In my ongoing series of interviews with Asian American scholars and their recently-published books and research that examine diverse aspects related to Asian and Asian American experiences, I am very happy to present an interview with my UMass Amherst colleague, Caroline Yang, Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Caroline’s new book is titled, The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery: The Chinese Worker and the Minstrel Form and focuses on the relationship between slavery, antiblackness, and Chinese workers in post-Civil War U.S society. The book’s description:
The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery explores how antiblack racism lived on through the figure of the Chinese worker in U.S. literature after emancipation. Drawing out the connections between this liminal figure and the formal aesthetics of blackface minstrelsy in literature of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras, Caroline H. Yang reveals the ways antiblackness structured U.S. cultural production during a crucial moment of reconstructing and re-narrating U.S. empire after the Civil War.
Examining texts by major American writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Sui Sin Far, and Charles Chesnutt, Yang traces the intertwined histories of blackface minstrelsy and Chinese labor. Her bold rereading of these authors’ contradictory positions on race and labor sees the figure of the Chinese worker as both hiding and making visible the legacy of slavery and antiblackness. Ultimately, The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery shows how the Chinese worker manifests the inextricable links between U.S. literature, slavery, and empire, as well as the indispensable role of antiblackness as a cultural form in the United States.
- In your Introduction, you describe how White society differentiated between freed Black people and Chinese laborers during Reconstruction. Can you summarize why Chinese laborers were seen as the bigger “problem” for White society?
Almost immediately after the first sizable group of Chinese workers arrived in the United States to work on the mines after the discovery of gold in California in 1848, they were compared to enslaved Black people in the South. And the question regarding them was, are they free or not? During slavery, the employment of Chinese workers was justified using the logic that they were free. But during Reconstruction, in the historical moment when the United States was faced with the question of how to rethink race and slavery in the redefinition of citizenship, the Chinese were said to be capable of being neither free nor American. This was because they were now thought to be not only “slaves” – and would usher the United States back to slavery – but also indelibly foreign and antithetical to everything that was American. The logic was contradictory: the Chinese were thought to be “voluntarily servile” but also stubbornly set in their differences (religious, cultural, political, and so forth), and their inability to assimilate was said to be an active choice. Because of this racial thinking, Chinese workers were seen as a threat not just to all American workers – white and Black – but to the entire foundation of the United States, which justified their expulsion.
- In your last chapter, you describe several examples of Black artists performing in yellowface in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Were there any differences in terms of the cultural meanings of Black and white performances of yellowface during this time?
Absolutely! The simple answer is that Black and white performers had differing relationships to the history of slavery and the structure of white supremacy. The minstrel form – whether it’s blackface or yellowface – is inseparable from that structure. Blackface minstrelsy originated during slavery, with the earliest staged performances in the early nineteenth century. Even though some scholars have argued that blackface minstrelsy, especially in the earlier days, was not strictly antiblack, it’s hard to deny that it was a cultural form that was inseparable from the racial logic of slavery, which deemed Black people to be commodities. Blackface minstrelsy made possible ownership of commodified Blackness to all white people – as performers and participants – regardless of their class standing. It was wildly popular all across the United States, and it found a footing in California immediately after the gold rush in 1849. The white minstrels incorporated yellowface performances of the Chinese soon thereafter.
As part of blackface shows, these performances extended the logic of rightful white ownership and appropriation of non-whiteness. These shows and theaters were highly segregated, and Black people were prohibited from them until after the Civil War. After emancipation, Black artists formed their own minstrel troupes. They found that blackface minstrelsy was one of the only cultural performance arts open to them, so many of the most famous and celebrated Black performers from the late 1800s/early 1900s got their start as minstrel performers. And some of those artists donned yellowface and performed as Chinese characters. These performances were decidedly different from white people performing in yellowface, which continued the racial logic of slavery. Some Black artists and Black reviewers of them also insisted that the Black yellowface performers were superior in their craft to their white counterparts, driving home not just the idea that the Black and white performers were different but also the validation of Black performers as artists who were putting their talent to use albeit with a form that was inextricable from the inequalities and violence that structured their lives.
- In hypothetical terms, in the late 1800s, if the Chinese were allowed to become U.S. citizens and if Reconstruction had been expanded, do you think that freed Black people and Chinese workers would have been able to form some kind of minority coalition that would have strengthened both of their efforts at achieving racial equality?
