Select ONE image/document. Comment on and contextualise your chosen image with reference to relevant readings.


As African Americans offered a new avenue of ideas for entertainment such as dramatic, dance and music performances as well as within popular literature, their inclusion in the arts and media brought a further exaggeration of negative white racist stereotypes.[1] Any black characters were often quickly put into categories, including happy subservience to the white master race, savagery or hypersexualization.[2] These stereotypes extended into everyday life and culture becoming popular images within brand advertising, cartoon imagery and illustrations on works such as sheet music publications. The piano sheet music for ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’, first published in 1918 and written by lyricist Jesse G. M. Glick, comes attached with a colourful cover page depicting the image of a sleeping white child in the arms of his black nanny.[3]

It has been noted by commentator on Americana Ellen Schroy that the cover art on sheet music follows ‘social, political and historical trends’; this enables sheet music cover art, such as this source, to be a valuable marker in analysing the popular imagination for any period in which piano playing remained popular – this period largely coming to an end in the 1950s.[4] Further, as explained by Cohen and Kruschwitz in their analysis of the use of popular sheet music in understanding the elderly in America, sheet music presents us with two forms of depiction and insight into the popular imagination: ‘the iconographic and pictorial presentation, represented by the cover art, and the lyrics reflecting current popular sentiments’.[5] Sheet music with illustrations of black people from post-Reconstruction era United States was often overwhelmed with images of either inferior, comically unsophisticated black stereotypes such as the ‘Coon’ caricature or, by great contrast, idyllic and highly domesticized images of the ‘Mammy’ or ‘Uncle’ caricatures; the latter proving reminiscent of a better time when African Americans would exist thankfully subservient of their white superiors in the Plantation era South.[6]

In terms of image content, this source clearly illustrates the concept of the black stereotype ‘Mammy’ as it would have existed in the popular imagination of the period. The portrait, where a white child rests easy in his contented black nanny’s arms, is typical of the many images of Mammy that circulated America during this period. Adorning many different food and culinary brands, the stereotype of Mammy was one that often frequented the minds of all Americans offering a remembrance of the happier period of the antebellum South. Alexander and Rucker offer that the popularisation of these stereotypes at this time occurred in part as a political message; this message being that ‘blacks can be upstanding, dignified, and loyal’, however, this transformation from their ‘otherwise wild and unruly temperaments’ only occurs when they are domesticated by the white household.[7] The use of this message in the early twentieth century suggests that the source is dealing with post-Reconstruction era issues of loss – the loss of a better political, economic and social system that existed with the ruling of slave-worked plantations. It is clear that the cover image of ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’ conforms to this model since the black Mammy is depicted as fully contented in experiencing a peaceful, blissful moment with her master’s child.

This source is historically significant because, although it is just one piece amongst many similar illustrations of the Mammy stereotype, it enables us to form a fuller understanding of the extent to which these images and judgements about African Americans and their role in society filtered into everyday life, especially considering the date of this piece. When taken in conjunction with earlier pieces such as, ‘Old Uncle Ned’, it becomes clear that these beliefs endured a great time span, whilst similar issues such as women’s rights gained huge momentum for change, even passing the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution by 1920. ‘Old Uncle Ned’ is a piece that offers similar messages of a time when blacks were happy and there existed a strong relationship between master and servant which was almost indistinguishable from familial love. Stephen C. Foster’s 1848 variation of this folk song is illustrative of this as it holds the lyric ‘When Old Ned die Massa take it mighty hard, De tears run down like de rain’.[8] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese proposed that one key factor in the creation of Mammy was the ability of the character to assert the dedication of black women to white families, in which they would rear ‘the children of others as if they were their own.’[9] This proposes an almost identical familial tie to the relationship between ‘Massa’ and Uncle Ned which is implied by the master’s inconsolable mourning upon his servant’s death. Clearly, these visual sources, alongside their lyrical accompaniments, are historically significant as pieces of evidence to explore post-Reconstruction era sentiments towards the plantation regime and towards relationships between whites and blacks within the plantation setting.

Popular music has long served as a vehicle for social protest, alongside its more traditional romantic subjects. The use of music as a propagandist tool is discussed by Cull, Holbrook Culbert and Welch in their encyclopaedic book on the history of propaganda.[10] The ability of popular music to cross geographical and class barriers enables it to act as a particularly effective vehicle for social messages. In addition, the way in which music can lend itself to an emotional response from its audience furthers its effectiveness.[11] The cover art for piano sheet music may have acted as an additional platform by which the lyricists, musicians and illustrators of the time could convey subtle political messages.

To conclude, whilst piano sheet music was widely produced as entertainment in the period of the early twentieth century, it is evident that the cover art for the piece ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me’ comes bearing a significant political message. Up to and exceeding the date of production, 1918, there existed at least one social grouping that believed there was a happier time in the relationships between black and white people a better period found within the Plantation era. Furthermore, when taken in conjunction with other similar pieces, it is possible to place such beliefs within realistic time constraints. In this sense, the source proves to be a significant piece of historical evidence. However, as an individual piece, it can offer us no in depth analysis of the extent to which these thoughts were shared across the United States or the actions, if any, which provided strength to such sentiments. Therefore, this source holds a great deal of utility as a piece of historical evidence but only to a certain extent.

[1] S. Greco Larson, Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment, (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), p26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘When you sang “Hush-a-bye Baby” to me; Companion song to Missouri waltz song (Hush-a-bye ma baby)’, 1918, Duke University Libraries, <; [accessed 18th November 2014].

[4] E. Schroy, Warman’s Americana & Collectibles, 11th Ed. (Iola: KP Books, 2004), p.424.

[5] E. S. Cohen and A. L. Kruschwitz, ‘Old Age in America Represented in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Popular Sheet Music’, The Gerontologist, 30.3 (1990), pp.345-354.

[6] L. M. Alexander and W. C. Rucker, Encyclopedia of African American History Volume 1, (California: ABC-CLIO, 2010), pp.163.164.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Old Uncle Ned’, Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture Multi-media Archive, <; [accessed 20 November 2014].

[9] E. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), pp.291-292.

[10] N. J. Cull, D. Holbrook Culbert and D. Welch, Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present, (California: ABC-CLIO, 2003), pp.254-255.

[11] Ibid.

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