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Margaret Washington : The Portrayal of African Americans in Song
Maragret Washington There was a vernacular of music called "coon songs" that was very popular around 1900. And they depicted African Americans as buffoons, oftentimes eating watermelon. They depicted African American women withvery large gluteus maximus and very fat in front and African American men with huge red lips and large eyes. They depicted African Americans lyrically, in dialect, in the most gross form of informal English, much of which African Americans never used in any period in their history. And they essentially made African Americans ridiculous. It was a tradition that was part of American history, going all the way back to the 1820 and 30s and it had matured with the nation. It went out of vogue at the time of the Civil War and during Reconstruction and then re-emerged along with some of the other less noble aspects of American society and culture such as the rise of scientific racism which reached its height in 1900 and made these "coon songs" okay, because African Americans were "proven"scientifically to be inferior. So naturally they would engage in this kind of buffoonery. And these were very popular. They were simply part of white American culture.

The culture was so racist and thought of African Americans as inferior, as a matter of course that whites didn't look upon these songs as being anything other than part of culture. What they did from 1890 to 1905 was they simply revived the songs that had been used, especially in the North, especially in New York City in the 1830s. They just simply revised them and gave them a more modern face.

I think it was part of the oppression. I think it was also part of America's sense of being really on top of the world. I mean on top of the world in terms of the whole world, and almost in a way of saying that we are on top and other people are on bottom and at the same time it was not even the kind of racism that was synonymous with the terrorism of the South which is meant to literally beat black people down, but this kind of racism was kind of a paternalism. Yes, these people are inferior, but we can help them. They will never be as great as we are, because of another concept of the time along with scientific racism was social Darwinism. So, not only are they scientifically inferior, but we are the fittest among humanity and they simply couldn't aspire to be where we are, even if they wanted to, so you can afford to be generous. And within this broad construct were these "coon songs" which is simply brought into fruition what they already felt to be true.

If you look at the works of someone like Dunbar, who presents African American literary tradition partly in dialect, then you can see that there is somewhat of a contradiction and you can see how Dunbar's dialect poetry might have fit into white concepts about African Americans. But then you have to ask the question, should African Americans not be themselves as they genuinely see themselves because they are afraid of what whites are going to think about them, because white people are going to think what they want about black people no matter what black people do. And Dunbar's poetry and all of his earthiness was original. The "coon songs" were not. And in the same way that in the period of slavery, on plantations, African Americans created artistry that was appropriated by whites in the North and turned into minstrelsy, that does not denigrate the artistry that the African American culture created.

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