Beyond The Page
“Beyond the Page” features supplementary materials that enhance the content of American Quarterly. The guest editors, forum conveners, contributing authors, and/or review editors provide audiovisual materials, links to online sources, recommended readings, and other information that help to deepen the reader’s understanding of the print version of the journal. The feature is designed to spark further conversation, inspire new ways of engaging texts and issues, and suggest possible approaches to teaching. Please engage what is “Beyond the Page” together with what is inside the pages of American Quarterly.
This issue of American Quarterly goes into production in the wake of the 2016 election. The values, policies, and behavior represented by Trump, his supporters, and those he is choosing as his staff are deeply in opposition to the fundamental principles of the ASA community. The election results challenge us to seriously reflect on what it means to do American studies and renew our commitments as scholars, teachers, and activists in this world. Many of the essays included here address themes that are critical to these issues.
Color Was a Bar to the Entrance: African American Activism and the Question of Social Equality in Lincoln’s White House
My article began with a clue: a brief sentence in an old history of Washington, D.C., stating that organizers of Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball had prohibited African Americans from buying tickets. Although more books have been written about Lincoln than about any other American president, no scholarship that I’m aware of has discussed the question of who attended that ball or, more generally, why the organizers would have banned African Americans.
The essay therefore reveals a sort of hidden history, of a kind that requires patient and intensive research. Such a story cannot be uncovered by looking at Abraham Lincoln’s papers, published books and pamphlets, or the archives of other prominent men or institutions. In fact, it’s precisely because the question of who attended social events in Washington was a question of custom – not of law or policy – that it is so hard to research. And so, over time and in connection with my other work on the history of Washington, D.C., I tried to figure out the who, what, where, when, and why of how African Americans, during the Civil War, challenged racist custom at White House social events and in other public spaces in Washington.
That was the historical puzzle at the center of the article, but that question intersected with other, broader concerns of mine. I’ve long been interested in how Americans have understood the conjuncture of race and space, and I think that conjuncture is central to understanding the history of equality and inequality in the United States. That was an issue I wrote about in my book, An Example for All the Land (2010), and I’ve continued to pursue it, including in a forthcoming piece on African Americans at West Point in the 1870s. The question, in its largest sense, is how have Americans decided where equality of various kinds was desirable, and where – that is, in what spaces – inequality and personal choice should prevail? When the Republican organizers of the 1865 inaugural ball insisted that the event was “private,” they invoked a vision of personal choice and exemption from larger, societal values of equality that remains with us into the present. We see that vision, for example, in debates about the privatization of public education and the problem of racial segregation in housing.
This essay also speaks to questions of race, class, and respectability in American history. I argue that white Republicans’ ambivalence about African Americans’ attendance at quasi-social public events was rooted in the culture of the antebellum North, but I only briefly allude to that earlier period. The online exhibit, “Reframing the Color Line: Race and the Visual Culture of the Atlantic World,” from the Clements Library at University of Michigan, may serve to supplement my article. The exhibit asks “what were the origins of racism’s visual vocabulary?” And the sources and commentary it provides, largely from the first half of the nineteenth century, help contextualize the conflicts (and hang-ups) described in my article. My article’s illustration, a piece of racist propaganda from the 1864 presidential campaign, may be examined more closely at the Library of Congress’s website. An article by Harold Holzer, published by the White House Historical Association, exemplifies a more standard treatment of the Lincolns’ personal and social lives at the White House.
Elizabeth Keckly has received renewed attention recently, particularly in the wake of Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, in which Keckly was played by the actress Gloria Reuben. The Smithsonian Institution owns several dresses Keckly designed, and in this article, a researcher describes Keckly’s significance as a high-fashion designer. A 2013 New York Times article catalogued some of the recent focus on Keckly, including the Spielberg film, a novel, a play, and a joint biography of Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln written by Jennifer Fleischner. (Fleischner persuasively argued in her book, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave, that Keckly herself spelled her name without a second “e.”) William Slade has received far less attention than Keckly, but he too had a small role in Spielberg’s Lincoln, and new research has revealed that in addition to working in the White House and being an activist in black Washington, Slade also wrote poetry. Keckly’s book, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, and Frederick Douglass’s third autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, both sources for the article, are freely available through the Documenting the American South project.
“To Die for a Lousy Bike": Bicycles, Race, and the Regulation of Public Space on the Streets of Washington, DC, 1963-2009.
