Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)
There is no way of understanding political identities and destinies without letting fantasy into the frame. — Jacqueline Rose
American intellectual historians need to look in the mirror. Not at themselves, but at the ways in which racism works culturally as well as ideationally, how it functions as much through symbolic reflections, distortions, and deflections as through discrete, fully developed, clearly articulated ideologies. Understanding racism in the United States requires an almost absurdist sense of culture’s contradictions and incoherencies alongside the intellectual historians’ existing practices of recovering logical, rational, coherent positions and beliefs. Take the story of Baltimore cop Bobby Berger, as literary scholar and cultural critic Eric Lott does at the start his book Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. In 2015, Berger hoped to perform his blackface Al Jolson impersonation at a fundraising event to cover the legal expenses for fellow officers being sued for the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American who died under very questionable circumstances in police custody. Berger fervently claimed that his performance, which was ultimately cancelled, was not racist, or even had anything to do with race. There is no reason to think Berger was being dishonest, yet of course his aborted proposal for the fundraiser had everything to do with racism and race. As Lott puts it, “There is no necessary connection between policing black life and patrolling the black image,” but there was also nothing “incidental” about Berger’s Al Jolson act or his disavowal of its racist implications. It was most of all just one in a cavalcade of examples that prove how it makes no sense to divide culture from ideology, fantasy life from the lived realities of racialized violence and power in the United States.
In Lott’s book, the metaphor of the black mirror becomes a means of taking seriously the relationship between Berger’s role as a white policeman and his urge to black up like Al Jolson. To Lott, we should never think of symbolic acts of racial imagining such as this one as “the spare parts on the real motors of history” (xv); they must be understood, instead, as core components, maybe even the spark plugs of the American historical engine. In this adventurous book of cultural criticism, which is sometimes too hip for its own good but also offers many brilliant interpretations of the black mirror in action, Lott asks us to look with him at the cultural projections whites place on blacks. No mere reflections, these images catalyze American history right up to the present. But how, exactly? As Lott readily admits, in the case of Bobby Berger’s Al Jolson fundraiser effort, “the ways of state racial fantasy…are volatile and discrepant, never predictable in their outcomes” (xv). It is precisely this bewildering uncertainty, coupled with a bleak, consistent failure to overcome American racism, that makes the cultural dimensions of the story so important for Lott—and to which American intellectual historians might pay more attention. The contradictions, warpings, infinite regressions, and endless reflections of the black mirror are not superstructural elements. They are at the heart of the matter. They are where the traumatic saga of American racism gets worked out, and where there are also, occasionally, fleeting glimpses of salvation.
To make his case that the strange workings of the black mirror must be reckoned with as a key part of the American past, Lott delves into a wide range of case studies that “plumb the contradictions and some of the consequences of US racism’s theaters of fantasy—classic American literature, Hollywood films, pop musical artistry, and venturesome social commentary among them—across the long twentieth century.” He does so partly for the historical record, but more so to try to make sense of a more recent “moment of black moral power in the grip of institutionalized black death” (xv-xvi). That moment is not Bobby Berger’s attempt to don blackface, but rather the presidential era of Barack Obama in which Berger’s Al Jolson routine almost took place. The first black president’s reign was at once a time of fervent hope for the coming of a “post-racial” America and a period in which the United States also witnessed an escalation of racism in some of its most visceral and terrifying forms. On the one hand, as Lott contends, Obama himself “worked adroitly in the domain of racial fantasy to engineer his electoral and other successes,” but also in his very presence as “a black man in the White House,” Obama “produced new intensities of racial anxiety and paranoia—a new haze of imaginary that mediates every encounter between cop and citizen”—and one could add between every American (xv).
How do we begin to historicize this strange moment in the recent past? Lott’s book might best be read as an early assessment of American culture during the Age of Obama. While it begins in the nineteenth century with Mark Twain and moves forward from there, it is most concerned with how deeper layers of history created the contours of the black mirror in its current frame. Lott digs into the past to return to our contemporary situation, tracing the curves and cracks of the mirror, its overpowering doublings and subtle deflections, its surprising surfaces and confounding projections. Unlike the rather fawning, almost breathless treatises written by intellectual and political historians during Obama’s tenure as president, such as James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition or Thomas Sugrue’s Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, Lott’s book, with its focus on “cultural contradictions,” tells a more fraught tale. In the realm of “cultural production and iconography,” he is able to “explore the condensations and displacements, disavowals and ruthless demands of white affect in the throes of racial capitalism—very, very far from the fairest one of all” (xix). Mirror, mirror not on the wall, but rather in the white psyche, which still cannot fully confront how it sees and understands blackness.
More hesitant to celebrate Obama’s rise to power than either Kloppenberg or Sugrue, Lott does not locate Obama’s dramatic ascent to the White House in a reading list of American pragmatism, which Obama supposedly imbibed as a Harvard Law School student according to Kloppenberg; nor does Lott ground Obama’s rise to the presidency in the political legacies of the civil rights movement, which, to be sure, shaped Obama’s story but do not fully explain how, as Eric Dyson argued in his critique of Obama, the politics of black respectability infused the President’s politically tepid anti-racist agenda but were also key to his electoral success. Rather, Lott asks us to examine the many reflections—most of them strangely distorting, lots of them almost blinding, and almost all of them illuminating—of popular arts and culture. For Lott, only by investigating all the messy, whirling, and dizzying images, sounds, and styles of American culture in full, both leading up to and during the Age of Obama, can we even begin to make sense of the cultural contradictions of American racism as they now exist.
