Plantation Dance; Burlesque

Plantation Dance

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  Plantation Dance; Burlesque

Composer:  Pattison, J.N. (John Nelson), 1845-1905

Performer: Pattison, J.N. (John Nelson), 1845-1905

Illustrator: Teller

Engraver and Lithographer: Clayton

Publisher:  C.M. Tremaine

Year & Place:  1867, New York, New York

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-930

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0930

Basic Description
Two African American men prance in a bucolic setting. One plays a banjo and nimbly lifts his foot in dance.  The other skips in a sprightly, child-like way, and has an almost cherubic look. Their frolicsome poses differ greatly from the elastic, disjointed maneuvers of T.D. Rice’s “Jumping Jim Crow.” A Big House and what appear to be slave quarters or barn in the backdrop are visible reminders of toil and suffering, but the structures appear flat, as if part of a stage set. Their diminished presence suggests that this enchanted moment of dance and music is an absorbing escape for its participants. But the viewer can see how compromised and regulated this moment is, allowable only because it is under surveillance. There is a sense of enclosure and lock-down; the barn-like structure visible between the men links them as figures but also circumscribes them. A mass of what could be brambles limits their movements to the right of the frame. The men’s clothing–the billowy shirt and tall boots of the childlike man in particular–could equally place them in seventeenth-century Western Europe as in the antebellum South. The use of the word “Burlesque” in the song title plays in to this pretension; as a form of theater, burlesque was linked to Victorian popular culture and renditions of Shakespeare’s plays in a burlesque style.

Personal Description
The social life of African American slaves is romanticized; it is made to appear so rewarding that the oppression and sorrow of slavery is just a side note next to all the gaiety. Although the illusion relies on the association of African American slaves with some positive traits (artistic talents and agility), it also suggests that they are childlike and see their surroundings through an Arcadian lens. The title of the song and the use of the word “burlesque,” associated with comedic theater, makes light of the brutal conditions of slave life in a vulgar and abusive way. It is damaging and unethical because it minimizes and downplays the effects of a grossly unjust system. This imagery converts this injustice into a comedic form of entertainment for popular consumption, therefore perpetuating the impulse to dismiss or ignore the conditions of slave life.

Reality Check

Charles L. Reason (1818-1893)
Charles Lewis Reason was born July 21, 1818 in New York City to West Indies immigrants Michiel and Elizabeth Reason. Charles attended the African Free School along with his brothers Elmer and Patrick. An excellent student in mathematics, Reason became an instructor in 1832 at the school at age fourteen, receiving a salary of $25 a year. He used some of his earnings to hire tutors to improve his knowledge. Later, he decided to enter the ministry but was rejected because of his race by the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal church in New York City. Reason rejected such “sham Christianity” and resigned in protest from St. Philip’s Church, the congregation sponsoring his application. Undaunted by Episcopal racism, he studied next at McGrawville College in McGraw, New York.

Reason aided in drafting a call to the first New York State Convention of Negroes in 1840 and advocated in New York City a manual-labor school to provide training in the industrial arts. He created a normal (teaching) school as a remedy to the charge that black teachers were inefficient and incompetent. He decided to pursue a career in teaching, believing strongly that education was the best means for black advancement.

In 1849 Reason became the first African American to hold a professorship at a predominantly white American college when he was hired as professor of belles lettres, Greek, Latin, and French and adjunct professor of mathematics at the integrated New York Central College in McGrawville (Cortland County), New York only to resign in 1852 in order to become the first principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (1852-56) [now Cheyney University of PA].  In 1873 he headed the successful movement to outlaw segregation in New York schools.

When Reason resigned in 1892, he held the longest tenure in the school system.
Reason was also active politically throughout his life. He was committed to the antislavery cause and worked unceasingly for improvement of black civil rights.

Source:, Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, Mathematics Department, State University of New York at Buffalo


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