On August 11, 1972, District of Columbia police shot and killed Gregory Coleman, an African American teenager riding a bicycle that they had planted in front of a grocery store as part of a “bicycle stakeout” sting operation. At his memorial service a little over a week later, Lancelot Coleman, Gregory’s father, said, “the whole thing was senseless that my son had to die for a lousy bike.” Coleman’s death foreshadowed a half-century of escalating law and order policies established across the United States for which African American youths would experience the most severe of consequences. Bicycling was implicated in these trends. Officers used mandatory bicycle registration and bicycle stakeouts to control where African American youths could move within the city, shoring up boundaries of the District’s racial geography that were first established in the wake of the Civil War. As a vehicle for physical mobility and a source of play for young people during an era of intense federal attention to juvenile delinquency, the bicycle became a fulcrum for efforts to maintain segregated public spaces in the District.
Everyone who lived in the city of Washington, D.C. for most of the time between 1963 and 2008 had to register any bicycle that they owned, often under the threat of a maximum penalty of a $300 fine or ten days in jail. D.C. officials passed this ordinance as part of a larger effort to curb bicycle theft in the District. In practice, law enforcement used this law as a pretext for investigatory stops. The story of bicycle stakeouts, Gregory Coleman, and mandatory bicycle registration connect federally mandated aggressive policing to the mobility and fun associated with bicycling and to Washington, D.C.’s colonial system of governance.
Although Washington’s status as the federal district extends back to the nation’s founding, its particular, and peculiar, current form of government is rooted in the Reconstruction era. Between 1874 and 1973, the President of the United States appointed all of those who ran the District’s government, and, of course, today residents of Washington have no representatives in the U.S. Congress with any voting power. The District’s colonial status has made the city an easy place to test federal policy, and this was especially true for laws pertaining to policing. By 1970, Washington, D.C. had, per capita, the largest police force in the world. Its leadership used its power to systemically police the movement of African American youths like Gregory Coleman in a city with a long history of enforcing the racial boundaries of its public spaces.
- Mapping Segregation (created by Prologue DC) is among the most interesting resources available online for teaching the history of racial segregation of public spaces in Washington. It is a public history initiative to document racial discrimination and segregation in the District. The first phase of this digital effort focuses upon residential segregation. Drawing from the help of student researchers from the University of the District of Columbia, this site digitally maps deed restrictions and petition covenants in the District and recounts legal challenges to discriminatory housing practices in a fascinating story map. Bicycles allowed African American youths to transgress the racial geography of Washington, something that local newspapers covered as a threat to public order. Navigate to the Prologue D.C. home page to learn more about their other projects.
- Charles Pender, the police officer who shot Gregory Coleman during the bicycle stakeout in August of 1972, was also African American. This was obviously a painful aspect of the story for many African Americans in Washington, but it also focused attention in the African American press less upon the potentially racist motives of an individual police officer and more upon the institutional policies of surveillance that created policing practices dangerous to people of color. The Washington Afro-American addressed the complex implications of Coleman’s death in its immediate front-page coverage, and in its story about his memorial two weeks later.
- National African American media outlets also took note of Gregory Coleman’s killing. They noticed that it fit a pattern of aggressive and violent police practices that were national in scope. While they could not have known it then, these practices reflected national policy that actually began during the war on poverty during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, and that Richard M. Nixon accelerated during his commitment to “law and order” during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Elizabeth Hinton documents this history in her groundbreaking book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016). Jet magazine featured Coleman’s story in its September 14, 1972 issue, and it was the cover story for The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service on September 9, 1972 under the headline, “A Life for a Bike."
- Julius Hobson gave the eulogy for Gregory Coleman at his public memorial. He is a fascinating civil rights activist, intellectual, and provocateur who worked tirelessly in D.C. for equal rights in housing, education, and public life more generally. After he died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 57, local television reporter Marilyn Robinson created a documentary entitled “Julius Hobson: The Great Gadfly” which provides interview clips and documentary footage of this relatively unheralded social justice leader.
Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome Narrative: Human Rights, the Nayirah Testimony, and the Gulf War
This essay chronicles how the George H. W. Bush administration revised the cultural narrative of the Vietnam War by militarizing the humanitarian ethic of the antiwar movement in the Persian Gulf. While more commonly associated with the Clinton administration’s use of force in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, humanitarianism also centrally informed the Gulf War––a war that, while remembered for its association with live television and oil, laid the groundwork for a decade of “one-world” humanitarian war-making. This essay then looks ahead to two Gulf War films, David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999) and Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997), to consider how the militarization of humanitarian affect contained liberal-antiwar discourse at the end of the twentieth century.
