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The Great American SongbooksMusical Texts, Modernism, and the Value of Popular Culture$
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T. Austin Graham

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199862115

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199862115.001.0001

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Make Them Black and Bid Them Sing

Make Them Black and Bid Them Sing

Musical Poetry, Racial Transformation, and the Harlem Renaissance

(p.111) 4. Make Them Black and Bid Them Sing
The Great American Songbooks

T. Austin Graham

Oxford University Press

This chapter explores the notion of a sung poetics in relation to race, turning to Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Here, twentieth-century African-American verse forms are studied alongside the slave spirituals, folk songs, and blues that they so frequently saluted and emulated. Toomer and Hughes, however, are shown to be using black music not just in the service of racial affirmation (as is commonly assumed) but also as a means of complicating the very idea of racial categorization. At the time of their publication, both men's works relied on musical forms that could be recognized and sung by readers of various ethnic backgrounds, spirituals in the case of Toomer and blues in the case of Hughes. The musicality and performability of both men's texts, moreover, serve to promote interracial empathy and elide racial difference: for readers and writers of this literary tradition, to sing a race's music through the medium of poetry is to be made to identify with that race.

Keywords:   Harlem Renaissance, African-American, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, poetry, race

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