There’s Actually a Statue In Pittsburgh of a Happy Black Slave Playing Banjo at the Feet of a Distinguished White Composer

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Statue commemorating composer Stephen Foster, erected in 1900 (Public Domain)

Stephen Foster is one of America’s most celebrated composers.  But is a statue commemorating his legacy simply racist?

Stephen Foster is one of America’s greatest songwriters, and a celebrated musical figure.  And if you don’t know his name, you definitely know his music.  Amongst his greatest hits: ‘Oh! Susanna,’ ‘Camptown Races,’ and ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ among many others.

Most composers are lucky to be recognized in their lifetimes.  Stephen Foster’s songs are still sung 150 years after his death.

But Stephen Foster’s legacy is rooted in racism.  As a composer, Foster made a living composing for ‘blackface’ minstrels, an extremely popular musical theater genre in the 1800s.  And ‘blackface’ is exactly what it sounds like: white actors putting on black make-up, then dancing around like buffoons in front of a laughing white audience.

The cartoonish caricatures of black (mostly enslaved) Americans were rarely flattering.  But they apparently depicted slaves as having musical talent, which comes out in the statue depicted above.

A happy slave, playing banjo barefoot while a distinguished Foster hovers above.  Charming.

Ah, we’ve come a long way, though Pittsburgh residents want to wash that dirty legacy away.   Just like the Confederate statues dotting American parks and public spaces, this Stephen Foster statue is also coming under assault.

But should it be removed?

One of the questions is whether Stephen Foster was a racist himself.

But that’s a question that gets really tricky, really fast.  Foster thrived in the blackface minstrel genre, which of course dehumanized and caricatured black people.  Among his musical mentors was a blackface entertainer.

But defenders of the composer note that Foster often humanized slaves and black people, and even tried to elevate the genre from its lowly, deeply-insulting rhetoric.  For example, the ‘Nelly’ in “Nelly Was a Lady” was a black woman, and it was remarkable for the time to call a black woman a ‘lady’.  Apparently that was a first for its time.

If only the man could have seen Beyonce.  But, maybe that was 150 years in the making.

Foster also rallied behind Abraham Lincoln and helped to recruit soldiers to fight the Confederacy during the Civil War.  And he did that with musical weaponry, setting “We Are Coming, Father Abra’am” to song.   Even one of Foster’s best friends was an abolitionist.

But does any of that make this statue more palatable?  Or, make Foster’s statue any more acceptable than a statue of, say, Robert E. Lee?

Sculptor Giuseppe Moretti finished the statue in 1900.  That might explain the liberal use of anti-black imagery, though Moretti may have also aimed to create a realistic piece of historical art.   That reality, of course, wasn’t so pretty.

But perhaps the bigger question is what demolishing this statue accomplishes.  Indeed, it wipes away another vestige of an ugly past.  But perhaps it also erases a marker of the progress we’ve actually made.


20 Responses

    • Ferd

      I disagree with the much in the article. First, why assume the banjo player is black? In bronze tones, everyone is a person of color. When the author states, that Foster thrived in the blackface minstrel genre, that is a half truth; not all minstrel shows were done in black face. And when the author adds, “…which of course dehumanized and caricatured black people,” Resnikoff doesn’t get that black performers were free agents to come and go as they pleased, and he doesn’t get that black performers quite often wrote their own material. A black face minstrel show today simply wouldn’t work, and I think most of us are fine with that, but it wasn’t thought of as “racist” back then.

  1. Faza (TCM)

    Or maybe – just maybe – we could look at the statue in a different light.

    A country’s music is shaped by all of its constituent parts. The black population, it seems to me, has had a disproportionate effect on shaping the American style. Foster thus becomes one of many figures that recognized the unique character of African-American musical culture and brought it to the attention of a white population that would otherwise had never imagined its most downtrodden neighbours had so much to offer.

    In that sense, the monument isn’t to Foster alone, but to all the unnamed black musicians that had shaped American music long before Chess and Motown; jazz, blues and soul; funk and hip-hop; James Brown and Michael Jackson. We don’t know their names, but we remember their legacy. Without it, American music would not have been what it is today.

  2. Rick

    As a black person, I see nothing wrong with it. Show the truth as it really was, so people can learn from it. I would actually enjoy the statue if I saw it, I would appreciate seeing recognition for the unknown people who influenced others. I can see how it could be offensive to some, but I see nothing offensive about it. It looks like somebody had a good time!

  3. Tony T.

    I agree with Ferd, how can you actually tell that the person with the banjo is black? I also agree with Rick, the statue depicts two people having fun. Playing the banjo and singing a happy song. The statue should be left to stand where it is, trying to replace the statue with a description would do more harm than good. How would it read? “This site marks the spot of a Happy barefooted Black Slave Playing Banjo at the Feet of a Distinguished White Composer” Something like this would offend me more than the statue itself. To me it seems that people are just out there looking for things to get angry about and cause other people to see things in a raciest point of view. The song “Oh! Susanna” was written in 1848, “Camptown Races” was published in 1850, and “My old Kentucky Home” composed in 1852. Now songs that were written between 165 & 169 years ago. Suddenly are raciest and the statue is offensive and yet the fact that the composer Foster rallied behind Abraham Lincoln and helped to recruit soldiers to fight the Confederacy during the Civil War. And he did that with musical weaponry, setting “We Are Coming, Father Abra’am” to song. Even one of Foster’s best friends was an abolitionist. So, let’s stop trying to turn America in to the town of Beaumont, Oklahoma, where dancing, loud music, and having fun was frowned upon. (If you can’t remember the deal about Beaumont, OK. go watch “Footloose”

  4. Paul Resnikoff

    Thanks for all of the comments, I think there’s a lot to address here.