Bush, whose administration had initially cited Kuwait’s and Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves as a reason for intervening on their behalf, did not discover the high road to war until a Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah gave him a focusing event on which to build a new story about the war in the Persian Gulf. Two months after Iraq invaded Kuwait, on October 10, 1990, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on alleged human rights abuses committed by the invading Iraqi soldiers. The caucus heard testimony from many witnesses and human rights advocates that day, but no testimony was as moving as that given by Nayirah, a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl who did not reveal her identity, cochairman John Porter said, for fear of inviting retaliations against her family. She alleged that she had seen Iraqi soldiers remove infants from incubators and leave them “to die on the cold floor.” Only after the war did Americans learn that Nayirah’s testimony was fabricated, a result of coaching by the public-relations firm Hill and Knowlton for its client Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a US-based organization bankrolled by the Kuwaiti government to advocate for the United States to militarily intervene on behalf of Kuwait. Nayirah was the daughter of the country’s ambassador to the United States, Saud Nasser al-Sabah, who had been sitting four seats down from her, unacknowledged, at the caucus hearing (see 4:50 in the video).
The effectiveness of Nayirah’s account of human rights abuses by the Iraqi Army did not go unnoticed by the Bush administration. Within days, the president began referencing the incubator story at fundraisers, rallies, and military bases across the country. On January 9, with coalition forces readied for war, the president wrote a letter to college students in which he characterized the conflict as “unambiguous––right vs. wrong” and cited Nayirah’s incubator story as evidence. “Each day that passes,” he added, is “another day of atrocities for Amnesty International to document.” The letter was sent to 460 campus newspapers. With the Vietnam War on his mind, Bush understood that large-scale antiwar demonstrations could transform the conversation surrounding the war effort. Drawing on the discourse of human rights, Bush’s letter mobilized the humanitarian affect of the antiwar movement to military ends. The United States, he contended, was on the side of humanity in the Persian Gulf, and every college student who resisted that effort was enabling further human rights abuses against Kuwaiti children. The point he tried to make with the incubator story was that, in the post–Cold War era, the liberal collegiate should welcome rather than resist war as a humanitarian cause.
Bush’s humanitarian case for war created an enduring obstacle for such liberal-antiwar films as Russell’s Three Kings, an action comedy about four American soldiers who transform from self-interested treasure hunters into humanitarian rescuers. Five years after that film’s initial run, in 2004, Russell and Warner Bros. decided to rerelease Three Kings in theaters and on DVD with a thirty-minute documentary about the United States’ new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “People would keep saying to me, ‘Three Kings is so timely,’ so I thought it would be interesting to re-release it, and check in with the people who pertained to the movie literally, or in some relative way,” Russell told the New York Times. The documentary, which Russell codirected with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Saldivar, features interviews with veterans, military commanders, politicians, and Iraqi American actors from the feature-length film. Russell, a vocal critic of the George W. Bush administration, sought to release the film ahead of the 2004 election, thinking that it “could perhaps make a difference” in the outcome. But, as this essay suggests, Russell’s film condemns the first Gulf War on the basis that it did not last long enough––that the United States should have overthrown Saddam Hussein and installed a democratic government––and thus advances an unconvincing antiwar message amid the second Bush administration’s effort to do just that.
Race and Allegory in Mass Culture: Historicizing The X-Files
Theresa L. Geller
This essay is part of a larger project to rethink the history of the present as it is mediated in and through mass culture. Cultural theorist Fredric Jameson led the charge to historicize the present in popular forms such as film and, more recently, television. While Jameson and others, such as Lauren Berlant, have produced persuasive and lengthy work on the figuration of the political present—and its relation to the future—in extensive analyses of literary and cultural works, television has played only a very small role in the archive of the historical present. My article returns to Fredric Jameson’s early writings on film to assert the continued importance of cognitive mapping, which remains a necessary critical response to the problems posed by contemporary mass culture. I employ Jameson’s methodology—one essentially absent from television studies today—to historicize the FOX series, The X-Files, in light of its reboot in 2016. Airing from 1993-2002, the series figured what Michelle Alexander famously diagnoses as “the New Jim Crow”—the phenomenon of mass incarceration that marks a new racial caste system in the U.S. emerging in the 1980s and 1990s. At the height of the war on drugs in the U.S., the show’s investigatory framework allegorized the vast juridical system controlling surplus populations at the end of the twentieth century. The historical allegory of The X-Files is to be found in the dialectical relationship between the mythology and the monster-of-the-week episodes (MOTWs), with the former providing an indictment of governmental “conspiracy” and the latter narrativizing the material, embodied effects of its unchecked power on marginalized communities.
