Aaron Douglas Paintings

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1944.

Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South, 1934, Oil on canvas, 57x138 inches, Art and Artifact Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

In this image there are people playing the fiddle and dancing.  Some are farming.

Aaron Douglas, dust jacket and cover from Arthur Huff Fauset's FOR FREEDOM: A BIOGRAPHICAL STORY OF THE AMERICAN NEGRO, 1927. Collection of Thomas Wirth.

Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Aaron Douglas, Building More Stately Mansions, 1944. Oil on canvas board, 20 x 16 inches.  This work sold for $600,000 at Swann Auction Galleries via their new auction focus on African American art.  

Citation: "The Swann African American Fine Art Auctions: Conception, Achievement and Response" by Shawnya L. Harris, The International Review of African American Art, the 1940s, Volume 22, Number 1, 30-35.


From Slavery Through Reconstruction

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction, 1934, Oil on Canvas, 57x138 inches. Art and Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The figures are primarily silhouettes some with baskets of cotton, others with broken chains on their wrists, others in union uniforms. There is also somebody  playing a horn. The background and foreground are composed of circles of colors which function to unite the image and to account for the fact that the subject of the painting is represented as moving through time from slavery to freedom.  

Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist

Aspirations, 1936.  Oil on canvas, 60 x 60, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.


Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist

 www.aarondouglas.ku.edu is a website featuring the brochure on the retrospective exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas.   This exhibition has now travelled to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture located at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue just across the street from Harlem Hospital.

Now that the Master's Seminar has seen the exhibition and I have too, I am glad we made the attempt although it was entirely last minute.  I had no idea that this exhibition was going on until my sister forwarded this brochure and the one for children to me.  It occurred to me immediately that this might be a very important exhibition, because Douglas was overdue for attention and also as a visual artist he would fit right into our segment on Harlem Renaissance Literature, in which we are reading Jean Toomer's experimental novel CANE (1923) and Zora Neale Hurston's collection of African American folklore, MULES AND MEN (1935).

The exhibition space at the Schomburg Library is newly built and forms an atrium over the main public research room, which is one floor down, where murals by Douglas have always been on display.  Large photocopies were made of Douglas's series of four murals ASPECTS OF NEGRO LIFE: 1) Negroes in an African Setting,  2) FROM SLAVERY THROUGH RECONSTRUCTION, 3) IDYLL OF THE DEEP SOUTH, 4) SONG OF THE TOWERS (1934), in order to allow the murals to travel with this exhibition which originates from the University of Kansas.  Douglas was born in Kansas. 

At the Schomburg, the actual paintings were hung inside the atrium, and on the other side of the wall was the color photocopy of the same painting.  If you compare them-- although you have to look back and forth since you can't see both at the same time--you will notice that the colors of the actual paintings are both darker and richer.  I had begun to notice years ago that these paintings, which I have been looking at off and on all my life when going to the Schomburg, are absolutely bewitchingly beautiful.  I was perhaps guilty of taking them for granted as a kid since as a resident of Harlem they had always been there.  Also, they had gotten very dirty through neglect and inattention.  Since then they have been cleaned up until they sparkle.  For all I know, restoration may have lightened them slightly. 

The Schomburg has a fabulous collection of original art by African American artists and it has always been freely displayed throughout the building.  It is unusual, especially in these days, to see so much really important art on the walls of a public building, especially a building in Harlem.   But the exhibition was not without safeguards.  It lacks that free and open atmosphere of the major museums downtown.  It seems to me also that there were an unusual number of guards, and each time I have been to see exhibitions in this new space, I have felt as though I am being gently encouraged by the guards not to enter that room.  I don't know whether it is because it is less trouble for them if nobody goes in there or whether it is because no one has taken the time to explain to them what this new feature of the Schomburg means and how they should conduct themselves in order to assure its success.  

A lot of people don't seem to know much about visual art these days, probably because they were never introduced to it as children-- and you really need to establish a comfort level with the arts, maybe especially visual art, as a child, no later than five or six because, as my mother likes to say, children are such wonderful artists.  But they have to have a chance to see art and to make art.  If not, I am not quite sure what happens to this innate ability.  

But art education is one of the things that has been cut from the offerings of public schools and perhaps it is viewed by many educators as an unnecessary extra.  This is not the case however with the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a chartered elementary school which is just up the street and around the corner from the Schomburg.  It is located where the Theresa Hotel use to be, and the children there benefit from having a principal who is both a fine person and a lover of visual art.  The teachers there are engaged in providing an extensive art curriculum for the children, and I would be willing to bet that they have already been enjoying the Douglas exhibition.   

For the most part public buildings have permanent installations or the art is placed high enough to make it impossible to touch it or remove it.  For instance, there are several such pieces at City College, around the entrance to the student cafeteria whereas there is a wonderful Houston Conwill work which is displayed on the wall at the entrance of the faculty cafeteria where students and the public are not encouraged to go.  

Most of the art one can see in Harlem is in the form of public murals and/or commissions, such as the fantastic mosaics featured on the platforms of every subway station in Harlem created by a range of African American artists.   

In addition to the exhibition and the research facilities at the Schomburg, another lovely feature is the gift shop, which has one of the most extensive collections of books on African American topics in the tri-state area I suspect.  You may not have noticed it before but Harlem is particularly short on bookstores.  There's Hue-man books on 125th Street and there's your school bookstore at CCNY.  There is also a meagre collection of books at the Studio Museum Gift Shop where the space is increasingly devoted to knicks knacks and jewelry of various kinds. There are a lot of outdoor book tables in Harlem, although the literary quality of what they offer has dropped sharply in recent years. Aside from these resources, there isn't much else.  Of course, libraries help, especially since books are getting more and more expensive.  

I think perhaps that Amazon may have completely thrown off the entire book market, which is in a state of confusion (I hope not collapse). 

The exhibition was stunning and I was surprised how well it segued into the material of the course because Aaron Douglas was so much the artist of the Harlem Renaissance, illustrating the works of Alain Locke, Langston Hughes and lots of others.  He also did quite a number of public murals at Fisk University where he taught for many years and in other places where he was asked.  

I have included on this page some samples of his work.


Jack Johnson and Trainers in Nevada

Notice that there are many children at the Johnson Camp in Nevada.  Wherever the unpleasant racial atmosphere exists around Jack Johnson, it seems not to be in this camp.  The emotions aroused by Jack Johnson becoming the first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915) of the world may have had much to do with some of the negative energy concerning the movements of black men, including lynchings and race riots, around the turn of the century.  Johnson was a tall, handsome man who enjoyed the "sporting life," drinking, gambling and the company of prostitutes and "loose women," both white and black.  

He was extremely well known, even notorious, during his own time because of the rise of the illustrated press, which documented his fights and his every move, because he was photogenic and many photographs were taken of him, and finally because his prize-winning bouts with white opponents were filmed and shown in movie theatres where they drew large audiences, composed of both blacks and white.  Not enough is understood of how these films were viewed, whether they were exhibited in the South, whether blacks and white viewed them together.  
We do know that his triumphs did result in some race riots and that many whites were uncomfortable with the way black communities celebrated his victories.

His career took place during the peak of anti-black violence in the United States and yet it is visually clear that Johnson, himself, had a capacity for enjoying life that was rare.  The famous documentarian Ken Burns made a documentary on Jack Johnson, Unforgiveable Blackness, not one of my favorite films.  Johnson was a vastly more interesting and complicated man, someone who served as a role model for many adventurous and creative black men to follow, including James Earl Jones (who played him on stage and in the wonderful film The Great White Hope), the trumpeter Miles Davis who did an album in tribute to him in 1970, and the boxer Muhammed Ali, who was also a world champion boxer.  

Contrary to Burns' tragic perspective on Johnson, he actually lived for decades after he was no longer a champion, as the proprietor of a popular Harlem nightspot.  He died in a car accident in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.  He was 68.  His life story epitomizes the era in which he lived.   I guess for white men just being a black man at the turn-of-the century would appear tragic but it is important to realize that there will always be some individuals just don't scare.  Johnson is a classic African American type, made famous in folklore and African American popular culture, represented for instance in the figure of John Henry, a steel-driving man. 


