Black Pageants and Public Health in the Era of Jim Crow

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Carrie Streeter, University of California, San Diego
My poster portrays the activities of African American women who taught elocution and orchestrated pageants as part of self and community development in the Jim Crow era. Speaking to the need for such efforts, Hallie Q. Brown (1859-1949), an elocutionist and founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, wrote, “Every person is endowed with a voice, but no one in a thousand knows his voice or how to handle it.” Believing that racial uplift would be emboldened by such training, I show how teachers, like Brown, drew upon the era’s scientific theories of body language as a means of claiming that all humans, regardless of upbringing or heredity, could cultivate confident self-expression through the regular practice of mind-body practices, such as relaxation and breathing exercises. Because such practices comprised behind-the-scenes work for numerous performances that raised funds for local black churches and recreation centers, I assert that elocution classes and pageants created a unique form of public health infrastructure, one that explicitly sought to bolster emotional support for those who resisted the wide and oppressive silencing of black voices.

Focusing on three notable social spaces where black women organized expressive training, my poster first highlights the Flanner Guild Delsarte Club of Indianapolis. From the 1890s-1910s, the guild met regularly to don Greek-styled robes and practice mind-body exercises as they prepared for local performances that raised money for their local community center. As the club’s name implies, the women associated their practices with a French acting teacher, François Delsarte (1811-1871). This link made an important argument about the legitimacy of their work. In this era, Americans broadly accepted Delsarte’s “Laws of Expression” as convincing scientific proof that interior emotions corresponded to physical gestures. Though much of the scholarship about American Delsartism has focused on its popularity among white middle-class women, the activities of the Flanner Guild demonstrate that African Americans also used scientific discourse to produce their own interpretations of self-expression. Next, I show how expressive training was also central to the careers of Dora Cole Norman (1888-1939), an influential choreographer, and Ada Crogman (1886-1983), a pageant producer. Both women studied elocution and performance at renowned institutions, and both labored to introduce the techniques of self-expression to black communities. Norman directed the dance for W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1913 production The Star of Ethiopia, a large-scale pageant that dignified African American history and challenged racist representations of black citizens. To show how pageantry worked on a smaller scale, I then highlight Norman’s 1920s instruction of drama and dance classes at the Harlem YWCA and several NYC schools. On a similar scale but in a different setting, I also highlight Crogman’s 1920s pageantry work in numerous mid-western black churches and communities. While much of this history has remained “behind the scenes,” my poster shows how African American communities generated a very public form of emotional health by promoting social opportunities for self-expression.

See more of: Poster Session #1
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