This is such an interesting question. What would the United States look like today if there hadn’t been a Chinese Exclusion Act and if Reconstruction had lasted throughout the late nineteenth century? I’m guessing that the two things would have provoked extreme and violent white resistance, foremost in the West and the South. Would the Chinese and African Americans have banded together in response? Given the nineteenth-century understanding of race as biology and the belief in a racial hierarchy, I think a vigilant practice of a transformative, counter-dominant thinking that resisted the hierarchization of one group over another and formed a coalition would have been difficult, but not impossible.
- In terms of how Asians and Asian Americans are treated in U.S. society today, what are some ways that anti-Asian and antiblack racisms operate separately, and in conjunction with each other?
The historical notion of Asians as perpetual foreigners persists today, and the outdated way of thinking about race along a black-white binary makes it seem that racist acts toward Asians are not racist at all. Some people may think that the current rampant anti-Asian racism due to the COVID-19 pandemic is simply an isolated reaction because the virus is associated with China, but it’s part of a longer history of anti-Asian racism in the United States (just as the Japanese American internment during WWII was not just wartime hysteria but part of a string of established legal sanctions against Japanese Americans on the West Coast well before the war). The message is that Asians are threats to the “American” (i.e. white people’s) enjoyment of the bounty of the United States because as foreigners, they inherently don’t have the right to access it. This racist idea is different from antiblackness, which stems from slavery and the devaluation of Black lives, which was the law of the land and was not overhauled during Reconstruction. Antiblackness deems that Black people inherently cannot be equals. Asians could be, but as outsiders, they don’t have the right. In this twisted logic, anti-Asian racism is a recognition of humanity. The racist sees the Asian person as an agent capable of action or threat, and there is some sort of assumed agency behind the Asian face (she is spreading the virus, she is loyal to China, etc.), which needs to be eradicated. But antiblackness annihilates Black humanity, as Black people are terrorized and killed simply for being.
- How do you think blackface minstrelsy and Asian orientalism have evolved through the years and where do they stand today in the 21st century?
My book talks about how blackface minstrelsy was the most popular cultural form in the nineteenth-century United States, and that frenzied white enjoyment and appropriation of Blackness did not die down in the twentieth century but got incorporated into other forms like vaudeville shows, cartoons, movies, sitcoms, and so forth. In fact, we see its afterlife all around us today. There is a legion of white comedians who have donned blackface for “laughs”: Jimmy Fallon, Billy Crystal, Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and on and on. Politicians have done the same, and not just for humor, either. In these acts, we see how white supremacy is perpetuated through performances that get normalized as supposedly funny or harmless.
Some white people are finally starting to understand that blackface minstrelsy is racist, but I think we still have a long way to go before they see the real terror of donning blackface, which would involve truly understanding what slavery was and what it means to be white in this country. The idea that whiteness gives license to white people to be racist can be seen when it comes to Orientalist ways of thinking as well – that Asians are indelibly foreign and antithetical to anything “Western” or American – which also continue to persist in the twenty-first century United States, often with impunity. A recent example that comes to mind is the portrayal of Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In an overwhelmingly white movie with an obvious allusion to the 1984 film Once Upon a Time in America in the title, Lee is depicted as an arrogant blowhard who gets his comeuppance when he is beaten by Brad Pitt’s character. His brief insertion in the film only serves to justify his violent ejection, underscoring the idea that his non-whiteness has no place in an “American” past.
- What are the chances that the Black and Asian American communities can forge closer ties and deeper racial solidarity going forward? What are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of achieving this goal?
I think the murder of George Floyd in May of this year, as well as numerous other Black lives that have been lost at the hand of the police and vigilantes, has made people realize the specific nature of antiblackness that is incomparable to other racisms. It’s been heartening to see Asian American activists and writers speaking out against and focusing on antiblackness as an Asian American issue. The deeply structural antiblack racism, which we see in stark numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic, deems that Black lives do not matter, and there are those who are only too eager to enforce that racism. Those people ardently believe in the current power structure and think the system is working. But there are also (self-proclaimed) non-racists who also believe the system is working. So I think the challenge is to recognize some of our deeply ingrained ideas about the United States, such as U.S. capitalism and its false tenet of meritocracy and U.S. nationalism that turns a blind eye to the colonialist and imperialist violence committed by the United States at home and abroad.