A Historical Perspective on Teaching Controversial Aspects
of African-American Music
Professor of Music and The Josephine Lincoln Morris Professor of Black
The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio
- Within the academy I wear two hats—one as a historical musicologist
and one as a professor of Africana/Black Studies. Both disciplines inform
my teaching of undergraduates. Last fall I introduced a potentially
controversial course into the curriculum of my small liberal arts institution,
entitled “Racism 101.” The course examined the historical
foundations of institutionalized racism in the United States, and several
of my colleagues shook their heads as if to say, “There goes the
neighborhood.” “Racism 101” was, however, immensely
successful, and discussions in the class spilled over into other classrooms.
- Having survived “Racism 101” relatively unscathed, largely
through reliance upon historical method, lessons learned from this experience
can be applied to teaching other controversial topics in American Studies.
For undergraduates increasingly attempt to plunge head on into discourses
and research of popular polemical topics without sufficient historical
perspective on them. In Africana/Black Studies students must often be
reminded that many of the issues that impact contemporary African Americans
have histories that extend beyond their limited view of the world; in
some instances these histories date back to the seventeenth, eighteenth,
and nineteenth centuries. Probe deeply the annals of U.S. history for
any of these eras, and one will encounter major problems and controversies
surrounding blacks that continue today—institutionalized racism,
struggles for quality education, inadequate health care, unemployment,
exploitation within the work force, racial violence, and pejorative
attitudes about blacks and their expressive culture.
- Teaching controversial aspects of American music therefore has broader
implications beyond focus upon such popular topics as gansta rap, Showboat,
and the appropriation of black culture by white entertainers, as manifested
in blackened-face minstrelsy or Eminem. Historically, other race-specific
traditions that grew out of black America (notably black hymnody, the
rites of the black church, the Negro spiritual, the blues, black gospel
music, and rock and roll) were also controversial topics in American
music when they first evolved.
- Much of the music created by African Americans in the United States
evolved out of a definite social and political context, and isolation
of the music from these moorings disconnects African-American expressive
culture from black cultural history. Thus, the integration of controversial
topics about African-American music in American music history courses
offers instructors unique opportunities to help students understand
black music as one dimension of black cultural history and to emphasize,
where possible, the historical continuity of contemporary musical phenomena
with the past. Similarly, such topics in American music create possibilities
for exploring imaginative ways to introduce historical documents into
the classroom to engage students and stimulate discussion. Accessibility
of historical documents about black Americana has been greatly facilitated
in recent years by online digitized sites. They have not only revolutionized
how I teach, but they have helped my students gain a deeper appreciation
of the many ways contemporary black musical expression is connected
to the past.
- I should like to focus briefly on two opportunities or challenges
for the instructor in teaching controversial aspects of African-American
music: 1) Stressing historical continuity in black American music, and
2) Incorporating new digitized historical collections in classroom teaching.
Stressing Historical Continuity in Black American Music
- About a century ago W.E.B. Du Bois noted in The Souls of Black
Folk that the social and cultural history of black America began
in Africa, not North America, and he observed that many of the cultural
traditions created by African Americans at the dawn of the twentieth
century actually had roots in slave plantation culture. Eileen Southern
and I later appropriated Du Bois’s thesis during the mid-1970s
and 1980s when we investigated American literature from the seventeenth
century through the early twentieth century for evidence of African-American
expressive culture in the oral and performing arts. Our research resulted
in the publication of two companion volumes, African-American Traditions
in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography
of Literature, Collections, and Art Work and Images: Iconography
of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s–1920s, which
are selected guides to a disparate corpus of literature on African-American
expressive folk culture from colonial times to the first two decades
of the twentieth century.
- Although many examples can be found in the literature that link contemporary
African-American music with the past, two will suffice to demonstrate
the possibilities. The first pertains to the music of the folk-oriented
black church, the oldest institution owned by the African-American community.
Within that tradition, the earliest repertory of sacred song is black
hymnody (called variously Baptist “lined-out hymns,” “lining
hymn,” or “Dr. Watts”), which can still be heard in
folk-oriented black churches across the United States today. This practice
dates from the colonial era when some slaves were converted to the Protestant
religion of their masters. Never fully assimilated into mainstream colonial
American life, these slaves created a folk style of religious expression
by superimposing African tribal rituals and traditions upon European-American
Protestantism (Du Bois, Negro Church 5). Several eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans commented about the distinctiveness
of the religious observances of early African Christians in America.
