Monday, November 04, 2013

The Octoroon Ball, from WEB Du Bois' The Crisis

One of the most exciting sites I have come across recently is the Modernist Journals Project, a joint project of Brown University and the University of Tulsa that is digitising key early 20th century English language magazines. There's some astounding material there, not least numerous issues of 'The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races', the ground-breaking journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

From Issue no.5 (March 1911), here's a poem by Rosalie Jonas entitled Ballade des Belles Milatraisses. Its subject matter is the Octoroon Balls of 19th century New Orleans where white men would meet 'mixed-race' women (octoroons were defined as one-eighth black, quadroons as one-quarter), and from which black men were excluded - or almost. As often in the history of American music and dance, black people were both excluded from fully participating as equals while simultaneously being central to it as musicians and performers. In this instance it is the fiddler who is "the one man of 'colour' admitted" but with the instruction "Play on! Fiddler-man, keep your eyes on your bow".


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