By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich
And your mamma’s good looking
So hush little baby, don’t you cry
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
But until that morning
There’s nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mammy standing by
Excerpt from “Summertime”, first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1936.
Summertime was sung as a lullaby in the popular African-American opera, Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway in 1935.
Summer officially begins on June 21 and is supposedly the day with the most hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere. Although there are several songs with the words “summertime” as part of their lyrics, this is the song that most frequently comes to mind when I think of summer.
Of course I enjoy listening to Will Smith and Shaggy sing their versions of “Summertime” but my all-time favourite is Billie Holiday’s version. Holiday’s song and the opera from which it was taken are recognized as the work of three White men – Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward.
This is not surprising given the time in which the song and the opera were composed. After all, this was during a time when any composition by African-Americans would not have been given much respect (and definitely not recognized as classic) if it was not sanctioned by White people.
The opera was adapted from a novel written by a White man about the lives of African-Americans after he had spent time “observing and thinking deeply” about their lives.
The novel, Porgy, about the lives of African-Americans – the descendants of enslaved Africans living in poverty in Charleston, South Carolina – was written by a descendant of slaveholders. Published in 1925 (one decade before it was adapted as an opera), Porgy was a bestseller.
A reviewer for the New York Times described the novel as a “sympathetic and convincing interpretation of Negro life by a member of an ‘outside’ race”.
In the Virginia Quarterly Review, James Southall Wilson wrote:
“No more beautiful or authentic novel has been published in America for a decade.”
Although Porgy was hailed as a novel of authentic “Negro” life and culture, this was the time of the Harlem Renaissance when African-American writers like Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Wallace Thurman were writing and publishing books.
Yet none of the literary works of these African-Americans were considered as fitting to be adapted to become what was and in some cases still considered a “classic” opera of African-American life. Even the music, although borrowing heavily from African-American styles, was written by the White men who had appropriated African-American culture for their enrichment. African-American jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, Duke Ellington, was not impressed with their music and criticized the production.
According to Ira Gershwin, his brother George Gershwin visited African-American churches and several plantations in South Carolina where African-Americans continued to labour as they had done during slavery:
“George did a lot of research on Porgy and Bess. DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, authors of the play, took him to various churches and plantations on the several occasions George visited Charleston to get the true flavour and character of the singing in that part of the South.”
In his book, George Gershwin: His Life and Work, Howard Pollack quotes the author of Porgy on his search for Gullah culture to include in the opera:
“James Island with its large population of primitive Gullah Negroes lay adjacent, and it furnished us with a laboratory in which to test our theories, as well as an inexhaustible source of folk material.”
The language used in the opera was what the writers thought was the Gullah language (gleaned from their visits to places like James Island) and of course was liberally peppered with the “N” word. White audiences loved this safe (while sitting in a theatre) glimpse into the “Negro” world. African-Americans thought the characters were one-dimensional caricatures.
In spite of limited opportunities, there were educated and hardworking African-Americans living in South Carolina at the time the novel Porgy was written (1925) and at the time the opera Porgy and Bess was composed (1935), as seen in the images captured by the camera of African-American photographer, Richard Samuel Roberts (www.columbiamuseum.org/exhibitions/ourtime-ourplace).
Yet the writer of the novel and the composers of the opera chose as their characters criminals, drug addicts and people living in dire poverty – every stereotype of African-Americans that dwelled in the minds of White Americans. This behaviour continues today with many of us buying into it because White supremacy works in a way that makes White privilege go unnoticed and just seems like normal behaviour.
The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1910 until October 22, 1966, was not impressed and was quoted in George Gershwin: His Life and Work, by Pollack:
“The Pittsburgh Courier…declaring the work a raw, throbbing musical drama that revealed depraved members of the coloured minority in America engaged in its stereotyped role…It is a vehicle of shame, sorrow and disgust.”
The opera had at least one production in “Blackface” in Europe. In George Gershwin: His Life and Work, Pollack writes:
“The Danish Royal Opera launched the work’s European premiere – as Porgy og Bess – in a Danish translation by Holger Bech, Opening at the King’s Theatre on March 27, 1943, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen…(featuring an) all White cast (in dark makeup).”
As the summer of 2013 approaches, some of the images of African-Americans on television and other popular media to which our children and those who are not part of our culture are exposed continue to misrepresent.
Here in Canada we face a similar problem because we are inundated with American television and African-Canadians are viewed by those who hold power (and can come crashing through our doors at any time armed to the teeth) and even ordinary citizens in the same way as they view African-Americans. The images are that powerful!
The stereotypes that are in the media do untold harm and we need to counter them by educating ourselves and our children about who we really are.
Caribana comes to mind as the city launches its cash cow festival created by Caribbean people and now owned by others where our culture provides millions each year for everyone except us while the culture is steadily being misrepresented!
However, like the lyrics of the song “Summertime”, we know that one of these mornings we will rise up singing and spread our wings to the sky because we have always overcome.