Pimping Blackness: Porgy and Bess Is Racially Offensive
Black History Month Musings Part II
By N Oji Mzilikazi
Originally appeared in Montreal Community Contact Volume 24, Number 04 February 20, 2014
To be locked in an inescapable room of stink for prolong period leads to noses acclimatized, brains rewired, resignation, adaptation to condition, and disadvantages and dysfunction the norm.
Structurally made powerless, the trapped go about their business replicating dysfunction, oblivious of, or in denial of the stench.
Meanwhile, the arrogance, trappings, insulation, and sense of entitlement that comes with power, alongside a warped perception of others and dismissiveness towards them, have those responsible for locking the door basking in privilege, and making fun, and light of their situation — the frustrations, hurt, illness, dysfunction, and depravity of the trapped, even upon their release.
And that is precisely the case with colonialism, African enslavement, racism — and Gershwin Porgy and Bess, which was recently staged, had a five-day run at the Opera De Montréal. And sadly blessed by the Table Ronde du Mois de l’histoire des Noirs; the folks behind Montreal Black History month.
In 1925, DuBose Heyward, a white South Carolinian, wrote the fictitious Porgy, about a group of Blacks living in a ghetto enclave called Catfish Row.
Its main characters were Porgy, a crippled beggar who travels about in a goat-drawn cart; Bess, a woman of easy virtues; Crown, her violent and possessive lover who murders a man; and Sportin’ Life, a drug dealer.
Heyward and his wife Dorothy later transformed the book into a play of the same name. Enter Jakob Bruskin Gershvin better known as George Gershwin, who is Jewish.
Gershwin decided to take Heyward’s vision of Black life to the stage as an opera. George recruited his brother Ira, and together they reworked Heyward’s book, titled it Porgy and Bess, wrote and/or co-wrote its music with DuBose, and as goes the overused but apt expression: “The rest is history.”
Michael Walsh wrote in Time Magazine (18 April 1983), that Gershwin considered his work in Porgy as “the greatest music composed in America.”
Outstanding music does not negate the inherent racism of Porgy and Bess.
Composer Robert Wagner died long before Adolph Hitler rose to power. Since Hitler was a fan of Wagner, and Wagner’s music was played in concentration camps, no self-respecting Jew will play Wagner or attend a concert where the works of Wagner would be performed. Pointing out the beauty of the music in Porgy and Bess does not mitigate its damage.
Despite being deemed an American classic, there is no literary or artistic merit in Gershwin Porgy and Bess. Porgy and Bess plays to the tastes and values — racism of the white majority population.
Porgy and Bess markets the suffering, ills, distortion of self, and deformed and twisted psyche of brutalized, disenfranchised, and poor Blacks — to a white audience.
Porgy and Bess demands its Black actors engage in racial self-mutilation.
Rooted in the “single story” meme that demeans, racially insult, and infantilises African Americans, and by extension all Blacks, Porgy and Bess belongs to the cultural matrix that sustains white supremacy and white racism.
Great and classic plays like classic literature and classic songs transcend ethnicity, and are oft performed by different ethnic groups, even in different languages. Ira Gershwin stipulated that only Blacks are allowed to play the lead roles in Porgy and Bess.
While there are those who perceive that as a good thing, it maintains the integrity of the opera, and others voice it guarantees employment for artistic and classically trained Blacks; it allows them to “eat a food” (Oft used by its Black performers to defend their participation.), the Black-only edict guarantees a white audience sees — is mindful of the otherness of its performers.
In a television interview on CFCF12 with Trevor Payne and Soprano Measha Brueggergosman who plays Bess, Brueggergosman casually mentions that the two white policemen investigating a murder never sing their lines.
While that juxtaposition supposedly makes for contrast and dramatic effect, portrayals of Black men as simple, docile, care free, irresponsible, and given to reveling in vices and pleasures of food, dance and song were common up to the mid-1900.
And it is precisely that stereotype of “singing Blacks” that have white folks and others believing and articulating that slavery wasn’t that bad an evil. Blacks enjoyed a gay ole time under it. Having the white police officers in Porgy and Bess sing does not make for good racial politics.
Nazism extols Aryan/white supremacy. The Nazis engaged in the industrial slaughter of all those who didn’t conform to their racial template, including Blacks.
During the Nazi occupation of Holland, on March 27, 1943, Porgy and Bess, as a slice of “Black life” in America, had its European debut in Copenhagen, and pandered to the racist beliefs and taste of the audience. It took to the stage with an all-white cast in blackface.
That Porgy and Bess was done in blackface negates its tooting of embracing a universal story; universal aspects of the human condition. Better yet, blackface makes that story line inconsequential, for it spotlights race — the otherness, the perceived cultural primitivism of Blacks.
Blackface is racist in construct. Blackface ignores the crucible that forges dysfunction in order to execute Black caricatures and stereotypes, to ape and exaggerate how Blacks talk, act, sing and dance.
Blackface derides and makes fun of Blacks.
Given the social status, contempt and derision to which people of African descent were held, blackface allowed whites to pimp blackness, make money by indulging in pretend blackness for the entertainment of whites.
Known for his blackface, Lithuanian Al Jolson, born Asa Yoelson, Jewish, is credited as the person that shaped Black musical history; as single-handedly introducing Black music to White audiences.
Dubbed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” Jolson was the star of the first “talking picture” – The Jazz Singer (1927). One can go online and see Jolson in blackface singing Mammy, his signature tune from the film.
Blackface denied Blacks the opportunity to profit off what Whites consider to be “Black culture.”
In like manner, there are radio stations that overwhelming play Black music and/or have a heavy dose of ethnic music programing that have hired no Blacks or ethnics, and would never do so because they don’t want ethnic voices on the air. They want the culture but not the originators of the same.
Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia entry on Al Jolson has the following “bullshytt” line: “Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history.”
It is my studied opinion that in spite of Africans and Jews having thousands of years of entwining and interconnected history, Jews have exploited both Black suffering and Blacks, and that Jewish playwrights, Jewish television and movie producers and Jewish scriptwriters have been instrumental in advancing Black stereotypes, and by extension anti-Black racism, while being extremely protective of Jewish stereotypes and the image of Jews.
Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber who is Jewish wrote Show Boat. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, both Jewish transformed her book into a musical. Produced by Florenz Ziegfield who is Jewish, Show Boat opened on Broadway on December 27, 1927.
The original and opening Libretto of Show Boat went thus: “Niggers all work on the Mississippi. Niggers all work while the white folks play…” While nigger has since been replaced, it doesn’t negate the climate from which the piece was done. “Nigger” can be found on the EMI restored 1988 CD.
In the original production of Show Boat, the Queenie character was played in blackface by Tess Gardella, an Italian American actress.
As noticeable in the likes of Sanford & Son, Beaulah, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, Jewish television producers have repeatedly developed situational comedies strictly for Blacks to act the fool, debase themselves, and which promoted Black stereotypes and supported inter-minority racism.
Jewish producers/playwrights/composers have repeatedly used slavery and the cultural dysfunction and psychological disfigurement arising out of it and the Antebellum Era in the United States as a source for comedic and sexual material, film and musical operas, and have refrained from doing so with the Holocaust.
In 2011, the Globe and Mail told the story of Howard and Nancy Kleinberg of Toronto, two teenagers who in the ashes of the Holocaust found love. Live! With Regis and Kelly television show billed their story that started in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as the “world’s greatest love story.”
In 2007, The New York Times recounted the story of “Jack and Ina Polak who found love in a concentration camp during World War II even though Jack was married to another woman at the time.”
You would never see a Holocaust era film, play, or opera in which Jewish slave labourers suddenly burst into song the minute Nazi guards turned their backs, or hear songs along the lines of “How I got My Groove on In Auschwitz” or “I found love in Dachau.” But we have tons of plays and films featuring Blacks where those things are the norm.
Sidney Poitier recounts in his autobiography, This Life, how the powerful Sam Goldwyn, the G in MGM, wanted him to star in the film version of “Porgy and Bess.”
Poitier considered the work uncomplimentary to Blacks and refused. No one dare refuse Sam Goldwyn. Doing so all but guaranteed the individual never work in Hollywood again. In a move designed to exert pressure, Poitier’s refusal made the newspapers.
Poitier recounted that eventually he had a face to face with Goldwyn and repeated his objections. Goldwyn told him that Porgy and Bess “is one of the greatest things that has ever happened for the black race.”
Poitier had fallen in love with the script for The Defiant Ones that was being produced by Stanley Kramer, who let Poitier know he needed to resolve “his problem” with Goldwyn to do The Defiant Ones.
Poitier ended up doing Porgy and Bess to get The Defiant Ones, to continue to work in the industry. When people point to Poitier as contributing to the storied legacy of Porgy and Bess…
Regardless as to how much white audiences (and Black) are enthused by the likes of Porgy and Bess and Show Boat, they are conceptually racist and should always be objected to and rejected.
To Be Continued