African American Identity in the City in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Term Paper 1998 26 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Expression and Formation of Identity through Music
2.1 Authentic South vs. Economic North
2.2 Music that Breathes and Touches

3. The Urban Experience
3.1 The City in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
3.2 How do the Play’s Characters Serve to Describe the City?
3.3 Alienation and Uprootedness
3.4 The City as a Godless Place

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This paper will be concerned with the possible ways of construction of identity1 or the loss of identity – particularly the African American identity – in the modern metropolis as it is described in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Which ways to construct a proper identity present themselves to the characters in the play and what will happen when they fail to acknowledge and accept these ways? In this regard, I will examine the relevance of music, society, and religion.

Chapter Two will show that it is essential for the understanding of the alienation of the individual, in this case specifically the alienation of the African American musician, to take into consideration the differences between rural South and urban North and the different kinds of music connected to them. From the contrast of South and North, i.e. rural and urban springs the conflict between the old, down-home blues and the new, urban blues, which will later become swing or jazz respectively. The chapter will further address the question which impact this conflict will have on the life scripts of the individual characters. Moreover, the connection between the musician, his instrument, and the music will be examined and explained.

Chapter Three will explore the various facets of alienation and their respective sources in more detail. Moreover, it will identify and further illuminate possible ways of forming identity and which processes endanger and impede the formation of identity. Therefore, it is first necessary to diagnose how Wilson and his characters’ actions describe the urban environment. Do these actions benefit or harm the formation of identity or do they promote alienation? Can music, religion, or ancestral awareness help the city-dwelling individual to arrive at a full-rounded ontological definition of selfhood?

Chapter Four will summarise the findings of the previous chapters and evaluate them with regard to the questions raised in this introduction. Furthermore, it will briefly touch upon other possible topics that could have found treatment in this paper or which could be elaborated in another scholarly piece.

2. Expression and Formation of Identity through Music

2.1 Authentic South vs. Economic North

In the Chicago recording studio, two views of music clash and struggle for dominance. On one side, there are Ma Rainey and Toledo, the representatives of the traditional rural blues and on the other side there are Levee, Sturdyvant, and Irvin who represent the modern urban blues.

Ma Rainey has retained her strong and heartfelt connection to her own origins and the origins of her music, which gives her power and authenticity. Ma knows that her popularity is firmly grounded in the South and with it her overall success. She remembers the roots of blues and respects them. Boosting Sylvester’s self-esteem is more important to her than having a perfect and financially successful recording (Wilson 74ff). Therefore, she feels a closer connection to the South than to the city; she is more concerned about people than with money. She says herself that “Ma listens to her heart. Ma listens to the voice inside her” (Wilson 63). Although she is aware of the fact that she is still exploited by the white music producers, she is trying to exert her power to the limit. She never gives the voice of commercialism, that is the arguments of Sturdyvant and Irvin, a chance to have a bearing on her music. Also Pereira notes that “her strength comes from a deep understanding of the sensibilities that inform the blues. Any attempt to tamper with it is tantamount to a personal attack on her; to compromise this music is to desecrate the thing most sacred to her, the essence of her identity” (Pereira 21).

Besides Ma, there is still another character who serves as a representative of the old rural blues: Toledo. The piano player Toledo is in full “control of his instrument” (Wilson 20) and he is aware that the music it produces can just be as good as he is at playing it. His musical insight corresponds to his thinking he can only be who he is in relation to what he knows about his own roots and the origins of his people and how truthfully he keeps to them.

Slow Drag and Cutler assume a position that is on the respective outer margins of the two extremes of Ma and Levee. Although “innate African rhythms underlie everything” (Wilson 20) Slow Drag plays and he tries to talk Toledo into sharing a joint with him in a way that Toledo identifies as an “African conceptualization” (Wilson 32), Slow Drag rejects anything African in connection to his person and protests angrily: “I ain’t no African! I ain’t doing no African nothing” (Wilson 32). Nevertheless, he could be counted as belonging to Ma’s camp.

Cutler does not show any special connection to his African or southern roots. When Levee tries to play his own interpretation of Ma’s song during the rehearsal, Cutler reminds him of his task as member of the accompaniment band and states his own work ethos: “I just play the piece. Whatever they want” (Wilson 26). He shows thus that he is still wilfully acquiescing into the traditional role of the black entertainer who – just like in the times of slavery – provides music for his master2. On the southern plantations, slaveholders would expect their slaves to play tunes for white entertainment. “The post-emancipation economy retain[s] blacks in a less obvious form of bondage” (Snodgrass 185) and therefore Cutler still plays music complying to the wish of his master – in this case his boss and black bread giver Ma Rainey.

