Thursday, July 21, 2016

Meditations on the "Black Swan," from 1850 to today

In 2002, while an undergrad History/Art History major at Rutgers College, I little imagined that over a decade later I would be an assistant professor of History at the University of South Dakota publishing my work on the mid-19th century black singer Elizabeth Greenfield, known as the "Black Swan."

I invite you check out my recent article with American Nineteenth Century History, coming out in Fall 2016 but available online: “Black Swan/White Raven: the racial politics of Elizabeth Greenfield’s American concert career, 1851-1855.”

(Email me if your research library does not have access to Taylor & Francis but would like to read the essay. I can provide a free download link.)

This coming year, another cohort of students at USD will be exploring possibilities for their research projects, whether for an honors thesis or capstone paper. The following post is a series of brief meditations on my early encounters with Elizabeth Greenfield, the questions that led me to her, the way her story continues to resonate in our culture today...

2002. Halle Berry had just won the Academy Award for Best Actress, the first (and to this day, the only) black woman to do so in American history. I had finished a semester that included a seminar on popular entertainment in 19th century America and a survey of African American history. I had some questions. Were there black women performing on American stages at mid-century? If so, what kinds of entertainers were they? How were they received at this period in American history? In short, I wondered, was there a longer history reaching back before Marian Anderson or Hattie McDaniel or Billie Holiday?

That is how I discovered Elizabeth Greenfield.

In many cultural histories of black female entertainers, Greenfield appears as a distant precursor, addressed perfunctorily before scholars focus on the flowering of black entertainers from the late 19th century on, during the era that gave us Black Broadway and then in the early 20th century jazz performers like Josephine Baker. As I set to work on my honors thesis, I knew that I wanted to spend time with Greenfield, a black woman and former slave who went on the road in 1850s during the height of national agitation over the future of slavery and in the terrifying shadow of the Fugitive Slave Law.

The more I learned, the more questions I had. How was it possible for a black woman to emerge as a major touring artists at this time? How did her majority white audiences (as I quickly discovered) reconcile their white supremacist views (dominant at the time, especially among white people) with Greenfield’s powerful and moving voice? What did performing for these audiences feel like for her? On the other hand, what did her celebrity mean for black communities and activists who, I discovered, were very alarmed when Greenfield performed in segregated venues? I wondered how Greenfield was able to navigate these spaces and promote herself during this fraught moment in the history of American slavery and race relations.  

As I started to do research, the project traveled in new directions and I traveled as well. I took the train from New Brunswick, NJ into New York City to Harlem to conduct research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This was one of my first archival experiences. I became interested in the careers of other black singers from the second half of the nineteenth century: Flora Batson, Marie Selika, Matilda Sissieretta Jones or the “Black Patti.” I read black newspapers and I learned about the culture of the growing black middle classes, about black girls who cultivated parlor talents on piano and guitar and sang. At this time, whether they performed in their homes for family and friends or in public concerts, black female singers were celebrated as evidence of black cultural achievement, evidence that black people were not inferior to whites.

Working on this honors thesis led me to go to graduate school, where I wrote a dissertation on how female stage performers in the early nineteenth century became flashpoints for conversations about women’s capacity and place in public life. I looked at the career of another black performer, dramatic reader Mary Webb. In 2013, when I started my career as a professional historian and professor at USD, I decided to publish my work on Greenfield. In the intervening decade (plus), my thoughts about her career had continued to evolve as I read more scholarship and did new research. If you only knew how many versions of this story I wrote and rewrote! Scholarship is a long, slow but rewarding process. My interest in Greenfield never waned, nor did my sense of her story’s relevance to our contemporary political moment.

What relevance, you ask?

Since the 1850s, when Greenfield began her concert career, black artists have been used by black and white audiences and critics as evidence of a range of competing claims about the nature of racial difference and the questions of black civil rights. Critics in the 1850s asked whether Greenfield’s artistry was evidence that black people could be equal whites in artistic cultivation as well as science. Many countered that her singing was merely an example of black people’s natural affinity for music, nothing more, or dismissed her as a poor imitator of white singers like Jenny Lind. One newspaperman referenced the every popular entertainment of blackface minstrelsy and crudely joked that she was Jenny Lind “blacked up.” Nor was Greenfield's career free from threat of racial violence. Police patrolled Metropolitan Hall in New York in 1853 when she performed there in order to prevent a threatened riot.

Today, there continues to be a tremendous burden places on black Americans to demonstrate their intellectual abilities, not to mention their shared humanity. And yet, entertainment culture is one of the unique spaces in which black people have historically found a place to achieve celebrity and status in American culture, but often on terms that require them to play to demoralizing racial stereotypes. For example, Hattie McDaniel was first black woman to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1940--for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind. These were the kinds of cinematic roles open to women of color at the time and the roles that drew praise from white people.

The legacy of Mammy also persists in our entertainment culture, where people of color struggle against racist casting practices. Recently, black actors who have been cast in lead roles in blockbuster movies were the victims of a racist public outcry: Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games, John Boyega in a role as a Storm Trooper turned fighter for the Resistance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Leslie Jones, a star in the new Ghostbusters.

The music and dance of black Americans that has been the foundation of modern mass entertainment is frequently appropriated by white artists. Meanwhile, black artists continue to be marginalized or criticized for being too violent or too sexual—or too political. Another recent example: many have criticized Beyonce for her recent album Lemonade and her hit song "Formation," uncomfortable with the new direction of her art, which foregrounds black culture, expressing Black Power and Black Pride and proclaiming that #BlackLivesMatter.

At the 2016 BET Awards, in his acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award, actor Jesse Williams pointed out the contradiction between the insatiable American appetite for black bodies in entertainment and the callous and violent disregard for black lives and humanity that has inspired the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I urge you to listen to his speech and think about the contradiction he is pointing to between our love of black art and entertainment and the way American society continues to show a callous disregard for black humanity: “Just because we are magic does not mean we are not real.” 

Over 150 years ago, Elizabeth Greenfield struggled to make a space for herself in a white supremacist culture that yet found great pleasure in her artistry. This tension remains with us today.

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