Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Ethiopian Serenede; Burlesque
Composer: Puerner, Charles
Publisher: Wm. A. Pond
Year & Date: 1883, New York, New York
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music# B-477
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0477
A man plays what appears to be a fretless banjo and sings with a far-off look in his eyes. He has dark skin but it is not clear if he is a representation of an African American man or a minstrel playing a role. The man is dressed in a top hat and a dignified, if modest suit. His eyes are disproportionately large, especially in comparison with his tiny nose, and his lips are parted to reveal two rows of small, perfectly formed white teeth.
The instructions to play the “Ethiopian Serenade” on piano prompt the question of why this man is strumming a banjo. The implication seems to be that this is an authentic “Ethiopian” song that has been musically adapted for safe consumption in white middle class parlors. Words like “burlesque” and “serenade” would be clues that the rough, vernacular music of the African (played on the banjo, an instrument with African roots) had been tempered with the civility of European musical influences. The dignified yet childlike man with his banjo functions simply as a hollowed-out symbol of African American culture converted into a safe consumer amusement.
Ebenezer D. Bassett (1803-1908)
Ebenezer D. Bassett was appointed U.S. Minister Resident to Haiti in 1869, making him the first African American diplomat. For eight years, the educator, abolitionist, and black rights activist oversaw bilateral relations through bloody civil warfare and coups d’état on the island of Hispaniola.
Born in Connecticut on October 16, 1833, Ebenezer D. Bassett was the second child of Eben Tobias and Susan Gregory. Bassett was the first black student to integrate the Connecticut Normal School in 1853. He taught in New Haven and befriended Frederick Douglass. Later, he became the principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (ICY).
During the Civil War, Bassett helped recruit African American soldiers for the Union. In nominating Bassett to become Minister Resident to Haiti, President Ulysses S. Grant made him one of the highest ranking black members of the United States government.
During his tenure, Bassett dealt with cases of citizen commercial claims, diplomatic immunity for his consular and commercial agents, hurricanes, fires, and numerous tropical diseases.
Upon the end of the Grant Administration in 1877, Bassett submitted his resignation as was customary with a change of hands in government. When he returned to the United States, he spent an additional ten years as the Consul General for Haiti in New York City. Prior to this death on November 13, 1908, he returned to live in Philadelphia, where his daughter Charlotte also taught at the ICY.