While my recently published book on the series examines the show’s engagement with a myriad of social Others, particularly in allegories of alienation and monstrosity, this article allows me to unpack the historical dialectics fostered in the implicit ties between the mytharc and the monster-of-the-week episode. The juxtaposition of the types of complex storytelling—in this case, the mythology arc and the standalone investigation—made possible by the serial form of television present a unique political allegory of racial politics at the end of the century. By employing the formal analysis that Jameson models in his encounters with mass culture, I trace correspondences between world system, hegemony, and subalterity in The X-Files’ warp and weave of conspiracy mythology episodes and MOTW investigations. That is, while the conspiracy through-line attempts to grasp the geopolitical unconscious through its rendering of the inconceivable forces behind a labyrinthine bureaucracy working to conceal its own atrocities—figured in tales of black oil, alien colonization, and Super Soldiers—the MOTWs supplement these global narratives with local, specific stories that, in effect, drop pins in that larger cognitive map, anchoring world historical phenomena to lived experience.
In this, I try to show how key episodes figure larger political issues historically concurrent with their airing. For instance, I discuss at length the highly debated episode, “Teliko” (4:03), which tracks Burkina Faso immigrant, Samuel Aboah, through a plot loosely based on “an African folktale.” While many have accused this particular episode of racism and xenophobia, there is a much more nuanced argument to be made through the practices of close reading the text itself, as we stress to our students everyday. This is also true of the other episode I analyze in detail—“The List” (3:05). In the series’ representation of those impacted by the emergent caste system of the new Jim Crow, it often framed its allegories in terms of the occult, generating MOTWs structured by the theme of haunting, specifically. Most often, these narratives expose the structural violence masked or rationalized by the majority of crime-oriented shows dominating the airwaves at the time. By focusing on (the causes of) the abjection of social Others, the series turned its epistemological gaze onto the repressive institutions of the nation—the prison system, the INS, the military, and the FBI itself—which substantially and materially benefited from the war on drugs. “The List” (3:05), for example, takes place in a U.S. prison, and, through its fantastic narrative of an executed prisoner reincarnated as a fly to enact his revenge (referencing one of the most famous Haitian maroon slaves, François Mackandal), the monstrousness of the prison-industrial complex—rather than the criminal—becomes the locus of interrogation. This shift in focus is significant; if mass culture is where we can vaguely sense history in its unfolding, we need to be able to evaluate its potential for intervention and renegotiation as well as its complicity. While it is facile to claim that television is far from monolithic, the need for humanistic and historical study emphasizing close reading of the popular is increasingly urgent. Attention to visual and aural codes as well as the analysis of narrative development and affective signposting of a mass cultural form as influential as television is especially called for in this era: when a TV personality can become president, the gap dividing the televisual from the historical has all but disappeared.
Erotic Labor and the Black Ecstatic “Beyond”
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
This essay reviews three recent works in black sexuality studies: The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Duke University Press, 2014), by Jennifer Christine Nash, Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (University of Illinois Press 2015), by L. H. Stallings, and A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Duke University Press, 2014), by Mireille Miller-Young. These exciting works take a range of methodological approaches to several key questions in the field: what is the place of pornography in contemporary conversations on blackness and representation? How does a focus on sex work and erotic labor expand analyses of black womanhood and performance? What reading strategies are needed to explore the unsanctioned far reaches of sexuality, gender, and desire in black literature and erotic life?
Work on sexuality and performance in contemporary culture is likely to garner interest from many students. Yet these books’ theoretical contributions and nuanced approaches to race, gender, and class analysis invite an exciting interdisciplinary pedagogical approach that will make for rich and challenging discussion in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms. In introducing the texts, I begin with a pop culture framing, considering how megastar performer Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade introduces a glimpse into some of these concerns in pop cultural discourses—discourses with which students are likely to be familiar. Beyoncé’s album is relevant not only for its own engagements with black female performance and erotic embodiment, but also for the conversations it sparked in black feminist media—particularly in “I Am Becky With the Good Hair” Karinne Steffans-Short’s blog post for the feminist site xoJane, in which the former video dancer and author of the 2006 hip hop exposé Confessions of a Video Vixen uses her response to Lemonade to trouble standards of black female sexuality and respectability in pop culture and performance. Steffans-Short offers a pop cultural context for the themes of erotic autonomy and performances of black women’s pleasure on which Nash, Miller-Young, and Stallings focus, extending important recent black feminist discourses on respectability and “ratchetness” by taken up by well known black feminist groups like the Crunk Feminist Collective and others.
