Racial Uplift

In our class discussion on racial uplift during the Harlem renaissance, we talked about W.E.B Du Bois’ idea to uplift the African American race through highlighting the smartest and most educated Black people, who he called “talented tenth.” His idea relied on talented Black people to climb the social ladder and prove to white society that the race is just as capable of brilliance as white people. This applies to our class because the music of Du Bois’ time often reflected his ideas; European influences were a staple of music of the Harlem renaissance. Here is an example of French influence in Florence Price’s “Night,” sung here by countertenor Darryl Taylor.

However, some of Du Bois’ contemporaries had different ideas for racial uplift. Even before Du Bois published his 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” Booker T. Washington had created a plan that emphasized racial solidarity and education through crafts and skills as well as academics. His plan was to highlight the necessity of regular African Americans in regular American society, rather than to highlight the talents of a few brilliant African Americans. (PBS)

When searching through African American periodicals, it is clear that scholars of the time had lots of different opinions when it comes to racial uplift. Here are a few examples (State Journal (1883), Freeman (1911), (Savannah Tribune 1913).


It is common for majority groups such as white Americans to see minority groups as a monolith, but the varying opinions of African Americans of Du Bois’ time remind us that like all groups of people, Black Americans did and continue to have a wide variety of ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds.

A Christian Hymn in an Endangered Language

This week, I came three Christian hymns translated into some indigenous languages of the Northwest coast. One of these, a Chinookan language, is spoken by the Chinook people whose native lands are in what is now called Washington and Oregon (Britannica). The Chinook people have their own spiritual practices that emphasize the powers of nature, but many of them were forced or coerced into Christianity by white missionaries (The American History). This forced Christianization often took place at residential schools where children were forced to abandon their Native culture and assimilate to European cultural norms. Besides the trauma of being separated from their culture, these children were often subject to other kinds of horrific abuse (Hanson).

The hymn pictured below was translated into Chinook in 1892 by Charles Montgomery Tate, a Methodist minister who ran such a school (The Children Remembered). The hymn is a verse and chorus of “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” (Tate).
I think it is puzzling to find hymns that have been translated into the languages of indigenous peoples, because the ultimate goal of ministers like Charles Montgomery Tate was to assimilate Native Americans into white Christian culture, robbing them of their traditions and even their languages; the Chinookan languages are in danger of extinction, with all of the native speakers of the languages deceased, and very few speakers left at all (Vachter). But in addition to his conversion efforts, Tate also did a lot of work in translating indigenous languages, for example, the Chinookan to English dictionary pictured below (Tate).

What is sad is that some of the only written evidence of how Chinookan languages might have sounded in the past was written by the very people who sought to rob Chinook people of their language and culture. Unfortunately, it is often the case that those in power are the ones who write history; as we have discussed in class, much of the written evidence of how early African American music sounded was written by white slaveholders. As musicologists and historians, it is important to recognize that the primary sources that are left over often leave out the voices most suited to speak to musical and linguistic traditions: the practitioners of those traditions themselves.

Can a Font be Racist?

Content Warning: Anti-Asian Racism

“Oyster pail takeout box.” Image is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oyster_pail_takeout_box_(2558467231).jpg

If you take a look at this photo of a takeout box, you probably don’t have to even think to know what kind of restaurant it came from; the font is clearly “Chinese.”

However, the reality is that there is nothing truly Chinese about this font at all. “Chop Suey Font” is so named because like the American food “Chop Suey,” the font has come to be associated with Chinese culture despite being an entirely American creation (Quito). The first version of this stereotyped font was patented in the United States in 1883 (United States Trademark Office) and has been frequently used in anti-Asian propaganda for the United States government (Quito).

Anti-Japanese propaganda printed by the United States government in 1943. Image is in the Public Domain in the United States. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntiJapanesePropagandaTakeDayOff.png

Chop Suey Font is also everywhere in early 20th century American music, where sentimentalization and satirization of people of color was a common feature of music enjoyed by white audiences. Here are four examples that I found in the Sheet Music Consortium database (My Chinese Butterfly, My Oriental Girl, Chinese Blues, Oh that Oriental Rag).

