uncletomscabinbanner1.jpgOriginally published by The Atlantic

Miley Cyrus probably hasn’t studied much theater history. She was most likely completely unaware of the legacy of minstrelsy that influenced her performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards. She has nevertheless been heavily criticized for appropriating black music and dance while demeaning her black backup dancers. A few people have defended her against the accusation, and others have said that that they were unaware while watching it of what made Cyrus’s performance racist.

I’m not surprised. When I teach theater history to undergraduates I meet very few students who have heard of minstrelsy before I tell them about it. Even when I teach graduate students, I find that many of them think American theater history began with Eugene O’Neill. They are completely unaware that the first nationally popular American play was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, transformed onstage from an anti-slavery text into a racist spectacle whose influence survives till today.

Just as present-day filmmakers are on the lookout for bestselling novels that can be made into blockbuster films, 19th-century theater managers looking for hits adapted popular books for the stage. The first known stage version of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed even before the final sections of the serialized novel had been printed. The second production was part of an evening of entertainment that included a tightrope walker and a blackface burlesque of Othello. Though George Aiken’s somewhat faithful adaptation was the most successful version, Southern pro-slavery writers parodied the novel in productions that turned Stowe’s sympathetic portrayal of slaves on its head. Theater managers everywhere competed to have the most outrageous show by adding bands, songs, dances, even fireworks.

The popularity of the scene in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Eliza is chased across a frozen river by dogs led to the inclusion of more and more live animals in Tom Shows, including mules and even elephants. Eventually producers began casting “real Negroes” to bolster their claims of authenticity: Their shows, they boasted, depicted black life as it really was—full of happy go-lucky, animalistic should-be slaves. That these black performers still had to wear blackface betrayed the truth—the Tom Show idea of black life was not authentic at all.

Simultaneously, minstrel shows—combinations of skits, dancing, and music characterized by caricatured representations of buffoonish black people by performers in black face, slapstick situations, and a send up of aristocratic pretensions—rose in popularity from a working-class entertainment to a middle-class one. By combining the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the central tropes of minstrelsy, Tom Shows, as these spectaculars came to be called, presented song and dance representations of black life from a white perspective. Even after the Civil War, Tom Shows continued to tour the country and attract large audiences from all walks of life.

Just as these performances’ dances, like Jumping Jim Crow, were purportedly observed among real black people and then caricatured, Miley Cyrus, surrounded by black women half-dressed as animals, attempted and perverted a form of black dancing called twerking. Rather than aping aristocratic pretensions, like minstrel shows did, Cyrus sent up her own past as an innocent child by embodying the good girl who nevertheless knows she wants it. But it was minstrelsy just the same.

Audiences may not have recognized the tropes upon which Cyrus drew partly because even people who know about Tom Shows think of them as being performed by men. In reality, by 1871 America had at least 11 scantily-clad, all-female minstrel troupes performing in blackface. Even in male troupes, “wench” characters, played by men in light makeup (they were “yaller gals”) and depicted as possessing overwhelming sexual appetites, made public representations of eroticism a common element in Tom Shows.

Cyrus wasn’t wearing literal blackface in her performance, but the tradition of a little white girl at the center of a minstrel performance is as old as minstrelsy itself. One of the most popular characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Little Eva: the blonde, lily-white daughter of conscientious slave owners who is adored by white and black people alike. The uncivilized slave Topsy, who says that she cannot love anyone because no one has ever loved her, is nevertheless moved to tears by Eva’s death and vows thereafter to be good.

In 19th-century productions, Eva’s centrality to the narrative was made literal: The moment of Little Eva’s death put Eva centerstage, on her bed surrounded by mourning slaves. In at least one production, so many slaves appeared that the stage was full of them, while others peered in at windows and stood in doorways. In the more spectacular, upbeat adaptations, she doesn’t die but rather sings and dances with the happy slaves.

Tom Shows did not decline in popularity until well into the 20th century—only after they had made their impact in Hollywood. The metatheatrical 1936 film Dimples, featuring Shirley Temple as a young performer (Dimples) who is playing Little Eva in a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, combines the sentimental portrayal of the little white girl with the “isn’t she just cute as button dancing with those negroes” version. Her death scene brings about tears from the actors on stage and those in the on-film theater audience, and just as in the original story Topsy is redeemed by her ability to feel, the villain in the movie is redeemed by the sentiment evoked by Eva. As an epilogue to the play, the curtain comes up on a minstrel troupe, and Dimples dances at the center of a group of blackface performers.

