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Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture

Event Details

Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture

Time: January 26, 2015 at 4:30pm to May 8, 2015 at 7pm
Location: Loeb Music Library, Music Building
Street: North Yard, Harvard University
City/Town: Cambridge, MA 02138 USA
Website or Map: http://music.fas.harvard.edu/…
Phone: 617-495-2794
Event Type: symposium/exhibition
Organized By: Students from the seminar “Blackface Minstrelsy in 19th Century America,” taught by Oja and Parler during the fall semester
Latest Activity: Jan 29, 2015

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Event Description

The Harvard Music Department announces a new library exhibit, Unmasking Jim Crow: Blackface Minstrelsy in American Popular Culture, examining the painful racist history and complex legacy of blackface performance in American culture. The exhibit will be on display January 26 through May 8, 2015 on the second floor of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. Included in the exhibit are images, sheet music, songsters, and other minstrel show artifacts from the Harvard Theater Collection, which houses one of the most important collections of 19th century minstrelsy materials in the world.

An opening symposium will launch the exhibit on January 26, 2015 at 4:30 PM in the Spalding Room of the Music Library. Carol J. Oja, William Powell Mason Professor of Music and Samuel Parler, Ph.D. Candidate in Music, will offer introductory remarks, followed by a keynote address from Louis Chude-Sokei, Associate Professor of English at the University of Washington and author of The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora (Duke University Press, 2006).  The symposium will conclude with a performance by Rhiannon Giddens, banjoist and singer of the Grammy Award-winning folk trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Both the symposium and exhibit are free and open to the public.

The exhibit is curated by students from the seminar “Blackface Minstrelsy in 19th Century America,” taught by Oja and Parler during the fall semester. The artifacts of 19th-century minstrelsy include materials with toxic racial images and powerful, culturally ingrained musical texts. The historical impact of both the images and the music has been huge, and the goal of this project has been to engage students in a conversation about this important aspect of American racial history. The materials displayed document minstrelsy’s wide geographic and chronological span. Topics include the careers of composer-performers Thomas Dartmouth Rice (of European-American heritage) and James Bland (of African-American heritage); minstrel performance in America’s western frontier; black perspectives on blackface; and minstrelsy’s legacy in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The exhibit is supported by grants from the Elson Family Arts Initiative Fund and the Provostial Fund for the Arts and Humanities.

Comment Wall

Comment by Paul Sedgwick on January 14, 2015 at 9:51pm

Of course, I understand that Greg has been feeling quite frail lately.

Comment by Leonidas (Lee) Jones on January 15, 2015 at 12:11am
I may attend this event, but I would like to be assured that there are no strings atteched, ;)
Comment by Paul Sedgwick on January 15, 2015 at 8:23am

You know what? I don't want to keep hammering on this subject; so I'm just going to let that one slide.

Comment by John Masciale on January 15, 2015 at 10:23am

I think you all pegged it.

Comment by Paul Sedgwick on January 16, 2015 at 7:42am

I could choke you.

Comment by Roberta Perkins on January 16, 2015 at 4:57pm

"The Unmasking Jim Crow symposium" sounds wonderful! I wish I could make it! 

I am glad to see that black face will have its own space. The spotlight needs to shine on this part of minstrel music. I too, do not have the luxury nor privilege to overlook its negative history or be content to have it be absorbed into the 'popular culture'.

What is wrong with it having its own exhibit? There is enough material, in black face minstrelsy, that it can command its own stage and carry an exhibit on its own.

Comment by Strumelia on January 16, 2015 at 5:24pm

Hi Roberta!   :)

My own view is that it's fine for exhibits and programs to have a focus, rather than always being constrained to present the entire spectrum of some part of history.  Some painful subjects do merit their own exhibit and exchange of thought, for as we know,

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." - Edmund Burke

Comment by Paul Sedgwick on January 17, 2015 at 9:57am

I hope this exhibit goes beyond the obvious. I think it's difficult when you look at this stuff to maintain an analytical approach. In other words, what is it about America, out of which this wildly popular (here and abroad) entertainment arose? You can answer "racism," of course. But you can't stop there and say, "I have explained it." You have to go deeper for the examination to be truly meaningful. This exhibit is being put together by Harvard students who were in a seminar last fall taught by professor Carol Oja ("historical musicologist"). The exhibit is the culmination of the survey, which included a visit by our own masterful Greg Adams. It will be very interesting to see how they frame the presentation--the focus, the thrust of it. Hope it goes beyond a summary presentation.

Comment by Christopher Stetson on January 17, 2015 at 11:18am

I'm planning to attend and also will be very interested in what they have to say.  I going also because I'm currently working on a program of antebellum songs.  I primarily play guitar, and the repertoire is more in the parlor direction.  I'm working with two singers, and they understandably lean toward avoiding the minstrel material, but I feel this would be a dishonest representation of the era, a "whitewashing", if you'll forgive the irony of the metaphor, but they are the ones who will have to make decisions about "dialect", etc.  I'm hoping to gain some direction for how we, as art musicians of European ancestry, can present this material in a respectful fashion without making it into a lecture.  I especially look forward to what Rhainnon, as a performing musician, has to say.  It will also be great to meet several of you! 

Best, and keep playing.


Comment by Christopher Stetson on January 26, 2015 at 8:12am

Now not going to make it.  Illness and projected weather have intervened.  Too bad, I had a group of 3.  I'll have to make arrangements to see the exhibit, though.  Any reports will be most welcome


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