Then again Levee the traditional blues contemptuously referring to it as “old jug-band shit” (Wilson 26) and “old circus bullshit” (Wilson 64). Just like Sturdyvant, he wants to “put in something different [...], something wild ... with a lot of rhythm” (Wilson 19) in order to meet the taste of urban music consumers. Music, then, for Levee does not so much express who he is but rather who he wants to become. The identity that he is hoping to construct would not be grounded in the blues as music but in the blues as commodity. Accordingly, the blues is not expression of but instrument to identity, which implies that he still has not found himself and that his identity – in case he should indeed be able to mould it – would be of a rather superficial nature. ”Levee sees this musical transformation as the key to his own economic – perhaps even ontological – transformation” (Bogumil 24).

The blues is not simply a feel-good music for entertainment, or a means to escape one’s problems or a means to gain one’s livelihood like Levee, Sturdyvant and Irvin see it but it is a way of seeing life, of talking about life, and of understanding life. This constitutes the main difference in the perception of blues music in the urban North and the rural South.

2.2 Music that Breathes and Touches

August Wilson speaks of the blues as a “music that breathes and touches, [t]hat connects” (Wilson xvi). However, it is not only the spirit of the music, which is alive with the African heritage and that breathes the life experiences of its performers but also the instruments that Wilson’s characters in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom play become ‘alive’. On stage, the characteristic features of the instruments assume human form through their respective players. The roles of the characters in the band correspond to the functions of their respective instruments; thus, musical instruments symbolise character traits. True devotion to the mastery of the instrument and to the music is then tantamount with having found one’s proper way in life.

Slow Drag’s low-key behaviour corresponds to the task of his instrument; he plays the bass “with an ease that is at times startling” (Wilson 20) and serves as a “model of stability” (Snodgrass 187).

With the trombone, Cutler is also playing a background instrument. The trombone is an instrument of rhythm and harmony (Leuchtenmüller 107). The instrument’s function in a musical ensemble ties in nicely with Cutler’s responsibility as the band’s leader; he sets the pace and he continuously tries to calm down heated discussions between the other band members and to restore harmony to which he does not always succeed. His playing is just as unembellished (Wilson 20) as his behaviour is unpretentious.

Toledo plays the piano, an instrument that is often regarded as a musical instrument of sophistication and learnedness. Hence, it is only natural that the literate, philosophising bookworm Toledo is the band’s pianist. His frequent references to the black American’s African roots make him appear as a rather traditional and, in the best sense of the word, conservative man, which is perfectly in line with the role of the piano in ragtime. “From its beginnings, rag music was associated primarily with the piano” (Southern 314); it is at the root of jazz. “From the fusion of blues, ragtime, brass-band music, and syncopated dance music came jazz [...]” (Southern 365) and swing.

Then again, Levee Green is the most conspicuous of the four musicians. The trumpet best reflects his “flamboyance” (Wilson 23), “bright temper” (ibid), “strident voice” (ibid), and his urge to be the centre of attention. The trumpet as a solo instrument underscores Levee’s ambitious selfishness. The fact that “he plays wrong notes frequently” (ibid), that he is in the “process of discovering his instrument” (Pereira 23) symbolically reflects that he is also in a process of discovering himself. Levee, spurred by ambition and pride denies his own origins and those of the music he plays and therefore does neither integrate into the band nor into the black community.

There are not only the musical instruments that will breathe and touch being thus endowed with a life of their own but conversely the play itself with its actors turns into music, namely a blues composition. The continuous quarrels between the band members correspond to the call and response pattern of a blues song, which is interspersed with various solo parts in which the band members take turns in telling a story from the rural past. The play then comes to an end in a final crescendo when Levee kills Toledo.

3. The Urban Experience

3.1 The City in MaRainey’s Black Bottom

The city of Chicago is depicted as a cold place of contradictory and conflicting characteristics. It is the home of “millionaires and derelicts” (Wilson xv), gangsters, whores, and pious Irish grandmothers (ibid). Wilson describes it as a rough and bruising city (ibid) and juxtaposes the Northside with the Southside, black life with white life, and the spiritual with the profane.

