(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Last Sunday, as a part of my July message series entitled “Summer Songs for Fun and Inspiration”, I examined the folk song “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. During the talkback time, several interpretations of Guthrie’s lyrics were offered. It’s often difficult to perfectly know an artist’s intentions. People have different thoughts about what a piece of art, music or writing means. And… that is as it should be. Almost any great piece of art speaks with many ideas.
That is true for the song I highlight today – George Gershwin’s song ‘Summertime’ from the operetta ‘Porgy and Bess.’ From its first release in1935, the operetta has been controversial. It’s been most criticized because it portrays the lives of African-Americans – but it was written and composed by white men. From today’s perspective, Gershwin and the librettists Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin appropriated – or stole – black culture which they did not “own” or even understand. They profited handsomely from that.
Of added concern is that the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ is seen by many to stereotype African-Americans with racist characteristics. The story is one of murder, misogyny, promiscuity and abandonment – actions all too easily applied by bigots to blacks – but which are, in truth, evident in all cultures. Duke Ellington, for one, decried the operetta and said people must “debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.”
Another critic of the song ‘Summertime’ says that it is not what it seems to be – a tender lullaby from a mother to her newborn child. Instead, this critic says it depicts a black woman nursing and singing to a white child she has been hired – or enslaved – to care for. Lyrics such as “your daddy’s rich and your momma’s good looking” do not describe most African-Americans at that time. Very, very, very few black men of the 1920’s were wealthy and the standard for female beauty was to be white. In other words, this critic believes the song highlights how black women were routinely forced, through enslavement or economic necessity, to nurture white babies at the expense of their own.
The operetta’s apologists, however, say that Gershwin researched and appreciated African-American culture. As a liberal Jewish man of his time, Gershwin portrayed in “Porgy and Bess” a unique slice of America – that of its black citizens. Indeed, he said that his operetta was an addition to the American melting pot. Much like jazz is an expression of black cultural vibrancy, it is also an expression of American energy and freshness. Gershwin said that ‘Porgy and Bess’ should be interpreted the same. As he said, the operetta is both black and white – a piece that portrays the American experience as opposed to just the black experience.
Today’s commentators are also as divided about how to interpret the operetta. Some say it is racist and unworthy of attention. Harry Belafonte refused to appear in it even as many other African-Americans from Maya Angelou, to Sammy Davis Jr. to Sidney Poitier did appear in it. Others, like Leontyne Price and Ella Fitzgerald recorded beautiful and popular renditions of the song ‘Summertime.’
Some commentators argue ‘Porgy and Bess’ and its signature song are period pieces that must be understood from the perspective of the time when written. Much like we better understand historic anti-semitism from Wagner’s opera The Ring Cycle, the same holds true for ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Jim Crow racism and the response of blacks and whites to its oppressions are better understood, some say, because of the operetta.
Just as I hope is the case with each message I offer, however, what we discuss and learn here is to find spiritual meaning. We do that not just for the sake of acquiring knowledge, but to seek universal truths that help build peace and compassion in ourselves and in the world. That makes this place different from a classroom or civic organization. To that end, I believe the song ‘Summertime’ reminds us to respect the dignity of others and their unique cultures. Their foods, clothing and art forms are not ours to take and use as we wish. To do so is to disrespect our black sisters and brothers.
The song also reminds us that we must adopt an attitude of humility when considering the subject of racism. We must listen to African-Americans and their thoughts, feelings and suggested solutions to the subject instead of offering our ideas for a solution. To do that reinforces attitudes of white supremacy. Our white ears must open, while our white mouths must shut.
That is clearly not what Gershwin did since the song ‘Summertime’ was essentially stolen by him – something he admitted doing. Its melody, key and lyrics were based largely on the slave spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Indeed, Gershwin said that when he heard some blacks sing the word “sometimes” he heard them instead pronounce “summertime”. Like “Motherless Child”, “Summertime” was written in a minor key and was intended to be a lament – like many African-American spirituals – a song that sings of hope in the face of despair.
Frederick Douglas, the famed African-American abolitionist and former slave, said of slave spiritual songs that they “breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest anguish. They depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts.” Indeed, it’s clear that most black spirituals were a way to release emotions slaves and later African-Americans under Jim Crow could not otherwise freely express – ones of hope, deep sorrow, or even ecstatic joy.
Despite misappropriating the song ‘Summertime’ and then profiting from it, Gershwin was able to capture the black spiritual style and even historic black emotions in the song. It is for that reason ‘Summertime’ remains both popular and yet also controversial. It’s melody and its themes still resonate with many people, including African.-Americans. Like other black spirituals, the song is loving and tender but in a deeply sad way. It’s as if the singer’s assurance that all is well for the newborn baby is more a wish than a fact. Was life so easy and good for the characters in the operetta? The story is one of tragedy, anguish and abandonment. The child is eventually deserted by both its mother and father. How can that be good? Even more, life in 1930’s America for African-Americans, especially in the South, was hardly languid and easygoing. Lynchings still occurred. Jim Crow was in full force. The nation was in the midst of a Depression.
