Among the musical representations of Deep South African American life circulating in the 1930s and early 1940s, Ellington’s extended composition Black, Brown, and Beige and Zora Neale Hurston’s staged revue The Great Day stand out for their shared emphasis on the laboring body. This emphasis, I argue, countervailed predominant representations produced in two important spheres of artistic activity at the time. The first, Tin Pan Alley, had inherited much from the legacy of nineteenth-century blackface minstrel theater and tended to present Southern plantation life through nostalgic, bucolic tableaus and through playful “naturally rhythmic” dancing black bodies. The second, intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance, cast the concert spiritual as the music best suited to put black cultural actors on equal footing with their white counterparts, positioning the “soul” as the bearer of African American culture, thus downplaying the role of the body.
Building on works from Cedric Robinson and Raymond Williams, this article highlights the ideological work that goes into naturalizing ideas of race and space. In the 1930s and 1940s this ideological work could be seen in what Ellington labeled “the Dixie Chamber of Commerce dream picture of the South.” Through Ellington’s poetry and Hurston’s critical essays, I show the intent of these artists to reimagine the Deep South landscape in ways that highlight the contribution of black labor. Then, through an analysis of Ellington’s music and Hurston’s staging of folkloric songs, I demonstrate the specific ways that each artist went about realizing this intent.