The Mask of Cool


Between 1938-1952, five African-American writers killed off the figure of Uncle Tom with can only be called literary executions, beginning with Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Chester Himes literally buried Uncle Tom with a full funeral in "Heaven Has Changed" (1943) and Ralph Ellison killed him off symbolically in the opening chapter of Invisible Man (1952). Duke Ellington's objective for his Los Angeles revue Jump for Joy (1941) was to "take Uncle Tom out of the theatre and eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway." Uncle-Tomming was a form of masking one's feelings and thoughts in front of whites and it was a key survival strategy in the Jim Crow era. These artistic executions signaled a symbolic repudiation of the racial order in the way that cultural change often precedes social and political shifts. In the generation before the civil rights movement, a new mask emerged from jazz culture to replaced Tomming: the mask of cool. In analyzing these stories, I show how emotional masking works in American society and how – and why – cool first emerged among African-American men.

An anecdote about Louis Armstrong will serve to open a window onto the matrix of  Uncle Tomming and the social changes wrought by civil rights. By 1957, even the editors of Jet magazine had called Armstrong an "Uncle Tom"; the magazine claimed he bore some responsibility for reassuring the world that "the Negro's lot in America is a happy one." That year, while on tour in South Dakota, there were riots to prevent the Little Rock 9 from integrating the public schools of Arkansas. For refusing to support the students, Armstrong called President Eisenhower "two faced" and claimed he had "no guts." Many whites were outraged at Armstrong's insubordination; many Blacks were surprised by his political consciousness. It was as if the Uncle-Tom mask had spoken outside of expectations. "It's getting so bad a colored man almost hasn't got any country," Armstrong told a reporter while on tour. "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell." Armstrong was masked so convincingly as an Uncle-Tom that when the AP editor read his reporter's interview, he insisted Armstrong sign the article to ensure its validity.

"Solid," Armstrong wrote across the bottom, "don't change a single word."

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