CANE by Jean Toomer, Renaissance Novel

Aaron Douglas is particularly appropriate because he is the key painter and visual artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the topic of our next segment in which we are reading Jean Toomer's CANE, a groundbreaking and unprecedented Modernist novel. It was written in 1923 and I first read it in about 1970 when I was a student at CCNY, myself. I don't believe I read it in a class. I read it on my own and had no one to talk about it with since African American Literature was still a very new field in academia.

CANE was the first of a series of African American novels to come into vogue in the 70s along with a renewed interest in the Harlem Renaissance. CANE was for me then a wonderful book set in Georgia and Washington D.C., and exhibiting some of the features of the stream-of-consciousness technique I found so fascinating in James Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. CANE is made up of a series of short stories, poems and dramatic sequences. Jean Toomer, himself, was quite a character. After he wrote CANE, since he was very racially mixed, he decided from then on that he would no longer be black, making him a highly controversial figure in African American studies to this day.


The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

The Master's class viewed the second part of The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow yesterday.  We also had some time to discuss it.  After having seen it about six times myself, I had very decided opinions about it.  In particular, at the moment I would like very much to discover the origin and the source of the photographs and film footage used to document the convict lease system.  Richard Wormser's book and the PBS series cite the convict lease system as a key manifestation of the carry-over of slavery into the lives of blacks living at the turn-of-the-century in the South.

The photograph included above comes from the Library of Congress, the George Grantham Bains collection.  It shows a scene of corporal punishment (two men with hands and heads in stocks and another man below being whipped)  at a prison camp in Delaware around the turn of the century.  LC-USZ62-98905 (b&w film copy neg.). 

I have found other pictures on line as well although none as compelling as the ones used in the documentary and its companion book. 

One picture in the book of a collection of boys, perhaps eight to twelve, wearing stripes and chained together working in a field, is stamped "juvenile convicts at work in a field" and "copyright 1903 by Detroit Photographic Company,"  which turns out to have been a very successful photographic company that mass produced photos for popular consumption from the turn-of-the-century.  The Library of Congress has a large archive of their photographs.

Also, another key topic that emerges in the film is D.W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) as well as Thomas Dixon's play THE KLANMEN, which provided the basis for THE BIRTH.  

I wrote an article in 2003 on THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which was published by THE CINEMA JOURNAL, 43, No 1, 2003.

The article provides much of the desirable background for race relations and could be helpful to read as a supplement to this documentary, which has some misleading characteristics I believe in that the analysis of images, music and cultural production by black or white artists isn't sophisticated enough.  There isn't enough of a comparative grid of the various kinds of images that were available at the time.  I, myself, had never seen that black "incubus" image before and am not sure what it means.  In fact, there are no analysts of culture used as authoritative sources with the possible exception of Grace Hale, who is primarily a social historian, not a cultural historian I believe.  I love her work but these people are using cultural production in a kind of shorthand to illustrate their overall assessment of a violent and fascistic time in American history.  It is simplistic the way you would feed it to a child and yet because of the sadistic violence portrayed, it would be unsuitable for children.


African American Time Line--First Draft

This "Afro-American Monument" is a composite of thirteen scenes portraying African American history from 1619 and the landing of the first blacks at Jamestown to 1897.  Crispus Attuck's name is mispelled as Christopher.  This was a poster to commemorate African American advancement at yet another world's fair,  the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville in 1897.  This would have been two years after Washington's successful speech encouraging the peaceful and separate co-existence of the races at the Cotton Exposition in 1895 in Atlanta.  

A picture of the "Negro Exposition Building" (presumably segregated) is featured on the lower, right hand side of the poster.  From the Library of Congress Collection of Prints and Photographs.

1861--Southern States form Confederacy in response to election of Abraham Lincoln as President.  Civil War begins.

**Confederate States/Territories:
Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, California, Louisiana, Indian (later Oklahoma) and New Mexico Territories--a total of 14

**Union States/Territories:
New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, West Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Rhode Island, Maryland, District of Columbia, Washington, Utah, Nebraska and Colorado Territories--a total of 28

1863--Lincoln issues Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in Confederate "rebellious" states "forever free." 
186,000 African Americans enlist during the final two years of the Civil War.

1865--Unions wins the Civil War.  Lincoln assassinated.  Southern states enact "Black Codes."  Congress passes 13th Ammendment outlawing slavery. 

1866--Congress passes 14th Ammendment granting citizenship to African Americans.  Reconstruction begins. Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee.  Congress authorizes four black units to fight Indians in the West.  Dubbed "Buffalo Soldiers" by Native Americans.

1868--W.E.B. Du Bois born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts only child of Alfred Du Bois and Mary Silvina Burghardt.  

1869--Congress passes 15th Ammendment giving black men the vote.

1870-1871 Congress passes Federal Ku Klux Klan Acts to protect black voters.

1875--The State of Tennessee is the first to institute Jim Crow (segregation) Law.

1877--Federal Troops withdraw from the South; Reconstruction ends. 

1880--60,000 "exodusters" leave Nashville for Kansas to escape Jim Crow.  

1880--Slavery abolished in Cuba.

1884--European nations convene in Berlin and divide the continent of Africa into colonies.

1884--Du Bois graduates from high school, the only black student in a class of 13.

1888--Slavery abolished in Brazil.

1890--Du Bois awarded B.A. cum laude in philosophy at Harvard.  Begins graduate school at Harvard in political science.  Frances Harper publishes her novel IOLA LEROY. 

1890-- (Jim Crow Law) Segregation is made law in the state of Mississippi.  Begins to use literacy tests to disenfrancise black voters.

1892--Du Bois visits 12 year old Helen Keller (blind and deaf child) at her school in Boston with the philosopher and Harvard Professor William James (brother of Henry James). 

1892--Ida B. Wells begins her anti-lynching campaign in response to the lynching of three of her friends in Memphis, Tennessee.

1893--Columbian Exposition in Chicago: Frederick Douglass headquarters at Haitian Pavillion with Paul Lawrence Dunbar as his assistant; Dahomey Village inspired IN DAHOMEY, a Broadway show by Bert Williams and tk Walker; the debut of Nancy Green as Aunt Jemima, the pancake queen.  Henry O. Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson" is included in the American art exhibition.

1895--Atlanta Compromise speech by Booker T. Washington at the Cotton Exposition, describing racial segregation as an opportunity and black suffrage as not yet necessary.  Du Bois who is the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard in this same year, writes Washington a note: "Let me heartily congratulate you uon your phenomenal success at Atlanta--it was a word fitly spoken."

1896--(Jim Crow) Segregation made law in the state of Louisiana.  Plessy v. Ferguson, U.S. Supreme Court upholds Jim Crow Law as constitutional.  

The decision stated, "The object of the 14th Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the war, but in the nature of things it could not have intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either."

1897--Du Bois helps to found the American Negro Academy.  Delivers address, "The Conservation of Races," calling on American blacks to serve as the "advance guard" of black racial development globally "and to maintain a separate identity within American society." Becomes professor of economics and history at Atlanta University.

1898--Spanish American War.  Black soldiers played a major role in the winning of the Battle at San Juan Hill, which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  The U.S. victory against the Spanish led to the American possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillippines and the Caroline islands, in one of the most poorly understood episodes in U.S. history. 

1898--Wilmington Massacre, in which Dixie Democrats violently remove Republicans from office and prevent blacks from voting.

1899--Charles Chesnutt's THE MARROW OF TRADITION published.  Portrays in a novel the Wilmington Massacre.

1899--Sam Hose accused of murder and lynched in Atlanta.  Du Bois recognizes that activism is unavoidable. 

1900--Segregation (Jim Crow Law) begins in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.  

