Art History Resources For Writers: Visualizing African American Print Culture

“Print culture” includes all forms of printed text and printed visual communication – including books, newspapers, photographs, advertisements, and print art. African Americans not only participated in the creation of this material in general (including contributing to several printing press and photographic innovations) but also documented themselves and others. I wasn’t able to make the African American Expression in Print and Digital Culture conference in Madison a few weeks ago, but the attendees did an excellent job of live-tweeting and sharing links. I used that as a start to put together this list of links for writers who want to use real, actual, history as a reference for their fiction. Rather than make assumptions about what African Americans wore, did, or were involved in at any point in our country’s history, you can instead find out for yourself.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Resources:

The Wisconsin Historical Society has an amazing collection of images online, searchable and sorted by galleries. You can find it here. You might particularly be interested in these galleries:

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey's "Teenie Weenies." via Wisconsin Historical Society

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey’s “Teenie Weenies.” via Wisconsin Historical Society

Image taken by Suzanne Sawyer of “Racist type cuts called ‘Brownies’ or ‘Jim Crows’” – used in printing

Through the Lens of Time: Images of African Americans from the Cook Collection – digital collection of over 250 images of African Americans dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University

Black History resources at The National Archives – massive collection of photographs, documents, and links to other material online

Texas African American Photography Archive – founded by Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin:

The TAAP archive provides a broad overview of African American photography in the urban and rural areas of Texas, spanning the period from the 1870s to the present and representing a variety of processes and makers. The Archive is unique in its comprehensiveness, and consists of over 50,000 photographic negatives and prints and more than 20 oral histories collected from African American photographers. Most of the items in the Archive have been donated by the photographers and their families, while others have been acquired from private collections.

Library of Congress – enormous searchable online archive (link goes to “African American”)

Western Reserve Historical Society – photograph collections, many online. Also includes newspaper and microfilm collections, as well as historical information

Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection – “This extensive collection contains more than 12,000 photographs depicting African American life from as early as the 1840s through the 1970s.” Housed at Emory.

Pratt Library’s African American Resources

Early Caribbean Digital Archive – “a highly interactive digital scholars lab for the collaborative research and study of pre-C20 Caribbean literature”, includes an archive of digitized texts, and invites scholars to engage with and contribute to the work. Not strictly African-American, it nonetheless represents an important resources for writers working with slave and immigration stories (as well as those writing stories with Caribbean characters). Three online exhibits:

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

Colored Conventions – digital archive of black political and community organizing in the 19th century. Mainly includes transcribed minutes from events, excellent bibliography here. Site is in progress; plans include maps and data tables (to be added Fall 2014).

Gallon & Black Press Research Collective –  promotes digital research of Black newspapers, includes a huge list of online archives here.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903 Rare Books Collection

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches
Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903
Rare Books Collection

Race and the Design of American Life – “African Americans in 20th Century Commercial Art”. U of Chicago Library exhibit documenting the way African American bodies are used to sell everything from food to shoes to music.

Burrell Communications Group – Wiki article on 1970s ad agency established specifically to market to African Americans,

and to tap into how the Black Aesthetic could also appeal to the general market consumer. It was at this time that Tom Burrell coined the phrase, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

“Black Printers” on White Cards: Information Architecture in the Database of the Early American Book Tradesthe American Antiquarian Society Blog, Molly Hardy – lists a number of African American printers active in the trade in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries

Books to check out:

“Theresa; a Haytien Tale” (1827) – Free PDF download of an example of pre-twentieth century African American literature, from Just Teach One: Early African American Print project.

Print Culture in a Diverse America (History of Communication), James P Danky (Editor), Wayne A Wiegand (Editor)

The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought, Edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas and Susanna Ashton

Early African American Print Culture, Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, Editors

Representing the Race, A New Political History of African American Literature, Gene Andrew Jarrett

The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940, Ingrid Overacker

All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, Martha S. Jones

This list is intended as a starting place and is by no means exhaustive. Please add your own suggestions in the comments below.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Dial M for Monkey

3 of 5*

Only 60+ pages; this quick read can be started and finished in well under an hour, and that alone makes it not a waste of time. The stories are a mix of “high impact” and “needs an editor” – I kept wanting to revise or strike his last lines, over and over.

Maxwell sticks to a format of “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, TWIST”, expanding it sometimes to “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, wait for it, wait for it, really I mean it, keep waiting, TWIST, he he he” for most of the collection. Most of the characters are middle-aged, blue collar, London-area blokes, and a lot of the humor is crude (“He got hit in the balls with a block, lol” type of stuff.)

Probably the best are “I Almost Spanked A Monkey”, “Sprouts” (which is one of the few near-genre stories in the book), and “Is That To Go?”. All use Maxwell’s preferred format successfully, and none go on too long.

The longer pieces aren’t quite as good as the flash, IMO, but at the same time Maxwell brings in an earthy, working class, feel to his fiction that I don’t often see in lit flash. It’s an important perspective because it’s not often published, and some of the pieces do work very well. Don’t read it because it’s the best ever (it’s not) but it is a valuable use of an hour, even if you’re only learning what not to do yourself.

