The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery
The Chinese Worker and the Minstrel Form
Caroline H. Yang



The Chinese Question in the Early Afterlife of Slavery

In June 1870, just months after the U.S. Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Republican-leaning New-York Tribune published an essay proclaiming that “the Chinese question has become the living question of the hour” (Swinton 1). The article categorically opposed the presence of Chinese labor on the “grounds of race” (1), implying that the most pressing race issue five years after the end of the U.S. Civil War was not the “Negro problem” but the “living” “Chinese question”: whether or not Chinese labor was beneficial to the development of the United States. The article’s writer was mostly concerned with delineating the “Chinese race” as diametrically opposed to the “European race” of the “dominant American people,” which he also distinguished from the “African race” and the “Indian race” (1). Nevertheless, the alarm bell that he rang regarding Chinese labor was at this time part of a rising concern, much of which consisted of arguments for or against that labor in comparison to Black labor. In one of the earliest writings on the topic published outside California during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, journalist Henry George wrote in May 1869 that the Chinese worker posed a threat to white labor because the former was not like the Black worker, who was akin to “an ignorant but docile child” and “a simple barbarian with nothing to unlearn” (“Chinese Question” 2). Instead, the Chinese worker was like “a grown man, sharp but narrow minded, opinionated and set in character” (2), which made him unassimilable. In contrast, Willie Wild, a California correspondent for the New Orleans Daily Picayune, wrote in July 1869 that the Chinese “work well and faithfully, and I would prefer them every time to black labor” (Wild 12).

Though there was no consensus in the arguments that compared Chinese and Black workers, the unequivocal result was that the period of Reconstruction in the United States ushered in a period of Chinese exclusion. Indeed, while various journalists were writing about the merits or evils of Chinese labor, lawmakers participated in a similar discourse in Congress as they discussed the Chinese question in connection to the “Negro problem.” Almost immediately after ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which resulted in the enfranchisement of Black men, Congress engaged in a heated debate over the revision of the 1790 law that had restricted naturalized citizenship to “free white person[s].” Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican from Massachusetts, proposed that in the true spirit of mending the nation, the word “white” should be taken out in the revised wording. Many lawmakers interpreted Sumner’s proposal to mean that the “immense, teeming, swarming, seething hive of degraded” Chinese, “who are slaves,” could potentially become U.S. citizens and balked at the prospect, reasoning that just because they performed “an act of justice” and “enfranchised the colored man,” who was “an American,” they were not obligated to surrender the institution of U.S. citizenship to the Chinese (Congressional Globe 1870, 5125). Sumner’s proposal did not pass, and the naturalization law retained whiteness as the original and authentic marker of citizenship and added those of “African nativity and persons of African descent” (5176). The 1870 naturalization law debate was just one prelude to the string of anti-Chinese immigration laws that were passed around the official end of Reconstruction in 1877 and well beyond.

Scholars in the field of Asian American studies have substantiated the connection between the anti-Chinese discourse and Reconstruction, undertaking in the process the important work of challenging the master narrative of the history of the United States as a nation of immigrants, particularly one that erases the history of Asian exclusion and posits the Asian as a model immigrant (see Moon-Ho Jung; Wong; Torok; Saxton; Aarim-Heriot; Paddison). In particular, Lisa Yun, Lisa Lowe, and Edlie Wong, along with Moon-Ho Jung, have ascertained the way in which the racialized Chinese worker figure of the “coolie” necessitates a reframing of the history of the transatlantic slavery, coolie trade, and empire in a transnational and comparative context. They have shown that the coolie is not just a post-slavery figure in the United States but also deeply imbricated in the history of global racialization of labor in the development of racial capitalism, revealing what Lisa Lowe calls the “intimacies of four continents” (4). In making their important historical interventions, these scholars focus mainly on the history of the racialization of the Chinese worker and how the Chinese were compared to Black people, as I also do in the examples above.

The important transnational history of the Chinese worker, however, does not fully account for the specificity of enduring antiblackness after slavery in the United States. What strikes me about the above examples comparing the Chinese with Black people, whether or not they were comparing the latter favorably to the former, is the undeniable similarity in how Blackness is represented—as childlike, sometimes wayward, and always dependent—which evinces a preservation of the mode of antiblack representation from slavery. And so, when we study what Edlie Wong calls the “dialectical configuration of black inclusion/Chinese exclusion” during Reconstruction (3), we need to ask what it means that Black people were viewed as “American” in contradistinction to the Chinese, who were labeled as “slaves.” In the course of equating and excluding Chinese workers as “slaves” in the comparative racialization of the Chinese and Black people after emancipation, what happened to the racial logic of antiblackness from slavery?

To answer the question, I turn to the most popular and influential form of representing Blackness in the United States during and after slavery: blackface minstrelsy.1 At a time when journalists and politicians routinely compared the Chinese with Black people, a minstrel song by Harry F. Lorraine with the derogatory title “Nigger Versus Chinese” (1870) asked its own version of the Chinese question: “What can all de Chinese do Along side ob de Nigger?” (4).2 Like the majority of the newspaper writers and lawmakers of the period, the song links the presence of the Chinese to the end of slavery, as it states, “Since niggerman had been made free, De Chinee hab come ober” (3), and ultimately answers that Black people are more desirable than Chinese workers. But the song’s reason is unlike any that a journalist or lawmaker would have given. The song suggests that the Chinese are undesirable because they “cannot learn to play the fiddle, Or pick the ole Banjo, Or stave de head ob de [t]am-bo-rine, Dey are so mighty slow” (4). Naming musical instruments that were customarily associated with Black people and minstrel shows, the song deems Black people to be preferable because of their ability to play such instruments. In doing so, it provides an insight that can be gleaned only in a study of cultural representations. Though its main point seems to be about Chinese unassimilability as the basis for exclusion, the song also effects Black racialization as the basis for inclusion through its statement that the Chinese “cannot learn” the musical skills associated with Black people. Assumed in the song is not only Black people’s natural predilection for music and entertainment but also their desire to serve as objects of enjoyment for white people, which was the antiblack racial logic of slavery that birthed blackface minstrelsy and the antebellum caricature of the “happy slave.” As the lyrics are purportedly sung by a Black figure, the knowledge that Blackness and the minstrel form are one and the same is meant to be understood as being produced and proclaimed by Black people themselves, and this knowledge is the song’s basis for including them and excluding the Chinese.

The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery exposes the process through which the antiblack racial logic of slavery remained meaningful through the minstrel form and the figure of the Chinese worker in cultural representations after emancipation. For this investigation, Lorraine’s song provides a point of departure in three ways. First, “Nigger Versus Chinese” underscores how inseparable minstrelsy was from slavery and what Saidiya Hartman calls its “afterlife”—the enduring antiblackness and violence derived from “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago” that continued to imperil Black lives after emancipation (Lose 6). The song’s pronouncement that the Chinese cannot be a minstrel figure is followed by the complaint that the Chinese have “got no pret-ty yellow gals [with] nice lit-tle su-gar lips” (Lorraine 4). Demonstrating that the term “yellow” would not be associated with Asians until later in the nineteenth century, the song’s invocation of the “yellow girl” to describe a mixed-race Black woman reveals the legacy of slavery and sexual violence against Black female captives.3 As the “yellow girl” was a popular topic of many minstrel songs, which I discuss in Chapter 4, the song emblematizes the way in which the violence of slavery is both disclosed and disavowed in minstrelsy. Second, the song’s publication year of 1870 points to the significance of the Reconstruction period in the nationalization of the Chinese question, especially through the phenomenon of comparative Black and Asian racialization that Colleen Lye has termed the “Afro-Asian analogy” (“Afro-Asian” 1735). Third, despite the song’s dissociation of the Chinese from minstrelsy, yellowface performances of the Chinese worker appeared in minstrel shows as early as the 1840s, as Krystyn Moon has shown. During Reconstruction, the Chinese worker character became a national literary figure, mainly because of the success of Bret Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James” (1870), which I discuss in Chapter 1. Arguing for reading Harte’s Chinese character as a minstrel figure, The Peculiar Afterlife of Slavery tracks the figure of the Chinese worker and the minstrel form in subsequent chapters on writings by Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Sui Sin Far, and Charles Chesnutt, who each and differently employed the minstrel form in conjunction with their literary representations of the Chinese worker.

