Race and Representation in the Gilded Age: Popular Culture and Depictions of Marginalized Racial Groups

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth saw the rise of the first genuine popular culture in the United States. New advances in technology coupled with an increase of leisure time and extra money among a significant portion of the American population made this popular culture possible. Popular culture exerted a major influence on American life as its various mediums were used to create a cultural homogeneity which had not previously existed as well as to reinforce white cultural hegemony through propagating stereotypes about marginal groups.

An important distinction that must be made is that between folk culture and popular culture. As American cultural commentator Dwight Macdonald pointed out, “folk art grew from below” as the “spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people” who were “without the benefit of High Culture.”1 In other words, in the absence of access to more refined artistic and cultural forms, folk art was a natural aesthetic outgrowth from people who wished to express themselves artistically. Popular culture, on the other hand, Macdonald goes on, “is imposed from above.”2 Its creation and dissemination are controlled by capitalists who “exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class-rule.”3 Popular culture, then, acts as “an instrument of political domination.”4 In this way, popular culture becomes the vehicle for the imposition of cultural homogeneity and the maintenance of hegemony.

The growth of the concept of “whiteness” in opposition to the ostensibly existentially opposed concept of “blackness” during the Gilded Ages provides one clear example of a case in which popular culture served this function. Richard L. Hughes, a historian whose work has focused on the history of American culture and society, has pointed out how the creation and dissemination of stereotypes about blacks created a sense of unity among the white audiences who viewed minstrel shows. According to Hughes, portrayals of blacks in popular culture “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”5 Blacks were often portrayed in minstrel shows and other venues of popular culture in ways that were comically over-the-top. Black characters were often bumbling, hopelessly ignorant, and obsessed with sex. An audience at a minstrel show might consist of individuals who were immigrants or the children of immigrants from such diverse nations as Italy, Poland, and England, nations with different languages, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions. The black, as he was portrayed in caricature at the minstrel show, presented such an obvious contrast with anything that any of them would consider normal or acceptable, however, that the contrast created a sense of unity among those of European descent. Thus, the concept of “whiteness” came to encompass a broad swathe of people with little else in common than ancestors who had come from the same continent and who now defined themselves in opposition to the similarly fabricated concept of “blackness.”

One ironic feature of popular culture, in the light of its functions and effects as a vehicle for white solidarity and black marginalization, is that many of the elements of popular culture derived from earlier expressions of black folk culture. Ragtime, for example, a form of music and dance that was particularly popular among young people during the Gilded Age, was derived from black folk music and dance. In other words, the origins of ragtime were in what Dwight Macdonald identified as genuine folk art; it was the product of people whose social status isolated them from the cultivated aesthetics of High Culture but who simultaneously felt the need for artistic expression. This authentic folk culture, however, was transformed into popular culture through its appropriation and adaptation by whites. Ragtime’s origins in black culture served both to attract the attention and cultivate the awe of white youths as well as to excite the repugnance of members of older generations. Ragtime was seen as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.6 The lyrics of ragtime songs, as its detractors never tired of pointing out, included such themes as “‘hot town,’ ‘warm babies,’ and ‘blear-eyed coons’ armed with ‘blood-letting razors’” as well as other topics similarly offensive to bourgeois tastes.7 In addition, the dances associated with these songs often involved jerking movements of the hips and close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, which appeared lascivious and immoral in contrast with the more tame and subdued dances common among previous generations of the American bourgeoisie. All of these elements as well as their origins in African and African-American culture were viewed, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, a professor of American history, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.8 This identification of black culture with immorality was also used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and propagate racism, reinforcing the established atmosphere of subjugation and marginalization.

Reactions among African-Americans to the acquisition and transformation of black folk culture by white capitalists whose product was primarily targeted to audiences of white youth varied. Some African-Americans sought to work within the new milieu that was afforded to them by popular culture in order to secure a modicum of social respectability and a means of wealth acquisition that was not formerly available to them. Ernest Hogan, for instance, an African-American man who was one of the founding figures of ragtime, built his career on writing songs that portrayed stereotypes of blacks. One of his most popular songs, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”9 Shortly before his death in 1909, Hogan expressed some ambivalence about his role in creating ragtime and about that song in particular. “With nothing but time on my hands now, I often wonder if I was right or wrong,” he told a friend.10 He concluded that in spite of the negative stereotypes such songs helped to propagate, the popularization of black folk culture which he played such an important role in was, in the end, a great boon to the culture itself, which “would have been lost to the world” had it not been popularized, as well as to the many black songwriters whose careers he made possible.11

