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Harmful Content Statement

The Mark of Black Americans: Epithets, Archaic Language, and Offensive Imagery in The Music of Black Americans: A History.

You will encounter offensive language and disturbing imagery in this website. First published in 1971, Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: A History is a monumental historiographical undertaking and a clear example of academia’s potential for progressive and political impact. By the 1997 release of the book’s third edition, Southern had established an evidence-based historical narrative that encompassed nearly three centuries, more than a dozen musical styles, and extensive archival materials. The Music in The Music of Black Americans seeks to continue her legacy and reinforce her work with an accessible electronic database of her examples and citations, tracing and collating all available open access sources. But every historical narrative comes with challenges, and The Music in The Music of Black Americans is certainly no exception.

This is a content warning for those sensitive to themes of racism and violence. This database, like the book itself, contains depictions of minstrelsy, and lyrical references to slavery, abuse, and death, as well as stereotypes attributed to Black folk. An unavoidable yet often downplayed mark of American history, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was a reality spanning roughly 400 years, with the last slaves being freed over a year after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. By contrast, the Declaration of Independence was signed 245 years ago; the majority of American history and development is undergirded by the chattel enslavement and the further abuse of Black labor via sharecropping and the American incarceration system. Even within the respectful and rehabilitative American music historiography Southern compiled, sensitive language and imagery related to the dehumanization, enslavement, persecution, segregation and assault of Black folk is pervasive, albeit subtly. We have decided to present the media that pander to these atrocities, because they were clearly marketable throughout decades where, as Southern illustrates, many of the most competent musicians and composers were operating while Black, and, oftentimes, having to play up some or all of these stereotypes to make themselves more marketable.

-Sara Speller

For more information about Harvard Library's approach to collections and description, please see Harmful Language in Library Collections: A statement from Harvard Library.