Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s second book, Darktown Follies, interrogates minstrelsy, which was the most popular form of entertainment in America for about 130 years. The book is saturated in African American history, as well as the history of African American poetry.
Minstrel shows had comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, and were performed by white people in blackface making fun of blacks, and black people in blackface making fun of whites making fun of blacks. It began in the 1830s and is still with us in various forms. For example, the actress Julianne Hough recently caused a controversy when she wore blackface to a Halloween party; she was dressed as Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black. (see also: Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, Uncle Ben’s rice, etc.). Duke Ellington’s first film appearance, in the 1930 movie Check and Double Check, is notable for its blackface actors, and characters portrayed as blacks, but entirely voiced by whites.
Eric Lott, in his history of minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, effectively shows how blackface performance had a current of homoerotic desire for black male bodies, and how, via a fear of black sexuality, whites simultaneously assimilated and appropriated black culture through minstrelsy.
Racism and cultural appropriation are not exclusive to American culture, but if you enjoy music, dance, food, clothing, and speak American English, then you have participated in such appropriation as an American. Johnson’s book uses an impressive facility with craft and language in Darktown Follies to cross-examine this twisted history, even as he reveals new meanings and feelings.
Powerfully, and with seemingly effortless surprise and invention, Johnson takes all of this through his own swirling powers of imagination. His lines are consistently taut and effective: “Take the architecture of the wrist / how the hands flit, hinged // & bony as a blur of wing pulling / each egret across the slow drag // of the lake…”
Johnson allows the figures from minstrelsy and its responders to speak in their own voices. Bert Williams, “looming in the darkness; / cigar smoke cross-hatching the air,” shows the painful misfortune of this popular genius of comedy. In “LeRoi Eating Watermelon at Howard,” the late Amiri Baraka rejects his formal education as he feels the political voice forming inside him. Johnson’s language—alchemy, doxologize, caboodle, pothooks, gnashing—is all corners and razor edges.
Other poems explore the way the tropes and themes of the minstrel show keep showing up, often uninvited. In “Clarence Muse Stars as The Magical Negro in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Black Stallion (1979)”, “the story begins with sugar, / the dark and muscular storm / of a horse, and its epicurean propensity for sweets….I think we were meant to love you; / just as the boy, who should not have / lived, keeps roping his noodle arms / around the base of the neck of The Black.” Johnson takes to task the history of white Hollywood making so many African American film characters with magical powers, who only use them to help white people (see: Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, What Dreams May Come, The Green Mile, and so on).
In one of the most experimental poems, “Cork”, Johnson uses a pyrotechnical list of names of champagnes and wines with names of minstrel theaters to mock and mime the heel-toe step of a blackface dancer; the shifting diction allows Johnson to break through to new meanings of language as the heel-toe becomes heal too.
Johnson’s best work has a political urgency that uses metaphor to connect his breadth of historical vision with more contemporary instances of race and power. In “The Further Adventures of Long Dong Silver (or The Incredible Tale of Boy’s Perilous Journey from Pin Point to the Chocolate City) as Told to Anita Hill”, about the 1991 Clarence Thomas scandal that occurred when Hill testified how Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor. Thomas describes it as “a monster of mirrors” and asks that the viewer “consider all those / angles, the soft edges, the high cut and gloss / of his Thriller jacket.”
Johnson’s second section is “The Olio,” which refers to a period in a minstrel show, after an intermission, when miscellaneous songs and variety acts were performed in front of a painted backdrop; these were performed without blackface make-up, in part to prove that the performers were white. The second section contains softer, more personal poems, and reveals the meanings of the writer’s own life circumstance through anecdote and reveals the meanings the writer attaches to those circumstances rather than arguing a point.
Here, Johnson reveals himself as a subtle and gentle craftsman of love poems. In “Approaching Thunder”, the speaker says: “I guilted you into making love, / how the color of the stone changed in your eye each time I touched; how silence rose from your skin…” In “Wine with Hula Hoop”, the speaker confronts the problem of desire for twenty something girls: “the hips’ recreational apparatus, / the glass, this buttery accumulation / of light. When they speak I can’t speak.” In his perfect final poem, “Cherene”, written for the poet’s wife, he describes “A modern romance. You undress, but never say a word. / I touch your ribcage, take my thumbs, & split you like a pomegranate.”
Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Darktown Follies is a fascinating book, and is exactly what poetry is for: to use static material of language to describe what cannot be described: a system of entertainment that has lasted nearly two centuries that came to represent all the suffering and all the pleasure of the American experiment.