In this way, Lott’s book isn’t quite the mirror image of the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” that Daniel Bell famously noticed in the study from which Lott’s subtitle is (perhaps a bit too playfully) borrowed. Bell proposed that modern consumer capitalism placed the American economic system in a bind: to lead industrious lives as workers, Americans had to repress hedonistic tendencies and discipline themselves; but to soak up the abundance produced by their labors in order for the system to function successfully, they had to unleash that repressed hedonism as consumers. This contradiction, Bell thought, led to social crisis. The history of racism in the United States is, to be sure, also a social crisis, and a related one, but the contradictions that Lott outlines are more chaotic. They are contradictory bordering on anarchic. They proliferate contradictions rather than settling into one dialectical mode.
Which is to say that if American racism be part of the “real motors of history,” as Lott claims, those engines are pretty damn unmechanistic. The machine whirs, but like Henry Adams gazing at the Dynamo, Lott perceives something almost unfathomable in the enormity of its symbolic gyrations. The contradictions can be so contradictory that it is sometimes difficult to perceive cause and effect. As a cultural critic drawn as much to Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology as conventional renderings of history, Lott goes places most intellectual history would not travel. He seeks out meaning between texts—novels, songs, films, political discourse, iconographies—along thin rays of connecting light. If you are willing to look with him, this is what is so intriguing about the book, but it is also easy to get lost along the way. Lott’s black mirror can get a bit murky sometimes even as it flashes illuminations in its best moments.
Part of the issue is that Lott’s book often wears its Mailerian “white negro” tone on its critical sleeve. Lott returns again and again to what he calls the “blue tangle of impacted self-regard” when it comes to white uses of blackness (xvi). At times, this leads to some “impacted self-regard” for Lott as well. His referential, too-cool-for-school prose sometimes features an overindulgence in showy, high-wire interpretative moves and superfly hermeneutics. Which is to say that Black Mirror can slip into the very thing it critiques: a white gaze on its own whiteness via a blank, black reflection. Mirrors, maybe especially black ones inspected by whites, can make for narcissistic tendencies. There is, nonetheless, much of value in Lott’s book. In many respects, Black Mirror might be read most of all as a sequel to the author’s first book, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, a classic American Studies examination of nineteenth-century theater and culture. Lott now extends the basic interpretation of his first study forward: white Americans have used blackness to construct their own sense of self and of nation in ways that show how racialized blackness remains central to the ruling order. American racism is not an unfortunate but separable stream from the main story of the United States; it is the story. Whether in relation to gender, class, region, industry, intellectual life, culture, politics, or some other factor, race is elemental.
As with Love and Theft, blackness is the topic, but it is really white people who are the protagonists. Lott wants to tell “the story of white America’s way with black symbolic and cultural capital.” He chronicles the uses of blackness “as inspiration and as raw material (though it is anything but) and most importantly as a modality of self-recognition” (xvi). What Lott sees most of all is the “diametrically related but asymmetrical inverse” of W.E.B. Dubois’s “double consciousness.” Whereas Dubois “captured the ways African Americans are made to see themselves through the eyes of white dominance,” with the black mirror, “fantasies of white plenitude dance with misrecognition in the looking-glass culture industries, which have based themselves substantially on the skin trade” (xvii, xvi). For Lott, the focus must be on the “hysterical and sometimes downright bizarre cultural forms white America has produced to explain itself to itself over the last century.” These include the “race-liberal cross-dressing” of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Lott also notices the lurking role of blackness in Hollywood’s film noir genre. He examines Elvis impersonators and ethnic crossover stars such as Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. And he probes the racial dimensions of rock music careers: from Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell in the 1970s to Bob Dylan’s more recent work, including the 2001 album that, bringing it all back home, took as its title the very name of Lott’s first book, Love and Theft.
While Black Mirror is filled with virtuosic flights of critical acumen—Lott is among the hippest of cats when it comes to developing a brilliant reading of a text, whether said text be a novel, poem, film, song, image, event, or persona—his book is also simple, and remarkable, for bringing into view the persistence of racist cultural modes that trace back to the minstrel shows of his first study. This is not merely the case with the now familiar and unfortunate annual story of white college students blacking up for Halloween. It goes way, way deeper than that. “Pop life in these United States,” Lott convincingly argues, “is a mixed-up, commercially saturated venture at its root, blackface all the way down” (62). This is certainly the case in terms of how nineteenth-century blackface has “cast doubts on the ideas that blacks and whites shared a common humanity” through demeaning portrayals. Equally as crucial, Lott contends, is the continued legacy of how blackface “very often twinned black and white, equating as much as differentiating them” (35). Imitation can still sometimes be the kindest of flattery even when the love is matched, as usual, by theft—and the hate never much dissipates either.
