Race in Musical History

In my “Music in America” class, we were asked to read a text by Joseph Byrd titled “Whitewashing Blackface Minstrelsy in American College Textbooks”. The author argues for the pressing need to include minstrel music in textbook publications. He supports this by the fact that this musical and entertainment sensation was one of America’s leading forms of popular music throughout the mid to late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. Furthermore, if the minstrel music is mentioned in college textbooks, it is often either in the form of one sentence or a blurb in the paragraph. The issue of censorship is prominent in the fact that the mention of this music is normally surrounded by the racial components of the musical style.

Blackface comedy dates back to the mid-18th-century with roots in England. The primary purpose of blackface was comedic entertainment with the original character of Mungo. In the United States, Thomas Dartmouth Rice and George Washington Dixon created the two original characters, Jim Crow and Zip Coon. For American blackface minstrelsy, these two characters represented the stereotypes of black Americans, like the “ragged rural hobo” and the “flashy city dandy”, respectively (Byrd 77). Because of this, college textbooks tend to glaze over the phenomenon in order to generate an American musical history free of racial injustices.

With the visual depictions of the blackface characters, the lyrics of the songs exhibit the racial stereotypes as well. In Dan Emmett’s lyrics from “Old Dan Tucker” state, “Tucker on de woodpile, can’t count ‘lebben, Put him in a featherbed, him gwine to hebben, His nose so flat, his face so full, De top of his head like a bag of wool” (Byrd 79). It is through these lyrics that the audience perpetuates the notion of how blacks are stupid and ugly. Dan Emmett’s tunes were extremely catchy and prevalent in pop culture. The songs were sung across the minstrel-show circuit and the audiences favored the catchy melody.

Instead of regarding blackface minstrel music in light of racism, Byrd claims we must recognize these songs as an integral element of pop culture. In simpler terms, blackface minstrelsy is inherently part of American society through the forms of glee clubs and comedic entertainment. I think this relates to much of our class discussion and how we articulate that talking about race is not racist. In Omi and Winant’s article, the topic of racial projects relates here to the ways in which society sees race. The social impacts of racial formation include minstrelsy and it’s interpretations/depictions of race in American society throughout the late 1800s and 1900s. The historical context of race is important in both racial projects and the minstrelsy in order to understand the workings of race in a society. I think too, that leaving out racial history from college textbooks does not solve any problems with race in the United States. Omi and Winant declare race is historically situated, therefore; we must acknowledge the history of race and racial actions in order to move forward in a society where race talk changes.

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2 thoughts on “Race in Musical History

  1. How to recognize discrimination is contention. I think you imply it rather thoroughly, but I’d like an explicit confirmation: How does Byrd recommend we recognize blackface in our textbooks? This type of scrutiny could be applied to all music. I listen to some of the music from my past and am flustered by its heternormativity. I listen to the radio today and it isn’t much different.

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  2. Byrd essentially argues blackface minstrelsy needs to be taught in schools. Textbooks and publication companies need to include minstrel music because it is a leading form of popular music in the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. We cannot recognize it textbooks because it is simply left out or mentioned in one sentence. Ultimately, it is the duty of the textbook writers and the companies to not censor history and include this part of musical entertainment in American history. Furthermore, much of the article discusses the reasons why this entertainment is left out of the textbooks. This is explained by the need to glaze over racial stereotypes depicted in this musical form and to shape American history to the point that it is free of racial injustices.

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