Trigger warning: This blog post contains racist language.
Throughout history, the music of black Americans has been commodified and enjoyed as ‘other’. When slavery still existed throughout the United States, enslaved people were often made to make music for enslavers and enslaved people that could play an instrument or sing would be ‘worth more’ at an auction. Even after the abolition of slavery, the music of black Americans continued to be seen as a product for the enjoyment of others.1 A black musician could be talented and their music upheld as great, but their work would still be seen as ‘different’ or ‘weird’ as it was often called, and the performer themselves would still be treated poorly by the very folks who came to watch the performance.
For the purpose of this blog post, I decided to focus on an article from the Cleveland Gazette, published in January of 1910 entitled, “Will not Sing ‘Coon Songs’. This article is about students at the all-black college, Howard University, standing up to the president of the University, Dr. Thirkield, and refusing to sing what he called “old time plantation “coon songs” and religious rags”2
According to the journalist, the president justified his actions by saying “It was well for Negro students to keep alive the traditions of their ancestors and emulate the spirit of contentment and happiness expressed in the folklore and plaintation melodies of before the war”.2
There is a lot to unpack in this single quote. Besides the blatant racism, the president treats the antebellum period with nostalgia, disregarding intergenerational trauma. These students very well could have had enslaved relatives and even parents, given that slavery was only abolished between 23-30 years before they were born. To suggest that enslaved people were happy on the plantation and these students should look back on that period with fondness is insulting. Additionally, this comment furthers the romanticism of the antebellum period that still occurs today.
Later, we find out the President of the university wanted them to sing these songs to entertain important visitors.
“On the occasion of a vist recently by a government officer the president’s effort to start an old time “coon” song failed because nearly all the students would not sing”2
The students in this case refused to be a commodity or curiosity for visitors, much to the outrage of Thirkield. Thirkield, like people throughout America’s sordid past, wanted to present the perceived ‘otherness’ and trauma of his students as entertainment.
To conclude the article, the writer takes the side of the students and states “Howard’s students are right and should stand firm”.2
1Southern, Eileen. “Entertainment for the Masters.” Essay. In The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: Norton, 1997.
2“Will Not Sing ‘Coon’ Songs. Students of Howard University Very Properly Revolt Against the President’s.” Cleveland Gazette (Cleveland, Ohio), January 1, 1910: 1. Readex: African American Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&docref=image/v2%3A12B716FE88B82998%40EANAAA-12BBBFA4AF54CA70%402418673-12BA05617A2901F0%400-12D76A0895013A50.