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I am writing in response to your recent article on Blelvis (“The Return of Blelvis,” 6/12), a local street entertainer who is the self-proclaimed Black Elvis.
Although I applaud the effort the author makes in attempting to tell Blelvis’ tragic story of cult stardom, hubris, and, ultimately, crack addiction, the account of Blelvis’ recent performance in Rockville struck me more as a painful remnant of the African-American minstrel tradition. Poor, black, homeless performers would travel from town to town, demeaning themselves for the benefit of largely white audiences and for much lower wages than “professional” white entertainers. Blelvis seems to operate in much the same way, for example, by providing a cheap laugh for a group of clubgoers in return for a dollar, or by agreeing to a story in your paper in exchange for a ride and $5 toward “moonshine.”
Though Blelvis is colorful, dynamic, and downright hilarious, laughter allows us to gloss over what he really is: a pathetic, tragic, painful reminder that we tend to still find racism funny. According to the article, following the Rockville performance, “Blelvis is in his own world now, and it seems like a nice place to be.” I suggest that this may be part of Blelvis’ act, and it is our laughter that allows us to conflate Blelvis’ performance with the human being underneath.
Much as your writer did, I too have laughed at Blelvis’ cable TV appearance and accepted his entertainment for spare change while on my way down U Street. I write neither to point fingers nor to suggest that we eliminate this vestige of our racist past (such, of course, would be impossible) by not doing stories on street entertainers like Blelvis. I only ask that City Paper and its readers pause to consider why it is that this form of entertainment continues to have a market in the street economy, and why it is that these modern-day minstrels are so good at making us laugh.
via the Internet