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Published by Kevin Fisher

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Published by: Kevin Fisher on May 06, 2012
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Quote List
Cultural Uplift and Double Consciousness
:“Writing more than half a century after Garland, Swain commented that “the social andpolitical implications of Porgy and Bess for the black community are very real and quitecomplex, and require discussion, but ultimately they are irrelevant to any dramatic appraisalof the work” 343“For example, Wilfrid Mellers’s 1965 pioneering analysis of the opera’s music and textpresents the work as a parable of modern man’s conflict with nature, a theme that applies“obviously to urban, industrialized man whatever the colour of his skin: the plight of the Negromerely gives one peculiarly pointed manifestation.”“We further argue that African American reception of the opera is best understood in thecontext of an ideology of cultural and racial uplift, a profound sense of double-consciousness,and a desire to enable a more democratic vision of American culture through the elevation of traditional black art and creative artists.”“At the simplest level, musical and dramatic productions deemed successful by white criticscould serve as symbols of racial achievement and proof that African Americans could masterthe highest forms of European cultural expression. In a more complex way, the creativedomain was a place where the tensions that shaped African American life and that dividedblacks from whites could be imaginatively reconfigured and possibly transcended.”“The roots of black thinking about the relationship of art and society were entangled with thelate nineteenth-century bourgeois ideal of racial uplift, which, according to the historian KevinK. Gaines, aimed at promoting social mobility for blacks through assimilation and theadaptation of middle-class values, including “self-help, racial solidarity, temperance, thrift,chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority, and the accumulation of wealth.”“Among the members of this group another notion of uplift emerged that had roots in AntonínDvoák’s 1893 call for American composers to use indigenous African American and Native
 American folk expressions as the foundation of a national art music and in W. E. B. Du Bois’sequating the Negro folk spiritual with European art song in his 1903 work
The Souls of Black Folk.
Dvoák and Du Bois’s ideas would merge to help define a metaphor of cultural
 transformation.”“The spirituals became, as Du Bois hoped, the privileged genre of African American folkexpression for cultural transformation and elevation. The careful arrangement of folk spiritualsaccording to principles of Western harmony, tonality, and form—a practice that dated back tothe formal stage performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other black college choirs duringthe post-Reconstruction period—had proved an effective means for such transformation.
Bythe early 1930s, the overall consensus of culturally minded African Americans and progressivewhites was that the performance of formally arranged folk spirituals on the concert stage wasa marker of racial progress and cultural uplift that served as an antidote to the damagingimagery of popular minstrelsy.”In the early 1930s, the African American press had the opportunity to explore the movementof the formally arranged folk spiritual from the concert stage to a dramatic setting through
two important precursors to
Porgy and Bess
: the religious folk plays
The Green Pastures
(1930) and
Run, Little Chillun!
(1933). The Pulitzer Prize–winning folk drama
The GreenPastures
was written by white playwright Marc Connelly and based on Roark Bradford’scollection of local color stories,
OlMan Adam anHis Chillun
(1928). Connelly’s fabledramatized the trials and tribulations of the Lord Jehovah, the Angel Gabriel, a host of Old Testament characters, and an angelic choir who together wrestled with the meaning of creation and faith.
Featuring an all-black cast with spiritual singers under Hall Johnson’sdirection, the play received extensive coverage in the black weeklies. Banner headlines suchas “‘Green Pastures’ Termed Biggest Hit of the Season” (
Chicago Defender 
), “Race PlayStrikes like Lightning on Broadway” (
Pittsburgh Courier 
), and “Audience is Moved by ‘GreenPastures’: All-Race Play Called One of Finest Things of Present Generation” (
) ledthe coverage.
In a pattern that would be repeated in the coverage of 
Porgy and Bess
, manyreports simply stitched together favorable excerpts from the major New York drama criticsand added only minimal commentary. In more substantive discussions, the African Americanpress explored the problems inherent in mixing religion and popular stage entertainment.Writing for the
New York Amsterdam News
, S. Tutt Whitney noted that the play’s star, RichardB. Harrison, expressed initial concerns that a Broadway depiction of black religion might beoffensive to African American viewers and that he needed to be “convinced that naught of sacrilege was to be found in ‘The Green Pastures,’ but that it was a fantasy of entrancingloveliness teaching an eloquent sermon.”
To assuage his middle-class readers’ worries that
The Green Pastures
might overemphasize the extreme emotional nature of a southern religionthat ran counter to their notions of respectability, Chappy Gardner of the
Pittsburgh Courier 
said that the play “is an attempt to present certain aspects of a living religion in the terms of its believers—the religion is that of thousands of Negroes all over America. No one becomesoffended at this poetic, fantastic, mad, imaginative jest. Everyone should see this play.”
