Teaching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Korea

Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Korea–September 10, 2014

I didn’t know that there had been a recent spate of blackface performance in the Korean media when I decided to begin my Fall 2014 Modern American Drama class with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The motivation was due more to my experiences speaking with undergraduates who showed a real concern about racial tensions between US and Asian cultures, especially since so many of my students have lived abroad in the US or Canada (usually either sent to school by conscientious parents, or because their parents held jobs overseas). Given the relative global awareness of these students, I couldn’t chart a syllabus that overlooked the history of American theatre that developed alongside the performance traditions of America’s largest minority, and the appropriation (and often degradation) of black culture by the majority. When I showed them a clip of Judy Garland’s performance as Topsy singing a jazzed-up version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the 1938 musical Everybody Sing, I was intentionally setting the context for the next “text” we would turn to–Porgy and Bess, which debuted in 1935. I wanted them to understand how deplorably normal the literal effacement of the black person by white performers was when Gershwin’s “folk opera” took white America by that storm that rages through Catfish Row. And when I also showed them a clip of the not-even-groan-worthy jokes and puns between Mr Interlocutor and his clowns in Yes Sir, Mr Bones (1941), I wanted them so see how the Jim Crow stereotype did not die with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the Civil Rights Act, but is deeply entrenched in American culture. With the recent deaths of Micheal Brown and Trayvon Martin echoing that of Emmet Till, the inevitable question arose: has anything changed? The irony that UTC was performed in blackface while apparently arguing for the abolition of slavery, and purportedly upholding the humanity–and Christianity!–of the black person, was not lost on my students. But when confronted with these images, they looked embarrassed. It was later that day that a student tipped me off on K-pop idol G-Dragon’s recent selfie kerfuffle, where he posted a photo of himself in a hoodie with a blackened face in a pose that recalls the iconic photo of Trayvon Martin. A little internet browsing yielded more stories about blackened Korean performers making their way into popular and prime time comedy shows like Gag Concert, and Saturday Night Live Korea, as one ex-pat blogger has documented. In reading through the opinion pieces in English, the outcry among young Koreans against such insensitivity seems to be two-fold: that this blatant racism has to stop because 1. it is wrong, and 2. it creates a negative impression of South Koreans. When I used these images of blackface performance in class without first addressing the recent issue of blackface performance in Korea, did I create the impression of accusation? That’s the worry I have right now. I won’t get to meet my students again for a week, since we’re on a national holiday, but when we return, we’ll need to work through this complex tangle of racial representation in a global context. More to come.