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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
» Reading Guide
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Text 8. Africa
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
7.  Culture
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, novel, 1912, excerpts on culture
- Spirituals performed by the Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, 1998-1999, five audioclips
- Cake walk performed by the Americus Quartet, 1900, two videoclips
- Eubie Blake, interview on ragtime, 1970, with audioclip
    Cake walk

We return to Johnson's Autobiography for his call to pride in black cultural achievements—and his distress that his fellow African Americans often regarded them with shame. "It is my opinion," he writes, "that the colored people of this country have done four things which refute the oft advanced theory that they are an absolutely inferior race"—spirituals, Uncle Remus stories, the cakewalk, and ragtime. Excerpted here are several of his first-time experiences—hearing "Jubilee songs" at a southern camp meeting, attending a competitive cakewalk dance, and travelling among southern rural African Americans. In each he counters prevailing black and white notions that belittle the "power of creating" evident in the cultural forms.

After reading Johnson, you can view online videoclips of the cakewalk as filmed in 1900, and listen to audioclips of five spirituals as performed by the current Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, who are carrying on the tradition of the first Singers, former slaves who began touring in the 1870s to raise money for Fisk and soon became internationally renowned. Finally, we read a 1970 interview with Eubie Blake, one of the first widely known performers of ragtime, and listen to an audioclip of his 1899 piece "Charleston Rag." Ragtime was considered "low music," he explains, and was shunned by many black Americans (including his mother who forbade ragtime in her house). A valuable collection of text and audio-visual primary sources to advance your discussion of racial pride and the differing criteria African Americans brought to the issue in the early 1900s. (We do not include the well-known Uncle Remus stories here. Websites with the stories are included in the Supplemental Links for this topic.) 10 pages, including the background information accompanying the audio- and videoclips.

Discussion questions
  1. How does Johnson encourage his readers, white and black, to take a new and unbiased look at African American culture?
  2. Contrast audiences' responses (black and white) to the two forms of African American music discussed here, spirituals and ragtime. How are they viewed today?
  3. Relate Johnson's discussion of the Negro stereotype to the images of the "Negro banjo player" discussed earlier. How do these stereotypes sabotage the African American's "efforts to elevate himself socially?"
  4. How did you respond to the two videoclips of the cakewalk, one standard and one "comedy" (as titled by the repository, not the film company)? Considering Johnson's perspective, why would the group perform both versions for a filmmaker?
  5. Considering all the readings in this section, how could African Americans most successfully promote racial pride and confidence without endangering themselves, literally and figuratively, in white society?

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
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