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Beyond Blackface

Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930

EDITED BY W. Fitzhugh Brundage
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    Beyond Blackface
    Book Description:

    This collection of thirteen essays, edited by historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, brings together original work from sixteen scholars in various disciplines, ranging from theater and literature to history and music, to address the complex roles of black performers, entrepreneurs, and consumers in American mass culture during the early twentieth century.Moving beyond the familiar territory of blackface and minstrelsy, these essays present a fresh look at the history of African Americans and mass culture. With subjects ranging from representations of race in sheet music illustrations to African American interest in Haitian culture,Beyond Blackfacerecovers the history of forgotten or obscure cultural figures and shows how these historical actors played a role in the creation of American mass culture. The essays explore the predicament that blacks faced at a time when white supremacy crested and innovations in consumption, technology, and leisure made mass culture possible. Underscoring the importance and complexity of race in the emergence of mass culture,Beyond Blackfacedepicts popular culture as a crucial arena in which African Americans struggled to secure a foothold as masters of their own representation and architects of the nation's emerging consumer society.The contributors are:Davarian L. Baldwin, Trinity CollegeW. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel HillClare Corbould, University of SydneySusan Curtis, Purdue UniversityStephanie Dunson, Williams CollegeLewis A. Erenberg, Loyola University ChicagoStephen Garton, University of SydneyJohn M. Giggie, University of AlabamaGrace Elizabeth Hale, University of VirginiaRobert Jackson, University of TulsaDavid Krasner, Emerson CollegeThomas Riis, University of Colorado at BoulderStephen Robertson, University of SydneyJohn Stauffer, Harvard UniversityGraham White, University of SydneyShane White, University of Sydney

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0296-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Working in the “Kingdom of Culture” African Americans and American Popular Culture, 1890–1930
    (pp. 1-42)

    Ethel Williams’s and Johnny Peters’s exuberant vaudeville interpretation of the Texas Tommy dance, Louis Chauvin’s virtuoso performances of piano rags, Bert Williams’s winsome pantomime in the Ziegfeld Follies, Oscar Micheaux’s brash experiments in cinema, and Hubert Julian’s daredevil stunts in and over Jazz Age Harlem. These are a few milestones of African American artistry and cultural innovation at the dawn of the twentieth century. Virtually every facet of popular culture in the United States displayed black influences. Black faces—Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and other icons—graced the most popular mass-produced products that filled American pantries. African Americans had always...

  5. first coda Representations of Blackness in Nineteenth-Century Culture

    • [first coda Introduction]
      (pp. 43-44)

      The boisterous popular culture of the nineteenth century and the technological innovations of the age generated antecedents for the mass culture of the twentieth century. Among the most enduring and potent legacies of the nineteenth century were a storehouse of visual representations of blackness. These two essays provide contrasting images of blackness that coexisted during the century. John Stauffer explores black abolitionists’ faith in and use of images, especially photography, to transform themselves from object to subject. He emphasizes the correlation between the ascendant technology of photography and the transformation in black self-representation. Frederick Douglass especially grasped the emancipatory potential...

    • Black Misrepresentation in Nineteenth-Century Sheet Music Illustration
      (pp. 45-65)

      To appreciate the challenges and expectations that African American entertainers had to contend with in the early era of twentieth-century mass culture, we must initially turn our attention back to the antebellum decades that saw the rise of the blackface minstrel tradition—when white men in black face paint entertained northern audiences with songs and skits meant to represent black culture. In truth, no music played a more central role in nineteenth-century American culture than the melodies generated by blackface minstrelsy, from the 1820s, when individual blackface performers popularized routines that were meant to reproduce black dance and music for...

    • Creating an Image in Black The Power of Abolition Pictures
      (pp. 66-94)

      “One picture is worth ten thousand words,” the adman Frederick R. Barnard said inPrinter’s Ink Magazinein 1927. His quip has of course become an adman’s proverb. Indeed, Barnard may have only given authorship to a saying that had already been around for decades. Admen were not the first group to champion the use of pictures as a means to sell their wares. Abolitionists had done much the same thing. They, like advertisers, relied on images to sell ideas of the good society. But thesourceof their desire was much different: they sought to end slavery and racism...

