Final Paper

Seth Kurke

Final Project

Professor Allred

English 396


The Road Back Home: The Exploitation and Emancipation of The Fisk Jubilee Singers



“In later life, Maggie Porter would confess she was disappointed

at first with the ruler of the largest empire in the history of the

world. ‘Poor ignorant me!’ Porter exclaimed. ‘I received the

greatest disappointment of my life. The Queen wore no crown,

no robes of state. She was like many English ladies I had seen

in her widow’s cap and weeds. But it was the Queen in flesh and

blood.’ Victoria sat quietly and expectantly as the singers

assembled before her.” (Ward 213)


The fiercely independent Maggie Porter was born a slave in 1853. A mere twenty years later her performance, along with the rest of the Fisk Jubilee singers, in London before Queen Victoria of England would be something of a coronation for this band of African-Americans touring the English country side. “Queen Victoria’s blessing opened nearly every door in her kingdom…” (Ward 215) But not only would England fall to the spiritual charms of the slave songs; to a degree Europe would soon be enraptured with the sounds. However, after England there would still be hurdles and obstacles because of racial divide. Even the journey from humble origins at the Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee was wrought with conflict and seemingly unendurable hardships. Never were doors easily opened for the Fisk Jubilee singers, and even some of their most stringent white allies took advantage of the desperate situation that these singers found themselves in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Yet, this remarkable story can be looked at as the first step in acceptance of African-American culture, especially from a musical standpoint. What would ensue in the subsequent decades would be the emergence of the blues and jazz rising up from the south to invade northern cities, and later would transform into rock and roll in post-World War II United States. To put it bluntly, if it wasn’t for the accessibility of the spirituals for white audiences at home and abroad, jazz and the blues most likely would not have been as accessible, not to mention the direct influence on the Jazz and Blues performers themselves. This long arm of influence of the Jubilee singers was a double edged sword. Though eventually a success, the singers were forced to tour without much pay and under harsh conditions. In a way, this was another form of slavery, replacing chains for chains yet what came of this hardship was a musical legacy that is unrivalled in the annals of American music. But one cannot discuss legacy without first dissecting the origins of a movement.

“Fisk University…was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association (AMA), which had ties to the Congregational Church, to provide badly needed education for newly freed slaves.” (Brooks 279) These millions of free men, women, and children were homeless and without any money, nor means to achieve any stature. They were uneducated and unprepared for a life left to their own devices. Much debate was made as what to do with this “problem.” The question for some was how to integrate them into society. In the words of the author J.B.T. Marsh writing in 1881, the AMA was founded with the intent and purpose of abolishing slavery, educating slaves, and converting them to Christianity. Then when the war ended “…this task of giving more than four millions of freedmen a Christian education was suddenly laid upon the (AMA), its origin, its associations, and its past labors, all pointed to it as providentially trained up for the occasion.” (Marsh 6) Whether this opportunity which was seized by this organization was divinely motivated is up for debate. One thing that is clear, once the doors of the school opened on January 9, 1866, there was an “abundance of students but (the school) suffered a severe shortage of funds.” (Brooks 279-280) Once opportunity opened up, given the chance to make through the doors of the originally named Fisk Free Colored School, the newly emancipated were eager and willing to learn and participate. With infrastructure and support already in place, the AMA were an obvious organization to step into the power vacuum of influence. But this moral support from the northern abolitionist Christian community didn’t extend to the monetary kind. In order to keep the university afloat something had to be done.

Universities using their student body to accrue funds for various purposes is not something that has gone out of fashion even in today’s America. “In 2010, the collective revenue of the 15 highest-grossing college football programs in the United States was more than $1 billion. In many schools, the revenues generated by successful football and basketball programs fund the entire athletic department…These revenues come largely from broadcast rights, ticket sales and merchandising.” (, NP) According to a study done by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007, 40% of all collegiate football players were African-American. This number is significantly higher for the major programs in universities such as the University of Alabama, University of Texas, and University of Tennessee, among others. Of course some of these students receive full scholarships, but for the University the expense of tuition is but peanuts compared to the booty reaped upon the financial return garnered from the schools investment in their players. In some ways, these schools are following the blueprint laid out by Fisk University, albeit with a different approach. Where today the money is made by sports, with Fisk their idea was to use music of the former slaves. This was a much more risky endeavor as we will soon discover.

“In 1867, George L. White became the treasurer (of Fisk University)…After a time, White began gathering a group of students together in his home…He was inspired by their voices and the dire straits of the college, so he began arranging occasional fund-raising concerts for the choir.” (Lloyd 11) White had the reputation of a tireless man driven by faith and goodwill. By all accounts, his initial conviction was to upkeep the integrity of the school. For the members of the choir, these performances were a way to pay their dues. But by 1871, this wasn’t enough. According Andrew Ward, a leading voice on the history of the Jubilee singers, White spent much of his earnings putting back into the University. “He fended of creditors and even dug into his own savings to keep the school from sinking.” (Ward 82) Times were most definitely tough and White leaned on his religion and his business acumen to lead him to the next phase of this process.

At this time it must be noted and dissected the role of white people which played in helping some African-Americans attain some semblance of integration in the aftermath of the War. Perhaps, integration is a word best saved for the civil rights movement nearly a century later. It is true that the fates of these freed slaves depended on the nature and manner of which white people they were dealing with. Men like White took a leading role in this process of education. Of course the ambitions of certain forms of Christianity give the green light to followers to try and convert the “barbarous”. This tactic has brought missionaries to places all around the globe to places deemed “uncivilized”, in their eyes. This brought the AMA to places as far flung as “Jamaica and West Africa” and even the slaveholding south. (Marsh 6) This eventually led to the creation of Fisk and thus the Jubilee singers and their subsequent journey of spreading word of God through their songs. But what truly emerges out of these sojourns to spread the gospel of the Jubilee singers is that while many whites initially saw the singers as a singular unit, with each member nearly indistinguishable from next, the stories and journals left behind about the individual singers reveal the conflicting aspects of such a harrowing and complex chapter in American history. However, with credit to White, slowly the image of African-Americans changed because of these tours.

These tours in itself were ambitious and daring. First, because White’s goal was to raise $20,000 for the university. It was also daring because many people wondered who would want to see black entertainers performing outside of their normal stereotype. “…at the time the American public viewed black entertainers almost as exclusively as minstrels and comedians. Never had a serious attempt been made to present an ensemble (such as this) in a ‘high-class’ setting.” (Brooks 280). To paraphrase Thomas Lloyd of The Choral Journal, the Jubilee singers were a counter to that ever popular stereotype, despite the fact that the legacy of minstrelry continued deep into the latter half-of the 19th century. (Lloyd 12) Truly, vestiges of that legacy lasted long into the 20th century. Anybody who has seen Gone with the Wind can attest to Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy or even the character of Pork in the same movie. These depictions harken back to the perceptions of even some of the most liberal abolitionists of the previous 100 years in regards to the image of the African-American, such as the members of the Beecher family of the mid-19th century.

This “high-class” setting was the target during the commencement of the first domestic tour in 1871 for the raising of funds in order to keep the University running. But the reception early on was mediocre at best.  As written by Ward, “George White’s plan was to lead his singers up along the old Underground Railway, performing in the churches and homes of the former abolitionists who had helped spirit runaway slaves up to Canada.” (Ward 128) During this trip, White had allegedly booked first-class tickets for the choir, but they were continually denied passage and forced to ride in the caboose of the train. This was a harsh fact of post-Civil War America. A sobering irony is that even in the places where the people fought for the freedom of the slaves, there was still trouble accepting them as equals. (Ward 128) Or course we know how that problem persists even today. One need look no further than any random headline in the local newspaper. Imagine in the 1870’s how difficult the transition of acceptance must have been for even the most level headed White abolitionist confronted with his accomplishment.Yet slowly but surely a zeitgeist was sweeping through the northeast. After the four domestic tours of 1871 and 1872, over 150,000 dollars were raised for the university. They came back to Nashville as the toast of the town amongst the white elite. But how were the day to day lives of the singers changed after these first few years of hard work and stress from travelling in poor conditions? Before this question could be answered, one thing cannot be disputed: acclaim for the Jubilee singers was at a fever pitch and offers from all over the newly restored Union were pouring in demanding the talents of his troupe. (Lloyd 13)

After the first tour overseas to Great Britain, they returned to the States weary and sick, but also elated with their occupation in May of 1874. Already mentioned before was the words of Ms. Potter and her recollection of Queen Victoria on that successful trip, but there must be mentioned, respectively, the singers Ella Sheppard and Robert L. Loudin. Not to do disservice to the other singers, but the exploits of these three high-profile performers will shine a light on the life of some the lesser known members. Over the next few years, Robert Loudin, born a free man though a victim of brutal racism, became an unofficial spokesperson for the Jubilee singers. He was an ambitious and outspoken baritone singer. He fought for the right of the singers for rest and compensation. In 1884, he would travel the work as the undisputed leader of the Jubilee singers. To be an African-American man commanding such a group was truly an achievement. He had other pursuits as well. The Jubilee singers was just a platform for political and business ambitions. Tireless and driven, his story was one that is inspirational and worthy of note. ( Sheppard, born into slavery, was another driven member who would tour ceaselessly with the group for 1871-1878 run, when the original troupe was retired. Her only break was during a bout of infection that nearly left her dead. She is a testament to strength of will but is also an example of slave-driver like mentality that White and leaders of the University would inflict on the troupe. However, Sheppard was unrepentantly loyal to White. ( Even White would suffer from the death of his wife and from tuberculosis and eventually give up control of the troupe altogether. These people are examples of the ego and drive of artistic endeavors when pursuits of merit are involved. But there were other reasons driving the group. The tour of Great Britain was very lucrative and most of this went toward building the great Jubilee Hall in Nashville. (Marsh 46)

In the words of W.E.B. DuBois, “to me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.” (DuBois 179) An alumni of Fisk, DuBois was truly inspired by the reach and achievements of the Jubilee singers. He speaks to the legacy of slavery and the fruits that are reaped when those seeds are sown in the soil. Jubilee Hall was complete in 1876 and was a testament to that which had come into fruition. The songs equal the souls of the black folks from slavery to seeds of emancipation. This is their history and with the construction of Jubilee Hall they had a concrete representation of where they came from and where they were going. Yet this was another institution built on the backs of poor and the destitute. While the context may be different, the exhaustion and exploitation have eerily similar results to that exploitative slave mentality but success would dissipate that down the road and the sacrifice these singers made for the troupe far outweighed the pitfalls of exploitation. To put it simply, the experience of the singers, especially going abroad, was eye-opening and helped to open up their consciousness, as travelling usually does. In the words of Frederick Loudin upon seeing London, “it seemed to me I had always been walking around blind before. We were astonished to find such freedom…such an entire absence of race prejudice…I gradually realized that I could do what anybody else could do…” (Ward 293) This was during their third tour in 1875. But his candy-colored observations may have been due to the fact that the path was paved for him with the success of earlier tours and that also he was part of a celebrated group but however, compared to the conditions in the south at the time, it would be difficult to agree with his enthusiasm. Back home, unfortunately, was another matter altogether.

The 1870’s was a tumultuous time for the conditions of blacks in the southern American states while they became ever so popular overseas. “As the Jubilees proceeded from strength to strength, letters from friends and family followed after them, reporting on the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan: teachers beaten and even killed, country school houses burned to the ground, and federal authorities in retreat…” (Ward 251) From the standpoint of a confederate sympathizer, these were natural reactions toward the emergence of the African-American. They figured they had the ideologies of the northern industrialist forced upon them, and while the Jubilee singers came back home, they would also tour incessantly, driving all of its members to exhaustion. Also, it is not as if abroad there were not instances of racism, despite the proclamations of Loudin.