1900--WEB Du Bois travels by steerage to the Universelle Exposition in Paris to install the Exhibition on the Progress of African Americans. Receives gold medal.  Attends first Pan-African Conference in London, and delivers speech in which he first says, "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."

1900--Pauline Hopkins writes and edits THE COLORED AMERICAN, an illustrated African American journal, in Boston.  She also publishes her novel CONTENDING FORCES.

1901--Article defending the Freedmen's Bureau, which will later become a chapter in SOULS is published in the Atlantic Monthly in March.*

1903--WEB Du Bois publishes THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, which brings him to national prominence and makes public his opposition to Washington's views. 

1906--In homage to John Brown, the Niagara Movement first meets at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  

Detail from racist postcard from Rare Books, Manuscripts and Special Collections Library, Duke University, p. xii in THE RISE AND FALL OF JIM CROW by Richard Wormser, Companion Volume to PBS Series, St. Martins Press 2003.

1903-1909--Jim Crow practices (segregation) spread from Kansas to Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and New Jersey.  

1898-1909--Major race riots in Atlanta, Georgia; Wilmington, NC; Ft. Riley, Kansas, New Orleans, Louisiana; Ft Riley, Illinois, Greensburg, Indiana, Springfield, Ohio; New York, NY.

1889-1918--Blacks were lynched in almost every state. 

1909--NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is founded in order to attack segregation, lynching and race riots.  Du Bois hired as Director of Publications and Research.  Moves to New York to found, edit and write THE CRISIS, the monthly magazine of the NAACP.

1910--National Urban League founded to direct migrants from the South to jobs, housing and education.

1912--Jelly Roll Morton publishes his first song, "The Jelly Roll Blues."

1913--Du Bois writes and stages THE STAR OF ETHIOPIA, a pageant celebrating black history to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the emancipation.

1914--Du Bois supports women's suffrage in CRISIS editorial.

1915--NAACP campaigns actively against the public exhibition of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.  

"Let us while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy." 

1917-1919--More than 400,000 served in the United States Army during WWI

1920--Negro National Baseball Leagued founded.

1920--500,000 blacks leave the rural South for the North.  The Great Migration begins.

1923--Jean Toomer publishes CANE.

1926--Langston Hughes publishes THE WEARY BLUES.

1929--Stock Market Crash.  The Depression begins.  The Nation of Islam formed in Detroit.

1932--Black voters switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party, in time to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal.  

1935--Zora Neale Hurston publishes MULES AND MEN.

1937--Zora Neale Hurston publishes THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD.

1940--The War Department begins to train black pilots at Tuskeegee University in Alabama.

1944--701,678 African Americans in the U.S. Army.

1945-1947--Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie pioneer "bebop" jazz at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem.

1947--Richard Wright publishes 12 MILLION BLACK VOICES.

1948--President Harry S. Truman integrates the U.S. armed forces.

1954--U.S. Supreme Court declares segregation unconstitutional in the public schools in the case of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

1954--Gwendolyn Brooks publishes MAUD MARTHA.

1955--Emmett Till (14 years old0 lynched in Money, Alabama for whistling at a white woman.

1955--Montgomery Bus Boycott begins after Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man.  The one year boycott is led by Martin Luther King Jr.

1959--Berry Gordy founds Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan.

1960--Sit Ins begin in Greensboro, North Carolina.

1963--March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr., 250,000 people.
President John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

1963--Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) published BLUES PEOPLE.

1965--Malcolm X assassinated in New York City at the Audobon Ballroom.

1968--MLK assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

*Notes on Du Bois prepared by Nathan Huggins in Library of America edition of SOULS OF BLACK FOLK.


Dahomey Village

This is a link to  the Dahomey Village as presented at the California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894 in San Francisco, probably much as it appeared at Columbian Exposition in Chicago in the summer of 1893.

