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Midweek Perspectives: Fixing the Stephen Foster statue

Out of context, the statue is offensive. Let's tell the real story behind it, applauding Foster's anti-slavery message

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

By Robert Perloff

As many times as I have passed by the Stephen Foster statue adjoining the Carnegie Museum in Schenley Park, I still have been unable to control my squirming with revulsion and fidgeting with embarrassment over the depiction of a white man's "superiority" over a fellow human being who happens to be black. The dominant figure in the statue is Pittsburgh's beloved and celebrated songwriter, Stephen Collins Foster, shown with a black man, clearly a slave, happily strumming a banjo at his feet.

  Robert Perloff is distinguished service professor emeritus of business administration and of psychology at the Katz Graduate School of Business of the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Shadyside. 

For years I tried to put the offense out of my mind. That's the way things were, I figured, in Foster's day and age. (He lived from 1826 to 1864.) The statue was erected in 1900, at a time when it was not politically incorrect to depict such a scene.

This year, however, I said to myself, "Enough is enough." I decided that it was time to offer a procedure that will enable us to live with the statue - while rejoicing that our culture today is virtually a 180-degree turnaround from what the culture was like in Foster's day.

In casting about for a solution, I discovered a rarely acknowledged fact about the statue. The figure at Foster's feet is a representation of "Uncle Ned" - the namesake of Foster's 1848 song. As Deane L. Root, curator of the Stephen Foster Memorial, told me, the song "Uncle Ned" is widely recognized by music historians as the first anti-slavery song for the popular music market. Black historical figures such as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois applauded "Uncle Ned" and Foster's other plantation songs as sympathetic to the plight of the slave.

The statue, owned by the city of Pittsburgh, was originally commissioned by The Pittsburgh Press and was created by the sculptor G.L. Moretti for the princely sum of $6,000, a fund raised by anonymous donors - millionaires, newsboys and schoolchildren. It was erected in Highland Park but moved to its present location in Oakland shortly after World War II.

It's time to erect a placard beside the statue to give viewers the proper context. Rather than being seen as an insult, the statue will be viewed in a new light.

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville on July 4, 1826 - an apt birth date for a man who came to have such influence on American culture. Though he died nearly penniless in New York in 1864, he came from a socially and politically prominent Pittsburgh family that was in cahoots with the blueblooded patricians and enterprising movers and shakers.

Foster virtually invented popular music as we know it today, spearheading the songwriting culture culminating in Tin Pan Alley. His best known songs are "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Hard Times Come Again No More," "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Camptown Races" (Doo-Dah! Doo-Dah!). He wrote around 200 songs, only 25 of which, incidentally, romanticized and celebrated the rural South. He spent the bulk of his life in Pittsburgh and never lived below the Mason-Dixon line.

In the words of Foster biographer Ken Emerson, "An America without Foster is as unthinkable as an America without Whitman or Twain, without Louis Armstrong or George Gershwin, or without those instances of amazing grace when, if only for an instant, we transcend that racism."

The lyrics to "Uncle Ned," as Deane Root points out, would not strike a casual listener today as anti-slavery. In 1848 - before abolition songs were sung openly, and five years before "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published - there was no commercial market for a stirring protest song. The message is between the lines. Using language common at the time, but which is vulgar and offensive today, it tells the sad story of a slave who was bald, blind and toothless. When Old Ned dies, "Massa take it mighty bad / De tears run down like de rain; / Old Missus turn pale and she gets berry sad / Cause she nebber see Old Ned again."

What's groundbreaking about the song, Root says, is that it shows that a white person "could feel affection for blacks. It plants in the listener's mind that Ned was a human being." At a time when popular culture only "portrayed blacks as conniving, it completely rejects the notion of blacks as chattel. It showed emotion across racial lines."

Mayor Murphy should commission a task force to determine the wording of the placard. It could surely touch on more than the song "Uncle Ned." It should be congruent with the spirit of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (the amendment abolishing slavery) and congruent with the spirit of these words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Such a placard would put me, and I'm sure my fellow citizens in Pittsburgh and beyond, at ease with respect to the statue as it now stands.

Let us continue to celebrate Stephen Foster's genius and to exult in the pleasure we derive from his musical oeuvre - while disassociating ourselves from the odious racism that contaminated our culture many years ago.

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