By studying representations of the Chinese worker as demonstrating the persistence of antiblackness in and through the minstrel form, I am underscoring the inseparable link between formal minstrel representations of race and the structure of white supremacy in slavery and its afterlife. Specifically, minstrelsy provides the means to understand the racial capitalism of slavery. As coined by Cedric Robinson, “racial capitalism” refers to the ways in which the “development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued racial directions,” so that “racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism” (Robinson 2). Locating racism as a product of racialism in the “‘internal’ relations of European peoples” in the development of capitalism (2), Robinson underscores race as a mechanism of differentiation key to capitalism. That is, as Jodi Melamed explains, “capitalism is racial capitalism,” since accumulation of capital requires “loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value,” and “racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires” (Melamed 77; emphasis in original). In line with scholarship that calls for studying slavery as a part of—rather than apart from—the development of U.S. capitalism,4 examining minstrelsy through the framework of white supremacist racial capitalism blurs the line between the slaveholding South and the non-slaveholding North and West and reveals how racial differences and relations of inequality were produced and reproduced all across the United States through the proliferation of minstrel shows. Claiming to be an authentic replication of Black life in the South during slavery, the minstrel show originated in the Northeast before the Civil War and was popularized by performers in the North (see Green). Minstrelsy, whose “birthplace,” according to Robert Toll, was New York City, became a “national institution” (Toll 32, 26) as a by-product of the minstrel troupes’ travels as they set to stage the vagaries of slavery in the South.

The birth of minstrelsy as staged entertainment occurred in the 1830s and 1840s, in what Eric Lott calls “the most politically explosive moment of the nineteenth century” (Love 37). This period saw the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and wage labor in the North and working conditions that increasingly challenged the definition of such laborers as “free.” As scholars such as Lott and David Roediger have established, minstrelsy was crucial to the formation of white working-class male identity as white and free, especially in debates about workers’, as well as women’s, rights in the nineteenth century. As Roediger states, “Blackface minstrels were the first self-consciously white entertainers in the world” (Wages 117; emphasis in original). The minstrels performed their whiteness into being through the production of what it meant to be Black, by impersonating what they imagined to be Blackness. Cultural expropriation is therefore minstrelsy’s “central fact,” as Lott reminds us (Love 19). But even more important, the production of white working-class identity as white and free through the cultural expropriation of Blackness served two critical functions that buttressed the racial logic of slavery. First, as Douglas Jones, Jr., writes in The Captive Stage, antebellum minstrelsy cultivated a collective national white “proslavery imagination” (7). Jones builds on Tavia Nyong’o’s problematization of the “increasingly orthodox” (Nyong’o 8) understanding of the history of minstrelsy—that it had a more radical beginning as part of a working-class culture and politics in the 1830s and 1840s before it was co-opted by the middle class and became mainstream in the 1850s, when it turned more proslavery. Minstrelsy was always proslavery, regardless of its class identification and geographic location, which means that the white identity produced through minstrelsy was always steeped in a proslavery imagination. Second, minstrelsy functioned to “regulate the course of black freedom and counter the aims of black activism” (Jones 7), particularly in urban areas with a large free Black population, many of which were outside of the deep South.