Norton Anthology--Audio Files

Maple Leaf Rag, Scott Joplin
Maple Leaf Rag, Jelly Roll Morton
Go Down, Moses, Paul Robeson
Steal Away to Jesus, Bernice Johnson Reagon
Been in the Storm So Long, Fisk Jubilee Singers
Ezekiel Saw de Wheel, Tuskegee Choir
This Little Light of Mine, Viola James & Congregation
Soon I Will Be Done, Mahalia Jackson
Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Clara Ward
Rosie, Inmates of Parchman Farm
You May Go But This Will Bring You Back, Zora Neale Hurston
Good Morning Blues, Leadbelly
C. C. Rider, Ma Rainey
Sunnyland, Elmore James
Backwater Blues, Bessie Smith
Beale St. Blues, Big Maybelle
Rock Me, Baby, Lightnin’ Hopkins
My Handy Man, Alberta Hunter
Trumpet Mouthpiece Blues, Clark Terry
It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Duke Ellington
(What Did I Do To be So) Black and Blue, Louis Armstrong
Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday
Parker’s Mood, King Pleasure
Four Women, Nina Simone
Dancin’ in the Street, Martha and the Vandellas
A Love Supreme, John Coltrane

Atlanta Address [excerpt], Booker T. Washington
Autobiography, W. E. B. DuBois
If We Must Die, Claude McKay
Strong Men, Sterling A. Brown
The Creation, James Weldon Johnson
The Way Out Is to Pray Out, Rev. G. I. Townsel
The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Langston Hughes
Heritage, Countee Cullen
Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Generosity, Bert Williams
For My People, Margaret Walker
Those Winter Sundays, Robert Hayden
a song in the front yard, Gwendolyn Brooks
We Real Cool, Gwendolyn Brooks
Summer Words of a Sistuh Addict, Sonia Sanchez
Nikki-Rosa, Nikki Giovanni
Wailers, Amiri Baraka
How Long Has Trane Been Gone? Jayne Cortez
Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Michael Harper
From Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Rita Dove introduces the Thomas and Beulah poems, the Event
I Have a Dream, Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcolm X
The Message, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
Selections are subject to change.


World's Fairs at the Turn of the 19th Century

Since Du Bois's photographic Negro Exhibition was presented at the Exposition Universelle 1900, one of the most successful of the international fairs, I thought this might be a good time to point out that there are several significant intersections of world's fairs around the turn of the century and African American Cultural History.

Composer Scott Joplin introduced ragtime at the Columbian Exhibition. His most popular piece, Maple Leaf Rag, is included on the cd of music which comes with the Norton Anthology. There are two versions of it, including the latter one played by the great jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, with a variation that helps to explain the transition from ragtime to jazz.  

At the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago there was a Pavillion devoted to the Republic of Haiti.  Frederick Douglass, who was then ambassador to Haiti from the United States, maintained his headquarters there with Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the young poet, acting as his assistant.  Douglass was by then an enormous celebrity, highly regarded and respected universally in Chicago despite the spread of Jim Crow practices throughout the country.  Also featured at this fair was an exhibition of Aunt Jemima (played by Nancy Green) and her pancakes, as well as something called the Dahomey Village featuring a collection of people from Nigeria living in a rustic setting and presumably engaged in their normal village life.  The Dahomey Village was just one of many exhibits demonstrating various primitive cultures from around the world, some of them directly resulting from the imperial exploits of the United States.

African Americans were given a special day at the fair which was the focus of much negative stereotyping in the Chicago Press.  Also, although Douglass visited the Dahomey Village and was well treated by the occupants, he did make statements in the press saying that their exhibit was designed to humiliate African Americans.  There is also a story that Bert Williams and David Walker and other African American entertainers stood in for African performers until they could arrive.  Once they arrived, African American performers were fascinated by the music and dance of the Africans.  The result was a Broadway musical called In Dahomey written by Williams and Walker, which was a major success in 1901.  

Ida B. Wells, together with her husband and Frederick Douglass, wrote and circulated a pamphlet on racism, including lynchings, in the United States.*

Wells, Ida B. "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American's Contribution to Columbian Literature." Originally published 1893. Reprint ed., edited by Robert W. Rydell. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. ISBN 0-252-06784-3.
More later.

