Academic Book Review ‘Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask’ By Harriet J. Manning

Abstract: Michael Jackson and the Blackface Maskby Harriet J. Manning (Ashgate, 2013) $153.00 6.2 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches: 204 pages. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 9781409455103

Reviewed by Nada Basheer, an avid non-fiction reader and reviewer, a long-time Michael Jackson fan and student. She blogs at tweets @overloved.


Basheer, Nada. “Academic Book Review of ‘Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask’ By Harriet J. Manning” The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies 3, no. 3 (2017). Published electronically 9/1/17.

The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies asks that you acknowledge The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies as the source of our Content; if you use material from The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies online, we request that you link directly to the stable URL provided. If you use our content offline, we ask that you credit the source as follows: “Courtesy of The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies.”

Academic Book Review of Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask by Harriet J. Manning
By Nada Basheer

The minstrel show was the defining North American entertainment form of the 19th century, in which African-American ideas, dance, music and gesture were theatrically parodied by and for white America. However, despite its longevity and its huge popularity, blackface minstrelsy’s legacy has faded into oblivion. Author, Harriet J. Manning brings it back into focus with her brilliant monograph, Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask.

Manning argues that minstrelsy continues to be subtly present in contemporary pop culture. In her ‘Introduction’, Manning provides the definition of blackface minstrelsy and explains her intent, which is to scrutinize a facet that has never been explored at any length; ‘the continuum of blackface minstrelsy embodied by Michael Jackson, both as a performer and as a controversial offstage figure’ (p.2).

The opening, ‘Chapter 1 – Conflict and Contradiction: Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy’ provides the necessary summation of minstrelsy’s historiography. Manning introduces the complexities of minstrelsy, which she asserts was certainly about duality, ‘about being other than who one was or seemed to be, and this ‘two-facedness’ allowed it to symbolize all sorts’ (p.5). She dissects in this chapter the contradictions and the diversity of the  performance of blackface minstrelsy from first to second generation by examining and expounding scholarly documentations and accounts.

In the first part of ‘Chapter 2 – ‘Black or White’: From Jim Crow to Michael Jackson’, Manning contextualizes the characteristic image and practices of black masculinity in the minstrelsy show and how it was prompted ‘and defined by a host of white anxieties, demands and desires,’ and its legacy in modern black cultural expression (p.30). Part II is by far the most complex and monumental part of Chapter 2 and perhaps the whole book. By decoding Michael Jackson’s Black or White short film and the worldwide (negative) criticism it received, Manning exhibits ‘how the hegemonic pop industry and contemporary popular culture works in a racist framework that limits black entertainers by disavowal of their self-representation and expression’ (p. 30-31).

‘Chapter 3 – The Continuum of Blackface Minstrelsy’ delves into post the abolition of slavery in America and after the ‘demise’ of the classic minstrel show to its continuum in the current day. Manning provides various elements that indicate the white appropriation of black culture and the continuum of minstrelsy through three examples which she discusses in depth: the Hollywood movie musical, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop.

Manning returns to investigating the legacy of blackface minstrelsy embodied by Michael Jackson in ‘Chapter 4 – Ghosts: Racial Fantasy and the Lost Black Self,’ through connoting Jackson’s short film Ghosts.In the first part of this chapter, she harks back to the rise of black minstrels by presenting a brief summary about the post-war black performers and the predicaments they faced: ‘black entertainers had no choice but to conform to the tradition’s caricatures as well as to the literal mask… white men had constructed, acted and perfected their racial fantasies, black minstrels were forced to be them,’ writes Manning (p.68). Although black entertainers were forced to wear the mask of white racial fantasies, Manning suggests another likely perspective: semantic reversal.

Codified meanings have been a stealth mode of communication among African-Americans since the transatlantic slave trade: ‘the mask certainly had the capacity to be a sign of falsity that could subvert racial defeat and turn it into revolt in a covert mode of communication familiar to the black American culture,’ reflects Manning (p.73). She gives a concise account of the early black minstrelsy in the second part of the chapter before extensively dissects Jackson’s 1997 short film, Ghosts – the world’s longest music video. As she explains, the seventeenth-century form of minstrelsy was about black people masquerading as whites, ‘became known as the John Canoe inversion ritual: street theatre, including music and dance, for which slaves whitened their black faces and hair with flour in imitation of whites’ (p. 81).

Manning asserts that Ghosts‘bring[s] forth particularly vivid ghosts of blackface minstrelsy and, more specifically, black minstrelsy’ (p.76). However, unlike the Black or Whiteshort film, which possesses the legacy of classic minstrelsy, Jackson’s Ghosts‘invokes much of the spirit and imagery characteristic of this first form of black minstrelsy’ (p.76).
With the demise of the literal mask, minstrelsy developed into the non-credited appropriation of black cultural gestures, and this is thoroughly analyzed in ‘Chapter 5 – Turnaround: Love and Theft’ and in ‘Chapter 6 – Just Using It: Eminem, the Mask and a Fight for Authenticity’. Both chapters provide examples of modern day guises of white blackface minstrelsy and reveal white artists’ appropriation of Jackson’s iconography and dance, without proper acknowledgement or respect, by scrutinizing the Irish boy band Westlife and the white American rapper, Eminem.

Michael Jackson’s gender and sexuality through ‘black transvestism’ is discussed in ‘Chapter 7 – The Burden of Ambiguity’, while ‘Chapter 8 – This Is It’ closes Manning’s absorbing research by addressing the following of Michael Jackson’s death.

Harriet Manning’s Michael Jackson and the Blackface Maskis a thought-provoking scholarly presentation with an innovative perspective on Michael Jackson’s complexity and brilliance. It also chronicles the history of minstrelsy’s cultural, racial, and political traditions. It is notable that this scholarly research is written in a fashion that will appeal to both academics and non-academic readers. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect is the substantial footnotes, in which the author cites profuse sources and vital information. Furthermore, it can be used as textbook for Popular Music students and as a reference for researchers.

Where to buy: Michael Jackson and the Blackface Mask by Harriet J. Manning:Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Nada Basheer is an avid non-fiction reader and reviewer, a long-time Michael Jackson fan and student. She runs a successful blog, filled with fantastic insights and remarkable detail on her reading at Overlovedand tweets prolifically at @overloved. Her work for The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies, includes academic reviews of ‘Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles’ and ‘Otherness And Power: Michael Jackson And His Media Critics’. Find out more about Nada here.