Monday, February 9, 2015


The bluesiest Dream Song yet. Sometimes I avoid grappling with these poems, occasionally because I’m not up to it—they’re too obscure or opaque, often because they trigger something quickly and I follow that instead. That has been part of the point from the beginning. No shirking today. This one brings up something that needs to be addressed, the role that race, blues (a Southern, African-American form), and minstrelsy play in this whole long poem. It has seemed strange to me from the beginning that B. would ever adopt a blackface persona, but he does it. The risk of it is something I could never imagine taking. Minstrel shows are this profound, and to my sensibilities, weird American phenomenon that so many seem to have forgotten, but in the 1800s, pre- and post-Civil War, they were incredibly influential and popular. Though I almost never see minstrel references in popular culture any more, I remember the echoes from when I was a kid. I remember brief snippets of people imitating Al Jolsen, who came a full generation before me. His singing of “Mammy,” in full blackface, was an iconic moment in American entertainment—I believe it was from the film, The Jazz Singer. Jolsen himself was two full generations removed from the heyday of the minstrel, but obviously it had had a deep impact on the American psyche. I remember Saturday morning cartoons still being shown on TV in the early 60s that featured flat-out racist caricatures that are almost unbelievable in retrospect, and these caricatures had their roots in minstrelsy. One of my mom’s favorite songs was “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which she sang to us when we were like 4 and 5. It’s from the Disney film, Song of the South, a film which Disney has pretty much buried because of the racist content (my mom just liked how happy it was). I’m fairly certain the film isn’t unavailable on CD or any other format. If it is available, you would have to work hard to find it. At the very least, it’s certainly not something the Disney Corporation publicizes any more like its other classic films, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Mary Poppins, etc.

I took a course in grad school titled “Modern Southern Fiction,” and to lay the groundwork for our discussion of the writers at the course’s focus, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, et al., we read some antebellum Southern work. It is almost impossible to believe that stuff. It’s pretty much lost to history because it is so bad. Because of its content, it wouldn’t be appropriate material for something like an undergraduate class. It was appropriate in a Ph.D.-level seminar, I think. It was marked by a couple things. One was the cult of sentimental death. Mark Twain absolutely skewers that in Huckleberry Finn. Emmeline Grangerford was the deceased daughter of the family who takes Huck in. Her poem about Stephen Dowling Bots is Twain’s hilarious spoof of the style: Huck eventually dismisses her: “I reckon with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard.” The other thing all over this early work, and that I found pretty appalling, was the trope of the happy slave, the Mammy or the Uncle Tom, who was also ruthlessly derided. There were other stereotypes as well. What I mainly took from these tropes was a vision of how deeply sick the society of the antebellum South was. The only antebellum white Southern writer I can think of whose work has survived in a serious way is Edgar Allan Poe, because he dove into the fusting cauldron of white Southern consciousness and pulled out something honest. Macabre, but honest. The rest of it—no. Too much sickly sugar-goo and bullshit. I mention this because it is very much related to the minstrel show’s treatment of the African American presence, with the same stereotypes of happy, musical, dancing black slaves who are also relentlessly treated to a contemptuous condescension. Song of the South draws on these same conventions. I’ve read that Walt Disney knew in 1946 that his film would be controversial because of the racist content, but he was working in a moment where that simply didn’t matter. Things changed, however, and the film hasn’t survived, and of course the minstrel show hasn’t survived either.

 So what’s with Berryman’s drawing on all of this? In reference to this particular poem, minstrelsy is relevant, but only partly. The minstrel plays in blackface to ridicule being black and at the same time to sugar-coat the dominant white culture’s contemptuous perception of blackness. It’s always from the white point of view. When B. invokes minstrelsy directly, he turns it over, ironically identifying with the black object of minstrelsy’s ridicule, even though he’s still the white guy in blackface. He turns it on himself in layers of irony. Here, B. doesn’t appear to have ridicule as the object. He never does—actually, quite the opposite. But by adopting a blues persona, like he seems to be doing, he is still playing a blackface part. Blues is a statement that comes straight out of African American experience. Unlike the minstrel show which mimics African American experience from a white point of view, blues is an expression of African American experience that arises honestly out of African American experience. At the end of DS 40 B. states, apparently (?), that he’s “free, black & forty-one.” Well, he ain’t black. Unless I’m really missing something, it looks like an attempt to identify with the underdog position of African Americans in broader American society, and as an outsider himself—misfit, dork, wounded little boy—it can serve to underscore his role as the maladjusted, struggling loner, crying out for solace. And if that’s really him, then he’s got nothing to lose. I think that’s the intent. It risks, and steps over the line as far as I’m concerned, a kind of cultural appropriation that we’ve hopefully gotten to the bottom of. It’s not cool any longer for white people to wear a feathered headdress and whoop-whoop like an Indian—the Washington Redskins are still doing that, but probably not for much longer. I tend to think B. crosses the same line here. I totally grant that his appropriation isn’t intended to be derogatory; I believe he means it as celebration and as a way of proposing the relevance of African American experience to his personal situation. But times have changed. Are we as racist a society as ever? I guess so, but to our credit, we have become aware now of the pitfalls of this kind of appropriation and its consequent devaluing of the experience of the people being taken from. Just like reading the worst of that godawful antebellum Southern literature whose main purpose is to justify slavery, there is a value to it from a certain perspective. But I’m not convinced that this aspect of The Dream Songs holds up well except as historical perspective on how our culture is evolving.


  1. So I'm not familiar with Berryman but I found myself smiling at the memories and nodding at the points. You are not afraid to call things "sickly goo." I think what you say about Poe -- "macabre but honest"--actually applies as well to O'Connor, who even in modern times had to respond to a lot of "sickly goo and bullshit." This is great stuff, Karl. PS Long live Martha Stephens!

  2. I remember that class very well, obviously. The faculty at UC was really, really good, I think, and I'm grateful for the education they helped me with. I remember some pretty intense discussions in there!