Column: Undercurrents: The Long History of Exploiting Black Entertainers J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 14, 2005

There’s a history of this. 

In the slaverytime plantation quarters, where the black field hands used to live, they often amused themselves in the evenings after work with jokes and songs and stories. On some plantations, the slavemasters and their childr en would often walk over from the Big House to watch these impromptu “nigger shows” (to use the popular term of the day), and they would sometimes bring along visitors as well to see the entertainment. 

Eventually, a handful of white folks began to compil e these jokes and songs and stories and disseminate them to a wider audience. Between 1881 and 1905, for example, Georgia writer Joel Chandler Harris published several collections of tales by a fictional black man he called Uncle Remus, which have come do wn to us as the now-famous “Bre’r” Rabbit stories. 

Much earlier than that, even while slavery was still in existence, other white folks organized these slavequarters shows into elaborate staged follies called minstrel shows, where white performers with nappy wigs and faces blacked-out with cork would strum banjos, buck-dance, and sing the old nigger songs. The tune “Dixie,” for example was supposed to have been created on a banjo—a five-string African instrument brought to America by African captives—by Ohio-born Dan Emmett while working in a minstrel show in the 1850s. Mr. Emmett, who was white, later toured the country in blackface, performing under the billing of “The Renowed Ethiopian Minstrel.” 

These minstrel shows were wildly popular, America’s fi rst form of popular mass entertainment, revered by such observers as Mark Twain. They carried on into the 20th century, and it’s no accident that one of the first talking motion pictures—The Jazz Singer—featured Al Jolson on his knees singing “Mammy” in b lackface. Jolson had already achieved fame as a performer doing the same thing on the vaudeville stage. 

Of course, the creators of these jokes and songs—the African captives on the slaverytime plantations—themselves never reaped any benefit from the doll ars and fame that flowed into the world of minstrel productions. In fact, we don’t even know their names. 

Times passed and slavery ended, but much of the relationship between the African-American entertainment creators and the entertainment industry itse lf remained the same. The old buck-and-wing “coon songs” gradually morphed into what became known as the “blues,” slow-paced at first, but eventually going uptempo and evolving in the late 1940s and 1950s into what became known as “rhythm and blues,” or R &B. The originators and performers of blues and R&B were black entertainers, and many of them—such as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey—were huge draws in live road shows in black communities along what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” which ran from black-venu e theaters such as the Apollo in New York and the Howard in D.C. down through Virginia, the Carolinas, and into the lower South as far as Texas. (The Chitlin’ Circuit was recently popularized in the Jamie Foxx movie, Ray.) Some of these black blues and R& B artists even signed deals with record companies and recorded songs. 

These black blues and R&B songs were called “race records” in their day. Anyone, white or black, could go into a store and buy them, but they were marketed almost exclusively to the bl ack market. In the days of segregation, “race records” were almost never played on white radio stations. But record companies, seeing as much potential popularity in the larger white community for the blues and R&B forms as there had earlier been for mins trel, signed up white artists to re-record these blues and R&B songs in a practice that was called “covering.” These white-artists-singing-black-songs were then marketed to white audiences, most of whom almost never got the chance to hear the original bla ck versions. And while many of the original black artists were broke and hungry, barely making ends meet, some of those white artists became some of the most famous entertainers of our lifetime. Elvis Presley—who came to fame singing a watered-down versio n of Big Mama Thornton’s risqué “Hound Dog”—was one such artist. Another was Pat Boone, who made a living covering such Little Richard hits as “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Frutti.” 

Little Richard has lived long enough to see the end of segregation and th e opening up of his talents to white audiences, but he remains bitter about those years in which so many black artists worked in obscurity to create the art forms for which they didn’t gain fame or fortune, while white entertainers and producers dipped in, picked up black culture on the cheap, and marketed it in the white community for millions. 

To their credit, many of those white artists who sampled black culture turned around and gave credit to the originators. Berkeley native Johnny Otis, Greek by bi rth, passed over the racial curtain the opposite way, effectively living as a black man while writing and performing black hits (he was Big Mama Thornton’s producer, and was a co-writer of the original lyrics to “Hound Dog”). The Beatles, many of whose ea rly songs were remakes of Chuck Berry hits or other black blues and R&B standards, went out of their way to acknowledge that cultural debt. So, too, did Eric Clapton, who often pays tribute to the black blues geniuses upon whose shoulders he stands. Black blues and R&B giants like B.B. King and Ray Charles eventually became nationally famous entertainers, recognized for their genius. 

Many black entertainers are still exploited, of course. But with the crossover success of the Motown sound in the 1960s—wh en white kids could first openly listen en masse to black songs by black artists on the radio—down to the present rap/hip hop era, where black artists are able to take their creativity directly to all the people, the era is over in America when other races are able to step in and take over an entertainment form created by blacks because blacks are not allowed to practice that entertainment form in public. 

Or is it? 

Well, friends, we saw this one coming. Let’s talk (again) about the sideshows. 

From the time that the Oakland police and a handful of Oakland politicians drove the sideshows out of the parking lots at Eastmont Mall and Pac’n Save on Hegenberger and into the East Oakland streets, many of the original black organizers of those events have been trying to work with the City of Oakland to try to set up legalized sideshows. Their argument has been that such legalized sideshows would provide entertainment outlets for black Oakland youth, help develop responsible young black entrepreneurs, and bring in much-needed tax dollars to the city. 

But with the notable exception of City Councilmember Desley Brooks, the City of Oakland has not worked back. 

The Oakland Police Department and most city officials have been lukewarm to the idea, and Mayor Jerry B rown and City Councilmember Larry Reid have been downright hostile. Reid, in fact, has said that he will “never” allow a legalized sideshow in Oakland. 

But a legalized sideshow was held in Alameda County last weekend—in full view of police and politician s—and black people weren’t invited. 

If you want to hear what happened, you’ll have to read next week’s column.an