21st Century Minstrels?

From National Geographic

Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man, was born in New York City in 1808. He devoted himself to the theater in his twenties, and in the early 1830s, he began performing the act that would make him famous: he painted his face black and did a song and dance he claimed were inspired by a slave he saw. The act was called “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”).

Megyn “Santa is white” Kelly reportedly has settled with NBC after her show was cancelled halfway through her three-year, $69 million contract. The stunning ignorance supporting her defense of wearing blackface for Halloween was not enough to invalidate the $30 million she will still collect on the deal.

White entertainers performing in blackface, caricaturing and demeaning people of color, amused white audiences. Black folks have been entertaining white folks in this country for a couple centuries. It’s a blurry line between the joy of performing and cynical pandering.

In 1980, after a year in Los Angeles, Kenny Mann returned home to North Carolina. Resigned to the likelihood that his dream of performing on Soul Train was not going to happen, he went back to Chapel Hill and reconnected with his hometown musician friends. A cousin who played guitar and a childhood friend on bass formed the core of his new band. Mann wrote songs and played keyboards. The group recorded an album, Kenny Mann with Liquid Pleasure, that sold well locally, but did not attract a major label to pick it up.

The album did bring attention from planners for corporate events, country-club parties and weddings. Liquid Pleasure might not become the next Temptations, but Kenny Mann calculated that the band could generate a good living for himself and his cohorts by marketing themselves to affluent and largely white audiences. As they became more in demand they in turn demanded more respectful treatment along with more money. Almost four decades later, Liquid Pleasure is an institution on the Eastern Seaboard. They have played for every president since Jimmy Carter. Laura Ingraham has booked them; so has Donald Trump, Jr. (They’ve performed at Mar-a-Lago.)

Kenny Mann concedes, “There’s an injustice to it but only eight percent of our income comes from African Americans.” He goes on to say, “The number-one worst thing in this industry is racism.” After telling about making jokes at the expense of himself to put white audiences at ease, Mann was pressed further by an interviewer: “Do you ever feel like you are disrespecting yourself?” His answer: “Sometimes, but what clown doesn’t?”

Nothing is simple, is it? Read Kenny Mann’s story in the Oxford American’s latest music issue.

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