in Subversive Sounds

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print March 2008 | ISBN: 9780226328676
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226328690 | DOI:

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In New Orleans, on a summer's day in 1892, a shoemaker by the name of Homer Plessy boarded a “white” railroad car and was arrested. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled against him and placed a constitutional seal of approval on a series of Jim Crow laws meant to preserve the purity of the white race. Plessy confronted racial purity through his very identity: though Plessy is remembered as a “black” man fighting for civil rights, he was in fact a Creole of Color, of French and African descent. New Orleans in the 1890s saw the birth of a new music, designated “ratty” or, later, “jazz,” that was also viewed as a threat to racial purity. Early attacks on jazz centered on its association with African Americans and claimed the music would produce national impurity and degeneration. This book argues that jazz subverted racial segregation, musically enacting and abetting Plessy's assault on white purity. It examines the role of race in music as well as the effect of music on racial identity and politics.

Keywords: jazz; New Orleans; Homer Plessy; Jim Crow; racial purity; racial segregation; African Americans; music; politics; racial identity

Chapter.  4232 words. 

Subjects: American Music

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