Since Gershwin confessed that he based the song ‘Summertime’ on the African-American spiritual ‘Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child’, it’s evident he intended his song to have a downbeat melody to contrast with its positive lyrics. Indeed, the accusation that ‘Summertime’ was written to be the lament of a black woman forced to nurture a white child is well taken. In that case, the positive lyrics are not inconsistent with the sad melody. The white child was born into a life of privilege and happiness while the black woman, who sings the lullaby, her life is one of servitude and misery. How could her singing be anything but downbeat and sad?
Another interpretation of the song’s lyrics is that they are an ironic lament of a black mother to her own black child. The words that all is well – the cotton is high, the fish are jumping and the living is easy – those can be seen as bitter and even sarcastic. Here’s my beloved child, the woman sings, born into a life with little happiness. I’ll reassure my baby that all is well, even though I know that’s not true. But one day, dear child, you will rise up and fly high into the sky!
Such a symbolic flight might be your escape to a better life up North, or your passing into a heavenly afterlife. Those kinds of hopeful lyrics are characteristic of other African-American spirituals – ones that sing of escape and freedom, or of a merciful death and a heaven that awaits.
‘Summertime’s lyrics, in this regard, match with those of ‘Motherless Child’ – lyrics for which you can find on an insert in your programs. In a life where children and adults are often orphans, their parents having been sold to other owners or, under Jim Crow, their parents having abandoned children for economic necessity, feelings of loneliness and separation must have been strong. Even more, ‘Motherless Child’s lyrics might also symbolize separation from Africa and one’s homeland, or perhaps from one’s eternal home – heaven. Those good places are a long way off – separated by a vast ocean, or separated by many difficult and sad years of life ahead.
Both songs, I believe, sing of heartache no matter one’s interpretation of them. Even so, the troubling fact remains that ‘Summertime’ is essentially a stolen song. Gershwin, I’m sure, did not believe he was stealing. He likely thought he was honoring black life and black spirituals by modeling his song so closely on. ‘Motherless Child’. But that attitude was nevertheless symptomatic of many white liberals of the time. He might think he honored African-Americans and their culture, but in reality he was using and profiting from it – much like slave holders once used and profited from African bodies.
Indeed, Gershwin’s cultural misappropriation of black culture and musical styles removed them from their historical contexts. The tragedy and turmoil depicted in ‘Porgy and Bess’ cannot be separated from a history of black slavery and oppression. Many African-Americans of the 1930’s were direct descendants of former slaves. The lingering physical, emotional and economic impact of slavery on their lives was significant. Indeed, Gershwin’s research for his operetta was done in “gullah” areas of North Carolina – the swampy, mosquito infested land near the coast. It was into those areas that blacks were relegated. With few or no schools, terrible land for farming and no infrastructure such as paved roads and electricity, African-Americans had little prospect to advance. Crime, drinking and promiscuity were natural outlets for frustration and hopelessness.
Gershwin took that lifestyle and then dramatized it as typical of all African-Americans. He removed it from the historical contexts I just described. Produced for mostly white audiences in the U.S. and Europe, the operetta offered a false understanding of black culture. White audiences could and did judge ‘Porgy and Bess’s depictions of crime, illiteracy and abandonment as emblematic of dysfunction in all blacks.
It’s doubtful white audiences, as they watched the operetta, thought of the negative legacies of slavery, or of the negative effects of Jim Crow, or even of the reasons I discussed earlier why it’s signature song ‘Summertime’ is so sad. Indeed, some whites might incorrectly assume its lyrics that daddy is rich, the cotton is high and life is easy are literally true for African-Americans.
It’s because of these reasons, and many others, that cultural appropriation is immoral. It’s why whites must be very careful when using black art and music. What is our purpose for using it? Is it to better empathize with and thus understand black pain? Or is it to steal something seemingly exotic to make whites appear more enlightened or cool? Or perhaps we want to peer into other cultures simply out of curiosity – to judge, demean and ridicule?
Cultural appropriation also reminds us that the era of white supremacy must end. With it must come, I believe, an overall attitude of humility. For me, my spirituality says that in any conversation or dialogue, I must listen and learn more than suggest and opine. This is particularly so in matters of race. Such is the practice of empathy which I frequently encourage. I must discern and understand the emotions and feelings of African-Americans – to hear not just their words, but their deeper and more heartfelt pain or anger. In that regard, I believe my role in helping to solve racism is to allow African-Americans to tell me what I can or should do. Simply by extending them leadership, I help end white supremacy.
As I said earlier, Gershwin was white and liberal. He sincerely believed he honored blacks with his operetta, and by employing them as singers and actors in it. The song ‘Summertime’ does capture the lament and style of black spirituals and, for that reason, it’s been adopted by many African-Americans as a song that is now theirs. Gershwin culturally misappropriated it – and they have taken it back. Nevertheless, for me, ‘Summertime’ will always have an asterisk appended to it….that being it was written and composed by white men. For this reason, I personally find the song “Sometimes I Fell Like a Motherless Child” – and all other African-American spirituals – to be more honest, true and accurate. I want to hear black voices, their hurt and their ideas on how to realize full equality and justice.