In 1877, during one of their last tours before disbanding and breaking up into other groups under the same name, they paid a visit to the Netherlands. According to an article written at the time in the Leeuwarder Courant “The Netherlands is to be blamed for the slaves because in 1620 the first slaves disembarked from a Dutch boat on the shores of Virginia.”  (Metzelaar 79) This statement reveals the deep-seated guilt from the legacy of slavery on the psyche of the Dutch. Suddenly, the Dutch were confronted with something they tried to forget, and a discourse about race became a conversational topic. But while some commentators at the time focussed on the abhorrent history and complicity of slavery of the Dutch, other people in the Netherlands had mixed reactions to a travelling troupe with the music taking a back seat to the to the spectacle that was the Jubilee singers themselves. “Clearly it was not only their singing that attracted such large audiences; many people in the Netherlands were just eager to see a people with a darker skin.” (Metzelaar 79) According to Metzelaar, it was noted that one critic was disappointed that the singers were not black enough. This connection to Dutch hostility towards blacks extends toward the Dutch Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Metzelaar even invites further review on the connection between this group and Dutch tensions in the homeland. (Metzelaar 79) But the Netherlands is only a small case study of the galvanizing effect that the Jubilee singers had.

Obviously, racism is inescapable whether it is from ignorance or from hatred. Fetishism and curiosity was part of the draw in the Netherlands and other places they would visit, such as Germany and Switzerland. It is interesting how a group of former slaves singing Negro spirituals and Christian hymns would act as a mirror upon which every population they were visiting would look and see a reflection of their racist past. At home they were equally revered and reviled depending on which train station they rolled into. Abroad came even more diverse reactions but what cannot be disputed is that the Jubilee singers opened the to door black entertainment. You can say, for white people, they softened the blow. They also spawned other imitation “jubilee” groups that would tour around and become somewhat successful. They would even use the name “Fisk” but “unfortunately the musical standards of some of these hastily contrived commercial groups were low.” (Brooks 282) It is interesting to learn, however, that even some imposters were successful and made money for the organizers who happened to be mostly white. This is a testament to the popularity of the music at the time.

This popularity, like all popularities, are complex and incorporate many different variables of different societies. This can only reveal that societies in general are not homogenous entities, but consist of dynamic components constantly changing and in flux. No better example than the Jubilee singers to expose this sociological truth. Perhaps the drudgery of never-ending, ill-suited travel and constant performing may have done irreparable harm to the health of the singers and to their leader George White. Even the fact that     the Spirituals themselves are an oral history exploited by white evangelicals for monetary purposes has been a blemish on the record of the Jubilee singers. Some critics have responded that White made these songs palatable for white consumption and that in turn created a new stereotype. Based on the readings from Andrew Ward’s Dark Midnight When I Rise, there were seldom performances directed towards impoverished African-Americans. But dare one say that these same critics probably watch NCAA football on Saturdays or share in some other form of exploitation in their lives. In this American system, exploitation is what our foundation is made of with entertainment and garnering capital some of the pillar virtues. Despite monetary capital, what cultural capital was earned from the Fisk Jubilee singers? First one needs to realize that history can always be criticized if one allows it to exist in a vacuum. But in that instance, progress would fail to arise because there would be no context of the greater framework in which events reside. This in turn would stifle meaningful discourse. With that in mind it seems obvious what benefits came from the Fisk Jubilee singers without detracting from the valid critics. George White’s vision came with a price but what was bought is still felt today. The Jubilee singers made black music relevant outside of the realm of minstrelry. The next generations of music benefitted as well, with the blues and jazz giving birth to rock and roll. These connections are so culturally relevant that American popular culture has become one of the dominant cultures around the world, with the African-American musical influence one of the leading movements. According to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, the blues and early Rock and Roll from the likes of Chuck Berry were major contributors to his passion to be a musician. And what inspired the blues? Spirituals! Furthermore, the Jubilee singers exported the African-American back over the Atlantic, thus symbolically reversing slavery. This has a psychological effect that has exponential ramifications we are still evaluating as a society. Finally, the impact and, perhaps more important, is the experiences of the Jubilee singers themselves, the stories of Porter, Sheppard, and Loudin, not to mention countless others. Their experiences put them face to face with the ancestors of their captors and began the road to reconciliation.

“So their songs conquered till they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland. Seven years they sang, and brought back a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to found Fisk University.” (DuBois 179)

Works Cited


Brooks, Tim. “Might Take One Disc of This Trash as a Novelty”: Early Recordings by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Popularization of “Negro Folk Music.” American Music 18.3 (2000): 278-316. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014


“College Sports Are Still Largely Segregated by Race.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education No. 37 (2002): 63-64. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.


DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. N.p.: Echo Library, 2011. Web.


Lloyd, Thomas. “”Shout All Over God’s Heaven!” How the African-American Spiritual Has Maintained Its Integrity in the Face of Social and Musical Challenges.” The Choral Journal 45.1 (2004): 9-25. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.


Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers, with Their Songs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1886. Print.


Metzelaar, Helen. “Front Matter.” Tijdschrift Van De Koninklijke Vereniging Voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis Deel 55.1 (2005): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.


PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.


Richards, Keith, and James Fox. Keith Richards. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010. Print.


Ward, Andrew. Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. New York:        Amistad, 2001. Print.


Pre-conceived notions

The focus of this blog post will be on the relationship between chapters 1, 2, and 4. I would like to discuss the main themes that they have in common and how the themes of the first two chapters enhance the narrative of the 4th chapter.

In the beginning of chapter 1, Dubois talks about when he was made painfully aware that he was different from his peers because of the pre- conceived notions regarding the color of his skin. He felt that he is not different of his skin color directly but unlike his white peers who do not have negative ideas or stigmas attached to their skin color, Dubois learned that day that his skin color caused for people to judge him and to perceive him in a particular negative kind of light (Dubois 2).

