllister describes some of the black fashionistas of the early 1800s.

From Whiting Up, pp. 19-20:

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On Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons in the early nineteenth century, major thoroughfares such as Broadway in New York City or Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina, overflowed with impeccably dressed and remarkably audacious African Americans out for a leisurely stroll. In a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post, one concerned citizen reported on this social ritual: “These people were all well drest, and very much better than the whites. The men almost without exception, wore broadcloth coats, very many of them boots, fashionable Cossack pantaloons, and white hats; watches and canes. The latter article was observed to be flourished with inimitable grace, to the annoyance of all the passengers.”[1] “These people” refers to stylish Negro promenaders who, alongside white citizens, participated in a common leisure pursuit that was less expensive than attending the theater and less morally compromised than consuming spirits at the local beer or pleasure garden. As this open letter intimates, well-heeled Negroes often dominated these crowded public spaces and were the indisputable stars of this social performance; in fact, this concerned citizen counted nearly 1,500 black bodies on this particular afternoon. Throughout the 1820s, whiteface minstrelsy, the Afro-Diasporic practice of assuming and performing white privilege, was taking New York by storm, and for some, the swank and swaggering black fashionistas were more annoyances than attractions. The cane-wielding colored gentry was commanding city streets with elitist attitudes and physically terrorizing decent citizens.

In a July 1822 editorial titled “Blacks,” Manual Mordecai Noah, editor of New York’s National Advocate, further exposed the Negro insolence displayed during these public promenades:

We are among those who are for giving every protection of person, property, and civil and religious rights to the blacks; but it is not to be denied, that in this city they are becoming intolerable.

On Sunday, a strapping black was about chastising a genteel well behaved young white man, because he took the wall of him; and their walks in Broadway, there is no enduring their insolence. A lady passing by St. Paul’s Church, was met by 3 sable colored women, tricked out in the height of the fashion; one of them gave way for the other lady, while another exclaimed, loud enough to be heard by the passers-by—“Louisa, why did you give the wall to that white woman.”[2]

Noah’s editorial confirms that a struggle over urban space was being waged between white citizens and excessively fashionable “Blacks.” “Giving the wall” meant a pedestrian allowed another passerby to walk closer to the buildings on the street, while the giver, in turn, moved out to the street. Custom dictated that Negroes, enslaved or free, “give the wall” to a white person, but in 1822, the racial hierarchy was under siege. Noah respected the rights of Afro–New Yorkers, but like many whites, he believed their stylish impudence had gone too far and needed to be contained.

New Yorkers were witnessing what political scientist and anthropologist James Scott would call a collision of public and private transcripts. According to Scott’s theories on cultural resistance, subaltern groups often develop a critique of the dominant culture offstage, away from public, onstage transcripts, which are primarily defined and monitored by masters or colonizers. To prepare and perform their offstage commentaries on public life, subalterns typically borrow gestures, practices, speech patterns, and other cultural material from the dominant group.[3] But in the 1800s, fashionable Negroes in New York City and Charleston were not satisfied with performing private transcripts offstage or backstage. These early whiting up artists brought their kid gloves, broadcloth coats, parasols, and prodigious attitudes onto the main stages of Broadway and Meeting Street.

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From  Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance, by Marvin McAllister. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Marvin McAllister is assistant professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. He is author of Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (2011) and White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Colour: William Brown’s African and American Theater (2003).

 

  1. [1]New York Evening Post, August 24, 1820, 2. For more on black promenaders in New York City and their version of whiteface minstrelsy, see McAllister, White People Do Not Know How to Behave, and White and White, Stylin’.
  2. [2]M. M. Noah, “Blacks,” National Advocate, July 9, 1822, 2.
  3. [3]Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 2-15.

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