On Vinyl: The Jazz Piano Quartet, “Let It Happen”

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

thejazzpianoquartet-letithappen

Date: June 10 & 11, 1974
Location: RCA Studio A, New York City
Label: RCA, limited release in Quadraphonic sound
The Jazz Piano Quartet (ldr), Roland Hanna, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland (p)

10 songs laid down by a quartet of jazz pianists with no other instruments, without rehearsal, with only the barest of notes written beforehand – usually as a jumping off point – and recorded simultaneously without overdubbing… It could have been a disaster. Instead, Dick Hyman, Roland Hanna, Marian McPartland, and Hank Jones nailed every song on the first take.

The soloists are not identified, other than noting that Hyman and McPartland are playing through the left speaker, and Hanna and Jones through the right speaker.  The record starts with a melodic presentation of “Lover Come Back to Me,” then moves into a lower pace on “Maiden Voyage” and “Let It Happen.” The tempo picks back up again with “Here’s That Rainy Day” before side A ends. The B side is more experimental, beginning with the almost-atonal jazz fragments embedded in “Solace” — though never breaks all the way out of the box on that tune. They push the arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” enough that you might not recognize the song until you get to the chorus line; the whole thing reminds me of a more-melodic version of a Bad Plus variation. The third track on side B is the star of the show, putting on display a fully improvised jam inspired by only a 6-bar fragment of a Erik Satie song. The grand finale is the most intense, dramatically-keyed track on the whole album, and literally ends with a bang.

Overall, the album is so excellently played that it’s hard to believe this is the result of a couple of seasoned pros sitting down, playing for two days, and calling it “finished”. Yet that’s exactly what it is. I love this album for the piano, for the way it pushes without taking the listener so far out of their comfort zone that they get turned off, and because it’s a reminder that we don’t always need to edit/revise/edit/revise our work to death. There’s something to be said for being fully confident of our skills, and just getting it done.

Listen to this if you can find it. You won’t regret it.

Track List:

a-01 Lover, Come Back To Me – 2:22 (Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-02 Maiden Voyage – 3:55 (Herbie Hancock) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-03 Let It Happen – 4:21 (Ettore Stratta) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-04 Watch It! – 3:03 (Dick Hyman) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-05 Here’s That Rainy Day – 4:43 (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-01 Solace – 3:38 (Scott Joplin) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-02 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – 3:45 (Stevie Wonder) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-03 Improvviso – 6:48 (Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-04 Warm Valley – 3:38 (Duke Ellington) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-05 How High The Moon – 3:00 (Nancy Hamilton, W. Morgan Lewis) / arr: Dick Hyman

Notes: All titles on: RCA LP 12″: CPL1-0680 — Let It Happen (1974) “Solace” listed as “Variations on Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace'” and credited to Scott Joplin and Dick Hyman. “Improvviso” is based on a fragment by Erik Satie.

Movie review: FRANK (2014)

5/5*

FRANK is a brilliant, introspective, and illuminating film based partially on real events. It follows a bumbling, seemingly talentless, wanna-be musician (Jon) as he gets sucked into the world of a charismatic and mysterious Frank – a man with a paper mache mask for a head. At first, it seems Frank and his pals are the ones with the vision, and Jon is desperate to be someone more than who he is. He craves fame and respect and Frank, he is immediately sure, will help him get there. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer what John doesn’t realize until later: Frank is severely mentally ill, along with at least a few of his bandmates. His genius isn’t in his wackiness, but is obscured by it; the sad truth is that Frank’s musical talent wasn’t set free by giving in to his illness, but his illness robbed him of the chance to truly express his talent. Outside of the carefully manufactured and strictly guarded world that Frank allows Jon to be a part of, the outside world – let in by John’s tweets and blog posts (part of his desire to connect with others and find his audience) – can clearly see what Jon doesn’t.

John think they’re making avant garde art. The world thinks they’re making a joke.

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On Vinyl: BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2 (1956)

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

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The oldest record I currently own is BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2, though the music in it is slightly preceded by The Swing Years Collector’s Edition, 1936-1946 (not pressed ’til 1966). I have other records which contain music written earlier (performed by Nat King Cole, BB King, etc), but the actual tracks weren’t laid down until the ’60s or later.

Goodman’s January 16, 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City was called “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.”(1) Put together by his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, Goodman’s performance made him the first jazz bandleader to perform at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was nervous about doing it, but his latest movie, Hollywood Hotel, had lines of fans waiting outside the Paramount lot to see him, so he went ahead. Why was he nervous? At the time, the Hall was considered “An import house of Old World traditions where snobby smirks toward American culture had a way of making status-sensitive Yankees feel like Babbitts for comparing Gershwin to Wagner or Tatum to Horowitz….”(2)

It’s important to know that this was one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group, which helped to convince white audiences that jazz could be an “elevated” form of music, though they were aware of its beginnings with mostly-black bands. The show sold out, even with a higher than usual ticket price. It started with a couple of contemporary songs, segued into a history of jazz, including some guest appearances by Count Basie (his Hall debut) and members of the Duke Ellington band, before heading into the songs that had made Goodman famous. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in the photo below, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

The event—one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group—helped elevate the status of swing music, and included some of the brightest jazz luminaries of the day. Count Basie, making his Carnegie Hall debut, appeared as a guest, and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra also participated. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in this photo, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

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