Parody and Double Consciousness in the Language of Early Black Musical Theatre

Article excerpt

The early decades of the twentieth century were, in many respects, the beginning of the period of black aesthetic and intellectual reconstruction. Alain Locke identifies the era as "a sudden flood-tide of new life and vitality" in African American music, dance, and musical comedy (57). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., maintains that during this time there emerged "the era of the myth of a New Negro, a New Negro in search of a Renaissance suitable to contain this culturally willed myth."(1) The notions of new life, vitality, and the "New Negro" in African American culture are central to this essay, not least because they underscore efforts by African Americans during the first decades of this century to deconstruct the minstrel caricature and to reconstruct the image of cultural representation. To counter the nineteenth century's negative representation of African Americans, the notion of a New Negro in art, literature, and theatre surfaced, suggesting "a bold and audacious act of language, signifying the will to power, to dare to recreate a race by renaming it, despite the dubiousness of the venture" (Gates, "Trope" 132).

The central and driving force underlying this will to reconstruct the race lay in the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois. It was Du Bois, according to August Meier, who was most aware "of the complexity and sophistication of African culture" (264).(2) Drama critic Lester Walton recognized the significance of The Souls of Black Folk in his weekly column "Music and the Stage." Du Bois makes the powerful plea, Walton wrote in 1908, "that the history of art in this nation will not be written until the Negro has made his contribution" (6).(3) The Souls of Black Folk can be shown to be especially important, as Paul Gilroy points out, because it "sensitized blacks to the significance of the vernacular cultures that arose to mediate the enduring effects of terror" (119-20). Du Bois, Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., observes, "located the essence of a distinctive black spirituality in the roots of black American culture" (207).

Du Bois's description of double consciousness not only defined an important analysis of black American culture, but it characterized African American representation in the performing arts. Du Bois wrote: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (215).(4) This dualism and frustration, Du Bois adds, is the "history of the American Negro," and "this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge the double self into a better and truer self" culminates in a desire "to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face" (215).

Du Bois's comments specifically apply to many black performers at the turn of the century. The black actor or actress had to effect a public self through what Du Bois called a tertium quid, often performing as a "clownish, simple creature, at times even lovable within its limitations, but straitly foreordained to walk within the Veil" (271). The power of the Veil as a distorting mask is underscored by the fact that many African American performers, notably Bert Williams, had to wear blackface make-up because their real faces failed to conform to the caricature popularized by nineteenth-century white minstrel performers.

Will Marion Cook said in 1903 that "the terrible difficulty that composers of my race have to deal with is the refusal of American people to accept serious things from us. That prejudice will be educated away one day I hope" (300). The fact that Cook made this comment in the same year that Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk is by no means a coincidence. James Weldon Johnson, an active song writer during early years of black musicals, was deeply influenced by Du Bois's work. …