Dubois talks about being blessed with a “second-sight” in one of the ways of which, a person sees themselves through the lens of these stereotypes and pre- conceived notions (Dubois 2). Dubois comments that black people want to be able to occupy the same space in which they can be both black and an “American” at the same time. I think that Dubois is trying to say that black people wish to be self-accepting and self-confident in their identity while being accepted for being black in America, along with the acceptance that “black” is also considered “American” as well. Then after being accepted for being “American”, Dubois envisions having the same opportunities accepted Americans would have in the right circumstances.

I think that through this lens, it is possible to look at chapter 4’s narrative about a black village as a microcosm of the greater world. In chapter 1, Dubois articulates the “half- named negro problem”. He describes it as such,
“[The black man] felt his poverty, without a cent, without a home, without land, without tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors… he felt the height of his ignorance—not simply of letters but of life, of business, of the humanities… [besides] poverty and ignorance… [was]… the red stain of basterdy, which centuries of systematic legal defilement of negro woman… the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the negro home” (Dubois 5).
I think that Dubois is trying to say that at this time, black people as a group did not even know where to begin to rehabilitate as a whole. They were at an extreme disadvantage without resources to sustain themselves or even the ability to create resources that could help them. They did not have the knowledge on how to make these resources either which is terrible, but beyond that, black people as a whole were plagued by something that has haunted them and prevented them from forming a sound mind and creating the self- confidence and self-love necessary to persevere and fight to better one’s self. The rape culture of white males imposing on black females has degraded black people as a group and has stripped them of their dignity and propriety because of the shame of the unclaimed children and “defiled” women. Dubois feels that the impact of this rape culture has taken away the honor and pride of black people, and that this creation of self-hatred and self-loathing has hurt black people just as bad as poverty and ignorance because of the psychological damage done to the black person’s self-image and the ways in which every black person creates an individual identity as a black person and an American simultaneously.

I think that the importance of Chapter 2 is to discuss that it is politically possible to give black people opportunities and political power which in turn gives them the opportunity to better themselves given the context of the Jim Crow world in which black people were restricted and neglected. Dubois argues in chapter 2 that the same political powers that place restrictions and limitations on black people could potentially empower them and give them resources. I think that the point of chapter 2 is to show that for a brief time, these political powers did help black people and that under the right legislation, it can be restored.

Connecting this to the “half-named negro problem” that Dubois fleshes out in chapter 1, these political powers can help to educate black people so they can create the resources that they need, as well as the right to vote which would give them a voice. Connecting this to Dubois’ description of what black people strive for (the ability to be black and personally secured and self- accepting/ socially accepted of this), the ability to vote would greatly aid this aim because political power or agency would help soothe the psychological damage created as mentioned before from rape culture.

I think that chapter 4’s narrative is very special because it touches upon these ideas in a way that makes it easier to understand because of the personal nature and simplicity of the narrative. Dubois finds a rural town that is “shut out from the world by the forests and the rolling hills towards the east” (Dubois 38). This creates an image in the reader’s mind that this town is separate and isolated form the current world. Dubois proves in an interesting way that this is not the case that even an isolated place can represent the current world that it is supposedly separated from. Dubois’ narrative of the little schoolhouse and its eager students creates a notion of naturalness to the desire to be educated and a sense of sweet innocence for the act of learning demonstrate by the black children of the little town, Dubois successfully paints education in a positive light and creates the notion that education should be accessible to all.

The return to the village in a couple of years demonstrates further the claims that Dubois is making in chapters 1 and 2. In one example, Josie’s father, Jim, was in trouble with the law for stealing wheat from a white farmer. It is not mentioned why Josie’s father stole from the farmer but there are a few guesses why. Poverty could have been and probably was the contributing factor as to why Jim stole from the white farmer. Given the circumstance, Jim probably stole to survive and to provide for himself and his family.

In this same anecdote, Dubois learns that Josie, the girl that he depicts to be filled with this eagerness to learn has worked herself to death because she was forced to work menial jobs to provide for herself and her family. This anecdote is successful in creating this sense of loss and waste of potential talent fro something greater. Perhaps if Josie and her family had more agency, they could have at least explained their economic plight in court and gained some understanding for the need to steal. In a better world with greater opportunities and the ability to express themselves, Josie’s family which is a representation of the situation black people are placed in, would have been given the chance to clear their names or be given the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that does not happen here because in the context of the Jim Crow world, black people are depicted to have bad qualities and commit bad deeds so it is considered unnecessary by white American lawmakers for black people to explain themselves because it is considered apparent that black people are inherently bad.


In Queen Mary we do our Bibliography at the end, so I’m using that as my excuse…


Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone, 1994. Print.

Dreiser, Theodore. Sister Carrie. New York: Penguin, 1994. Print.

Lee, Stephanie M. “Framing the City: Windows, Newspapers and the Illusion of Reality in Theodore Dresier’s Sister Carrie.” Berkeley Undergraduate Journal 23 (2) (2011). Print.

Canada, Mark. “The Critique of Journalism in Sister Carrie.” American Literary Realism: 227-42. Print.

the republic

The novelty of freedom comes from within. Depending on what the individual desires despite what may be expected of them according to their position in society currently or what desires and restriction one must put forth in order to achieve a position in society they were not lucky enough to be born with. the undeniable role of money and even more in-depth what kind of money one possesses.
When Selden is teasing Lilly for her desires to be let into the rich kingdom, she lays it rich back at him by taking notice in the fact in which he spends so much of his time within the very thing he seems to loath and poke fun at. He then says, “the queer thing with society is that the people who regard it as an end are those who are in it, and not the critics on the fence. It’s just the other way with most shows-the audience may be under the illusion but the actors know that the real life is on the other side of the foot lights.” He fancies himself as one who takes society as a means of escape from work and in his humble opinion-the real use for it. It is here, maybe not for the first time Lily realizes her own position and her teetering between the two. She then argues his, “republic” is more like a corporation which keeps people out. The imaginary threshold of coming forth into this republic, she seems to believe Selden is under the impression she is un able to cross due to her selfish longing of the finer things in life. The finer things she is well aware come at a very high price, one she had known all along but has always accepted as her destiny up until this point to the reader. Her realization that once in possession of these things, she wouldn’t even enjoy them in the first place, dampens her spirit. The hindering on her spirit takes a toll on her physically as the, “slow colour rose to her cheek, not a blush of excitement but drawn from the deep wells of feeling; it was the effort of her spirit had produced it” (71),

