And I Am Telling You Im Not Going (live) – Jennifer Holiday

“And I Am Telling You” is the crescendo of Broadway-turned-Hollywood hit, Dreamgirls. This is the moment that Effie, soulful lead of the girl group The Dreams, is officially replaced (in more ways than one) by inferior vocalist Deena due in part to Effie’s lack of crossover appeal to white audiences. Jennifer Holiday became a Broadway legend as Effie, and Jennifer Hudson is clutching her first and last Oscar thanks to this tragic story of racist marginalization.

And yet, if we are to swallow the premise that the Effie’s narratively valorized “authentic blackness” spelled her demise as the lead of The Dreams, we must also accept the notion that Deena’s ascension was unjust because…what? She isn’t black enough?

It’s no secret that Dreamgirls is the story of The Supremes, the most successful girl-group in pop music history. Effie is Florence “Flo” Ballard, and her unworthy replacement is none other than Motown queen: Diana Ross.

Today, there’s a considerable Florence Ballard redemption campaign underway, thanks in no small part to the success of Dreamgirls. We are urged to suppose that unlike the long-suffering Flo, Diana Ross possessed “whitewashed”, paper-thin vocals, which appealed to the impoverished aesthetics of racist whites. Flo, with her mythologized cocked-hip, gritty gut-bucket soul and, shall we say, hutzpah we’ve come to expect from the finger-snapping diva-queen stereotype, qualifies her, not Ross, as the rightful leader of the Supremes. Or so say the three white dudes who wrote Dreamgirls, and their followers briskly marching along policed “authenticity” borders between races.

Dreamgirls can be read as modern blackface minstrelsy.

Before I move on, let’s clarify this point. As preeminent minstrelsy scholar Eric Lott has suggested, the blackface minstrel tradition is a cultural function well beyond the confines of an antebellum stage. For example, when a white person uses what’s understood to be black diction such as “hey homeboy”, or “fo’ shizzle” with a sense of irony, recognizing the humor in his or her action, they are playing at a form of everyday blackface minstrelsy.

More interestingly, blackface serves as a metaphor for the social construction of race. Race, after all, doesn’t connote just skin tone but meaning therein (as most know, race was not a socially loaded concept before the economic function of the slave trade took off in the 17th century).

The meaning of race (and I speak of African American race for the purposes if this discussion) has shifted depending on the American political climate. In order to reinforce those meanings to serve social order—the strict division of race and reinforcement of false categories—the minstrel stage dramatizes what race is, so the American imagination can act or react accordingly.

One example is the shift in the performance of the essentialized black male on the minstrel stage. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, the prominent black male character (caricature) on the minstrel stage was the infantilized slave: jubilant and gentle, a down-south good ol’ boy with a kip-in-his-step (or what Lott calls the “plantation darky”), was the kind of person one would image might be quite content as the property of another– an eternal child to benevolent white parents. The Jim Crow minstrel show (and in this I count D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) evidences the rise of the “black male rapist”, a veritable 180 from the earlier impish plantation character. The performativity of race here corresponds with once institutional, later social methods of white control.

As with gender, race is often performance; race can be burlesqued. The very cultural intelligibility of calling a black person an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) reveals as much.

Given my drive-by explanation of some basics in minstrel theory, it is unsurprising to learn, therefore, that in order to perform at elite white club the Copacabana, Billie Holliday was forced to wear blackface. Of course, she was black enough not be allowed into the club as an audience member, but as a performer the crooner of Strange Fruit seems to have fallen short of her black quota in the eyes of a pale/male gazing audience. To use a phrase from Lott, “’black’ figures were…screens on which audience fantasy could rest, securing white spectators’ position as superior, controlling, not to say owning, figures”.

Josephine Baker’s made a whole career out of racial/gender burlesque. In this scene in 1935’s Princess Tam Tam, Baker’s character is overcome with her impulse toward “afro-primitivism”, finally succumbing to an erotic frenzy before the horror and delight of on looking white men.

While the transparency of this racial and sexual staging may seem bizarre and offensive to modern audiences, its basic premise is alive and well, albeit with an “evolved” sense of nuance.

Alice Echols writes in White Faces, Black Masks that “although black musicians are no longer required to darken up…they are nonetheless expected to be recognizably ‘black.’ Black artists who defy the tests of ‘blackness’–that they embody sensuality, spontaneity, and gritty soulfulness-may achieve superstardom, but they often find their racial crossings leave them open to charges of self-loathing and selling-out. Race-bending white musicians, by contrast, are hailed for their brave transgressions.”

We return to the Flo Ballard/Diana Ross tension. I will underscore here that I am not suggesting by any stretch of the imagination that Flo is somehow a falsity. Neither did Flo or Diana participate in any kind of self-aware play into cultural minstrelsy. However, I will posit that the pens currently crafting Supremes-based historical revisionism have cast these women as characters in a symbolic minstrel show.

This staging not only serves a template for proper blackness, but as a method of whites to distance themselves from racist histories—by shaming 1960s white audiences and questioning the authenticity of black performers/producers who supposedly catered to them, the white “Pro-Flo” champions cast themselves as enlightened exceptions.

This kind of distancing logic mirrors the discourses surrounding blackface minstrelsy today. It’s such a shocking and transparently racist aspect of American popular history, few are willing to talk frankly about it. The fact is, blackface minstrelsy took place almost entirely in the urban north. Despite their name, the wildly popular Virginia Minstrels were a New York City troupe.

When I first discovered this, I was shocked; having assumed that blackface must have been a product of the South—a symbolic area “out there” where liberal Americans conveniently displace blame for the shameful history of our nation. The failure of modern “northerners” to acknowledge their region’s economic and cultural role in slave history and racist meaning production is reflected in the silence surrounding blackface. To even recognize it ever happened (much less realize it still takes place) is too uncomfortable a prospect for most Americans entertain.

In remaining silent, we fail to recognize traces of its ongoing legacy.

I will conclude my discussion by making it perfectly clear that Diana Ross, however she got there, is the legitimate lead of the Supremes who became the biggest selling act out of Motown under her leadership. Diana Ross is what black looks and sounds like too. Whatever the considerable merits of Flo, Diana Ross doesn’t need to “black up” in order to meet the racial expectations of her audience.

This wonderful video medley (comprised of footage shot during Flo’s inclusion in the group) is a worthy tribute to both Diana Ross and Florence Ballard who are not at-odds with one another in the Supremes’ glorious legacy:

I emphatically recommend Eric Lott’s superb Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class for more on this.