The influential clergyman John Leland, a standard bearer for early Baptists
in America, remarked in his Virginia Chronicle (1790) that
They [the slaves] are remarkable for learning a tune soon,
and have very melodious voices … When religion is lively they
are remarkably fond of meeting together, to sing, pray, and exhort,
and sometimes preach, and seem to be unwearied in the exercise. …
They commonly are more noisy in time of preaching, than the whites,
and are more subject to bodily exercise, and if they meet with encouragement
in these things, they often grow extravagant.” (qtd. in Green
John Fanning Watson, a Wesleyan Methodist, described the religious excesses
of blacks in Philadelphia in the early 1800s in a monograph, entitled
Methodist Error of Friendly Advice to Those Methodists Who Indulge
in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises. Watson
complained in his epistle that poorly educated black Methodists sang
unapproved, unintelligible songs of their own composition in divine
worship, and that they performed these songs in “the chorus manner
of southern harvest field, or husking frolic method, of the slave blacks”
(qtd. Southern, Readings 63), accompanied by actual dancing
in church. In his words, “What in the name of religion [could]
countenance or tolerate such gross perversion of true religion?”
- Irrespective of how insensitive one might view Watson’s comments
as being today, many of the rituals of the black church that he complained
about in the early nineteenth century survived through the centuries
and remain prominent features of black folk religion today. Moreover,
sentiments Watson expressed about their practices remained a thorny
source of contention between main-line religious leaders within the
African-American and European-American communities and the traditional
black church well into the mid-twentieth century.
- A second example of historical continuity in black expressive culture
in the US is found in the study of the slave masking and miming festivals
of the antebellum South and the cultural traditions that evolved from
them. Such festivals had their roots in the West African masking and
miming festivals that slaves continued in the United States. They later
served as resource material for several genres of American popular entertainment
in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including Ethiopian minstrelsy,
a crude blackened-faced parody on African-American folk life and culture,
ragtime, and (possibly) rap, one of America’s newest musical crazes.
- One of the earliest sources of
American provenance to discuss slave masking and miming festivals in
the antebellum South was Horace [Horatio] Smith’s Festivals,
Games, and Amusements, Ancient and Modern, which describes a week-long
carnival celebration of southern slaves held during the Christmas and
New Year’s Day holidays. Smith published his book around the same
time that white actors began introducing two stereotyped impersonations
of Negro characters in blackened face on the American stage—Jim
Crow,1 the dimwitted country bumpkin,
and Zip Coon, the slick city dandy.2
- Slave mimes and masqueraders, unlike their impersonators, performed
largely their own folk music, dances, and comic skits at their festivals.
On occasion such festivals served the slave community as vehicles whereby
slave entertainers could poke fun good-naturedly at each other, as well
as at their slave master, without giving offense. In 1832, for example,
James Hungerford, then a young law student, observed a slave miming
festival held at a plantation along the eastern shore of Maryland and
noted that slaves impersonated their master, who seemed as amused by
their “laughable imitations” of him as they were (198).
Later, in 1909 the African-American composer J[ohn] Rosamond Johnson
connected the banjo instrumental accompaniment used for such plantation-type
dances with the origin of ragtime music. Writing in the article “Why
They Call American Music Ragtime,” he wrote:
In analyzing this peculiar American syncopation we can easily
see why it has been called “ragtime.” The origin of “ragtime”
began with the old darkey patting his foot, and strumming on the banjo,
while the pickannies clapped their hands at the same time. …
If music is the art of expressing emotions, then the Negro has certainly
given to us his conditions expressed in song. And what is folklore
but the expressions of a peasant people in song. And this is proof
that there is a school of music in that peculiar rhythm of syncopation
originating from the patting of the foot, the clapping of the hand
and the strumming on the banjo by the old plantation darkey, which
has passed through the same stages of improvement by new emotions
of the new Negro of to-day [sic].
In 1997 Eileen Southern similarly commented on young
African-American musicians reviving and tweaking musical practices from
the past, connecting in one instance performance practices associated
with one slave plantation dance, the Juba dance, to “rap.”
According to Southern,
The origins of rap can be traced to any number of sources
… [T]here is a longstanding tradition in the black community
of using language creatively in everyday life. “Pattin’
Juba,” … [a slave dance] which dates from the early nineteenth
century, was often a two-person operation: the patter provided dance
music and a second person accompanied him, or her, reciting verses
that were made up on the spur of the moment. (Southern, Music
of Black Americans 602)3
Incorporating New Digital Historical Collections in Classroom
- The internet offers infinite possibilities today for bringing historical
documents into the classroom for instruction, with an eye toward helping
students trace the continuity of many present-day topics in black American
expressive culture with the past. While several excellent digitized
sites exist for historical documents on African-American history and
culture (see list below) six have been particularly useful to me and
my students. Foremost has been the Library of Congress’ American
Memory, which contains over 7,000 primary sources, including legal
documents pertaining to slavery, the entire WPA Slave Narrative Collection
(Southern and Wright, African-American Traditions 208–26),
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American pamphlets,
as well as rare books and serials from the nineteenth century. I have
found the University of North Carolina’s Documenting
the American South an equally useful web site for published slave
narratives, as well as other nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature
about southern culture and the black church in the South.