Of The Sorrow Songs

Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

These words are taken from the final essay in Souls on the Sorrow Songs, or the Slave Spirituals.  He regards the spirit of African American culture as most epitomized by these anonymous songs composed improvisationally by the slaves, themselves, as they became Christians in a New World of deprivation and torment.   While he isn't yet ready to include all of African American music and culture in his highest claims for the "Sorrow Songs," nonetheless he poses the question and the problem of racial differences one last time in this essay.

The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of "swift" and "slow" in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should AEschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Also taken from "Of the Sorrow Songs" in Souls of Black Folk.

African American music has a tendency toward spiritual inflection and in such cases listening is like being in a time machine.  In some cases it seems almost as though the chords or the tone transports the listener back into the history, in particular of slavery and Jim Crow persecution.


The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow--PBS Series

The first two parts of The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow are 60 minutes each. A lot of information is communicated in a fairly efficient manner. If you had seen DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) (the entire film can be viewed at video.google.com or read the two books -- The Klansman (1903) and The Leopard's Spots (1901) by Thomas Dixon upon which the plot of the The Birth of a Nation was based-- you will recognize many of the images and substantial portions of the narrative, except that Griffith simply reversed antagonist with victim, making blacks the antagonists and whites the victims who then bravely bring the "Negro rebellion" under control. It is just crazy but it is a skillfully made film, in fact innovative in the genre at the time and there were no lack fo racist audiences who were eager to see it in 1915. It didn't help at all that the president then, Woodrow Wilson, had it screened it at the White House and then endorsed the film in a statement that was then included in the film.

The odd thing about The Birth of a Nation, which presents itself as being about the Civil War and Reconstruction, is that it is actually about events related to the political ascendancy of Jim Crow taking place at the turn of the century and in the early 20th century.  In this we see a characteristic danger in historical film dramas (from Gone With the Wind to JFK), which is that they almost always reveal a lot more about the time in which they were made than about the period represented.

But the important thing about paying attention to this now is to see what happens when people get confident enough to believe that the situation is settled and that nothing can overturn the progress that has been made. In a country of our size and history, that probably won't ever be true. So I think one should be careful and humble.

I am hoping we can find time to schedule some portion of a screening of The Rise and Fall. The book by Richard Wormser (St. Martin's Press 2003) has some interesting illustrations, as does the dvd (which can be purchased via California Newsreel) and the PBS website.

As somebody who is interested in tracking the history of images in photography and film for what the surviving fragments can tell us about events and people, it is irritating beyond belief to encounter again and again this dumbed down techno-wizardry which will use the ocean lapping up on the beach or the side of a boat as a perpetual stand-in for the slave trade, or any vaguely old vaguely humble group of blacks in a photograph to stand in for a group of slaves, or ex-slaves or migrants to the North, as the case may warrant. The photographers are never identified even when they are known. The situation in which the photograph is known is never talked about.

They call them stock images or stock footage.  It happens all the time in films and other uses of photographs and I never was bothered about it at all until I became a student of African American history and culture, so I would suppose it happens with images of people in every society now.  The way images are used in a technological society is designed to eventually make it impossible to track their genealogy of creation and use.  

Photographic and filmic images rarely come with provenances in the way that art images are expected to have, and when they do, it is a deep dark secret difficult to obtain and impossible to make public.

In the Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, I recognize a fair number of photographs that are used.  

In particular one photographer who did very special work, Julian Dimock.  Soon after the turn of the century, he and his father, a writer of travel literature, went on a trip to Columbia, South Carolina and Beaufort, North Carolina and took a number of pictures of the people in the black communities there immediately following the downfall of the Republican Party and the forcing out of office of all black office holders.  

The Souls of Black Folk was published right before their trip.  The resulting photographs, are a perfect accompaniment to Du Bois's text. These photographs were taken in Beaufort, North Carolina (an isolated region of the state) and Columbia, South Carolina of  black men, women and children following the so-called "Wilmington Massacre" portrayed strikingly by the African American writer Charles Chesnutt in the novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) in which white racists physically prevented black registered voters from voting in local elections and also forcibly ejected local black office holders from office.  