The Evolution of Muckraking: Jacob A. Riis and Michael Moore


“LONG AGO”, Jacob A. Riis writes in his the first sentence of his introduction, “Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives'” (Riis, 5). It’s been over a hundred years since Mr. Riis quoted this in the very beginning of his novel How the Other Half Lives — and yet still, in many ways similar and different, America struggles with this class separation, so much that some may groan at the seemingly over-usage of the popular terms “one-percent” versus the “ninety-nine percent.” But it’s true: there is an enormous class divide that has evolved from the Industrial Revolution of Riis’ time to the Capitalist regime of today, with a little Sister Carrie and consumerism sprinkled in-between.

The actual distribution of wealth in the United States, versus what Americans “think” the distribution of wealth is, versus the ideal.

What happened to half? President Jimmy Carter gives an explanation — and a warning. Basically, it’s a Fight Club warning of consumerism with a sad ending. Americas increased industrialization has lead to an increase in consumption of unnecessary products. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk: “You‘re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Some history on Jacob A. Riis. His good friend Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt called the social reformer “the ideal American.” He was raised in Denmark, “in the small town of Ribe” (Buk-Swienty, 13), a flowery, fairy-tale town which was the inspiration for which Riis became obsessed “with the notion of transforming New York City in Ribe’s image” (Buk-Swienty, 16). Growing up, he fell in love with a girl named Elizabeth, became obsessed, so much that upon seeing a play with “a well-known actress who looked singularly like Elizabeth” that was about to be murdered, he rushed the stage with “a loud cry of murder” (Riis, 18) only to be dragged out by his brother under the eyes of King George of Greece. Upon receiving a certificate in carpentry from Copenhagen, he rushed to propose to Elizabeth, only to be refused. Thus, “it was settled that [he] should go to America” (Riis, 19) to get away from her.

America was at a time of industrialization when Riis arrived, “a time of social Darwinism in which gigantic fortunes were made by a handful of men while millions merely subsisted” (Buk-Swienty, 48) and “New York was a city of extremes, and the contrast between rich and poor engendered hyperbolic judgement and description” (Buk-Swienty, 64). As will be examined in the work of Michael Moore, little has changed. Riis “started out poor” (Buk-Swienty, 2), working as a travelling salesman selling “a patent flat and fluting iron” (Riis, 68). Finally, he found a job in journalism with the New York News Association, and eventually bought the South Brooklyn News, building it and using it to take stances against his previous political rivals, eventually to sell it back at “five times the purchase price” (Buk-Swienty, 121) in order to return to Denmark to marry Elisabeth. Returning to New York with his now pregnant wife, he finally managed to get a job with the New York Tribune “as a general reporter on a trial basis” (Buk-Swienty, 136) until securing a job as a police reporter, giving him the authority to examine the horrendous conditions of the New York City tenements.

“The father’s hands were crippled from lead poisoning. He had not been able to work for a year. A contagious disease of the eyes, too long neglected, had made the mother and one of the boys nearly blind. The children cried with hunger. They had not broken their fast that day, and it was then near noon. For months the family had subsisted on two dollars a week from a priest, and a few loaves and a piece of corned beef which the sisters sent them on Saturday. The doctor gave direction for the treatment of the child, know that it was possible only to alleviate its sufferings until death should end them, and left some money for food for the rest. An hour later, when I returned, I found them feeding the dying child with ginger ale, bought for two cents a bottle at the peddler’s cart down the street. A pitying neighbor had proposed it as the one thing that she could think of as likely to make the child forget its misery.” (Riis, Buk-Swienty, 161)

Though such horrors would surely strike anyone, Riis’ immigration to New York City can be understood as the source of his deeper empathy for the depravity of the tenements. With such empathy, he was compelled to seek a medium of description better than writing to convey what he saw on his midnight trips with the sanitary police. He writes, “the wish kept cropping up in me that there were some way of putting before the people what I saw there. A drawing might have done it, but I cannot draw, never could” (Riis, 266). Photography was in its dark ages in the 1870s, and “was exclusively for professionals… requiring practitioners to handle ‘highly flammable and noxious substances'” (Buk-Swienty, 205). Bulky and inconvenient, it was also impossible to have a proper exposure in the dark alleyways and filthy tenements; until that fateful day when he chanced upon an article in his morning paper describing the creation of a way “to take pictures by flashlight” (Buk-Swienty, 203). The first flash, a powder, and the beginning of reformation.

Jacob A. Riis with his camera and flash.

A man of similar values, Michael Moore is the modern photographic muckraker. His first film, Roger and Me, gives a first-hand look at his hometown of Flint, Michigan during the corporate dismantling of the first GM Car Factory and the local economic crisis that followed and shaped his career. Before that, though, he started off in a similar manner to our protagonist, Mr. Riis, writing for school newspapers and local magazines, eventually getting a job as an editor for the muckraking magazine, Mother Jones. Similar to Riis, however, Mr. Moore was soon out of a job again, being fired for refusing to run an article. Moore sued and won the money to produce Roger and Me.

The film depicts the devastating effects of General Motor’s closing of several factories on the local economy, particularly those whose homes are being foreclosed upon, the process of eviction by the police, and the disparity the greed of the few caused the many. The story revolves around Michael Moore’s objective of questioning the CEO of GM, Roger Smith, being repeated denied. In such a manner, Moore places himself between the camera and subject, in the place of Riis’ personal narrative in How the Other Half Lives.

The first point of interest lies here: the positioning of the speaker in relation to his work. Both Moore and Riis combine their personal, first-hand experiences in a specific medium that acts as transport for the presentation of facts and data to promote the issues of the less fortunate to a larger audience. This presents an interesting dynamic between the three central figures in a “muckraking narrative”: the audience, the muckraker, and the subject. The muckraker and his mediums relationship to the audience and subject put him at a natural position of power, the power to convey to those able to stimulate change. But in what right and to what legitimacy does each subjective individual have in taking up the cause of those objectively less fortunate? The power to copy and appropriate comes with the possibility of misrepresentation.

Both Riis and Moore have separate viewpoints on the cause of the poor. For Riis, in his chapter A Raid on the Stale-Beer Dives, the cause of poverty for the tramps seems only to be a result of “laziness”, “idleness”, and “rum” (Riis, 62). His stew-y prose, while rich and factual, contains chunks of a strange separation from his subject that results in an unfitting and course vernacular in his terms that is worth examining. Put into a position of power simply by his positive relationship to the police as “a kind of war correspondent” (Riis, 58), Riis seems to struggle in balancing the relationship between subject, the un-American, and audience, “the wealthier segments society, policymakers, and voters” (Buk-Swienty, 203) in his writing. An odd phenomenon, considering Riis, an immigrant himself once in the same position as the poor he studies, is later referred to as “the ideal American” by the rough-riding T. R. Roosevelt, Jr.  “The one thing you shall vainly ask for in the chief city of America is a distinctively American community. There is none; certainly not among the tenements. Where have they gone to, the old inhabitants?” (Riis, 21). It is safe to assume by now that “old inhabitants” indeed does not refer to the only natural inhabitants, the Natives Americans, but rather to the whites who have been in the city longer. What is Riis’ plan, then? If the assumption is time creates an American, then there seems to be no need for his novel and photographs. Assimilation, for him, appears to be a necessary occurrence in the transformation of the “bitter”, “ineffectual”, and “unwelcome Irishman [that] has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman” (Riis, 23) into the ideal American. He writes, “The Irishman does not naturally take kindly to tenement life, though with characteristic versatility he adapts himself to its conditions at once. It does violence, nevertheless, to the best that is in him, and for that very reason of all who come within its sphere soonest corrupts him” (22). He seems to assume that the negative nature of the tenets lies innately within themselves, that for the immigrant drinking is rooted in innate internal problems, not necessarily a result of external forces. He hints at a Prohibition-like attitude, with alcohol a devilish evil needed to be cleansed from “this queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements, ever striving and working like whiskey and water in one glass, and with the like result: final union and a prevailing taint of whiskey” (Riis, 21), implying the result of a group achieving American status and becoming one “leaves an impure and corrupting taste in one’s mouth” ( With the mindset that American assimilation will occur over a period of time, there is another point of interest revolving around the attitudes towards African-Americans as he refers to them as “the old Africa of Thompson Street, … the black of the negro…” (Riis, 24), when, based on this mindset, the African-American should be “American” due to the arrival of the African slaves as far back as the 1600s. But, alas. The issue of citizenship and equality is still something our country still struggles with today.

With Michael Moore’s perspective in the Roger and Me clip above, it can be gained that such stereotypes exist primarily due to a separation of understanding between the two groups that results in ignorance. Returning back to the muckraker as vehicle to promote understanding and change between subject and audience and with the understanding that Riis’ audience consisted of the worthy and wealthy white American elite that he considered himself apart of, the conclusion results in a failure by Riis to adequately relay “the information on the subject” to the world that  “has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance” (Riis, 5) in a manner that is from the perspective and understanding of the immigrant and not a mirror of the white elite that he is privileged in having joined, a sinful hypocrisy to a man who started off in similar destitution to those he generalizes. The claim is made that Riis’ position of American authority affected his objectivity in refusing a cause in order to maintain his friendship with his socially-defining friend President Roosevelt (Alland, 33).

Comparing Riis again to the contemporary Michael Moore, many of the issues that Riis consciously and unconsciously raises are still prevalent in American society today, in some cases to an even higher degree. With the evolution of the still image to the moving comes the evolution of all cultural aspects around it. Indeed time have changed, some issues growing larger, some smaller. The largest contrast to Riis is the natural position that Michael Moore inhabitants as individual and not police reporter for a newspaper. It may not be entirely fair to judge Riis for taking such a position, but Moore’s position provides a more ideal vehicle for transporting objectivity than Riis’ as it is achieved independently with a personal viewpoint that is strongly related to his subject and supported by the tools used to make said vehicle. Motion pictures and technological advances aside, this argumentative outline of the ideal way to facilitate change through a medium that is a combination of other mediums (ex. Riis’ combines text and image, Moore, image and vocal narrative) and fact is dependent on a uniqueness of character and interpretation that Riis does not universally provide. There is an extreme, however, of character that Michael Moore begins to emulate as he career progresses, when an individual becomes prominent enough to become an icon or celebrity. While technology allows Moore to better convey reality to a wider audience, the success of his more prominent image could become limited in attempt to repeatedly fit the norm that defined the initial success, while also creating a separation between him and his subject. How does one continuously appropriate an indefinite subject objectively over time?

In terms of themes, both Moore and Riis have many similar areas of concentration, notably of the housing of the subjects in relationship to those who can facilitate the proposed change; for Riis, the tenets are the subject in their deplorable housing that has “ceased to be sufficiently separate, decent, and desirable to afford what are regarded as ordinary wholesome influences of home and family” (Riis, 5) and positive change can occur on the intervening of the rich, with the fault being amongst the greed of the poor in their own social hierarchy  (it is also interesting to note here the use of “ceased” as if tenet homes were at once point better than previously, when Riis himself experienced the poor atmosphere first-hand many, many years before the inspiration for the novel). Contrarily, Moore is attempting to show the hardships caused by the rich in their greed, leaving courses of action up to those inspired in the general population.