While “Oh That Oriental Rag” is not written specifically in Chop Suey font, the lettering resembling bamboo is also an example of an ethnic font, or a font associated with an ethnic identity.

The lyrics and music songs of these songs reflect American attitudes of Orientalism, which defined “Eastern” culture as different and inferior to “Western” culture. Specifically, the East was seen as untamed, seductive, and emotional, while the West was civilized, rational and logical (Grove Music Online). The songs include sensual melodies full of accidentals, sexualized Asian women as love interests, and open fifths, which are frequently used in stereotyped representations of Eastern music, perhaps because of their bare and “primitive” sound.

With Chop Suey font so often being used in disparaging contexts, it is worth wondering if the font should be used at all, especially by white people. However, the font is also frequently used by Asian American business owners, which reminds me of our discussion of how early 20th century Americans of marginalized ethnicities often satirized their own identity in order to sell music to white audiences. Like many facets of American culture, Chop Suey Font is a remnant of America’s past that reminds us to consider the less obvious ways in which our country’s history of racism continues to pervade our society.

“Our Country’s Shame”

This week I found an 1874 article from the Weekly Louisianian, a black-owned newspaper that ran from 1837-1921. The article, titled “Our Country’s Shame,” condemned the United States for the prejudice with which they treated the touring musicians of color. The first musician they described was a virtuosic Mexican musician who was pronounced “a wonder as a violinist.” According to the article, the violinist was treated so badly in the United States that he went home early without even completing his tour. The article emphasized the violinist’s high class and noted that in Europe he was “respected by the nobility, from whom he received many admirable presents.”

The second musical group they discussed was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a prestigious African-American choral group from Fisk University in Tennessee. The article laments how the choir will be treated once they return to the United States form their English Tour (“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME”).

I was unfortunately not surprised by the level of racism that these musicians had received in the United States, but I was curious as to why it was so much better in Europe. In my search, I found an article by Allison Blakely titled “The Black Presence in Pre-20th Century Europe: a History,” which explains that while racism in Europe existed, discrimination based on class was much more common, as a person’s class was more important than their race (Blakely).

In addition, a Charles Seeger article titled “Music and Class Structure in the United States” explained how 18th century United States underwent a campaign to “make America musical.” In the 1800s, the upper class began to differentiate the religious and folk music enjoyed by the lower class from the concert music of the upper classes. This concert music often satirized and sentimentalized the lowest classes, especially African Americans. According to Seeger, this served as a way for whites to “think they were socially above [African Americans], even though both were poor, downtrodden, and unschooled. It offered ready compensation to the musical and cultural superiority-inferiority complexes of the cities” (Seeger) People of color to performing  in the prestige of the concert hall would challenge these superiority-inferiority complexes, threatening the white-supremacist attitudes of the 19th-century United States.

Blakely, Allison. “THE BLACK PRESENCE IN PRE-20TH CENTURY EUROPE: A HIDDEN HISTORY.” BLACKPAST, 9 February 2008. Accessed 10 October 2021.

“OUR COUNTRY’S SHAME.” Weekly Louisianian, 30 May,1874, New Orleans. African American Newspapers.

Seeger, Charles. “Music and Class Structure in the United States.” American Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1957, The Johns Hopkins University Press. JSTOR.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, Third Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971, New York.

The Birth and Popularization of the Banjo

From bluegrass to jazz to ragtime and more, the banjo is everywhere in American music. Historians agree that early versions of the American banjo were brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans who were taken from West Africa (Bluestein). These instruments included a drum-like body made from a gourd with animal skin stretched over the top and a fretless wooden neck (Allen).

The use of the banjo by enslaved Africans on American plantations is well documented in the writings of white slaveholders (Bluestein). The earliest known American painting of a banjo, called, The Old Plantation was created by white slaveholder John Rose between 1785 and 1795, and depicts a group of enslaved Africans musicking on Rose’s plantation in South Carolina (Encyclopedia Virginia).