This twin function of early antebellum blackface minstrelsy can be seen in a Baltimore Sun issue in November 1837. In one column, the Sun reported on a show by “Jim Crow,” the stage persona of Thomas D. Rice, who popularized the song and dance of the same name and whose nickname, “Daddy Rice,” alluded to his status as a forerunner in the history of staged minstrel shows. In a paraphrased speech that he delivered as Jim Crow, Rice stated that he had been touring in England and Ireland to correct the misguided abolitionist belief that “negroes were naturally equal to whites” (“Theater” 2). Referring to his performance in blackface, he claimed, “I effectually proved that negroes are essentially an inferior species of the human family, and that they ought to remain slaves” (2). The article states that Rice’s antiblack, proslavery declaration was met with “some murmurs of disapprobation from the boxes, which was quickly put down by the plaudits of the pit” (2). Dismantling the notion that the white workers who patronized antebellum minstrel shows felt an affinity with those enslaved, the “plaudits of the pit” indicates the proslavery attitude of those workers, as the equation of “negroes” and “slaves” on the minstrel stage enabled the belief that as “not-slaves,” they were free. The “murmurs of disapprobation” are further silenced with the audience’s subsequent “tremendous applause” and “immense cheering” for Rice’s speech, particularly when he claims that he was proud of the fact that “I was an American, and that my country was in some degree benefitted by my performance” (2). Rice’s linking of his performance as Jim Crow and his invocation of his national identity as an American—“I have been of such signal service to my country!!” (2)—underscores the essential role that the performance and definition of Blackness on the minstrel stage played in the definition of whiteness as a proslavery and national identity.

The “murmurs of disapprobation” in the article also bring light to the fact that the proslavery imagination was promulgated through minstrelsy amid the rise of Black abolitionism. As minstrelsy was the first and most successful popular cultural form in the antebellum United States, the cultural practice of white men performing in blackface needs to be understood as a defense of slavery and white supremacy against arguments for Black freedom. Black activists in places such as Baltimore challenged the rightfulness of slavery through their antislavery efforts. An example of such actions can be seen in the Baltimore Sun issue discussed above. In the column next to the article on Jim Crow’s performance was an article with the subtitle “Negro Samuel Robinson vs. Edward Townsend.” The article states that Samuel Robinson sued for his freedom by citing the 1817 act of the Maryland assembly, which declared that “no sale of any servant or slave, who is or may be entitled to freedom after a term of years . . . shall be valid and effectual in law” (“Proceedings” 2). As he was held “as a slave for a term of years,” Robinson claimed that he was entitled to freedom after that term. The jury ruled in his favor, and the article concludes with the pronouncement that Robinson was “accordingly liberated” (2). The side-by-side placement of the Jim Crow speech and the Robinson article demonstrates that against the presence of Black activists like Robinson, who claimed their freedom, blackface minstrelsy actively sought to negate that freedom with a performance that posited Black inferiority and justified slavery.

Black abolitionism also extended to a critique of blackface minstrelsy. A study of minstrelsy therefore has to keep in mind the “complex responses that black activists and abolitionists had to the genre, almost from its beginning,” as Ngyong’o stresses (8).5 Frederick Douglass, who emancipated himself from slavery in Baltimore in 1838, less than one year after the publication of the above Sun article, attested to the dialectical relationship between the proslavery imagination of blackface minstrelsy and antislavery activism during slavery. In the October 28, 1848, issue of the North Star—itself a powerful venue of abolitionism—Douglass wrote a trenchant criticism of a white reviewer who had panned the performance of the Hutchinson Family, a group of white antislavery singers, in Rochester, New York.6 Calling the reviewer a “pro-slavery and narrow-souled demon,” Douglass surmised that the reviewer would not “object to the ‘Virginia Minstrels,’ ‘Christy’s Minstrels,’ the ‘Ethiopian Serenaders,’ or any of the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow-citizens” (Douglass, “Hutchinson”). Alluding to the lucrative profitability of blackface minstrelsy, Douglass’s comment pushes us toward a “critique of the national popular” in the nineteenth-century study of minstrelsy (Nyong’o 9).7 If white Northerners were at a crossroad between slavery and abolitionism, the entertainment provided by minstrel shows eased the choice of the majority to adopt the proslavery imagination, as evidenced by the widespread and domineering popularity of such shows as a national cultural institution.

Minstrel shows staged Black freedom as apocryphal and thus defined freedom as limited to white people. Slavery, as the indispensable backdrop to any minstrel show, was naturalized in the course of such shows. The minstrel form, therefore, was one of the means through which racial differences were justified and concretized in slavery through performances in blackface. The minstrel form naturalized the social relationship of white supremacy through the creation of a racial hierarchy in which “blackness [became] the mark of subjects who should be most captive, while whiteness marked those who should be most free” (Jones, Captive 19). The minstrel form proliferated in the antebellum United States as a performance and justification of slavery that relied on “Black” endorsement of slavery and nullified Black activism and freedom.