On the white Northside, secretaries return from their lunch break and a priest and altar boys who have just finished the noon mass populate the streets of the city. Meanwhile, the “procession of cattle cars through the stockyards continues unabated” (ibid). Wilson presents profane business on an equal footing with religion and thus suggests the apotheosis of money in the urban environment.

At the same time, the situation on the Southside of Chicago is completely different. “Sleepy-eyed negroes move lazily toward their small cold-water flats [...] to await the onslaught of the night” (ibid) when they will crowd the bars and juke joints. There is no bustling business life but dazed drinking. Instead of spiritual solace through church service, the blacks draw comfort out of the blues’ “vision and prayer” (Wilson xvi). However, the rural roots of the blues have been “strangled by the northern manners and customs” (ibid) pertaining to a capitalist and industrialist ideology.

Moreover, Wilson’s introduction to the play gives a first hint at the damage the city has inflicted on the people’s spirituality and moral integrity. The moonlight that “has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” (Wilson xv) reminds of Judas who received the very same amount of money for betraying his Lord and spiritual leader Jesus. This image insinuates that above the city looms a miasma of betrayal, bribery, corruption, and godlessness: For a few Dollars from Irvin the police officer investigating Ma Rainey’s car accident is turning a blind eye to the whole affair of alleged assault and battery. The episode of Ma Rainey’s accident describes the city as a place of violence and venality where blacks are still discriminated against and cannot even get a taxi (Wilson 95) or later when it comes to paying the musicians that blacks are eyed with suspicion when they try to cash a check (Wilson 106). Behind Ma’s back, her young girlfriend Dussie Mae lets herself be fondled and kissed by Levee. Throughout the play, much swearing and blasphemy is heard. Levee even tries to challenge God to a fight by insulting Him and threatening to kill Cutler.

The stage directions and the various side incidents in the play provide for a first sketch of city life but the interaction and talk of the protagonists add colour and nuances to the urban image. The following chapter will explore in more detail in which ways the traits of the play’s characters, their interaction, and their language serve to describe the city.

3.2 How do the Play’s Characters Serve to Describe the City?

The lines the characters speak and the way in which they act with and react to their environment provides further insight into city life and gives answers to questions about urban dwellers, their relationships to one another, their relationship to God and their attitudes towards money, identity, and business. How do the characters in the play fit into the present power structure and in which way does the city influence their behaviour?

Among the most ‘urban’ characters are Mel Sturdyvant, the white recording studio owner and his employee Irvin, the white manager of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey. Sturdyvant is ”preoccupied with money,“ he is “insensitive to black performers” and “prefers to deal with them at arm’s length” (Wilson 17). On the one hand, this is a sign that business and money are more important to him than people but on the other hand, it shows that money makes everybody equal and that Sturdyvant is democratic in terms of race policy. He simply wants to record the songs on the agenda as quickly and as cost-efficient as possible and get rid of the performers immediately after the recording session is over. “Just like clockwork” (Wilson 18). Snodgrass, however, sees Sturdyvant as a “symbol of segregation” (Snodgrass 192) in his “separate world above blacks rehearsing in the basement” (Ibid.).

Although Sturdyvant does avoid too close a contact with the musicians, this behaviour – in my view – is not informed by a racist or segregationist attitude but rather by his wish to produce music efficiently, to have power over the performers and by the alienation from his present field of business, which he perceives as being not respectable. His non-racist attitude is further underscored by his desire to leave the music business behind and to embark on a new career in the textile business (Wilson 19) where many Irish were working at the time for ludicrously little money. It is “a dark bit of humor that refers to a labor force as badly discounted and exploited as blacks” (Ibid.). Consequently, money is the common denominator for him by which everything and everybody will be measured. As Simmel points out, money is colourless and impersonal (Simmel, 1995 78-94).


1 Throughout the paper, identity is used as signifying a consistent, continuous authenticity of self-perception and self-representation of the individual in any given community or situation. This identity, however, may be composed of various distinct and incommensurable but interlinked parts.

2 In Autobiography on an Ex-Colored Man James Weldon Johnson depicts the same situation. An African American pianist finds employment with a rich white music lover for whose entertainment he plays in the latter’s home. So, behavioural patterns dating back to the times of slavery are still alive in the early 20th century.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – FB05 Englisches Seminar
African American Identity City August Wilson’s Rainey’s Black Bottom



Title: African American Identity in the City in  August Wilson’s  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom