Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture, by Davis Suisman

Teaching the Article

The range of issues implicit in the history of Black Swan Records is extraordinarily rich. That history can prompt students to think about popular music as a site of class conflict, about the political economy of blues and jazz, about black radicalism in the 1920s, about mass culture and the emergence of the industries purveying it, and about the cultural politics of uplift. The Black Swan story demonstrates that the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s were based not only on art but also on business. Black Swan's history involves familiar political disputes (Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B Du Bois; Du Bois versus Marcus Garvey), but, perhaps more surprisingly, it also suggests how the different strains of black activism converged.

But because Black Swan produced phonograph records, the company's history also can spark discussions of music, race, and sound, whose interrelations students rarely consider in history classes. The following questions usually lie outside conventional historical explorations: How have ideas of race been translated into sound? How did the music industry both reinforce and alter the prevailing ideology of race? What is "black music"? And what are the political stakes in how it is defined?

The history of Black Swan piques the interests of students at all levels. This topic may expose introductory-level students to the surge in post-World War I black radicalism, the birth of modern advertising, or the emergence of blues and jazz in the 1920s. Upper-level students can focus on more complex questions, such as how those developments relate to one another.

The exercises emphasize the multivalent nature of historical experience--that is, the idea that historical phenomena can have multiple causes, and their effects can be perceived differently through different analytical lenses. Each of the four exercises that follow aims to direct discussion of the Black Swan history in a different direction. Any of the directions could generate fruitful investigation by itself (and some instructors will probably prefer to choose one), but they may offer more to students when presented as an integrated unit.

The first exercise sketches the social and political landscape of Afro-America in the early twentieth century. With most professional channels closed to African Americans, popular entertainment offered one of the few ways they could achieve wealth and prominence. Yet within the popular entertainment business, the opportunities open to them were sharply restricted. The popular comedian Bert Williams stands in this exercise as a symbol of the promise and the limits of advancement through the entertainment business.

The second exercise considers the ways music and sound were racially coded (identified as "white" or "black"), Black Swan's challenges to such coding, and the permanent scheme of racial categories introduced by the development of "race records." Part of the radicalism of Black Swan was its assault on the culturally dominant and industry-regulated notion that African Americans could excel at ragtime, blues, jazz, comic songs--and nothing else. But when Black Swan exposed the significant economic potential of African American consumers, other record companies responded by marketing a separate category, race records, to African Americans. With separate catalogs, advertising, and even special identification numbers, these records catered to consumers who had earlier been scorned by the industry, but they did so within a structure that mirrored Jim Crow segregation.

The third exercise connects Black Swan with the history and vocabulary of "uplift" and cultural hierarchy. For Black Swan, the idea of uplift derived from mid-nineteenth-century ideas about music and post-Reconstruction ideas about race politics. But such ideas of uplift also masked internal class tensions among African Americans that set "serious" European music and vernacular African American music at odds.

Finally, the fourth exercise explores advertising and the engineering of public opinion. World War I and the years that followed were a watershed era for advertising and conceptual thinking about public opinion. Harry Pace, Black Swan's president, was attuned to the importance of national public opinion in his efforts to improve the opportunities available to African Americans, and Black Swan's advertising reflected his awareness. This exercise situates Black Swan's work in the context of attempts to mold public opinion.