Minstrelsy, Memory, and Herman Cain

I have hesitated to write about Herman Cain because, well, as best I can recall I used him for years in my classes to discuss “modern minstrelsy.” You see, I was searching those terms a few years back and I came upon a video of the man, like this one of him delivering a speech at the ultraconservative CPAC.

Now Cain himself has fuzzy memories of allegations against him of sexual harassment. I mean, who could remember something as minor as a couple of employees coming forward and saying that you sexually harassed them? Cain’s response is to say he kinda sorta remembers now, after he initially denied it ever happening.

Cain… in his first interview… called the allegations that he harassed two employees of the National Restaurant Assn. when he was its chief executive “false” and “baseless.” He also, as he would later claim during a speech at the National Press Club, said he was unaware of any settlement struck between the association and either of the women. … Cain muddied the waters further in an interview … in which, after being asked whether he had engaged in any inappropriate behavior, he said he hadn’t but “it’s in the eye of the person that thinks that maybe I crossed the line.”

Now that Cain’s memory is getting into sharper focus, I remember why it was I used to teach him as modern minstrel. The minstrel show had several stock characters:  Uncle Tom, Jumpin’ Jim Crow, and Sambo, to name a few. Although it was usually played by white actors in black face, the minstrel show also sometimes had black performers in black face as well. But the purpose of the minstrel show was to represent the white imagination of blacks. Herman Cain is clearly such a figure of imaginary blackness.

I am not alone in observiing that Cain is a modern minstrel figure. It is a rather obvious conclusion, as  Chauncey DeVega pointed out last February at We Are Respectable Negroes,

Herman Cain’s shtick is a version of race minstrelsy where he performs “authentic negritude” as wish fulfillment for White Conservative fantasies. Like the fountain at Lourdes, Cain in his designated role as black Conservative mascot, absolves the White racial reactionaries … of their sins. This is a refined performance that Black Conservatives have perfected over many decades and centuries of practice.

And now Cain is performing the role of the “black rapist,” a hypersexualized black man who is a danger to women, especially white women, whose virtue must be protected by white men (or white women, as this may very well play out).

This reversal of Cain’s minstrel character, from jokester to criminal, undermines the white longings that were so evident in the Cain campaign ad “Smoke.” In this ad, Mark Block, Cain’s campaign manager, performs working-class white masculinity and its desire for an imaginary black figure who can “unite” America (always understood as already white). The video went viral, was roundly mocked in the media, but really was a dead-serious representation of wanting a non-threatening, kinda funny black man, a Mr. Bojangles, to make us feel good about being white, about ignoring the ugly foundation of white privilege, like slavery, and just tap dance ourselves away to a better plantation.

Perhaps, with this dramatic shift in Cain’s performance from dancing, joking fool to dangerous predator, the nostalgic working-class whiteness can think outside the trope of the minstrel show. Maybe even imagine that what will unite us is far more likely to be the common economic interests of most black and white Americans. But somehow, given the strength of minstrelsy in white American culture, I doubt it.

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