  6. second coda The Marketplace for Black Performance

    • [second coda Introduction]
      (pp. 95-98)

      David Krasner charts the important role that black performers played in the advent of “realism” in American popular culture. That dance provided the opening for black performers to contribute to cultural innovation was a testament to the newfound popularity of social dance in the United States. Before the late nineteenth century, social dancing was circumscribed to specific settings. It was reserved chiefly for private functions, such as formal balls, or for disreputable dance halls where prostitution and gambling took place. But starting with the cakewalk, a lengthening list of new dances attracted ever-increasing numbers of Americans onto the dance floor....

    • The Real Thing
      (pp. 99-123)

      “We finally decided that as white men with blackfaces were billing themselves ‘coons,’” wrote the performer George Walker of the Williams and Walker Theatrical Company in 1906, “Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves the ‘Two Real Coons,’ and so we did.”¹ Walker and his partner, Bert Williams, did indeed “do well,” becoming the dominant black theatrical company from 1899 to 1909. Their productions ofIn Dahomey, (1902–5),Abyssinia(1905–7), andBandanna Land(1907–9) were among the most bankable musical vaudeville shows on Broadway.² At the peak of their career, George Walker reported the company’s...

    • Black Creativity and Black Stereotype Rethinking Twentieth-Century Popular Music in America
      (pp. 124-146)

      In 1900, theEtude, a magazine devoted to articles about music and musical performance, lambasted “the insane craze for ‘rag-time’ music” that was then sweeping the country. It editorialized:

      The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which, in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicion of their sanity. The pools of slush through which the composers of some of these songs have dragged their questionable rimes are rank enough to stifle the nostrils of decency,...

    • Crossing Boundaries Black Musicians Who Defied Musical Genres
      (pp. 147-158)

      The historian and realist philosopher Herbert Muller, in search of meaningful patterns in golden ages of past societies, once declared, “All human reality is in some sense a spiritual reality, since it perforce includes things which are not seen.”¹ The reality of African American popular entertainment over the last two hundred years reflects a powerful spiritual need, a very basic human need, I would say—to be seen and heard—but this history is only barely visible and audible not at all in the mainstream historical record. Even the tip of the proverbial iceberg of African American entertainment has been...

    • Our Newcomers to the City The Great Migration and the Making of Modern Mass Culture
      (pp. 159-189)

      By 1910 theChicago Defenderhad already begun to sound the alarm about “a racial amusement problem.” As proof of “boisterousness and defiance of public sentiment,” theDefenderdescribed in great detail what it called an act of “Loud Talking in the Pekin.” The Pekin, a nationally famous race theater, had begun to create “mixed bills”; integrating live acts with the emergent and relatively more affordable mass-cultural amusement of “moving pictures.” Such mixed bills brought with them a more diversified audience and hence a more diversified approach to appropriate decorum in the theater. In this context, theDefenderarticle protested,...

    • Buying and Selling with God African American Religion, Race Records, and the Emerging Culture of Mass Consumption in the South
      (pp. 190-212)

      In 1928, Rev. J. M. Gates of Atlanta caught his friends, family, and especially his record company, Vocalion, by surprise. One of his first-ever recordings, a seventy-eight with the arresting title, “Death’s Black Train Is Coming,” began to fly off the shelves. Thousands of African Americans, mostly southern, were plunking down a dime or more to buy a copy of this story of moral decline described as a train ride to hell. They purchased, however, not a typical blues tune or a rendition of a slave spiritual but a sermon that this forty-four-year-old minister sang and chanted with background vocals...

  7. third coda The Meanings and Uses of Popular Culture

    • [third coda Introduction]
      (pp. 213-214)

      Robert Jackson traces the challenges that Oscar Micheaux and other black filmmakers faced during the transitional period in the development of the most influential form of mass culture during the twentieth century. As the focus of filmmaking shifted from one-reel silent spectacles to the multireel epics of the 1920s, Micheaux and his counterparts provided black audiences with films made from an unmistakably black perspective. Whether intentionally or not, Micheaux’s films stood in stark contrast to those of white directors, especially D. W. Griffith. In his landmark filmBirth of a Nation, Griffith had wed spectacle and melodrama to compel viewers...