Whether or not the creators of Cyrus’s performance know it, American entertainment has been so suffused with these images for so many years that they live in our shared subconscious and are often referenced without artists or audiences even realizing it. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has been praised for its mostly female, racially diverse cast, but it has also been rightly criticized for drawing upon black experiences to tell a white girl’s story. The creative staff of Orange Is the New Black or the talented actor who plays Crazy Eyes, Uzo Aduba, may not have been thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but both Topsy and the Crazy Eyes character are black women who were adopted and “civilized” by white parents. Crazy Eyes, like Cyrus at the VMAs, even sports Topsy’s iconic hairstyle.

Contemporary pop culture may be driven by Hollywood, but back in the day, it was theater—particularly traveling troupes like the Tom Shows—that created a shared national culture. This history will not go away, whether we acknowledge it or not. Without an awareness of the way the iconography of minstrelsy informed so much of the entertainment that has come afte

To think it thinkable shortcuts no work and shields one from no responsibility. Quite the contrary, it may be a necessary prerequisite to assuming responsibility, and it invites the honorable work of radical imagination. — “On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye

Slide1This paper was originally presented as part of WAM! LA’s 2013 Conference.

30 years ago feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote about the importance of the imagination to feminism in The Politics of Reality. 20 years ago I read the book in a college Women’s Studies class, and to this day my feminism has been inspired by her explication of how to see oppression and imagine freedom. Oppression, she claims in her essay of that name, cannot be seen for what it is if you only look close up:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

While stepping far enough back from a birdcage to observe it’s structure can be done in the space of a small room, stepping far enough back from our lived reality to see the patterns that indicate oppressive social structures can be only done in our minds. As if that’s not hard enough, we must step far enough back to be able to see not only the patterns that have affected us in our individual lives but also patterns that only affect those less privileged than ourselves. In so doing, we both gain clarity of vision and exercise what I like to call the empathetic imagination.

The empathetic imagination is able both to connect the dots between the individual instances of prejudice and limitation that make up oppression and to understand that even limitations that only apply to other people are still oppression. This is not a new kind of feminism, it is in many ways the oldest kind, but it is a kind increasingly at odds with today’s individualized, consumerized culture. From contemporary parenting practices to technology to for-profit online education, our culture encourages people (young people in particular) to place themselves at the center of their experience and of the world around them.

The question for me, as an academic, a writer, and a theater maker, is how can we engage young people in making the connections that allow them to see oppression as a “network of systematically related barriers?” And how do we help them empathize with people they don’t know, discrimination they haven’t experienced, and struggles that are greater than theirs?

First we have to learn to speak their language, by which I don’t mean the slang they use but rather the way that they use images to communicate rather than words. I got on tumblr recently after a few students told me, “It’s where the young people are.” I have heard millennials described as digital natives and boomers as digital immigrants; I consider myself a second-generation digital immigrant: My family was one of the first on the block to have a computer, but it started up in DOS, so that experience doesn’t really help me with today’s click, drag, and drop interfaces. So while it’s taking me a bit to crack tumblr, I can see that indeed it is where the young people are. And it is largely image driven.

In this virtual space, I can use images in ways that help viewers make connections between individual instances of discrimination and prejudice (what we in academia call critical thinking). The success of the post below, which has been reblogged/liked about 15,000 times and counting, shows that tumblr’s users are already asking questions about whose stories our culture values and about representations of oppression (or the lack thereof) within those stories:

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My question is whether these same viewers are willing to engage in an even more radical act of the imagination: Using words to create their own images in their minds. My internet plays, written about social issues with as few descriptors as possible in the same space as a blog post, challenge readers to engage imaginatively with words by turning them into images, thereby engaging imaginatively in the creation of the stories, the characters, and the worlds. Whether we imagine stories that reflect the systemic oppression that is reality or stories that reveal the possibility of a new, more free reality, when we create our own images we engage in a radical, counter-cultural act.

The more life I live, the more I am forced to confront how little control we have over anything, how little power we have to align the myriad forces that have to align in order for us to achieve our goals and realize our dreams. I think we tell stories largely to organize what is actually chaos. Stories put events into a narrative in which we can identify cause and effect. They embody intangible forces in characters, put words to our deepest fears and desires, and paint pictures of what cannot be seen by the eye.

When we summon the imagination to tell stories that feature people who are other than us, we teach ourselves to empathize with them. I write plays like A Woman and Her Doctor in such a way that none of the characters have a defined race, challenging readers to imagine the play in their head with characters who may look quite unlike the characters that populate most Hollywood films, television, and theater. I hope the same tumblr users that respond so strongly to pure images will be interested in using words to create their own images as well. The experiment is in progress.  Input is welcome.