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Stolen Time: The Ontology of Black Fad Performance
There's time enough, but none to spare.
— Charles Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901)
The relationship between African American modernity, black entertainment, and fad cycles was the topic of sharp debate in the late nineteenth century, especially over the rise of sheet-music publishing firms that often drew on long-standing repertoires of racial stereotypes in their products and marketing campaigns. This new corporate music production transformed the minor genre of ragtime music into a national craze that allowed a small but significant number of black performers to take advantage of white desire for this music to reroute the conventions of the minstrel stage toward more formally inventive productions. Writing in the African American newspaper Indianapolis Freeman in 1896, theater critic R. W. Thompson meditated on the ragtime craze and its consequences for the black entertainer. "Taste runs in cycles," he wrote. "Everything has its hour, and gives way to the next sensation. The Negro's chance for survival comes in his talent for versatility, to his ready adaption to the duty required. The legitimate outcome of this rise in the profession will be better salaries for the deserving, a higher personal esteem, and an increased dignity to the calling itself." Thompson's call for black performers to be attuned to the timeliness of popular tastes may seem naive or shortsighted, given this craze's (and subsequent vogues') economic exploitations, deformations of blackness, and severe aesthetic restraints. But it is through the temporal paradox of the fad — its claim to the new presented through its cyclical repetition — that Thompson sees a "chance for survival."
Thompson was prescient, and his attention to the cyclical nature of popular sensations and race crazes tells us something about recurrent moments of critical intensity across the Jim Crow era. In this chapter I take up Thompson's cue to examine the structure of the fad cycle that shaped race, entertainment, and mass culture from the ragtime craze (or so-called coon craze) of the 1890s to the Negro vogue of the 1920s to the calypso craze of the 1950s. To better understand the possibilities and the limitations that mass-cultural performance held for black performers, this chapter locates the calypso craze within recurrent cycles of the production, distribution, and consumption of blackness. Such critical intensity was attached to practices and repertoires of performance and was coordinated by the fad logic of cycle/moment. Like all fads, the calypso craze was fleeting, but a careful consideration of its contours as a fad can tell us something about the production and consumption of blackness in the Jim Crow era.
Fads are not only a marker of a specific historical time but also a sign for temporality itself. One of the twentieth century's earliest scholars of fads sought to define fads' temporal quality as they became an enduring feature of consumer culture. For several decades beginning in 1914, sociologist Emory Bogardus undertook a longitudinal study that compiled extensive data (primarily through massive surveys) on patterns of mass conformity and the logic of fad cycles. For all their triviality, Bogardus concluded, fads could be seen as emblems of modernity. In his findings, the adoption of new fashions reflected individuality and a will "to differentiate one's self from others," "an impulse to be free," and a "spirit of progress." But amid this celebration of consumer culture, Bogardus also sounded a warning: the new thing can generate a mass excitement that "paralyzes one's critical powers and releases the native impulse to act irrationally." When a new fashion becomes an unthinking fad, it dulls one's ability to discern between the dazzling latest thing and "sensible and enduring values." Voicing a common anxiety in response to the standardizations of mass culture, Bogardus cautioned against indulging too enthusiastically in the "superficially new and that designed to be glamorous rather than real contributions to progress." Fads cans belie the economic rationality of their production and, in an ominous reversal, "may actually defeat progress."
Bogardus's concerns over mass excitement reflect the scientific progressivism that literary theorist James Snead diagnosed as an effect of Western cultures' active struggle to repress or disavow cyclical notions of time in favor of linear progress. In his influential essay, "On Repetition in Black Culture," Snead explains that, to the extent that Western cultures recognize repetition, they nonetheless insist on a logic of linearity and accumulation, as in the patterns of economic growth and financial crisis intrinsic to capitalism's business cycles. For Snead, black culture (specifically the musical traditions of jazz and the blues) counters this accumulative logic of progressive time with a cyclical and circulatory temporality that is nonprogressive and discontinuous. In such a formulation, African American modernity is shaped by a recursivity that renders it nonsynchronous to itself. The experience of a moment nonsynchronous to itself is often worked through formally, for example in the tempo rubato (literally: stolen time) of ragtime as it varied the time signature of the march.
Such movement without movement, perhaps, is how Thompson can find "a chance for survival" for black performers within the very cycles that Bogardus worries "may defeat progress" itself. The chance for survival might even, it turns out, depend on such defeat. This is the central paradox of the fad as a cultural phenomenon: a fad is predicated on the new object or activity, yet each fad's appearance follows the same strict and unvarying pattern of rapid adoption, wide circulation, and precipitous abandonment — what one sociologist characterizes as the cycle of "emerging, surging, and purging." Even as a fad promises something new (its content) the fad cycle itself (its structure) renders each fad interchangeable with the ones that came before it. In a fad, everything new is old again, and the sense of progress or forward motion it implies is underwritten by a structural repetition of the same.
This formal stance toward repetition (which Snead calls black culture) as it intersects with the structural repetitions of consumer capitalism and fad culture is the subject of this chapter. Specifically, I pursue the insights into time and history disclosed by black fad performance's repetitions. As Snead suggests, where we find repetition in cultural forms such as the fad we often find "the willed grafting onto culture of an essentially philosophical insight about the shape of time and history." I thus approach black fad performance not through a representational or semiotic analysis of signs and signifiers but as a historical-ontological situation. In doing so, I ask how the ontology of black fad performance — the existential condition of racialized performance when a performer knows she is performing her own obsolescence — both constrained and unlocked possibilities for black performers.
Or to put this more simply: What does it mean to be a fad? In this chapter, I outline a historically specific ontology that unfolds within the political economy of race and entertainment between the 1890s and the 1960s. I argue that the special temporality of fad culture creates perilous conditions for black fad performers that corroborate black social and political life under Jim Crow. Within this horizon of (im)possibility, the repetition of fad cycles over time are a kind of eternal return of the same that trapped performers in cycles of racialized consumption. But they also allowed some fad performances to co-opt this co-opted time, even if only momentarily. My argument advances in three stages: first historically, then politico-economically, and finally ontologically. I begin with an account of the three major black fad cycles of the Jim Crow era: the ragtime craze, the Negro vogue, and the calypso craze. What makes these three moments of critical intensity distinct from numerous other surges of blackness within popular culture is, as we will see, their distinct self-reflexivity and their density of creative innovation. While attending to their specific contexts, I focus on the structural repetitions that shape these fad cycles and allow us to see the ragtime craze and the Negro vogue not only as antecedents to the calypso craze but also in anticipation of it and as prior iterations of it. I then consider the political economy and double temporality of the fad — as both cycle and moment — to explain the unstable life span of amusement: to be a fad is to experience your existence within a circumscribed temporality and to perform your own obsolescence. Finally, I turn to the long-limbed, gravel-voiced calypso chanteuse Josephine Premice who, at the height of the calypso craze, allegorized the ontology of black fad performance — its horizon of (im)possibility — by explicitly thematizing the opportunities to pilfer the time of the fad for oneself.
Jim Crow Fad Cycles
In 1896, black vaudeville star Ernest Hogan wrote the song "All Coons Look Alike to Me" and started a craze. Hogan's composition picked up on a minor genre of popular music known disparagingly as "coon songs" that had been growing in popularity since the early 1880s and trafficked in a deformed representation of African American life. Alain Locke called the coon song a "relic of the worst minstrel days; slap-stick farce about razors, chickens, watermelon, ham-bones, flannel shirts and camp meetings." Hogan's hit drew on the familiar elements of the genre: a travestied black dialect, syncopated ragtime rhythm, and stereotyped imagery and scenarios. Hogan did not invent the coon song, but his hit was the tipping point for what became known as the coon craze. Almost overnight, such songs were everywhere. By most accounts, the next five years saw the publication of over six hundred titles that sold millions of copies. The vast majority of these songs were written, performed, and listened to by white people. It was one of the primary vehicles by which ragtime crossed over from black cultural spaces to mass US culture. New York publishing firms competedfiercely to generate as many variations on the formula as possible. Black dances such as the Cakewalk, the Pas Ma La, and the Bombershay spread across the country along with the songs. White composers learned how to syncopate rhythm and white female vaudeville stars such as May Irwin, Clarice Vance, and Marie Cahill Harris repackaged themselves as "coon shouters" and incorporated these numbers into their acts.
