Exporting Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in South Africa and Beyond
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2020) by Dr. Chinua Thelwell is a rich, well-researched, and sobering investigation of blackface minstrelsy as the “visual bedrock of a transcolonial cultural imaginary.” In tracing minstrel globalization across the Anglo-colonial and British imperial worlds beginning in the 1800s, Thelwell explores the ways that blackface minstrelsy helped to construct and maintain notions of exclusionary citizenship in racial states throughout the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific Ocean worlds.
Thelwell shows that the South African Cape Colony became the minstrel nexus of these globalizing performance circuits. Putting this history in conversation with ongoing white settler colonialism and attendant plunder, annexation, and resource extraction, Thelwell argues that minstrel performances discursively strengthened the economic, social, and political cornerstones of the South African racial state, a state that ultimately developed into an apartheid state in the twentieth century. Through archival research and close readings of cultural artifacts, Thelwell shows that minstrel performances reflected gendered and racialized white fantasies of idealized Black laborers in events that normalized practices of racially exclusionary citizenship and reinforced labor exploitation. Exporting Jim Crow also significantly investigates subversive forms of Black resistance to these anti-black racial projects. For example, Thelwell interrogates how African American minstrels and Cape Coloureds attempted to change the terms of minstrel performance by creating shows that celebrated their own cultures and broadcasted images of equal citizenship. An important and critical study, Exporting Jim Crow
enriches scholarship on blackface minstrelsy, South Africa, empire and colonialism, racial capitalism, and performance studies.