    For starters, we don’t have the sculptor to interrogate here, this was created in 1900. But, I think the sculptor opted for a very stereotypical set of African-American features, particularly the nose. And, contrasted that with a very stereotypical European white nose (on Foster). But beyond that, Foster himself gained his greatest fame from black minstrel performances, which, yes, were extremely derogatory and insulting to enslaved black people in the US. He was not a composer of Appalachian musicals, not did he ‘write the hits’ for white performers of the time. If that were the case, this statue would look very different.

    This is a complex issue. But without the black minstrel industry paying this composer’s bills, we may have never known who he was.

    • Historybuff

      Paul, thank your for explaining your thoughts in more detail. However, the bills were hardly paid by minstrel performers for Foster: he died in 1864 as a poor man. Even at the time, his songs were parodied and sung 100s of time without paying him his rightful fees. Why has nobody spoken about how copyright laws have evolved for songwriters? For people that see oppression everywhere you would think this would enter the conversation.

      Additionally, black face Minstrel music was not offensive to all blacks, in fact, they participated as artists in the genre. Where do you think tap dancing was created? The minstrel stage! Before tearing down history, I wish everyone would learn key facts about American history before reaching conclusions. Don’t forget you are insulting someone’s culture when you jump to conclusions.

    • Filbert

      For starters… Did you know that people’s noses get larger as they age? You are under the racist assumption that the banjo player is black. Who is to say it isn’t an elderly white mountain man??? Ya know, seeing as how they have a history of creating folk music and all. Additionally, How is this a complex issue? I think you are pretending to make this a complex issue because you now feel stupid for publishing it lol. Also… How is this even related AT ALL to actual music news? Seems to me to be more fake news.

      • Paul Resnikoff

        Actually, I looked up the history of the statue some more. It was a commemoration of the song ‘Uncle Ned,’ with ‘Ned’ (pictured in the sculpture) a black slave.

        • Historybuff

          Yes, and that is the perfect example of a song that sympathizes with the slave experience. Ned worked hard his entire life and in the song he got to go to heaven and achieved salvation. This may mean nothing to our anti-religious society but it is actually significant. His soul is no less valuable because of his place on earth. And everyone recognizes his value on earth, which is why his owners were sobbing because of his death. The song uses words that would be offensive today but the messgae of the song is full of warmth and love.

  5. Shit boy

    You have to look at the subtle over tone codes of the art itself . Whose about to sanction the historical commemoration of a white man wearing no shoes ! Image and propaganda is what fueled 300 years of slavery ! Literati X

    • Historybuff

      300 years? More like 10,000 years. Slavery is as old as prostitution. Only Western Civilization ended slavery for moral purposes. This is the result of the success of free markets, the improved standard of living and the development of free labor.

      • Goethe

        Slavery was on the way out Civil War or not. The poor blacks today think the story of America is the story of Slavery and that belief will only extend their suffering in modern society.

        The oppression of blacks was quite terrible as it was for all slavery everywhere. The big mistake was when slavery ended and they decided to stay in America when they actually should have gotten the hell out of there as fast as they could. Now they interlay themselves in the culture and civilization of another and friction will be infinite. Now they are deliberately in a situation of continuous conflict. Diversity is the chief source of conflict in the world, so it certainly will not magically alter itself in America either.

        It’s a statue now it will be another complaint later until one day the powder keg blows.

  6. Shit boy

    Good work , Paul ! It don’t seem like we’re 14 years into the digital music landscape ; but when I first got into the business , your site was the go to authority on the progression of the newest and latest merger and acquisitions , partnerships and new start up arrivals and business models. In short , your site was very instrumental in my record label –: now digital media agency keeping up with my assets. And much thanks for your work : ‘ Spoken X Digital Media Group ‘. . .LX

  7. Shit boy

    Inside the digital music world I do believe I’m the prototype 21st century slave . ‘ Digital Music News ‘ has the rare inside connection of all things , Literati X : I’m the only independent artist inside the music industry that earned 100 Billion USD in just one 24 hour day. :: Your friendly neighborhood poet , Literati X. . .

  8. Deepak

    Oh! Susanna, do not cry for me;
    I come from Alabama, with my Banjo on my knee.

    2. (This (next) verse is rarely sung in its original form today; to avoid the racially offensive language of the original lyrics, the word “N!@#$%” is often replaced with “chigger”)
    I jumped aboard the telegraph and traveled down the river,
    Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred N!@#$%.

    • historybuff

      Deepak, this is not a new discovery. Some of the lyrics are out of step with time but word “gay” is also used in his songs and does not denote homosexuality. The song itself has held up for over 150 years because of its sentiment and musical structure. Even songs in the abolitionist movement had these terms. Education is badly needed on this topic. Instead we have people screaming and defacing statues without an understanding of their own history. All the while, the exact same language is used in a more derogatory fashion in modern hip-hop songs.

  9. mediahistoryguy

    I’ve just finished a book (hopefully out next year) about the minstrel show and how it thrived in twentieth century media right up to the 1950s, and I do wish people would understand what it really was–clean, upbeat entertainment and the original promotion of black culture, which had previously been ignored, to the white mainstream. It also launched the careers of many great black entertainers (Bert Williams, Bessie Smith, etc.) Sure there were aspects that don’t conform to today’s preferred norms, but in its day it was quite progressive and enjoyed by whites and blacks alike. Stephen Foster was a pioneer in depicting black Americans as real people, which is why his songs have endured for more than a century. Some of your songwriter-commenters should be so lucky.

    • Historybuff

      Thanks for the post. Can you give us the name of the book and publisher? Some of us would love to read it!