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African Americans

These pages will explore our research into blackness and its constructions in America through popular culture texts such as novels, illustrations, music, film, and performance. Throughout mainstream texts, African Americans often are  portrayed in derogatory and carcicatured manners. 

The images in this digital gallery illustrate cultural representations of black Americans in post-Civil War America. Novels like Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition and Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, and D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation provided inspiration for the research that contributed to the following pages. Many of the images perpetuate pernicious stereotypes. Others offer more complex and sympathetic portraits of African American lives and cultures.

Throughout the exhibit, historical context is provided for representations of African Americans in: cakewalks, a plantation dance in which slaves mimicked the ballroom waltz of white dancers that later became a blackface performance in minstrelsy and on the vaudeville stage; sheet music for songs composed by both whites and African Americans; film; and stereotypical illustrations on sheet music and nickel weekly covers.

Note the representations of African Americans in images on this page. The cover of "The Cake Walk in the Sky" (Fig. 2) depicts winged African American dancers joyfully “cakewalking” to the music of a harp, while a black St. Peter, with the keys of heaven hanging from his girdle, looks on gleefully.

"Whistling Rufus" (Fig. 4) refers to a one-man band whose whistling was often accompanied by a guitar. While the song is usually instrumental, the following lyrics were sometimes sung:

This nigger would go to a ball or a party,
Rainy weather or shine,
And when he got there was a handsome nigger
After the chicken and the wine.
And when he got through with the chicken and the wine,
Then he whistled and he sung so grand
That they thought the angels' harps was a-playing.
And they called him the one-band man.
(Chorus): Don't make no blunder, they couldn't lose him,
For perfect wonder they had to choose him;
A great musician with a high position
Was whistling Rufus, the one-band man.

On the following pages you will also see what could more accurately be called self-representations of African Americans. These are seen through early African American spirituals, as well as the sheet music that attempted to capture those songs.

As you look through this exhibit, keep in mind such representations of race.

How are they constructed, and by whom? What similarities do you see between the depictions of blackness and the depictions of other races? How do you think all of these items factored together in the public definitions of blackness?