Louis Chude-Sokei, Guest Columnist
It's hardly a surprise that the recent Volkswagen ad featuring a white office worker speaking in Jamaican would raise the alarm of racism in the United States. In America, any form of cross-racial or cross-cultural impersonation is greeted with suspicion, despite such performances being in the DNA of its popular culture, from foundation rock star Elvis to rapper Eminem.
What might surprise Americans is that Jamaicans - the assumed butt of the joke - not only take the ad in stride, but also see in it a wry cultural affirmation. After all, the Jamaican Government endorsed it and numerous Jamaican stars, as well as real folk, have voiced support for it.
As if in anticipation of the furore, VW made clear how hard it worked to be respectful to the culture and the language (how could they not, given their awareness of the racial sensitivities of their primary market?) Its filming featured Jamaican voice coaches alongside the song and presence of the beloved Jimmy Cliff himself.
So why all the fuss? Why are Americans so much angrier about the ad than Jamaicans? Do they know something Jamaicans don't, or are Jamaicans really so happy - as the ad suggests - that they can't recognise racism or are immune to offence?
The answer to these questions can be found in that now-reviled form of public entertainment called minstrelsy. It was the African-American pundit Charles Blow from The New York Times who described the ad as "blackface with voices".
In so naming it, he put a familiar mask on the discomfort many Americans have with the commercial. And as with so many things pertaining to racial discomfort, one really has to go back to slavery. Not just to understand the history of minstrelsy but also why that mask could resonate with such terror on one side of the Atlantic, yet with such lightness on the other.
The very difference between a Caribbean view and an African-American view of minstrelsy was actually staged in the interaction where the ad was labelled racist. If you recall, the panel included Jamaica-born Christopher John Farley of The Wall Street Journal. He wasn't offended, perhaps because he'd seen white Jamaicans before or any number of diehard reggae fans, but his opinion was silenced by the word 'blackface'.
Why does that word have so much power? Blackface minstrelsy is now often seen as a relic of a time we'd rather forget, but was actually the most popular form of public entertainment in the 19th and early 20th century. It was born out of American plantation culture, where whites would mock black languages, styles and movement, all in an attempt to make clear that blacks were simply unworthy of freedom. Whites blackened their faces with burnt cork, emphasised the ignorance and the laziness of blacks, and exaggerated their physical behaviour.
One of the most popular dances of blackface minstrelsy was called 'Jump Jim Crow', so popular, it became the name of the most repressive system of racial segregation north of Apartheid. And minstrelsy infected everything: films, music, advertising, and theatre. It was inescapable. Given this history, Blow's indignation makes sense.
But this process of imitation and mockery was never one-sided. Blacks also had performances in which they mocked whites, sometimes so well that whites would misread that mockery and begin to perform it themselves. The most notable example of this is the dance 'the cakewalk', a global craze in the 19th century.
Also, that something so rooted in the pathologies of American racial thinking would become, again, the DNA of American popular culture, had to be linked to something more than insult and hatred.
Scholars have pointed out that blackface also represented a twisted form of affection. There was an envy of the supposed naturalness of blacks and a respect for the fact that they were the only social group in 19th-century America that seemed hell-bent on producing indigenous popular culture, even in the harshest of circumstances.
Whites may have mocked the vernacular of blacks, but they spoke it, acknowledging it, in fact, as a language. They may have believed in the inferiority of blacks, but they began to acknowledge the power of their music and dance, so much so that they had to appropriate it.
Jamaicans may not be as familiar with the form, but it was globalised immediately after becoming a national craze in the 1830s. Minstrel groups toured the world, many going to the Caribbean. Calypso scholars point out minstrelsy's impact on the emerging carnival culture in Trinidad, for example, where the cycle of imitation and of imitating an imitation would be familiar.
First black pop star
The most important blackface performer ever who integrated Broadway was, in fact, an immigrant from the Caribbean: Bert Williams. He was the first black man to make more money than the American president. He was the first black international pop star and was celebrated by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois and other black leaders.
Traces of blackface still exist in Jamaican popular culture. Take the comic actress Delcita Wright, whose often-blacked-up visage - like that of her Nigerian counterpart Baba Suwe - pays homage to the globalisation of minstrelsy. Its globalisation meant that different meanings would accrue to it, different histories and, therefore, different responses.
So when Blow alludes to "blackface with voices", he is only thinking of the first part of this history - the racist part. Most people in America usually do and find it hard to imagine that race and its meanings vary from country to country, just as cross-racial impersonation varies from context to context.
This view of cross-cultural imitation, though, is as narrow as it is ethnocentric. It merely uses a history of trauma to silence a more complex present. In the rush to take racial offence at the ad, Americans are ignoring what Jamaicans have responded so strongly to. It is a cultural affirmation of a language that has achieved global significance, even though still often derided in its own land.
What Americans should realise is that Jamaicans, instead of being the butt of the joke, are, in fact, in on it.
Dr Louis Chude-Sokei is the author of The Last 'Darky': Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. He is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Washington, Seattle.