Sometimes in Black Mirror, however, the criteria for distinguishing among different appropriations of blackness is not quite clear. Lott gives certain white artists a pass for their minstrel acts while others get roundly condemned. When Joni Mitchell blacked up to attend parties on the 1970s Los Angeles political-pop scene, adopting the persona of a black man she called Claude, her negotiations of “California pimping in the Great Recession” are celebrated by Lott. “Black drag-kinging the pimp,” he writes, “gave Joni Mitchell purchase on several contexts and conundrums at once”; among them were her clear-eyed investigations and withering critiques of “sexual freedom, female mobility, vested cross-racial interests, the lures and snares of male power” as well as “the matter of money—who has it, who is in a position to dispense it, and what it will get you in a recessionary economy nonetheless governed in part by the by the pop power machine” (155, 149, 150). For reasons not entirely explained, this mode of blacking up meets with, if not quite approval, then certainly a fannish admiration. Maybe it’s the sheer crazy “ballsiness,” so to speak, of Mitchell’s racial masquerade, which is to say the gendered transgressiveness of it, that appeals to Lott. For him, Mitchell’s blacking up is really far out, man, for its bold confrontations with the bohemian wages of whiteness in post-Woodstock hip capitalist America.
Compare Lott’s treatment of Mitchell to his rejection of the more conventionally liberal efforts of white author John Howard Griffin to understand what it means to be African American in Griffin’s best-selling 1961 book Black Like Me. Even as Griffin strived to come to terms with the legacies of race in America, this true story of a man who darkened his skin to see life from the other side of the color line meets with disgust and dismay from Lott. While Mitchell’s racial masquerade critiques whiteness, Griffin’s is, in Lott’s reading, unable to leave whiteness behind in the act of blacking up. So some whites pass approvingly through the black mirror, while others do not. Liberal efforts meet with reprobation while Lott accepts, even lauds, more radical uses of the racial mask. The benefit of this subtle, sometimes confusing, sorting is that Lott refuses simplistic moral tales of whiteness gone bad. To his eye, not all whites in blackface look alike. After all, to make it so would be, in some sense, to leave the black mirror in place, even in condemning it, rather than trying to see better through its shifting frames of fantasy.
Despite some ambiguity about which white artists pass and which do not, Lott’s overarching thesis holds: while there are various guises that white uses of blackness take, Americans have not really traveled much beyond Mark Twain in his Autobiography when he reflected on his own experiences of attending minstrel shows in the nineteenth century. Twain, as Lott explains, recoiled from the power of black people and black culture; at the same time Twain, himself wearing a nom de plume of a mask, powerfully “acknowledged the lure to be black” (35). It is this “contradictory structure of fantasy” with its “interracial recognitions and identifications no less than the imperative to disavow them” that Lott tracks forward into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, the minstrel show’s “contradictory structure of fantasy” had something of a resurgence during the Obama years. As Lott points out, after 2008 everyone seemed to be blacking up, if not literally then for all practical purposes. From Fred Armisen’s Obama impersonations on Saturday Night Live to the astounding moment of masks upon masks when Obama himself impersonated “method actor” Daniel Day-Lewis playing Obama for April 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner movie trailer, the racial masquerade took on new energies. Indeed, riffing on an argument put forward by American Studies scholar Donald Pease, Lott argues that Obama wielded fantasies of race to put together his winning coalition, which meant that when in office his term was dominated by the impossible “racial cross-purposes and contradiction, fetishism and meconnaissance” that was precisely what brought him to state power (15).
For Lott, films such as Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln (the origin of Obama’s gag with Day-Lewis, who starred in the film and received accolades for the intensity with which he donned Old Abe’s mask) broaden out, and complicate, the cultural significance of Obama’s time as president. Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s Django, older figures such as Sammy Davis Jr. (who came to life again through Billy Crystal’s resuscitation of his own blackface impersonation of the performer), Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Aretha Franklin gesturing to Obama when she sang “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center honors for songwriter Carole King—their cultural images and sounds all serve as mirror illuminations, shining light on various aspects of what Lott, borrowing again from Pease, describes as Obama’s orphic descent into the diabolical forces of state power even as the president also sought to bend the arc of the moral universe toward racial justice.
Lott himself becomes something of an Orpheus too. He looks back, almost compulsively, toward the ways in which white Americans have used the black mirror. As with Eurydice, this mirror may well be the one thing that white Americans most wish to rescue, for it epitomizes the deep cultural structurings of privilege and power that in the United States are racially shaped and racistly determined. Maybe it is only by looking back intently at the black mirror that it can forever be laid to rest, returned to the hell of burnt cork from whence it came. Or maybe its confounding castings of white against black will continue to follow Americans, haunting them. Either way, Lott’s cultural focus serves as a reminder that, at least for now, American racism, blackface all the way down, mirrors all around, refuses to die.
About the Reviewer
Michael J. Kramer works at the intersection of historical scholarship, cultural criticism, the arts, and digital technology. He is the author of The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 2013; paperback, 2017). For more information, visit michaeljkramer.net.