These works also offer opportunities to revisit iconic moments in late twentieth century black performance cultures, and to consider the gendered stakes of pleasure, desire, and sex in those texts. Each of these three works maintains a focus on the erotics and aesthetics of black cultures of the 1970s, to which the Blaxploitation film genre and connected musical forms are central. Separate Cinema’s overview of Blaxploitation genre and The Globe and Mail’s 2015 interview with Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier on the genre’s treatment of gender are quite useful here, as are a number of short YouTube clips, including the trailer for Women in Cages (1971), starring Grier, which shares thematic links with several of the films these texts take up, as well as the iconic Blaxploitation film Foxy Brown (1974). The work of 1990s rapper Foxy Brown, too, may be familiar to students, and offers another example of the cross-genre and cross-temporal resonances of racialized performances of black female sexuality.
Hip-hop is an important concern of Miller-Young's A Taste for Brown Sugar, in particular. Miller-Young draws connections between the genre’s erotics and the production and circulation of pornographic imagery from the 1990s on, extending and complicating key feminist conversations on sexuality in hip hop media. VH1.com offers an interesting, if incomplete, selection of feminist moments in hip hop lyrics. Miller-Young also offers a welcome focus on the economic and political stakes of pornographic performance as racialized sex work. The official website of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP) provides useful critical perspective on sexual labor and its relationship to feminist and social justice movements. Likewise, in a piece on the popular blog For Harriet, writer Aya DeLéon situates the racial economics of sex work in a black transnational context, and considers its place in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nash's The Black Body in Ecstasy continues this conversation, which will be generative for students in gender and sexuality, literature, and black studies or critical race studies courses. One of Nash’s central contributions is her critique of black feminist theory and criticism, and its treatment of black women’s sexuality. University of California Santa Barbara’s useful online tool, “Black American Feminisms: A Multidisciplinary Bibliography,” compiled by Sherri L. Barnes, offers an impressive archive of important and lesser-known works in the field that will offer students helpful context for understanding Nash’s critique. Nash raises important questions about pleasure in black feminism—questions that continue in the recent #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackGirlJoy conversations (taking place on Twitter, among other spaces), which many students may already be engaging. Nash also takes as her point of departure a provocative re-reading of black feminist treatments of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman who was famously exhibited as a freak attraction in the late 19th century, and whose genitals were preserved and exhibited at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974. South African History Online’s multimedia archive of resources on Baartman may offer helpful context for students interested in Baartman’s story and its importance for reading black women’s embodiment.
To this discussion of the forms and politics of black sexual cultures, Stallings’s Funk the Erotic adds, among other things, a compelling focus on “funk” as both erotic practice and aesthetic mode. The 2014 film, The Story of Funk: One Nation Under a Groove, directed by James Hale, offers background on the history of funk, even as it demonstrates the cultural erasure of women and queer sexuality that Stallings critiques. For Stallings, expanding this discourse of Funk requires engagements with the image of the “freak,” and black cultural mobilizations of various forms of difference marked as “freak.” R&B singer Adina Howard’s 1995 single “Freak Like Me,” an anthem of the kind of black female sexual autonomy and avowed freakery Stallings explores, may be familiar to some students—and even if it is not, it should serve as a helpful text for drawing connections between Stallings’s material and students’ contemporary cultural milieus. The same is true of Rick James’s classic song, “Superfreak,” which also provides an iconic example of funk music aesthetics. Another of Stallings’s major contributions is her critique of blackness and ethics in nonmonogamy discourses. Compersion, a 2016 webseries directed by Jackie Stone, takes up just these themes, and provides a creative primary text in which to ground discussion of Stallings’ analysis.