    • The Secret Life of Oscar Micheaux Race Films, Contested Histories, and Modern American Culture
      (pp. 215-238)

      The year 1884 is hardly remembered as an important one in the history of cinema. Indeed, Edison’s kinetoscope, widely considered the starting point for commercial motion pictures, was still a decade off.¹ For historians of American culture, 1884 recalls less the dancing of celluloid images onscreen than the gliding of a makeshift raft down the Mississippi River.Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s masterpiece of that year, chronicled the journey of its title character and the escaped slave Jim away from their hamlet in northern Missouri into the heart of the South, where their interracial bond—and indeed, the very...

    • Hear Me Talking to You The Blues and the Romance of Rebellion
      (pp. 239-258)

      For the black southerners who made and listened to the music and took it with them as they migrated north, the blues conjured the possibility of change. The earliest blues musicians and fans had lived through the late nineteenth-century era of racial terrorism and the hardening of segregation into a new culture of oppression. Black freedom, southern whites insisted, would not mean much: the chance to work endlessly for little reward, the opportunity to “play” the “good nigger” of the white southern imagination and the minstrel stage, and the occasion to leave. On plantations, in railroad and timber camps, and...

    • At the Feet of Dessalines Performing Haiti’s Revolution during the New Negro Renaissance
      (pp. 259-288)

      Black Americans during the interwar years expended a remarkable amount of energy describing the history, culture, and current conditions of people in the nearby republic of Haiti. Their efforts went beyond nonfiction, with a diverse bunch of cultural producers turning their hands to the task, including librettists, composers, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, and writers of short stories, poetry, novels, and plays. Such products were part of a cultural-political movement, known as the New Negro Renaissance, characterized by an intense scrutiny of all issues relating to black identity. Culture produced during the era challenged mainstream and dominant accounts of history, which...

  8. fourth coda Spectacle, Celebrity, and the Black Body

    • [fourth coda Introduction]
      (pp. 289-290)

      An early twentieth-century black celebrity such as Herbert Julian, the flamboyant pilot, parachutist, and bon vivant, was inconceivable only a few decades earlier. Leaving aside the technological innovations that made his exploits possible, Julian’s fame was inseparable from the glitz and glamour of the modern milieu of Harlem and the other meccas that drew black migrants in the early twentieth century. Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White acknowledge that there were black celebrities before Julian, but they had typically been race leaders or blacks noted for exceptional accomplishments. Julian’s signal accomplishment seems to have been the panache...

    • The Black Eagle of Harlem
      (pp. 291-314)

      It was all so much more innocent back then. In the spring of 1923 Americans were still enraptured with the sheer romance of flight, the authorities had not yet taken control of the airspace over cities, and, seemingly, pilots were pretty much free to do as they pleased. Thus it was that late in the afternoon, on Sunday, April 30, three planes took off from Curtis Field on Long Island, maneuvered into formation, and headed for Manhattan. Clarence Chamberlin, a pioneer aviator and later transatlantic flier, piloted the lead plane and, bundled in the passenger seat with his newly purchased...

    • More than a Prizefight Joe Louis, Max Schmeling, and the Transnational Politics of Boxing
      (pp. 315-356)

      On the evening of June 22, 1938, ex-champion and German national Max Schmeling clashed with sensational American titleholder Joe Louis for the heavyweight crown. This much-anticipated bout between Louis, only the second black heavyweight champion, and Schmeling, Germany’s most successful boxer and the only man to beat Louis, created extraordinary excitement across the world. This was no ordinary prizefight. “The state of the . . . nation or the world can invest a sporting event with dramatic intensity such as is reached in few theatres,” historian C. L. R. James noted. “When the democrat Joe Louis fought the Nazi Schmeling...

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 357-360)
  10. Index
    (pp. 361-374)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 375-375)