Inan unsigned review in the
, W. E. B. Du Bois warned that blacks might at first view thereligious folk play as “sacrilege,” but he concluded, “No one may miss this play. It is thebeginning of a new era, not simply a Negro art, but in the art of America.”
The critics of theblack press became advocates of 
The Green Pastures
as a synthesis of African Americanreligious music and theater, observing that the spirituals could maintain the dignity they hadattained on the concert stage when recontextualized in a staged drama about folk religion.“Johnson’s reviewers emphasized that in the transformation of folk culture to a more self-conscious artistic rendering, African American religious music had been elevated withoutdeparting from its essential cultural and aesthetic core.”“The success of Connelly’s and Johnson’s folk plays undoubtedly set certain standards andexpectations for the black critics who would respond to
Porgy and Bess
—an American folkopera based on African American life and lore and sung by conservatory-trained blacks with achorus led by a black choral director.”“In a
New York Times
article later reprinted in the African American press, Gershwin defendedhis notion of a folk opera and claimed to have written his “own spirituals and folksongs”following trips to Charleston and Folly Island, South Carolina, to hear black church singingfirsthand.
Moreover, Gershwin was not interested only in spirituals; his score was influencedby a variety of secular sources, including ragtime, jazz, musical theater, and romantic andmodernist musical modalities. For black reviewers, the presence of the spiritual in the newcontext of an opera and the mixing of folk, popular, and highbrow musical sensibilities
presented a new synthesis that both challenged and extended the possibilities of renderingAfrican American culture onstage in ways not present before
Porgy and Bess.” 
Black critics further understood
Porgy and Bess
in light of their “struggling to break free” of white misconceptions about culture and race, and thus they explored the possibility that theopera might serve as a model for self-conscious African American expression.”“These black reviewers found in his music a satisfying fusion of African American folk spiritand traditional operatic conventions that, when sung by conservatory-trained AfricanAmericans, represented a significant advance in the presence of black artists and culture onthe American stage.”“Johnson held the religious music of southern black slaves in particular reverence. Indeed, thespiritual was his privileged genre, and when Johnson spoke of folk music he meant religiousmusic rather than secular blues, jazz, or ragtime. He continued an argument first articulatedby Frederick Douglass, who expressed dismay at the white misreading of spirituals as a sign of the slave’s spontaneous joy.
That idea was amplified by Du Bois in
The Souls of Black Folk 
when he labeled the slave spirituals “the sorrow songs.” For Johnson, like Du Bois, Alain Locke,and James Weldon Johnson, spirituals were what the historian Paul Allen Anderson calls“vessels for transmitting black social memory.”
Johnson spoke of the wall of racial separation“that forced them [the spirituals] into existence,” and that at the same time had “closed intight upon their
, and allows only their beauty to escape through the chinks.”Gershwin, like many whites before him, might appreciate the aesthetic beauty of blackspirituals but could never grasp the deeper significance they held for blacks, and hence couldnever succeed in offering their proper interpretation. Johnson argued that an “authenticity of style” necessarily preserved and transmitted thesocial memory of the spirituals and would “be achieved only when the public has been madeto see and like Negro material presented as its creators understand and feel it.”“Ellington had his own vision of African American music as social memory, having previouslyargued that the essence of black music was rooted in “our reaction in the plantation days tothe tyranny we endured” and that he looked forward to “an authentic [musical] record of myrace
written by a member of it 
.”“If secular blues, ragtime, and early jazz could be harnessed and transformed, the elevatingwould have to be done by cultural insiders like him, not by outsiders like Gershwin. Insuggesting that the cultural production should be under the control of African Americancreators as well as performers, Ellington joined Johnson in advocating a Harlem Renaissanceethos of cultural nationalism that challenged the assimilationist attitudes central to earlierracial uplift theory and practice.
Porgy and Bess
failed to capture the underlying power of African American religious music,lacking the “jubilee spirit” of Johnson’s
Run, Little Chillun!
and the “deep soul-stirring” songsof Connelly’s
The Green Pastures
. In comparing Gershwin’s operatic interpretations of AfricanAmerican religious songs with Johnson’s
a cappella
arrangements of spirituals, Matthews’soften-quoted criticism of the “conservatory twang” of the singing takes on a specificmeaning.”
The Foundational Influence of Spirituals in African-American Culture: A PsychologicalPerspective
“Especially puzzling were em tions that would seem to be impossible to experiencesimultaneously: joy and sadness, rage and love, tranquility and anxiety. I was so unnervedby these intense and seemingly incompatible emotions that I was nearly unable tocomplete my program.” 253

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