Finally, Miller-Young’s article “The Pedagogy of Pornography: Teaching Hardcore Media in a Feminist Studies Classroom” (Signs 2.2) contributes to an important body of work on teaching pornography. In the essay, she describes her own approach to teaching pornographic material: “In my pedagogy of pornography I aim to be honest about my own sexual subjectivity and to allow students to discover, question, and articulate their own. In this way, teaching pornography feels very much like the courses I teach on gender, race, and class, in that I ask students to become sensitized to the connections between “academic knowledge and everyday life, and to use those connections to help make sense of ourselves” (Waskul 2009, 660).” This is the task each of these authors issues us, both as scholars and as educators: to take unexpected approaches to what we believe we know about race, gender, class, and sexual life, and to learn to imagine these categories in new ways.
Shuffle and Repeat: A Review of George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along
Kristin Leigh Moriah
In “Shuffle and Repeat: A Review of George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along” I highlight the historical importance of the short-lived 2016 Broadway production of Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. I also note that there may be certain lacunae in our historiography of The Making Of (2016), because of a cast recording was not produced before the production closed. A cast recording was rumored to be in the works with Nonesuch Records, but it remained just that, a rumor. In this way, the archival fate of The Making Of is eerily similar to the original production of Shuffle Along. And yet, today we have the benefit of other forms of digital technology that can help to round out our understanding of George C. Wolfe’s work. For instance, this short performance at the 2016 Tony Awards ceremony comes close to capturing the energy of the revival and its intricate choreography.
This February 2016 Times Talks interview with New York Times critic Wesley Morris features George C. Wolfe and Audra McDonald. The interview outlines the continuing impact of Shuffle Along in terms of the signature form and style of American musicals. The Times Talk is interesting because of its focus on craft and history. It showcases Wolfe’s infectious charm and encyclopedic knowledge of African American theater history. Much of the conversation is centered on questions of cultural appropriation and comparisons between the climate of early twentieth century musical theater and our current moment. For example, Audra McDonald’s explains the way her understanding of the production, and her fondness for it, is influenced a sense of cultural ownership. At the same time, McDonald and Wolfe share a keen awareness of the way their work can be appropriated. Wolfe reveals that Florenz Ziegfield Jr. hired dancers from the chorus of Shuffle Along to teach his own white chorus line how to dance. Wolfe also discusses the way Shuffle Along (1921) defined the boundaries that white performers like Al Jolson would use to frame blackness and rise to fame. The interview contains an interesting digression on the way technology has shifted our investment in theatre and popular culture. Wolfe ends the segment with a provocative question: “What proportion of history can you put in your body so that it empowers you? And what proportion of history can you put in your body that it overwhelms you?”
This short May 2016 CUNY TV Theater Talk episode features George C. Wolfe and cast members Adrienne Warren and Brandon Victor Dixon. The interview was filmed after the musical had been nominated for several Tony Awards, but before the show’s closure was announced. On a somewhat eerie note, Wolfe begins the interview by discussing unsuccessful revivals of Shuffle Along, noting that “time is frequently not kind to shows that are significant”. Despite its bittersweet beginnings, the episode conveys the excitement surrounding The Making Of and some of the dynamic energy that informs live theater. The emphasis on African American theater history and Wolfe’s explication of Shuffle Along’s contributions to American culture and musical theater make this piece appropriate as an undergraduate teaching tool.
In that interview, Wolfe explains that because there is no cast recording for the original production, there are no known recordings of breakout star Florence Mills’ voice. Here too, the historic production of Shuffle Along becomes emblematic of a larger issues in American culture: Mills is one of a long line of African American divas whose voice is missing from the sonic archives. For researchers, approximating the sound of the original production and its stars involves some leg work but online resources are helpful here, too, in addition to historical newspaper reviews. The Library of Congress’s National Jukebox contains two recordings of popular numbers from the show, Bandana Days and Baltimore Buzz, performed by the Shuffle Along Orchestra. The National Jukebox also contains Shuffle Along recordings performed by the all-white Paul Whiteman orchestra, including I’m Just Wild About Harry.
The NYPL is the gold standard when it comes to archival material for the original production of Shuffle Along. Rich resources can be found digital archives across several divisions. The music division contains Shuffle Along sheet music published in 1921. The Billy Rose Theater Collection photograph file has a section that contains production stills and publicity photos from the 1921 and 1933 iterations of Shuffle Along. Of course, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture also holds a few pieces of Shuffle Along ephemera, including this gorgeous shot from a reunion of original cast members Flournoy Miller, Josephine Baker, Noble Sissle and Edgar Battles, taken during World War II.