Who gets to be American?

People of color are often treated as as outsiders and struggle to be viewed as fully American, rather than a hyphenated version of it. Much of this is rooted in the fact that it was not until relatively recently that people of color in the United States were even considered citizens. Now, even those who are American citizens constantly have to prove that they are “American” enough. A key characteristic of a “normal” American that is implied but never explicitly stated is that one must be white. Without whiteness, loyalty to the United States as well as true “Americanness” is always questioned.

The assumption that one must be white to be American is visible in the history of black spirituals. In Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music by Henry Edward Krehbiel, the exclusion of black spirituals within the label of “American folk music” is highlighted. Krehibel explains how many writers acknowledge the “interesting character of the songs, but refuse them the right to be called American” (Krehibel, 1962). This denial of “American” status is continually brought up throughout Krehibel’s writing. After all, “they were created in America with American influences and by people who are Americans in the same sense that any other element in our population is American” (Krehibel, 1962). Well, all except one thing: they weren’t white.

“Travelling Scraps” from the Freedom’s Journal in 1828

 

Creating boundaries to determine who is and is not really American is evident in this article from a newspaper from the Freedom’s Journal written in 1828. This was written by a black man educated in the North about his travel experience to Maryland, a state where slavery was still widely present at the time. When describing his experience in Baltimore he states that a black man from the north can never feel at home because:

 

 

“when we come to talk of liberty – of the rights of citizenship – of his evidence in a court of justice against his fairer brethren, we cannot but perceive that there is little justice doled out to [a man of colour]”

It does not matter that this man is from the north and educated. He still will not be treated as having the same rights of citizenship as a white man. This history around citizenship and rights of black people contributes to the modern conception of who is “American”. The deeply embedded racism in slavery and later in determining citizenship status caused black people to struggle to gain American citizenship. This contributes to the reason why the default race of an American is white. This notion, however, is not only attributed to citizenship status, as even currently, people of color who are American citizens since birth still have to prove that they belong. Maintaining whiteness as the norm prevents people of color from being included in the status of “American” just as black spirituals were excluded from being considered American folk music. This exclusion helps to maintain the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States by pinning them as outsiders and not truly American.

 

Sources:

Fort Dearborn Publishing Co. Map of the United States of America. 1901. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/3f4636795.

Henry Edward Krehbiel. Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.

“Travelling Scraps.” Freedom’s Journal (New York, NY), August 15, 1828.

Irving Berlin

As the composer of such quintessentially American songs such as “God Bless America” “White Christmas” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, Irving Berlin’s music can be quickly defined as American music. In spite of his exceptional ability to capture the spirit of America, he was born in Belarus formerly the Soviet Union (although his family emigrated to the United States when he was five).

Irving Berlin composed ballads, dance numbers, novelty tunes and love songs that defined American popular song. Later in life, Berlin was credited to being a songwriter who reflected the feeling of the crowd. In saying this, Berlin could capture that common American talk and made those words and feelings into poetry and music that was simple and graceful and easy to understand and connect to.

Berlin wrote his first song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 later receiving great acclaim and eventually selling over one million copies of sheet music.

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Not only acclaimed for his brilliant compositional style, Berlin was also attributed to his skillful ability to write his own text. In each piece his words could relate to any listener and earned a generally high approval of any work that he did. Over five decades Irving Berlin was able to keep up with the trending styles and wrote music and lyrics for close to 1,000 songs during his lifetime.

Through the myriad of genres and audiences to which he contributed, Irving Berlin assimilated into the American culture for which he was one of the primary providers. In 1988 at Carnegie Hall, famous musicians speakers and fans gathered to commemorate Berlin’s works on his 100th birthday. Irving Berlin lived to be 101.

 

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“Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. :: Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://contentdm.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/18342>.

“IRVING BERLIN’S 100TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION .28.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uV4frZIkIQ&feature=player_embedded>.

 

Amy Beach: musician in spite of her family

Today many listeners of classical music are familiar with the music or at least the name of Amy Beach. A prodigy from a very young age who came to fame through her virtuosic piano performances made her lasting mark in her compositions. Her life was defined by her gender because women, especially those of Beach’s social standing, were not to support themselves. Even though her parents were distinctly aware of Amy’s talents, they stuck with the status quo plan for young women of the time: some formal schooling, lessons in the arts, and marriage.[1]

In her article published in many women’s magazines in the early 1900s she does not fault her family for so obviously holding her back when she had so much to do in music. Rather she saw her mother’s education style as a way to ease the young prodigy into music without becoming overwhelmed. Beach’s article almost exclusively focuses on the relationship between Amy and her mother, as well as her career as a performer and composer.[2]

Beach’s success as a musician almost depends on this sort of frame that women were expected to live in. There is no doubt that Beach could have done amazing things if afforded the right to a fancy musical education that men had available to them. However, her affluent family history and unique life story allowed (or forced) her to stand out among other women. I mention forced because Amy hardly had any choice in her study of music or the path it would take.[3]

Beach had the opportunity to become a self-taught musician after her little formal training because she did not have the duties of a domestic wife like many other women. After her husband’s death in 1910 she was able to take many tours of Europe and make her name even larger.

All of these facts make for a confusing picture of Amy Beach. On one hand we have a woman who is a prisoner in her time where women aren’t allowed to study music at high levels and must submit their wills to their parents and husbands. On the other hand we have Beach as a child prodigy who has led the way for other women composers after her and succeeded because of her circumstances, but could have thrived even more in a more accepting culture.

 

[1] Adrienne Fried Block, Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1998), 298.

[2] Judith Tick ed., Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 323-327.

[3] Walter S. Jenkins, The Remarkable Mrs. Beach, American Composer, (Warren: Harmonie Park Press, 1994), 66-68.