Thursday, 8 July 2010

DuBois and Robeson return

Waste has been, until very recently and with few exceptions, as American as Apple Pie. The apparent limitlessness of our natural resources discouraged husbandry. Ghost town and fly-by-night became national pass words. Human resources where not protected from such profligacy either, especially if one were unlucky enough to be black, brown, red or female.
Take black American geniuses like W.E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Philly Joe Jones. It took the estimable Library of America series five years and 34 volumes before they got around to publishing DuBois, the first black writer in the series. No matter: better late than never.
It is instructive to read DuBois in the midst of the ConBiCen. His doctoral dissertation at Harvard (in 1895, the first black to get a Ph.D. there) was on the suppression of the slave trade. And he pins down the tradeoff that eventually resulted in the nefarious formula that five blacks were demographically equal to three whites: Northern commercial interests agreed not to ban the importation of slaves if the South would not encumber its eventual adversary with too harsh shipping controls.
DuBois also has a strong Philly connection: In 1896 he was hired by the University of Pennsylvania as an “investigator” (no tenure track nonsense!) at $900 per annum to prepare a sociological study of the city’s black population, a landmark ethnic investigation. Imagine how the course of white/black relations in this city and in the nation at large might have been ameliorated if some administrator at Penn had the courage to appoint this obviously promising scholar to its faculty.
Admittedly, DuBois was not a man to suffer fools, high I.Q. or low, of whatever color, gladly. Take Carl Van Vechten, the darling of cafĂ© society in the 1920s, held up as an open-minded man because he got Manhattan midtowners to slum at the likes of the Cotton Club—where no blacks were served and where light-colored blacks did the entertaining.
DuBois was not misled, savaging Van Vechten’s condescending novel, Nigger Heaven (1926), “To him the black cabaret is Harlem; around it all his characters gravitate … Such a theory of Harlem is nonsense … The average colored man in Harlem is an everyday laborer, attending church, lodge and movie and as conservative and as conventional as ordinary working folk everywhere.”
Or take his response to N.Y. Times music critic Olin Downes, implying that the Fisk University Choir at Carnegie Hall was not the real colored sound of the kind he had heard at colored churches. “What it really means,” DuBois railed, “is that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive, religious revival … any attempt to sing Italian music or German music, in some inexplicable manner, leads them off their preserves and is not ‘natural.’ To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural. The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment, rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.”
In this context it is bittersweet to read his 1916 notice of “Miss Marion E. Anderson” as a principal singer in the People’s Choral Society’s rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia. “Miss Anderson,” DuBois subtly pleads for a generous patron, “is in her second year at the William Penn School in Philadelphia … She is now studying under a German teacher and anticipates going abroad after her schooling if she can secure sufficient engagements; but her father is dead and Miss Anderson is one of a family of four.”
DuBois would be thrilled to learn that due to the good services of Moonstone, Inc. (get their program either at 110 S. 13th Street or 735-9598) and the fiscal brinksmanship of Larry Robin of Robin’s Bookstore (who is out on a $15,000 limb on this splendid venture), Paul Robeson is being honored by a week-long retrospective which should regain him some of the respect he earned before the State Department shamefully denied him his passport in 1950 (whereupon his income fell from $104,000 to $2,000).
DuBois, writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1918, is clearly elated at finding the promising comer for his Talented Tenth brigade that he hoped would lead the colored masses out of an economic slavery as dire as their former physical one.
He tells how the six-foot-two, 210-pound athlete graduated at the top of his class in Sommerville, N.J., and entered Rutgers on a four-year scholarship. “Mr. Robeson … has won the first class oratorical prize for two years, a feat never before accomplished in the school. He is varsity debater, plays guard in basketball, throws weight in track, catches in baseball, and is a baritone soloist.” And how baritone! April 5-11 is Philly’s week of Robeson catching-up (see the listings section for the full roster of remaining events).
Catching up as well is WHYY (91 FM) which premieres locally its national series, Jazz Impressions from Philadelphia, Friday, April 24 at 9 p.m. with last June’s Mellonfest “Philly Jams for Philly Joe.”
Maybe we’re beginning to see the folly of wasting the best amongst us.
from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, April 8, 1987

1 comment:

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