Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pittsburgh and Stephen Foster

During my recent Pittsburgh trip, I came across this statue of Stephen Foster. Until that day, I had no idea he was from there or that there was a statue of him. It's located along a major thoroughfare, right between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. It's seen by thousands, maybe tens of thousands, every day.

I took this photo of the statue just a few days before the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but even without that as background, I knew the statue was, shall we say, problematic. What's up with having an old black man sitting at Foster's feet, barefoot, playing a banjo? Jesus, people.

The statue was commissioned in the late 19th century and unveiled in 1900. A local newspaper editor, T.J. Keegan, was part of the design committee, and suggested the final rendering because he imagined Foster “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet strumming negro airs upon an old banjo.”

Here's some of what's been written about the statue and those words.

A recent piece from The Root, titled The most racist statue in America is in…Pittsburgh, and it’s the most ridiculous magical Negro you’ll ever see, was written by a black Pittsburgh native. Here are a few of his thoughts:

…there are times when…racism is so scenery-chewing and over-the-top ridiculous…that you suspect it was devised in a “racism factory.”....
In a 22-word span [the quote from the newspaper editor]
1) incorporates the always underrated “darkey” (which has a much racister sting to it than plain ol’ “nigger”),
2) uses “negro airs”—a phrase I wish I had heard two years ago because that’s totally what I would have named my daughter, and
3) explicitly depicts Stephen Foster literally stealing ideas from black people.

The statue stands just for you to say, “Here’s this world-famous musician snatching songs from this old nigger no one gives a shit about.” And this magical Negro exists just to feed Stephen Foster money, like goldfish crackers fed to a real, actual goldfish.
A 2010 story, from Pittsburgh's weekly City Paper, is called The city's most prominent memorial to Stephen Foster continues to offend many. This story tells us that Black Pittsburghers have organized for years to have the statue moved to a less prominent location or taken down. Or even put into historical context with a plaque. But nope. Nothing has happened.

Another story published since the Charlottesville debacle is from the main daily newspaper, the Post-Gazette. It tells us the statue was among the first depictions of an African-American in public sculpture in the country (well...yay for that?), and that it’s “the only image of a black person in an outdoor setting in Pittsburgh” to this day.
“It’s the single most offensive display of public art in Pittsburgh, hands down,” said Paradise Gray, a hip-hop activist, musician and writer. “It permanently depicts the black man at the white man’s feet…. He’s doing what the music industry does today: He’s got a slave playing the music, and he’s going to end up with the copyright.”
A second local artist, Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson, is quoted as saying he’s “currently developing an art project which would feature a live banjo concert at the statue” with original compositions written “from the perspective of Uncle Ned. I’m working on songs to share the perspective that this is a pretty honest sculpture as far as articulating power relationships. But I was going to tap into Uncle Ned’s humanity and explain his discontent.”
Members [of the city commission reviewing the statue] offered mixed views on what should be done with the statue, though there appears to be little appetite for leaving it as is.
Searching this subject, I see multiple news stories from the area since Charlottesville. Pittsburgh appears to be talking seriously about this statue once again. Maybe the city will finally listen to its black residents and remove it, one way or another.

Some writers I came across attempted to defend the statue by saying it portrays Foster with a character from one of his songs, "Uncle Ned," but there’s no mention in those excruciating lyrics of Ned playing a banjo or even singing songs. He was a toothless, bald field hand… is the fiddle and bow mentioned in the song's chorus supposed to belong to Ned? Maybe, but if so, then why does the statue show a banjo?

The lyrics as Foster wrote them (viewable on this University of Virginia site) are written in supposed black Southern vernacular. They’re all about Ned’s physical appearance and how the white massa and missus cried when he died, and — of course — sprinkled liberally with the N word. A revised set of lyrics (on the Song of America site) cleans all of that up (“nigga” becomes “field hand,” “good niggas” becomes “good men”). And suddenly instead of hearing about missus’s pale face, we get a reassurance that Ned has “gone to a place where he’s free.”

That certainly wasn’t in Foster’s lyrics or in any act by the Christy Minstrels, who popularized many of Foster's songs.

Why revise and sanitize lyrics like this? They should be left to rot.


Some details about Stephen Foster that I didn’t know (drawn from his Wikipedia page)…
  • He died in 1864, during the Civil War, obviously, at age 37, after a fall caused by a fever. (Or maybe caused by heavy drinking. His story has been cleaned up by his brother, who was the executor of his estate.)
  • His work was part of black-face minstrel acts right from the start of his song-writing career. His first published music was a collection called Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies and included songs later made famous by the Christy Minstrels.
  • Soon after that publication, he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels and wrote “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home” (Swanee River), “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” for them, among other songs. The Christy Minstrels were from Buffalo, New York, and mostly performed in the North, including a seven-year-solid stint in New York City — a fact that comes from their Wikipedia page, in case anyone was thinking minstrel shows were a thing of the South.
  • Foster never lived in the South and visited only once, by riverboat to New Orleans, on his honeymoon. 

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