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Review: A Free State, by Tom Piazza
HarperCollins, 2015. 235 pp. $26

Blackface minstrel shows draw great crowds in 1850s Philadelphia. However, the competition among performing troupes is so fierce that today’s sensation may be ho-hum tomorrow, which forces a continuous, obsessive search for novelty. To keep up, James Douglass, performer-manager of the Virginia Minstrels (none of whom hail from that state), takes a bold step. He happens on a street musician who plays the best banjo he’s ever heard, and the accompanying dance is equally impressive. The virtuoso vanishes before Douglass can talk to him, but the manager tracks down Henry Sims and offers him the chance to perform with the Virginia Minstrels.

A publicity poster for Billy Van's blackface act, Strobridge Litho Co., 1900 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A publicity poster for Billy Van’s blackface act, Strobridge Litho Co., 1900 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

However, Henry is black, which complicates matters in three ways, only the first of which Douglass recognizes right off. By law, African-Americans are barred from playing before white audiences, so Douglass has to employ a subterfuge. Since Henry has light eyes and copper-colored skin, Douglass decides to pass him off as “Spanish,” and have him black his face like the rest of the troupe. But Douglass doesn’t realize that Henry is a runaway slave who risks his freedom by appearing in public and makes anyone shielding him liable for prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act. Finally, of course, Douglass is hiring a black man to mock his own race in words and music that condone slavery, a contradiction that gradually comes to trouble him.

Piazza takes this fascinating premise further by casting the music itself as a form of internal freedom for those who play it, white or black, a dreamlike barrier between themselves and the harsh, exterior world. Secondly, though he shows Henry’s servitude in all its harshness, you also see the happier moments, either in his fond memories of the family he left behind or his feelings about learning to play his instrument. (It’s worth noting, though, that he’s a former house slave, not a field hand.) In other words, Piazza argues that to portray blackface solely as a groundless misrepresentation of slave life misses an important point: that slaves who delight in music and dance do so not because they enjoy their fate, as their audience believes, but as a joyful release from it, the only expression they’re allowed. As Douglass, who senses this without connecting the dots, observes:

Even the sad songs–here was the mystery–were enlivening. We had heard jigs, we had heard ballads, we knew polkas and reels. But these Negro songs combined pathos and grandeur in the same taste; gaiety and tragedy wore not separate masks but the same mask. The arrangements compelled your feet to move, lifted you. Nothing like it had been heard in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, A Free State does too little with this material. The narrative rests mostly on the story–a slave-catcher has come to Philadelphia to find Henry and bring him back to the plantation, dead or alive. It’s a gripping situation, told with brisk economy, and despite an ending I can only describe as peculiar, the narrative held my interest completely, not least the passages about music, which the author plainly loves and understands. But I think his premise deserves more.

To begin with, the reader learns mere scraps about the characters, who seem credible, but that’s about it. For example, I can readily believe that Douglass, who grew up with an abusive father and ran away to join the circus, would find freedom and an escape in music. But he doesn’t draw me in any further (nor do I understand what Piazza means by evoking Frederick Douglass in his name). Henry’s an unusual former slave (witness a taste for Dickens and an ability to drive a hard bargain with a white employer), but he’s a puzzle too, visible mostly in the ways in which he confounds everyone who meets him. Curiously, the deepest character is Tull, the slave catcher, whose natural brutality and bigotry feel bred in the bone, yet he recounts less of the narrative than the other two.

I wish A Free State had lived up to its premise.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.