But how did the banjo make it into the mainstream? The answer, I found, is through minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a racist form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform caricatures of African Americans (National Museum of African American History & Culture).  After learning the banjo from enslaved Africans, white minstrel performers began to incorporate the instrument into their shows. Below are two examples of minstrel posters from the Library of Congress Minstrel Poster Collection that depict a caricature of a Black man playing the banjo (Links here and here), and a recording of a minstrel song can be found at the Library of Congress National Jukebox (TW: Racism and Racial Slurs).

Of course, not all white people who learned the banjo from black musicians used it for performance in minstrel shows. In her Keynote Address to the International Bluegrass Music Association, banjo player Rhiannon Giddens described the formation of Bluegrass music happening gradually as lower-class people, both black and white, shared musical ideas with one another (Povelones). However, it was the wild popularity of minstrelsy that first propelled the banjo into the mainstream in the early 1800s.

Ownership of Black Music

After reading Chapter XXII of George Pullen Jackson’s 1943 book White and Negro Spirituals, I was surprised to find just how much mental gymnastics the scholar was willing to do to support his claim that African Spirituals were primarily authored by white people.

In one attempt at scholarship, Jackson uses a table he made of the number of songs sung by white and Black people regionally as “evidence” that the songs in the list traveled from North to South, from white communities to Black communities.

There are a lot of questions to be asked of Jackson, like How do you know the songs didn’t spread from South to North and How do you know this dataset is at all accurate since songs are being created all the time? However, I don’t think those questions are particularly interesting, as it is clear to me that Jackson was more interested in proving his biases than in thorough scholarship.

What I was interested in was the history of crediting white people for Black music, and how that legacy affects us today. What I found was an 1861 article in New York Monthly Magazine entitled “NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” In it, author William H. Holcombe attempts at an ethnographic account of African American music, which is far from scientific and full of assumptions that justify the dominant worldview of white slaveholders. The part of the article that stood out most to me came after the author had spent a few lines speaking to the music’s beauty (although of course, reminding the audience that this music is not nearly as difficult or as evolved as “the grand operative style.”) After describing the beauty, the author adds “But really this negro music is none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs with burlesque words, extravagantly shrieked out by peripatetic white gentlemen with mammoth shirt-collars, and faces blackened with burnt cork” (Holcombe).

The practice that Holcombe is describing is minstrelsy, an extremely popular form of American musical entertainment developed in the 1830s where white performers would darken their faces and perform racist caricatures of enslaved Africans (National Museum of African American History & Culture). There is an irony in Holcombe’s statement that the music of real enslaved people is “none of your concert-room Ethiopian melody-operatic airs,” because he is saying that the caricaturized version of Black music that white slaveholders stole for their entertainment is somehow better or more impressive than the real thing.

Towards the end of the section, Holcombe shows some examples of poetry written by enslaved people. Of this poem he writes, “This last I suspect to be the production of some white school-boy, or at least of some very aristocratic specimen of the negro troubadour” (Holcombe).  Even in his examples of Black poetry, the author refuses to give credit to the Black artists who created this poem. The failure to credit Black people for their art is something we discussed a lot in Intro to Musicology. For example, we discussed how Elvis Presley became popular largely by performing songs by Black singer/songwriters without giving proper credit. This may not have the same blatantly racist intention as American minstrelsy, but there is still a disturbing element of the desire to own Black art, the way the white slaveholders asserted their ownership by caricaturizing music they had stolen from Black people.

Works Cited

Holcombe, William H. “SKETCHES OF PLANTATION-LIFE: NEGRO MUSIC AND POETRY.” The Knickerbocker aka New York Monthly Magazine, vol. 56, no. 6, June 1861, ProQuest.

Jackson, George Pullen. “CHAPTER XXII: WHEN, WHERE, HOW, WHY DID THE WHITE MAN’S SONGS GO OVER TO THE NEGRO?” White and Negro Spirituals: Their Life Span and Kinship, J. J. Augustin Publisher, January 1943.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype.” Accessed 2nd October 2021. https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/blackface-birth-american-stereotype.