Other African-Americans, however, particularly those of the middle class, viewed ragtime, along with minstrelsy and vaudeville, in overwhelmingly negative terms. According to historian Matthew Mooney in his survey of responses to American popular music in the first quarter of the twentieth century, “popular music in all its permutations was often subject to sweeping condemnations by … arbiters of Black middle-class propriety.”12 Black members of the bourgeoisie saw popular culture as a vehicle for “demeaning racial stereotypes” which served to undermine the progress that African-Americans had made since the Civil War and emancipation.13 In response to the new popular culture, the African-American bourgeoisie sought to displace blame for the creation and popularization of such musical forms as ragtime from blacks alone to the uncultured in general, black and white alike.14 They also sought to cultivate an appreciation for and African-American participation in venues of High Culture, such as more respectable forms of music and performance like opera. In large part, the vociferous opposition to popular culture espoused by many in the black bourgeoisie arose from a desire to minimize differences between themselves and whites by distancing themselves from supposedly low-class blacks and from traditional black culture. In so doing, they hoped to attain the measure of social respectability that might result from identification with the values and mores of the white bourgeoisie and thereby uplift the black race in general. A noteworthy similarly between those African-American bourgeois who opposed popular culture and those African-Americans such as Ernest Hogan who actively participated in it is that each attributes its respective stance on the issue to the desire of blacks to enter the American mainstream by attaining prestige and wealth. In spite of the divergence in approaches, the motivation was essentially identical for both parties.

Such prestige and wealth was also the motivation for those Native Americans who chose to participate in popular culture venues which presented the stereotype of the Indian as a warlike savage. Included among Native Americans who participated in Wild West shows, for example, are such prominent figures as Sitting Bull and Black Elk.15 According to Litwicki, the stereotyped roles in which Native Americans were depicted in the Wild West shows and which such Native American participants in those shows took part in “while degrading in many respects, were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within.”16 Indeed, unlike their black counterparts in minstrelsy and vaudeville who were forced to behave in ways that were entirely the product of white imaginations and which distorted the nature of black culture to an extreme degree, Native Americans were often able and delighted in the opportunity to share authentic representations of their heritage and lifestyle with white audiences, including their prowess as “warriors, riders, marksmen, and hunters” as well as traditional “dances, songs, and other aspects of their cultures.”17 Nonetheless, however, Native Americans were subject to the same disfiguring white consciousness as African-Americans and were expected to behave in stereotyped ways. Through their representations in popular culture, both Native Americans and African-Americans were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified the continued marginalization of these groups in their exclusion from bourgeois respectability. This subjugation and marginalization frequently determined the course of government policy. The Wild West shows’ depictions of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive, for example, justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate their traditional ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units by removing tribes from their ancestral homelands and children from their families, forcing young Native Americans to receive propagandistic education in which they were encouraged to act in accordance with white social expectations, and encouraging Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural white farmers.18

Similarly, the stereotyped depictions of blacks in popular culture as comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous and the idea of a “blackness” which differed ontologically and stood opposed existentially to “whiteness” which these depictions created and perpetuated justified the exclusion of African-Americans from the white mainstream of American society as well as the separation of blacks from whites more generally. This exclusion and separation was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.19

The origins, content, and effect of popular culture in the Gilded Age presents an important comparison with that of more recent American popular culture. Hip hop music, for instance, presents an insightful parallel to the story of ragtime. Just as ragtime emerged from black folk art, hip hop music began as a genuinely folk cultural form among African-American youth in impoverished urban centers. Just as ragtime was adopted, digested, and popularized by the incipient popular culture industry of the late nineteenth century, hip hop similarly became a product of popular culture at the hands of bourgeois, and generally white, capitalists. Both were viewed as repellent by parents and others of older generations because of their perceived immoral content and link with the criminality associated with black culture, both were consumed by eager white youths, and both served to bring a measure of fame, wealth, and even respectability to certain African-American individuals involved in their production while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of African-Americans more generally. In addition to this clear parallel between ragtime and hip hop, depictions of other marginal groups in contemporary popular culture also present interesting and insightful comparisons. Just as depictions of Native Americans in popular culture served to justify their exclusion from the mainstream of American society and the systematic destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the federal government, depictions of Hispanics in contemporary popular culture often reinforce stereotypes of Hispanics as ignorant, religious to the point of superstition, linked to the criminal drug trade, and, in the case of women, extremely sexualized. These depictions, in turn, influence laws and policies pertinent to, for example, immigration and education.

The impact that stereotyped depictions can have on laws, on lives, and on the individual psyches of members of marginalized and subjugated groups as well as on those of their hegemons should be carefully considered by the producers, distributors, and consumers of popular culture. The nearly ubiquitous presence of popular culture today makes a thorough examination of the influence of its content all the more important. Such an examination is most properly conducted in the light of the insights that can be afforded by an understanding of the origins of American popular culture in the Gilded Age and its perpetual use since that time as a tool for the creation of a false cultural homogeneity and the imposition of a cultural hegemony which is far more the product of the imaginations and aspirations of the moneyed classes and establishment power structure than an authentic democratic movement in aesthetics.

Notes


1 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in John Storey, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 1998), 23.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

6 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118.

7 “Musical Impurity,” Etude (January 1900): 16.

8 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

9 Ibid., 196.

10 Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 118.

11 Ibid., 120.

12 Matthew Mooney, “An ‘Invasion of Vulgarity’: American Popular Music and Modernity in Print Media Discourse, 1900-1925,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture (Hollywood and Los Angeles: Press Americana, 2010), 7.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 8.

15 Litwicki, 202.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.

19 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.

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