Race, Identity and Representation, but in Music Departments

I have often thought my music education is racist. There is a clear cut canon from which undergraduate students gain their foundational knowledge, and to deviate concerns what we conceive as entirely other genres. Most students at my liberal arts school utter disdain for the white male dominance of music theory and musicological course materials. And while it is true that the ability to recognize such power structures is necessary, the simple knowledge of them often soothes white discomfort into complacency. Overturning this form of dominance has its valid challenges, as we have seen in our musicology class, Race Identity and Representation in American Music. Adequate representation, however, is attainable. 

Philip Ewell, African American cellist, scholar, writer and music theorist articulates just how limited our music theory and musicology courses is his blog, Confronting Racism and Sexism in Music Theory. First, I think it bears repeating that 98.3% of the examples in the seven most common music theory textbooks are written by white composers, and only two pieces out of 2930 total were written by Asian composers. What music theory textbooks do include, however, are songs written for blackface minstrel shows such as “Oh Susanna!” by Steven Foster as examples for music theory concepts. (Indeed, you can find it on a webpage about binary form on Hello Music Theory). Ewell writes, “The inclusion of a white supremacist composer like Foster in our music theory textbooks represents the extraordinary insensitivity of music theory’s white frame—and of the textbook publishers I hasten to add—with respect to racial matters. It also points to our utter inability to recognize how whiteness has shaped the field.” 1 

Original sheet music for “Oh Susanna!” from the Christy minstrel troupe. See Edwin Christy

Trigger warning: The last page of “Oh Susanna!” with racist alternate verse text. 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whiteness has also shaped the design of music departments by compartmentalizing course topics and genres. For example, at St. Olaf we have multiple levels of music theory and musicology, but any other courses seem to fit into separate topics courses like history of jazz or world music. When considering that the core of our required courses is limited to mainly white theorists and composers, and supplemental courses consist of music mainly by person of color (POC) artists, I think it sends a clear message to students that music by white people is more worth studying, even if none of the individuals in the music department hold that belief themselves. It’s not just a subliminal message either, because our knowledge of music after graduation likewise privileges white people. Graduates enter school classrooms, higher education institutions or the workforce with their highly educated yet biased definition of music. 

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the existence of jazz courses and world music courses and their content is not the problem. In fact, I think these musics should be integrated into our entry level music theory and musicology courses. Ewell has a wonderful section on the future of music education in his blog which I intend to highlight in my next blog post. Stay tuned…

[1] Ewell, Phillip By Philip. “Music Theory’s Quantitative and Qualitative Whiteness.” Music Theory’s White Racial Frame. June 26, 2020. Accessed December 14, 2021. https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/music-theorys-quantitative-and-qualitative-whiteness/.

[2 ]Oh! Susanna. C. Holt, Jr., New York, monographic, 1848. Notated Music. https://www.loc.gov/item/sm1848.441780/.

 

What Minstrelsy Means For American Identity

In my research of black minstrel troupes, it has become obvious that American pop culture is infused with references to minstrelsy. Although this influence becomes obvious when it is pointed out, I would like to propose a claim that might not be as readily accepted. Not only is minstrelsy heavily involved in American media, the influence of the minstrel show is a pillar of American art and media. In other words, elements of minstrelsy actually contribute to what it means for a piece of media to be “American”.

The American-ness of the minstrel show and minstrel influences can be seen in the perception of the minstrel show from audiences abroad. In my own mapping of black minstrel shows, I noticed very quickly that these shows were mostly plotted in the U.S. Perhaps this article posted in the Freeman newspaper might give more insight into why that is.

This article posted in the the Freeman in Indianapolis, Indiana on February 8, 1902 titled “The Negro Performer Abroad” explains how the minstrel show was not well received abroad. The article writes: “The English and Australians, by the way, are very austere and reserved as regards the manner of entertainment of histrons, therefore that which we here consider clever, they, over there regard indifferent and treat with almost heartless disdain. Little wonder then that early Negro minstrels met a cold reception and proved a ‘frost’”. 1

This indifferent reception shows us the extent to which American media and humor differentiated from that of Europeans and Australians. In other words, this humor is strictly American. 

We can see this inclusion of minstrel influences as well in other forms of media such as animation in more sinister, more blatant ways. For example, in Ammond’s book “Birth of an industry: blackface minstrelsy and the rise of American animation” he argues that certain characters, such as Mickey Mouse, carried “all (or many) of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself”. 2 For example, in this video of the first Disney animation “Steamboat Willie”, we see that Mickey is whistling a minstrel tune and also wears the distinctive white gloves worn by minstrel performers.

 

 

These examples of the influence of minstrelsy on American media show how truly interlaced it is with American identity. The inclusion of minstrelsy can really be seen as a staple of American identity. Although this fact is incredibly troubling, by understanding its implications, we can begin to uncover and become critical about the nature of American identity itself.