The people look poor and a little shabby but their dignity and coherence is striking. In particular, most of the photographs were of children who make the best photographic subjects in all circumstances. Dimocks' pictures had been hidden away in the Museum of Natural History for decades when somebody there decided to publish them in a book so that we could see what this community looked liked given the extraordinary political pressures of the time. Several of these photographs are used in the documentary The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, without any mention of their origin.  Probably the reason why it took so long for Dimock to be presented in such a monograph is partly because the lack of popularity in our time for photographs of black people taken by white photographers, particularly in this period of Jim Crow history.  

Included in Dimock's collection was a photograph of Robert Smalls, a native Beaufortian whose life is described in Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915.  Smalls had served five terms as a U.S. congressman but by 1904 when Dimock took his picture such offices were no longer viable for blacks because of Jim Crow laws. 

This shuffling of unidentified images is a technique which has existed for a long time, but which has become associated in my mind with Ken Burns' approach to documentary as popularized in his series on The Civil War.  The historical critique of his documentary on The Civil War is more highly developed than the criticism of his many other documentaries, as demonstrated in Robert Brent Toplins' Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond (Oxford University Press 1996).

Letter from a Birmingham Jail--Addition to Required Reading

I am adding online a link to Letter from a Birmingham Jail written by Martin Luther King, Jr. April 13, 1963.  It is an 11 page pdf document.  I am also providing here a series of links to pages on Wikkepedia, the free online encyclopedia, which is available to everyone who has a computer, and to which it is possible to submit further links and corrections in regard to any subject you might know something about first hand.   As I understand it, the pages are collaboratively constructed by the many readers of the encyclopedia.

The links posted here will provide you with the necessary historical background for the references in this post.  They should be regarded as a recommended reading, not required.

King was in jail as a result of his Civil Disobedience as part of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama.  His protest against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama led to the effective shut-down of the city. 

King and his followers were responding to a long-standing pattern of racial segregation and apartheid in downtown Birmingham, stemming from a state and regional practice of segregation in public facilities.  These practices were not uniformly observed in rural and/or remote areas, which might lead to actions of great kindness between the races, or in turn, might result in actions of extraordinary violence and terrorism, including race riots and lynchings.

The Birmingham police department was then run by the notorious racist Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor, who responded by throwing them all in jail, including King himself.  By this time, King was already internationally famous.  He would also soon come out against the Vietnam War, as well, which would help to compromise his base of mainstream white support.  

While in jail in Birmingham, King chose to respond to a series of complaints against him made by his fellow Christian Ministers by writing the famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  This document is not as well known as some of his speeches and therefore it seems ideal to include in our course.

We will talk about this text in relation to our final segment on the 60s when we will also be reading excerpts from Amiri Baraka's Blues People and the chapter, "Defining the Blues" from Steven Tracy's book Langston Hughes and the Blues.  Subsequent additions to the syllabus, including this one, will be signaled by a series of astericks within the text of the syllabus as posted on the blog.


Burial Grounds in New York City

The African Burial Grounds provided a cemetary for slaves and free blacks for an unknown period but first established under the Dutch and ending with British occupation of New York shortly after the American Revolution in 1776.

The Burial Grounds were rediscovered during excavation in preparation for building another high rise, which caused an immediate halt in favor of archeological research on the remains conducted at Howard University.  The links here provide extensive history of the burial ground as well as its recent development since its rediscovery in the 1990s.  Although much of lower Manhattan was built over the burial grounds (including City Hall), there has been a memorial to the slaves erected with works by a number of artists, including the black woman sculptor Barbara Chase Riboud.  Her work is a tribute to the entire African Diaspora and provides a fascinating commentary on the blues consciousness of 20th century African Americans.

This is a site that can be easily visited if you live in New York. Also, the work on the African burial grounds provides a link to the extensive work online from the exhibition of slavery in New York put together by the New York Historical Society, accompanied by a collection of essays on the topic edited by Leslie Harris, included here on my Slavery wish list at Amazon.com.