- The New York Public Library’s Digital
Schomburg, a relatively new site for me, provides
unique access to an indexed data bank of digitized photographs, prints,
and illustrations in its Images of African Americans from the nineteenth
century. These visual images shed light on a variety of topics, ranging
from slavery, the Civil War, religion, and expressive culture, to social
life and customs.4 In addition,
three digital collections of American sheet music bring a virtual library
of popular music from the nineteenth and early twentieth century to
the researcher’s reach with a click of the mouse—notably,
Brown University’s African-American
Sheet Music, 1850–1920, an indexed collection of 1500 copies
of sheet music; Duke University’s Historical
American Sheet Music Collection, which contains over 3,000 compositions
published between 1850 and 1920; and the Lester
S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University, another
large holding of American music published from 1780–1923.
- In summary, teaching controversial topics about African-American
music can be meaningfully enhanced when grounded in a historical perspective
that allows students to make meaningful connections between contemporary
musical phenomena and the past. In recent years advancements in information
technology have facilitated access to historical documents and iconographical
materials that offer unlimited possibilities for incorporating these
documents into the classroom and into the students’ own research.
Essay • Next
1. Created by the actor Thomas
(“Daddy”) Dartmouth Rice ca. 1828. See Alexander,128–31.
2. First published in Baltimore,
Maryland, in 1834 , the song “Zip Coon” (aka the fiddle tune
“Turkey in the Straw”) was popularized ca. 1835 by actor George
Washington Dixon. See Crawford, 200–02.
3. According to some nineteenth-century
documents, instrumental accompaniment on the banjo was also associated
with the Juba dance. See Maurice Thompson and the Hampton Folk-Lore Society.
4. The Schomburg’s Online
Exhibitions features in digital format excerpts from four of the library’s
mounted exhibits: “Louis
Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project”; “Lest
We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery”; “Harlem,
1900–1940: An African-American Community”; and “The
African Presence in the Americas, 1492–1992.”
Books and Articles
Alexander, J. Heywood, ed. To Stretch Our Ears: A Documentary History
of American Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New
York: W.W. Norton, 2001.
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg,
_____. The Negro Church. Atlanta University Publications, no.
8. Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta University Press, 1903.
Green, Miss L.F., ed. Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including
Some Events in His Life, Written by Himself, with Additional Sketches.
New York: G.W. Wood, 1845.
Hampton Folk-Lore Society. “American Folk-Lore Society [Annual Meeting].”
Southern Workman 24 (February 1895): 30–32. Rpt. in The
Black Perspective in Music: Special Bicentennial 4 (1976):
Hungerford, James. The Old Plantation and What I Gathered There in
an Autumn Month. New York: Harper, 1859. Rpt. in Wright American
Fiction, 1851–1875. Ed. Perry Willett. Jan. 2, 2005. Indiana
University Digital Library Program. Apr. 18, 2005 <http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/cgi/t/text/
Johnson, J. Rosamond. “Why They Call American Music Ragtime.”
Colored American Magazine 15 (January 1909): 637. Rpt. in The
Black Perspective in Music: Special Bicentennial 4 (1976):
Smith, Horace [Horatio]. Festivals, Games, and Amusements, Ancient
and Modern. New York: J.J. Harper, 1831.
Southern, Eileen. Readings in Black American Music. 2d ed. New
York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
_____. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1997.
Southern, Eileen, and Josephine Wright, comp. African-American Traditions
in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography
of Literature, Collections, and Art Work. Westport, CT:
_____. Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s–1920s.
New York: Garland, 2000.
Thompson, Maurice. “Plantation Music.” Critic 4 (January
12, 1884): 20.
Watson, John Fanning. Methodist Error of Friendly Advice to Those
Methodists Who Indulge in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises.
Trenton: D & E Felton, 1819.
African American History Digital Library. Academic Info.
African-American Sheet Music from Brown University Library.
The Library of Congress. <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award97/rpbhtml/
American Memory. The Library of Congress. <http://memory.loc.gov>.
Black Media Online. University of North Carolina. <http://www.unc.edu/~haman/media.htm>.
Black Presence: Asian and Black History in Britain, 1500–1850.
National Archives, United Kingdom.
Digital Schomburg. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
New York Public Library. <http://www.nypl.org/research/sc/digital.html>.
Documenting the American South. UNC University Library.
Historical American Sheet Music, 1850–1920. Duke University.
Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music. Johns Hopkins University.
Library of American Civilization Titles Available Online. Quinnipiac
On-Line Library of African-Americans in the United States. The
WWW-VL History Virtual Library. European University Institute, Florence.
Online Exhibitions. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
New York Public Library. <http://www.nypl.org/
Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection, 1773–1934.