Performing Race and Slavery: The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Problem of Authenticity

Friday, January 3, 2014: 3:10 PM
Capitol Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
K. Stephen Prince, University of South Florida
The early career of the Fisk Jubilee Singers reads like a real-life Reconstruction-era fairy tale. Organized in 1871 in an attempt to earn money to save their fledgling school, the small band of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee took the churches and community halls of the North by storm. The Singers quickly earned enough money to restore Fisk’s economic health. They spent the remainder of the 1870s touring the nation and the world, including extended trips to England and to Germany.

By the early 1880s, the ill-clad, wide-eyed students of 1871 were a distant memory. Though they continued to specialize in the religious songs of the southern slave past, the Jubilee Singers’ self-presentation stood in stark contrast to the material they performed. The Singers never played the role of slaves on stage. They sang the songs of slavery, but they did it as free people. Formal dress and polished diction were every bit as central to the Jubilee Singers’ message as the spirituals they performed. Refusing to hide behind a mask of servility or buffoonery, the Singers offered the northern public a vision of educated, well-traveled, politically engaged, morally upright African-American professionals.

My paper explores the late 19th century history of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, focusing particularly on their attempts to present a vision of respectable, upright southern blackness in the midst of a northern popular culture dominated by blackface minstrelsy. The Jubilee Singers were never entirely free to shape their own message or reception. Their performances were judged with reference to a set of audience expectations that had little room for African-American progress, evolution, or uplift. The career of the Fisk Jubilee singers highlights both the political possibilities of black performance and the ways in which the racial expectations of northern audiences undercut those possibilities.

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation