Paperback / softback
November 13, 2000
.85 Pounds (US)
$25.95 USD, £16.50 GBP
v2.1 Reference

Darktown Strutters

A Novel

Darktown Strutters is the story of Jim Crow, a remarkable dancer, born in slavery, who performs in minstrel shows, South and North, during the furious times of pre- and post- Civil War America. Touching, harrowing, and inspiring, Darktown Strutters is a unique novel of courage and pride from the author of Tragic Magic.

About the Author

Wesley Brown is author of the novel Tragic Magic, two plays, and coeditor of two multicultural anthologies. He teaches literature and creative writing at Rutgers University.

W. T. Lhamon Jr. is professor of English at Florida State University and author of Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop.


"Written in hot, jazzy language and filled with lively characters, this small book is dynamite."—Library Journal

"Anybody who thinks an historical novel about blackface minstrel days is 'merely' historical hasn't been paying attention to Jim Carrey's The Mask, TV's In Living Color, rapper Biz Markie, or much of the rest of U.S. popular culture today. . . . The legacy of blackface shines all around us, and we've still barely begun to tackle its wiles. This is why Wesley Brown's novel Darktown Strutters, an often profound meditation on performance, masking, identity, and equality in the American skin game, is so welcome and refreshing. Written in the surreal spirit of minstrelsy itself, peppered with wit and lancing dialogue, Darktown Strutters is a novel of ideas devoted to exploring the complex fate of black and white Americans caught, as ever, in a racial history they can neither surmount nor escape."—Eric Lott, African American Review

"Brown has created a vivid, disturbing work of the historical imagination."—New York Times Book Review

"Darktown Strutters cuts to the cruel center of American racialism. Wesley Brown's traveling minstrel show is where the symbolism of skin color establishes public meaning and private identity the way a funhouse mirror measures height and weight. Like Melville's The Confidence Man, this is a scary book, and mordantly funny, too. We all look ridiculous in it and, sad to say, instantly recognizable."—Russell Banks

"This compelling and imaginative historical novel takes off from a 19th-century incident that gave birth to the term "Jim Crow": a white actor named Tom Rice gained fame performing in blackface a dance he learned from a slave named Jim Crow. The fiction follows Jim Crow's son, Jim Too, on his travels as a dancer with Rice's minstrel show before the Civil War. After the war, Jim Too hooks up with the liberated Featherstone sisters, who create their own show, featuring a mute Indian woman named Which-Away and a white dancer nicknamed Sweet Knees who passes for black. Racist violence eventually befalls the troupe. Brown's ( Tragic Magic ) story is simple, and he excels at using blunt language powerfully, as when he describes Jim Too being delivered to Rice "tied across a horse like a bedroll"; he has a gentle way of conveying historical events without announcing them. Dancing serves as a metaphor for ideas and emotions in this work. When Rice dies, Jim Too performs a jig on his coffin, and one day in New York City in the midst of the draft riots Jim Too marvels at seeing "a dancer who could make people believe he was sinking while standing on solid ground"—then realizes the man is being lynched."—Publishers Weekly

"Early in his life as a slave, Jim Crow discovers he can dance faster and better than anyone, black or white. He joins Tom Rice's minstrel show, where every night actors don black face to play the fool before white audiences. Jim refuses to mask himself: "I don't like nothin' gettin' in the way of the skin that don't come off." The Civil War doesn't change a thing: America's promise of freedom applies only to whites. Jim finds a place in the Featherstone Traveling Theatre, a raging troupe of outcasts and freaks organized and run by two lesbian sisters. White farmers eventually torch the camp, and Jim moves on again. Written in hot, jazzy language and filled with lively characters, this small book is dynamite. It is the second recent attempt by an African American author to rewrite black history in a manner reminiscent of Herman Melville's Confidence Man."—Library Journal

"The volatile world of 19th-century minstrel shows and one of its finest dancers, the original Jim Crow, are explored by Brown in his second novel (after Tragic Magic, 1978). Jim got his name and his dancing skills from the slave who adopted him in Louisville in 1828. As a young man, Jim joins Tom Rice's all-white minstrel show; Rice leases him from his owner. But Jim's new world is booby-trapped. When he joins the company on the train, the car empties out, becoming the Jim Crow car. Meanwhile, Jim must not outdo the star white dancer Jack Diamond (a decent man, Jim's one friend), and like everybody else, he must black up. His refusal to do so and act the coon'' so incenses some rednecks that they cut his face. Brown elevates the issue of blackface and actors' masks into his principal theme. The performers (particularly the homosexual Rice) find the mask liberating, while the race-switching mirrors the nation's confusion as the Civil War looms and show business takes a back seat to the history that is shoehorned awkwardly into the narrative. Only after the war does the novel hit its stride, when Jim joins a show run by the Featherstone Sisters, two black women from St. Louis. Their racially mixed crew of self-invented outcasts projects a poignant image of show-biz solidarity, until their triumph over raucous audiences and the jitters of Reconstruction is ended by a camp- torching that leaves most of them dead. An uneven work that would have been more involving if Brown had stuck closer to Jim's point of view and varied the gibe-and- riposte pattern of his dialogue."—Kirkus Reviews
University of Massachusetts Press

9781558492707 : darktown-strutters-brown
Paperback / softback
248 Pages
$25.95 USD

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