At the same time, a small but significant number of black performers took advantage of white desire for this music to reroute the conventions of the minstrel stage toward more formally inventive productions. In a market saturated with white "coon singers," rising vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker billed themselves as "Two Real Coons" and went on to become acclaimed stars of the era. The craze transformed black musical theater, as Bob Cole and Billy Johnson collaborated on A Trip to Coontown (1897), the first prominent black musical to break from the variety format and feature a narrative through line. This musical was followed by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar's Clorindy; or, The Origins of the Cakewalk (1898), their Senegambian Carnival (1899), Hogan's King of Coontown (1899), and Williams and Walker's In Dahomey (1903). Each featured black-authored coon songs and rearticulated its formula within a highly self-reflexive theatrical idiom. This last production, for example, included J. Leubrie Hill's song "That's How the Cakewalk's Done" in a showstopping number that described the dance craze's omnipresence: "Cake-walking craze, it's a fad nowadays / With black folk and white folks too / And I really declare it's done ev'rywhere." As we will see, this knowing self-awareness marks an engagement with the performance's own status as a fad. This is a critical dimension of black fad performance that works "in the service of dismantling a dominant ontological paradigm" and disclosing another, as Daphne Brooks writes about the cakewalk craze.
This ragtime craze, in other words, was the first black fad in the United States and established the dynamic between production and consumption that shaped black fad cycles throughout the Jim Crow era. The concept of a fad as a short-lived enthusiasm and an act of mass participation through consumption emerges in the 1890s as an effect of economic transformations that saw a shift from local to mass consumer cultures. The 1890s, notes literary theorist Jennifer Fleissner, "usher in a fad for fads themselves" as throngs rushed to purchase the latest and newest thing. Chain stores and department stores led to the mass diffusion of commodities, and nascent advertising and branding strategies turned consumption itself into a symbolic system of status and value as the consumer became an identity category and marketing demographic.
Emergent entertainment industries were well poised to take advantage of these transformations. This ragtime craze was driven largely by the standardization of popular musical production that would become known as Tin Pan Alley. Hogan's song was published by Isidore Witmark, one of the pioneers of this new industry whose sheet-music firms published numerous coon songs, including many of those written by black writers. The transformations in the rhythms of consumption were reflected in the rhythms of music itself. It was during the 1890s, Witmark wrote, that "the ballad and the waltz type [of popular song] gradually yielded, often to the accompaniment of stern moral denunciation, to the allurements of ragtime." Tin Pan Alley provided a crucial infrastructure for the distribution of ragtime music, as did the consolidation of theater booking agencies in these years, which helped to ensure that theater circuits would feature increasingly standardized and centrally organized shows. Vaudeville stages, sheet music, and even dance moves amounted to an extensive distribution network that supported the short-lived craze.
To call this precipitous interest in black performance a fad is not to trivialize it; its effects reached far beyond the world of entertainment. The craze was a political technology that aided the implementation of a new racial regime of legislatively sanctioned segregation. With its origins in the North but its reach national, the craze provided a cultural screen that obscured and rationalized the violence of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which declared segregation constitutional and inaugurated the Jim Crow era. As advancements gained during Reconstruction were systematically rolled back, such songs presented a comic image of African Americans that belied active black disenfranchisement across the nation. Even as the musical form of ragtime heralded a black modernism, the themes and staging of coon songs denied that modernism. An extensive visual culture accompanied this craze as illustrations on sheet music presented grotesque caricatures of blackness that were to be enacted in verse. Yet despite these aesthetic constraints, many black performers ambivalently embraced the fad and used irony and parody to challenge its representations and voice black political critique on the variety stage and in musical theater. This was the case, for example, in A Trip to Coon Town's showstopping number, "No Coons Allowed," which was a direct response to the recent Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and described the affront to dignity that segregation posed while advocating legal and political mobilization, all in the ragged tempo and debasing faux-dialect of the coon song.
The fad for ragtime did not last much into the twentieth century. By 1905, according to A Trip to Coontown's composer Bob Cole, the craze had "passed with the softly flowing tide of revelations." Its racist iconography persisted, however, and continued to exact damaging and long-lasting consequences on the development of black performance. But the critical intensity of its popularity quickly waned as other entertainments appeared and consumers' attentions drifted toward other amusements. Some of the black performers who became famous during the craze continued to produce music and theater, though many more found work hard to come by. In hindsight, the few advances made by black artists under the auspices of the fad seemed like increasingly insignificant compromises that were obscured by the tide of white attention, imitation, and finally indifference. Ernest Hogan reportedly expressed deep regret for having written "All Coons Look Alike to Me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stolen Time"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Introduction: This and That, or, Swiped Calypsos
1 Stolen Time: The Ontology of Black Fad Performance
2 The Calypso Program: Technology, Performance, Cinema
3 Carnivalizing Jazz: Duke Ellington’s Calypso Theater and the Diasporic Instant
4 Surfacing the Caribbean: Black Broadway and Mock Transnational Performance
5 Working against the Music: Geoffrey Holder’s Elsewhen
Conclusion: Don’t Stop the Carnival