Way down south; Characteristic march, cake-walk and two-step

Way Down South

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

Title of Song:  Way down south; Characteristic march, cake-walk and two-step

Composer: Clark, J.F.

Illustrator: L.S. Fisher

Publisher: G.W. Setchell

Year & Date:  1899, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #B-160

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0160

Basic Description
A group of stiff, grinning men line up on the left. A group of women on the right lean or gesture toward them. The two central figures, a man and a woman, are tilting forward in an unnatural way as if they are wood or paper cutouts. It’s unclear if the man,  holding a cake, is a dance contestant or presenting a prize to the woman.  There is a number 11 on his lapel and a number 44 on the lapel of the man behind him, implying they are contestants in a cakewalk dance, a couples’ competition with a cake as the winner’s reward. There is a sketchy awkwardness to the scene—a woman in the distant background is so haphazardly drawn that her head looks like a puff of smoke. The man to the far left wears a monocle that makes him look bug-eyed. A man in the distant background appears bug-eyed and pencil-necked.

Personal Description
This is a deeply conflicted image. The title “Way Down South” implies that we’re seeing a regional practice indigenous to the southern United States. The use of the word “characteristic,” suggests these poses are “typical” or archetypal vis a vis African American social life. What’s ironic, then, is the striking differentiation among the figures in terms of scale and physical characteristics. The woman in the flowered skirt is at least 15 percent larger than the man holding the cake. Their complementary gestures imply that they are interacting, yet the divergence in size makes them appear disconnected. The women lack stereotypical facial characteristics, yet the men seem to possess them in varying degrees.  From one figure to the next and within the individual figures themselves, representations veer between elegant and vulgar. This may result from the artist’s lack of skill, but it may also reflect an ambiguous attitude toward African Americans and, by extension, confusion about the meaning of the cakewalk dance. Was it performed to mock white culture? Was it a pathetic struggle to match the whites’ culture? Or did it reflect African American mastery over that culture?

Reality Check

ms0312-0402

Niagara Movement delegates, Boston, Massachusetts, 1907

The Niagara Movement was an African American civil rights organization founded in 1905 by a group led by W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter.  It was named for the “mighty current” of change the group wanted to effect and the Niagara Falls in New York was near the site of their first meeting.

The Niagara Movement was a call for opposition to racial segregation and disenfranchisement and to the policies of accommodation and conciliation promoted by African American leaders like Booker T. Washington. The philosophies of the group were in direct contrast to more conciliatory philosophies that proposed patience over militancy.

In July 1905 a group led by W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope, Fred L. McGhee, and William Monroe Trotter met in Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo, New York on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, to discuss full civil liberties, the end of racial discrimination, and the recognition of human brotherhood.  Twenty-nine people attended the first meeting.

The Niagara Movement eventually split into separate committees and divided among the states, establishing chapters in twenty one states by mid-September and reaching 170 members by year’s end. By 1910 however, due to weak finances and internal dissension the group was disbanded.

The second meeting of the Niagara Movement was held at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the site of John Brown’s raid.  The three-day gathering began on August 15, 1906 at the campus of Storer College, now part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The group discussed how to secure civil rights for African Americans and was later described by Du Bois as “one of the greatest that American Negroes ever held.” Those who attended walked from Storer College to the nearby Murphy Family Farm, the site of the historic fort where John Brown’s quest to free four million enslaved African Americans reached its climax. They removed their socks and shoes at the site to honor the hallowed ground and participated in a ceremony of remembrance.

The Niagara Movement had a number of organizational flaws including a lack of funding and central leadership. Booker T. Washington’s opposition drew support away from the group. Following the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, the movement admitted its first white member, Mary White Ovington, a settlement worker and a socialist. In 1911 the remaining membership of the Niagara Movement joined with a number of white liberals to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP].

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s