music

Exploring WSU’s History with Race–Pullman’s Minstrel Shows

I was recently watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for some odd reason. The first half of the episode (that’s as far as I’ve got) provided a really interesting genealogy, albeit brief, of black musical history in the 19th century. I was particularly struck by the statement in regards to minstrel shows, the deliberate musical and comedy stage show that involved predominantly white actors putting on black make-up and playing as Blacks, that they happened everywhere in the United States. This began my own curiosity of exploring my new city and university’s history regarding race. I do so not to demonize Pullman or Washington State University (WSU), but to understand the historical complexities and importance that such places have in the kinds of academic work I do. Additionally, Pullman and WSU are not exception to these kind of racial histories, but rather have their own nuanced narratives that intersect with other local, regional, and national issues. So, did Pullman/WSU have minstrel shows? Yes.

In doing some cursory research, I found two different newspaper clippings regarding minstrel shows, their performance in Pullman, and WSU student involvement. In November 1909, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on a touring minstrel show coming to Pullman. The show involved the student orchestra, as well as students trying out for the school’s glee club. What is particularly notable is the monetary benefit that the WSU orchestra received from the performance of minstrel show.

The other clipping comes from November 1918. Like the clipping from 1909, WSU’s Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C) were centrally involved in the performance of the minstrel shows. S.A.T.C’s genealogical off-shoot, the WSU ROTC can be seen throughout campus, as well as ads on local radio stations. It is also evident from this clipping that Pullman’s minstrel performers also performed regionally.

State history. World War. Army. S. A. T. C. (Students Army Training Corps). 1918-11-25

Pullman/WSU’s history of minstrel performances, via these two newspaper clippings, is significant given the racial make-up of Pullman and, historically, WSU. Today, Pullman is predominantly White in its racial make-up, likewise, WSU in 1909 and 1918 would have also been primarily made up of White students. These were White students taking up the roles as overtly racist charactures of Blacks–and they were proud of it. Both articles give space to note the quality of the Blackface performers and their level of talent. ‘Playing Black’ was part of building skills for WSU’s music students in the early 20th century. These performances additionally served to financially benefit the school’s programs and extracurricular organizations.

This history of minstrelsy in Pullman is notable for its rural location, in contrast to other larger cities and their history of minstrel performances. It is also a crucial piece in understanding the racial baggage of my current university, as well as the participation of national cultural politics at the regional level.

If you have any further details regarding minstrel performances in Pullman, WSU, or the Palouse area, leave details in the comments.

Links to original archives and/or links:

S.A.T.C Minstrels Score: http://kaga.wsulibs.wsu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/clipping_II&CISOPTR=46692&CISOBOX=1&REC=5

Spokane Daily Chronicle: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19091106&id=qL5XAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EfQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6786,603458

Gender and Media: ‘Mulan’s’ Songs

I’ve been interested in Mulan for years. Not because of the narrative content strictly, but the themes of gender and Asian-ness as presented in the film. As I’m starting videos up again, I decided to start here. This video and the following video will discuss this themes present in Mulan.

The most obvious message in terms of gender is present in this song. I mean it’s literally in the chorus. I really don’t have much to say about this song as I believe it really speaks for itself. What is truly dynamic about this song is the visual display of coordinated masculinity. It conveys traditional masculine trope of strength, but also very coordinated uniform display of said strength. Like, “Bring Us Honor” gender is taken to be a normative value. Any deviations from this are ridiculed and made to be suppressed through military training.

When I was starting to write this up, I forgot about A Girl Worth Fighting For. The song works with I’ll Make a Man Out of You in that represents masculinity in contrast to feminity. It also parallels Bring Honor to Us All, in that the position of women is as support for men. They are allowed to serve the men in different ways, but only as support. It’s also interesting to note that we learn more about male desire than we do about the actual men themselves. If the prior song has proved anything, identity is suppressed in place of a homogenous masculinity.

The most interesting of the songs from the film is easily “Reflection.” While the prior 2 songs reflected strict gender expectations. The song highlights Mulan’s personal struggle to understand herself. The imagery captures this positioning between the expectations of her social position and her own desires. I believe this highlights her desire to escape normative gender expectations. At the same time, she wants to find new meaning in her gender identity, she struggles with the incapacity of others to respect and understand that.

A big question you might have after hearing talk about these songs is “So What?” And I hear you. I mean, the emphasis of gender difference in the film was wholly embraced in the film’s marketing. So, why then am I bringing this up? Well, I think it does. What I think Mulan and its songs allow us to see is how strongly gender is an act of performance. I don’t mean this as a staged thing, but in a way I do. As Judith Butler points out, gender is something we do.

The songs of Mulan provide a space where gender is constructed through its songs. We understand the tension of the story and Mulan’s relationship between both masculinity and feminity throughout.

Also, Jackie Chan’s contribution is great: