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Three Bright Black Lights Restored To History

While Eric Holder has taken Black History Month this year as an occasion to remind us that we haven’t come as far on race as we’d like to think, I see it as a possible tipping point in restoring the reputation of Booker T. Washington.


Historians of the black experience are well aware that historical memory tends to be oversimplified: for example, many currently consider it intolerable that Americans be ignorant that there was slavery in the north as well as the south. It is equally intolerable, however, that Booker T. Washington is most often thought of as someone who “sold out” black people in a quest for white approval and taught black people not to protest mistreatment.


Robert Norrell’s new biography sets the record straight. My thoughts on it are here; I also had this to say last year about Washington and his legacy.


If Washington were alive today, his policies and positions would be considered perfectly acceptable black leadership – which is why the cartoon version of him must be put to rest. There’s a reason why they named so many schools after him.


Not as historically resonant as Washington in the long run but worth a look is old-line socialist Hubert Harrison. Who? Yeah, I know – when in fact, he was such a fine speaker that  in the teens if you lived in Harlem he may well have been your favorite black bright light. Jeffrey Perry’s new biography gets the record straight (actually it’s a first volume; when the second one is coming is unclear). I discuss it here.


I’m not sure Harrison is as key a figure as Perry and the radical-type black thinkers blurbing the book suppose, but he was definitely worth bringing to light. He’d be much more of a name today if he hadn’t died rather young in the 1920s. Harrison actually comes alive more in Perry’s collection of his writings from 2001, which I once came across at a bookstore and ended up engrossed in for the better part of an hour. Harrison juggled essays on politics, philosophy, theatre, and lit crit and often wrote his diary in Latin.


Then, strangely underlooked last year was the first biography of pioneering black musical theatre composer Will Marion Cook, Marva Griffin Carter’s Swing Along. His name is better known than what he actually did. To be the man who injected a syncopated sensibility into theatre music is essentially to have helped teach America how to jam, as before widespread and listenable recording technology, theatre music was popular music.


He burned out early as a composer, and passed the torch on to proteges like Duke Ellington, spending most of his career conducting travelling early jazz orchestras that weren’t recorded. But he was in on the beginnings of what we now recognize as Broadway electricity, and was somewhat out of his mind to boot, which makes it an engrossing life.


Griffin’s bio is valuable, but does not dig as deeply as music history enthusiasts might prefer; there is more to be learned tucked away in the liner notes of this CD of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. You can also get a listen to a healthy dollop of Cook’s songs as rendered by a soloist with piano in a recording released a few years ago, although unfortunately, caveat emptor in terms of performance quality.


Alex Ross’ mention of Cook in his The Rest is Noise, plus hearing about the upcoming biography, got me interested enough in Cook that I recently wrote this essay on his life and work.