November 1901 (Vol. 4, No. 1)

 

 

November 1901 (Vol. 4, No. 1)

Source: James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

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Commentary

Lucy Caplan
PhD Candidate, American Studies and African American Studies, Yale University

Upon opening her copy of the November 1901 issue of the Colored American, a reader would be greeted by the words “Famous Women of the Negro Race,” leaping off the first recto page in large type. The phrase announces a series of planned articles by Pauline Hopkins – the first of which, “Phenomenal Vocalists,” appears later in the issue. Yet it also speaks to a more general priority of this issue: celebrating the myriad social and cultural achievements of African American women. Several articles from the November 1901 issue laud the accomplishments of both famous and not-so-famous African American women, past and present.

In “Phenomenal Vocalists,” Hopkins offers biographical sketches of singers Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Madame Annie Pauline Pindell, the sisters Anna Madah and Emma Louise Hyers, and Madame Marie Selika. Her commentary glows with praise: for instance, in describing Greenfield, a mid-nineteenth-century star known as the “Black Swan,” Hopkins writes that “her voice was of immense compass. She struck every note in a clear and well-defined manner, and reached the highest capacity of the human voice with great ease” (47). “Phenomenal Vocalists” also makes more expansive claims about black women’s history and music history. Hopkins positions her work as a corrective to dominant misrepresentations of black women: “Maligned and misunderstood, the Afro-American woman is falsely judged by other races,” she writes. “To this end we give the achievements of Negro women who were beacon lights along the shore in the days of our darkest history” (46). In addition, Hopkins places African American musical achievement along a global historical continuum, noting that music is “coeval with the creation of man” and that the “music of all nations bear[s] a great resemblance to each other” (45). As many scholars have noted, Hopkins makes frequent use of unattributed quotations in her writing, and this article is no exception. She borrows liberally from sources including Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878), by the black music historian James Monroe Trotter, and an 1892 article about Mozart from Century magazine.

An article about music and musicians was perhaps an obvious starting point for Hopkins’s “Famous Women” series, given her own artistic background. Biographer Lois Brown has noted that Hopkins was an accomplished singer who established a reputation as “Boston’s favorite colored soprano” by the age of 20, composed two works of musical theater (Aristocracy [1877] and Peculiar Sam, or The Underground Railroad [1879]), and toured with a family singing troupe during the 1880s. (Brown 89) When she later shifted her professional focus to writing and editing, music remained central to her work. Under her editorial leadership, the Colored American featured numerous articles on music – examples include “Grand Opera as We See It,” (March 1900) “The Negro in Classic Music,” (September 1902) and “Opera and the Afro-American Artist” (June 1902) – as well as biographies of eminent musicians, social reports on subscribers’ musical accomplishments, and advertisements for musical instruments and lessons.

Hopkins also explored musical themes in her fiction. Of One Blood, serialized in the Colored American in 1902 and 1903, centers around a singer of spirituals named Dianthe Lusk, a “phenomenal vocalist” in her own right whose stellar voice “fell. . .upon the listening ear, in celestial showers of silver that passed all conceptions, all comparisons, all dreams; a voice beyond belief – a great soprano of unimaginable beauty, soaring heavenward in mighty intervals” (Carby 453). Further, the literary historian Nicole Aljoe has argued that the “operatic aesthetic” of Of One Blood was inspired by a production of Aida by the Drury Grand Opera Company, an African American troupe which advertised extensively in the CAM.

While “Phenomenal Vocalists” profiles exceptional figures, the November 1901 issue also honors ordinary black women across a variety of contexts. In an article on social life in Pittsburgh, titled “The Smoky City,” author Oliver G. Waters writes admiringly of the Narcissus Literary and Musical Club, a women’s club founded in 1901. (A full-page portrait of the club’s members appears on page 16.) He praises the clubwomen’s “general spirit of ambition” and advocates for women’s education more generally: “every effort on the part of young women to make intellectual advancement should be encouraged by all lovers of human progress” (17). Another article highlights women’s leadership in the Dorcas Home Mission Society, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to aiding widows, orphaned children, and other people in need (58). Like Hopkins’s article on black female vocalists, these reports are celebratory in tone, lauding African American women as worthy of honor and admiration.