Writing on the initial creation of the problem of poor tenements, Riis quotes “it was ‘soon perceived by estate owners and agents of property that a greater percentage of profits could be realized by the conversion of houses and blocks into barracks, and dividing their space into smaller proportions capable of containing human life within four walls'” (Riis, 10). He does not consider the greedy landlords as the American elite that he speaks to, but rather as “the Irishman’s revenge” (Riis, 21) in an ever-changing hierarchical battle of the poor, those on top of the poor still “return[ing] the native his greeting with interest, while collecting the rents of the Italian whose house he has bought with the profits of his saloon” (Riis, 22). The Irishman, who in the “good old days” was at the bottom “when the legend ‘no Irish need apply’ was familiar in the advertising columns of the newspapers” (Riis, 21), Riis here quoting a man he claims as the representative of the natives or “old inhabitants.”

Moore expresses the evolution of greed by expressing its universality in its change from individual landlord to globalized banks and companies. Different from Riis, however, he shows all aspects of the social problem, taking into consideration that the landlords or “Condo Vultures” were able to purchase and exploit the tenements from the carcass that the wealthy left behind or banks foreclosed upon.

peasants, condo vultures, laziness

(If embedded playback does not work, please click the videos title that will take you to youtube.)

The most similar aspect between the two muckrakers is the basic objective of a visual supplement with a narrative in order to better convey their causes. Riis’ collection of images and his groundbreaking use of the halftone method as “the first extensive use of halftone photographic reproductions in a book” (Alland, 30). This method is the use of several small dots that form the image it is copied from when seen as a whole. The images were also displayed on lantern slides, the original projectors, when Riis would give lectures on the other half. For the first time, an audience was seeing near exact replicas of reality, and not a very pretty one. The images of tramps and the poor living conditions were brought into homes for the first time, evolved now into the daily news on television, or further still, the smartphone. Issues could no longer be ignored, there obviousness too objectively instilled in the image.

A halftone rendering of an original photograph (below).

From “A Raid on the Stale-beer Dives”

The use of shock to instill change is not lost upon Michael Moore. In Roger and Me, there is a repeated scene of a woman forced to make a living on breeding rabbits and selling their meat or as pets. Like Riis, it shows the horrors that greed has created in a way that leaves the audience too irked to ignore.

To conclude, both Riis and Moore promoted a muckraking tradition that influenced American society in extraordinary ways. Moore’s films are the most-watched and most-earning documentary films of all time, taking a trend started by Riis of combining images with narrative to form an argument. The issue of greed is a reoccurring theme of humanity that has yet to be solved, but has made progress thanks to the continuous efforts of innovators and reforms and the evolving world.

Final Project by John Wagner


Alland, Alexander. Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen. Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1993.

Buk-Swienty, Tom. The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2008. Print.

Riis, Jacob. The Making of an American New York: The Macmillan Company. 1925. Print.

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives New York: Penguin Books. 1997. Print.

Roger and Me. Dir. Michael Moore. Dog Eat Dog Films, Warner Bros. 1989. Film.

Capitalism: A Love Story. Dir. Michael Moore. Overture Films, Paramount Vantage, Weinstein Company. 2009. Film.

Du Bois in the NYT yesterday

We’ve not talked nearly enough about how the incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island (among many others less reported on) relate to our reading this semester, and particularly to Du Bois’s readings of the “color line” and the “Veil.”  Charles Blow’s editorial today not only describes in rich detail the ideologies that enable police brutality (e.g., white cops seeing black people as “thugs” or “gorillas” or “demons”), but he cites Du Bois’s Souls.

So don’t let anyone tell you that reading a bunch of old books in English class has no relevance to the real world.

the FINAL blog post (wow)

Dubois writes in a time when black people were systematically dehumanized and made to be seen as an incomprehensible other. This prevailing logic was necessary in order to keep an entire population subjugated, and to keep the dominant culture complacent with the horrors of slavery. He faces the difficult task of writing to a prejudiced, though educated, crowd, and to convince them that the souls of black folk really do exist, and that these souls can be just as complex as the readers’. He does this by attempting to show how both the marginalized community and its oppressors are similar in their values, desires, and quest for freedom.

Dubois appeals to the public by showing that the black community shares the same universal values the white population does. He attempts to erase the notion of the ignorant, illbred, body made for labor by humanizing black people, and showing his readers that they, as a whole, are capable of deeper thought and self-consciousness: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife – this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self” (5). Self-awareness is a basic indicator of humanity, the thing that separates humans from animals, and desiring to develop oneself is an indicator of an enlightened individual, as the readers of Dubois’ book certainly considered themselves to be. Points like these may seem extraneous, but Dubois is fighting against a society that relied on the dehumanization of his people in order to thrive economically. He also uses the images of children and youth to illustrate the positive effects emancipation has had on the psyche of black individuals, “…[the journey for progress] changed the child of Emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” (9). Dubois is revolutionary in applying the values of progress and individualism to a class that has been subjugated for centuries by the ones touting the importance of these values. He uses the phrase “ancient African chastity” to combat the pervasive notion of the hypersexual black woman, and to associate black femininity with the ideal of female virginity.

Dubois associates blackness with arguably the most important American value: “…few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries” (7). Doubtless, the reader will understand the irony of a nation that fought so strongly for its freedom enslaving millions of human beings for profit. “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins…” (7); “…the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of a vast despair. Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as the natural defence of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the ‘higher’ against the ‘lower’ races” (10). He does not explicitly state which group of people committed, which is the higher race, who defends prejudice. Dubois utilizes the passive voice, and by doing to maintains the loyalty of the reader while informing them of the trials black people have been enduring.

There is no doubt Dubois’ primary audience is well-educated, and he is very passionate about the value of knowledge, culture, and their importance in shaping full-fledged members of society. “Work, culture, liberty, — all these we need…all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people… the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack” (11). He strives for the development of black personhood, not by itself but in harmony with the white population.