Here I am thinking of form not as a passive product of structure but as an active component of it, as literary theorist Caroline Levine suggests (xi). That is, rather than see the minstrel form as merely mirroring the reality of slavery, I am proposing to conceive of it as having created a particular sociality in slavery. More specifically, instead of thinking that the minstrel form is a reflection of the violence of slavery, we might see that it is constitutive of the specific kind of violence of slavery that produced Blackness and Black people as commodities. “It is not merely the content of minstrelsy to which we must attend,” as Nyong’o instructs, “but its commodified and professionalized form” (109). Accordingly, we must consider “the ability to put on blackness . . . in the context of chattel slavery and the economy of enjoyment founded thereupon”—an economy predicated on the “fungibility” of the enslaved as a commodity, “specifically its abstractness and immateriality” (Hartman, Scenes 26). A crucial component of racialization under slavery, the popular consumption of minstrelsy and performance of Blackness can be understood as a part of the process through which human beings became commodities. As Stephanie Smallwood writes, citing Arjun Appadurai’s definition of the commodity, “Turning people into slaves entailed more than the completion of a market transaction . . . [for] the economic exchange had to transform independent beings into human commodities whose most ‘socially relevant feature’ was their ‘exchangeability’” (35). If the market selling enslaved people was crucial to the process of turning a person into a commodity and another person into a property owner, as Walter Johnson has shown (Soul), the minstrel form, which animated the social relationship of slavery, enabled the pleasure of ownership beyond the market.

The minstrel form thus reveals the social relationship at the heart of slavery that reduced enslaved people to a fungible commodity in an “economy of enjoyment.” In such an economy, we see traces of the minstrel form in everyday practices of violence in slavery, as the captive became an object of labor and entertainment for the enslaver. Thomas Rutling, who was born into slavery in Tennessee, stated in an interview in 1872 that as soon as he was “large enough,” his mistress “made [him] bring wood and water, play with the children to keep them quiet, and sing and dance for her own amusement” (qtd. in Blassingame 616), demonstrating the way in which forced labor and entertainment existed on a continuum. Solomon Northup, who was stolen into slavery for twelve years, likewise wrote in his autobiography:

No matter how worn out and tired we were, there must be a general dance. . . . “Dance, you d—d niggers, dance,” Epps would shout. Then there must be no halting or delay, no slow or languid movements; all must be brisk, and lively, and alert. . . . Epps’ portly form mingled with those of his dusky slaves, moving rapidly through all the mazes of the dance. Usually his whip was in his hand. . . . Frequently, we were thus detained until almost morning. Bent with excessive toil—actually suffering for a little refreshing rest, and feeling rather as if we could cast ourselves upon the earth and weep, many a night in the house of Edwin Epps have his unhappy slaves been made to dance and laugh. (125–26)

The intermingling of violence of the whip and the injunction to dance, as well as the “mingling” of Epps’s body with “his dusky slaves,” demonstrates the intimacy of slavery that Christina Sharpe says can be characterized only as “monstrous” (Monstrous 2). Combined with Epps’s projection of his enjoyment to those in his enslavement who would rather weep or rest, Northup’s description demonstrates the inseparability of the violence of slavery and the “economy of enjoyment.” That the captives were “actually suffering” and “bent with excessive toil” does not register in such an economy. The ascription of enjoyment to a captive position was at the heart of “scenes of subjection” (Hartman, Scenes 4), such as Epps’s house, in which dancing took place, but they were not limited to those spaces. The minstrel form was also present at the auction block. William Wells Brown, a Black activist who liberated himself from slavery and penned the first African American novel, Clotel (1853), as well as the first African American play, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858),8 recalled of those enslaved in pens that “some were set to dancing, some to jumping, some to singing, and some to playing cards. This was done to make them seem cheerful as possible” (qtd. in W. Johnson, Soul 130).