A final, striking allusion to women’s achievements appears as part of the issue’s “Here and There” section. A brief item, titled “A Worthy Object,” appeals for financial support for Harriet Tubman, who is working to secure a piece of property as a home for elderly African Americans. Tubman would have been about 80 years old at the time of the issue’s publication, and her appearance in these pages is a poignant reminder that the magazine circulated at a time when the aftermath of slavery was still very much felt in everyday life, by no means relegated to the distant past.

While undoubtedly invested in venerating black women’s achievements, however, the November 1901 issue also adheres to a rather rigid definition of what that success should look like – literally and figuratively. With the notable exception of Tubman, the women featured in the issue are paragons of respectability and racial uplift; as historian Kevin Gaines and others have noted, such ideologies were (and are) often problematically masculinist and classist. In addition, the issue features myriad advertisements for beauty products, from hair-straightening tonics to skin-lightening face wash, that encourage black women to alter their bodies to adhere to white-supremacist standards of beauty. These elements necessarily complicate the issue’s laudatory portrayal of black women, revealing its potentially troubling ideological underpinnings. Yet as Hopkins insists in her introductory text for the “Famous Women” series, “There is no denying the overwhelming social and civil influence of woman; it is of vast extent.” The November 1901 issue of the CAM embraces that vastness, drawing readers’ attention to women’s achievements across various artistic and social contexts.

Postcript: In light of the debate currently raging around Confederate monuments and other public symbols of white supremacy in the US, I also wanted to draw attention to a passage on monuments that appears in this issue’s “Here and There” section. Originally published in the Albany Journal, it reads, in part:

The suggestion that a monument be erected in this country to Napoleon Bonaparte because he sold Louisana [sic] to the American government has been discussed in several newspapers. In the face of facts, one is prompted to propose a monument to Toussaint L’Ouverture. This Negro hero of Hayti, whom Napoleon felt was enacting a travesty on his own consular regime, is the person to whom we owe in great part our possession of Louisiana. Napoleon had no love for us. . . . It is to the desperate courage of the 50,000 Haytian Negroes that we are largely indebted for the cession of Louisiana. If a monument must be erected in commemoration of that cession, let it be to that black Napoleon, Toussaint L’Ouverture (53-55).

Works Cited

Aljoe, Nicole. “Aria for Ethiopia: The Operatic Aesthetic of Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood.” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 277-290.

Brown, Lois. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Gaines, Kevin. Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Hopkins, Pauline. The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins. Edited by Hazel V. Carby. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Mason, Amelia Gere. “Mozart – After a Hundred Years.” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine , vol. 43, no. 2, Dec. 1891, pp. 203-220. Making of America, http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=cent;idno=cent0043-2

Trotter, James Monroe. Music and Some Highly Musical People. 1878. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968.


Table of Contents

Miss Sophia E. Johnson, Louisville, KY. [Cover]
Theodore Roosevelt (“Our President”) (Frontispiece)
Thanksgiving (Poem), William Stanely Braithwaite
Two Years in Luzon — I. Filipino Characteristics, Theophilus G. Steward
To ——– (A Sonnet), James D. Corrothers
The Smoky City — II. Glimpses of Social Life, Oscar G. Waters
Hagar’s Daughter (Serial) [Part IX, Chs. 26-28], Sarah A. Allen [pseud. Pauline E. Hopkins]
God’s Eyes and Mose Hill, A. Gude Deekun
Fascinating Bible Stories — XI. The Giving of the Law, Charles Winslow Hall
Famous Women of the Negro Race — I. Phenomenal Vocalists, Pauline E. Hopkins
Here and There
Six Hawaiian Kings,
S. E. F. C. C. Hamedoe
A Gospel Triumph, F.R.S.
The Bells of Notre Dame (Poem), Benjamin Griffith Brawley
Book Reviews, William Stanely Braithwaite
In Columbia’s Fair Land, Charles H. Williams
Editorial and Publishers’ Announcements