Dubois also attempts to reach his reader by invoking patriotic feelings. One of the most visually striking stylistic aspects of the Declaration of Independence is its capitalization of certain nouns, which calls attention to their importance in the document. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are words that have been solidified in American culture as essential to its being. The phrase itself is striking, but seeing it on the printed page causes as much of an impact as hearing it. Dubois recalls this stylistic choice in the first chapter of his text: “In song and exhortation swelled one refrain – Liberty; in his tears and curses the God he implored had Freedom in his right hand” (7). These themes of liberty and freedom are essential to American patriotism, and many believe that they are the ideals this country was built on. Dubois attempts to evoke these patriotic feelings by using the language and the visual characteristics of a document important to many Americans, and to associate these characteristics with the plight of the black community. There is an obvious comparison to be made between America and the ones she enslaved; both have the fundamental goal of achieving freedom. Dubois hopes to appeal to his reader by convincing them of the similarities they share with a people so frequently dehumanized, in order to bring about social change.

“This whole walking thing is tiring business!” -Lily Bart

The first ten chapters of Wharton’s House of Mirth blatantly examines the eagerness for luxury through the novel’s protagonist, Lily Bart, who is constantly in conflict with two very different ways of living, with money or without it, but it’s not so black and white. I’d like to examine the following passage:

She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning: it was true she was to roll over it in a carriage instead of trudging it on foot, but sometimes the pedestrian enjoys the diversion of a short cut which is denied to those on wheels (Chap. 5).

Lily Bart had only known of the white road, until Selden revealed to her the winding scenic route that his way of living might offer. It would be too obvious to compare the physical difference of both route analogies but it is important to note that the scenic route, what Selden refers to as the “republic of the spirit” offers freedom while the white path is limited to one direction, the bore of luxury. I refer to luxury as a “bore” only because it is a predictable life, and Lily Bart at great length explores her “future” married to the wealthy Peter Gryce, but one sentence in particular reveals her true desire in becoming rich, power: “Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks” (Chap. 3). Lily doesn’t truly want “freedom,” but only to attain a position of power and look down on others as she knows others look down on her. Lily also reveals her understanding of money in her reaction to Miss Van Osburgh’s suggestion that exorbitant wealth would keep one comfortable, “She could not even pause to smile over the heiress’s view of a colossal fortune as a mere shelter against want” (chap. 7). Lily doesn’t want the luxury of plushy pillows, featherbeds, and silk napkins as much as she wants the position that money would posit her. But, it would be unwise to overlook Wharton’s metaphorical use of imprisonment regarding Lily Bart’s current condition.

Miss Bart is a prisoner of her desire, so when Selden in chapter two looks at her in a new light he notices, “her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate” (chap. 1). She is exerted to a point of “gasping for air in a little black prison-house of fears” (chap. 6). The first chapter makes a clear distinction between Gerty Farish and Lily’s ambition, between being “poor” and free or wealthy and “happy.” Wharton is showing us just enough of Lily’s constraints, which makes it easier for us to be critical of her aspirations, and so we feel attuned to Selden’s realization of the irony of Lily’s character, “The attitude revealed the long slope of her slender sides, which gave a kind of wild-wood grace to her outline—as though she were a captured dryad (Chap. 1). She is referred to as a pastoral figure, but nothing could be more uncertain, since Lily has been corrupted by the “finer” things, spoiled by dresses and jewels. However there are moments when the edges of her being bleed into the natural background, “The landscape outspread below her seemed an enlargement of her present mood, and she found something of herself in its calmness, its breadth, its long free reaches” (chap. 6). These moments express a natural inkling of freedom in Miss Bart, and it’s that little piece of her that responds with Selden.

To connect this line of thinking back to the passage offered earlier, Lily is actually forced to walk to church when she misses the omnibus, but being a pedestrian (with Selden) she “enjoys the diversion of a short cut which is denied to those on wheels.” She loses all concern with her marriage prospects with Peter Gryce, embraces nature, which Wharton exhaustively claims Lily cares little for, and in just a glimpse of a moment she loses the manacle and steps out of the “gilded cage.” However, to travel on a road is to travel in a carriage, in-style and without the “stealing sense of fatigue” (chap. 5). Gerty Farish represents freedom to Lily, but she isn’t willing to work for freedom when her skills of social manipulation could land her a rich husband and land her a life of carriages, white roads, jewels, and adoration. Wharton’s inclusion of gambling as the chief activity between the wealthy women is fitting in light of Lily’s prospects. She decides to quit gambling when she loses too much money and also to please Peter Gryce’s virtuous sense of womanhood, and in the same way she quits her gamble with Selden. The fact that she has no money relights her ambition to obtain an exorbitant sum through marriage and she severs her connection with Selden to please her suitors.

DPLA usability study

The Digital Public Library of America is asking for volunteers to comment upon the “usability” of its resources. If anyone’s interested in helping out, it takes about an hour and is for a good cause:

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is looking for volunteers to participate in an online usability study of our website. By donating an hour of your time, you will be helping us to make significant improvements to our website and create a better experience for all our users.
What will I be asked to do?
You will be asked to complete several short tasks on the DPLA website, and on some similar websites. An interviewer will talk with you about your experiences and perceptions of the different websites.
How can I participate?
You will need computer with video conferencing capabilities, an Internet connection, and an hour of your time. Interviews will be conduction online via Google Hangouts or Skype (your choice). We can help you to set up an account with either of these free video conferencing tools.
When will the interview take place?
We will schedule the interview at a time that works for you, sometime in December.
What do I need to do to prepare?
Nothing! We’d like you to come to the interview with a fresh perspective. If possible, please do not use the DPLA website any more than you normally would before the interview.
How will my feedback be used?
Your feedback will be used by the DPLA staff, in conjunction with our external user experience (UX) researchers, to improve the DPLA website. The DPLA or our UX partners may make public statements about the general outcome of the study; however, all personally identifiable information will be kept strictly confidential.