In all the above examples, the captives are not just envisioned as “vehicles for white enjoyment” (Hartman, Scenes 23). They are also made to perform the “simulation of agency and the excesses of black enjoyment” (22). Such performance of purported agency was at the heart of a minstrel show, in which white participants not only derived pleasure at the cost of the suffering of the Black captive but also ascribed enjoyment of that suffering to the enslaved. Particularly through the proliferation of popular minstrel songs, such ascription crossed the boundary between the stage and actual enslavement. In an interview conducted for the Federal Writers’ Project on narratives of formerly enslaved people, Eda Harper recalled, “My old master mean to us. . . . He used to come to the quarters and make us chillun sing. He make us sing Dixie. Sometimes he make us sing half a day. Seems like Dixie his main song. I tell you I don’t like it now. But have mercy! He make us sing it” (qtd. in Rawick 164; emphasis in original).9 The song “Dixie,” also called “(I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land,” was written around 1859 by Dan Emmett, a popular blackface minstrel who wrote the song for Bryant’s Minstrels. Told from the purported viewpoint of a captive who sings, “I wish I was in de land ob cotton, / Old times dar am not forgotten,” “Dixie” was set to upbeat music and included the chorus, “I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray! / In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie” (S. Foster, Minstrel 40). Harper’s labeling of her former enslaver’s actions of making the children sing, which she repeats three times, as evidence of his having been “mean,” clearly indicates a break between what she was made to do and her own desires. Her statement that she does not like the song “now” powerfully demonstrates the violence that made the utterance of such statement by an enslaved child impossible during slavery. What is more, the discrepancy between Harper’s feelings for “Dixie” and her enslaver’s shows the crucial proslavery work that minstrelsy performed. Blackface minstrel shows were not just about staging a performance of happy captives. They were also about asserting a complete control over the representation of slavery by presuming to know what the Black captives felt. As Harper’s testimony indicates, what made blackface minstrelsy different from violently forcing enslaved people to sing and dance was the purposeful absenting of the enslaved, who could think or name their condition as one of subjection, and supplanting that absence with a caricatured figure who endorsed the condition as good. If, as Hazel Carby states, “the objective of stereotypes is not to reflect or represent a reality but to function as a disguise, or mystification of objective social relations” (22), the stereotype of the “happy slave” on the minstrel stage was part and parcel of the violence of slavery as well as its obfuscation.


1. Tavia Nyong’o argues cogently that “blackface minstrelsy” is an “inadequate modern shorthand” that does not consider the “complex performance genealogy” of Black impersonation (105). In line with Nyong’o’s work, which complicates the shorthand, my employment of the term seeks to further trouble its genealogy.

2. American Publication lists the publication year of the song as 1869, but the booklet for the song says it is 1870. Also, the name is listed as Harry E. Lorraine on the song cover, but the Library of Congress lists the songwriter’s name as Harry F. Lorraine.

3. I am grateful for the community-sourced guideline on writing about slavery that recommends terms such as “enslaved,” “captive,” and “enslaver,” counter to the more commonplace designations. See Foreman.

4. See E. Williams; C. Robinson; Baptist; W. Johnson, “The Pedestal”; Roediger, How Race Survived; Beckert; Beckert and Rockman; and Singh.

5. For scholarship on the history of Black performances as critiques of minstrelsy, see D. Brooks; McMillan. In a similar vein, Sylvia Wynter argues that the minstrel stereotype was created to marginalize and contain the “incredible inventiveness of black culture” (“Sambos and Minstrels” 149).

6. Evidencing the limits of white antislavery activism, the Hutchinson Family included a depiction of Douglass as a caricatured “runaway slave” in one of their songbooks, which prompted Douglass to take charge of his own representations through photography. See Nyong’o 146.

7. Nyong’o’s work presents a nuanced study of Douglass’s relationship to minstrelsy. See Nyong’o 123–34.

8. In the play, a Black enslaved man refuses to dance, negating the demand of a white man who is looking to purchase him. See Brown, The Escape.

9. This is also cited in Hartman, Scenes 46.