Obama Center, African-American golf, and Chicago

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

Original members of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club, courtesy of Chicago Tonight

By Dave Papendorf

Through the great work of CMU’s own Dr. Lane Demas a recent item of news has come to the forefront — and one of historical note concerning former president Barack Obama’s proposed Obama Presidential Center on the south side of Chicago. Refurbishing bits of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan, the project, headed by the Obama Foundation, plans to provide a “refurbished” public space that connects the park to the lakefront. The park will also include a museum tower that tells the history of the Obamas’ story in the United States and prominently features exhibits on the history of civil rights, African Americans, and Chicago generally. Complete with Obama’s presidential library, a conference center, and a large athletic center, this project will celebrate the Obama family and provide a new public space for south-side residents. The city of Chicago has been largely enthusiastic towards the project, giving the Obama Foundation a sweet deal on the property — a $10 (!), 99-year lease to rent and use the land. Despite a dendrological lawsuit and real estate critiques, the project continues forward.

One larger and more historical concern with the project, however, is closely related to Dr. Demas’ book, Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf. Jackson Park is the site of the Jackson Park Golf Course, an important historical site for African American golf in the city of Chicago. This course is the primary course of use of the Chicago Women’s Golf Club — established in 1937 and featured prominently in Dr. Demas’ book. Golfers and historians were initially concerned that the Obama Center might close the course in favor of improvements, but this concern seems to have been tempered for now. Currently, the Obama Foundation’s plan is to redevelop some of the property into a six-hole “short course”, and they have enlisted the help of Tiger Woods for design and input. Whether the course will still be accessible to South-Side residence is still debated, but the history of this course is indispensable in telling the history of African Americans in Chicago. Included below is a recent presentation at the CWGC’s clubhouse concerning Nettie George Speedy — the first female African American golfer in Chicago and a founding member of the CWGC. One of Speedy’s descendants offers insight into the history of the organization and its importance. Moreover, the archives preserved at the clubhouse of the CWGC have proven to be a historical resource for retelling this important story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCT3AgEo9Xs&feature=youtu.be

As previously mentioned, Dr. Demas’ book is award winning in many capacities. He was the 2017 USGA Herbert Warren Wind Award Winner as well as the recipient of the North American Sports Society for Sport History’s book award. Be sure to read more about the history of golf in Chicago in his monograph and keep an eye on the news concerning the course in Jackson Park.

"That's Me"

By Jordan X. Evans

As Black History Month comes to an end, and the hype around the Black Panther film is in full swing, the conversation about representation must reemerge. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case for the United States in which the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. During the trial, Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark showcased their series of experiments known as the "doll tests." Essentially the experiments highlighted how black and white children, as young as three years old, described black dolls with bad qualities and white dolls with good qualities. The Clark's concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" created a feeling of inferiority, which harmed African American children's sense of worth and their self-esteem. Recently the discussion about representation in media has echoed many of the same discussions that occurred 60 years ago, and it partially explains why there is such fervor around the latest Marvel film.

The duality of American history is one of ideals that speak of freedom and equality for all, while simultaneously barring people of color and women from participating in the democratic process. Simply put, America has a problem with racism and exploitation, which has been so profitable that it has allowed discrimination, sexism, racism, and bigotry to continue into the 21st century. This becomes evident if we examine how the media have historically been representing black people. The origins of modern American cinematography, in fact, owe dues to Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a film that showed black people as fried chicken eating, no shoe wearing, animalistic beings that just wanted to have sex with white women.

Since Birth of a Nation, films have continued using racist tropes to garner profits financially while subconsciously teaching people how to view others based on those images. Consider the fact that in 89 years the Academy Award's – commonly referred to as the Oscars – has only given five best actor or actress awards to African Americans. Also, it is worth noting that the first award given to an African American was for "best actress in a supporting role" to Hattie McDaniel for her role as a subservient Mammy in 1939. The films that receive the most attention and awards are led by white people, and the few times that black people have won the prestigious best actor or actress awards, they have had to play a bad cop, a megalomaniac dictator, a handy fieldsman, a troubled piano player, and a struggling mother. When viewed together as a whole, it is clear that America views African Americans as troubled people who are better playing the role of an antagonist, a damaged person, or the help.

While African Americans have historically been portrayed as 'less than,' white Americans can see themselves as a savior of a magical world in Harry Potter, the heir to the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, a technological genius in Iron Man, and Earth's adopted superhero in Superman. This has perpetuated the negative perceptions that were uncovered in the Clark's research. The tests have, in fact, been recreated numerous times since the 1940s, and the results are still alarming, children still view black as bad and white as good.

For the first time in 2018 Black America gets to share in the same unbridled happiness as every other child who looked at Harry Potter or Hermione Granger and could say, "They look like me." Finally a story about black people who remain unbothered by colonialism, it's violent tendencies, and one that is purely centered on black people. Black children like my cousins Israel, Azanna, Zion, and Zuri will grow up being able to dress as superheroes who look like them. Azanna and Zuri will be able to see black girl magic at its finest in someone like Shuri, the smartest person in the Marvel universe. Zion and Israel will see themselves as kings and not monsters that want to devour white women. For this one moment during Black History Month, people like me were able to look forward to the future with a smile and not have to be reminded of a history that has devalued our existence. For that I have to say thank you to the cast and directors of the Black Panther, who allowed a historian to imagine a future where the next generation of historians will write of the triumphs of everyday black superheroes.

Photo Credit:  Tom Beland ,  That's Me .

Photo Credit: Tom Beland, That's Me.


Jordan X. Evans is a scholarly activist that attends Central Michigan University. Currently he is studying abroad at the University of Bochum in Germany. He studies American History as a Masters Student, with a focus on African American history in the 20th Century. Currently Jordan is in the process of writing a thesis that will explore the rhetoric, ideologies, and history of the X-Men comics. He can be followed on Twitter @The_Jordan_X.

A Call for Historians to Confront the Issue of Misappropriation

Schreck, V.G, photographer.  Melody , ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the  Library of Congress .

Schreck, V.G, photographer. Melody, ca. 1902. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

By Ryan Warriner

Happy African American History Month! February is a time for all of us to recognize and celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans. It is my belief that African American History Month is especially important for historians. We dedicate our lives to the study of the past and how it connects to the present, but so often even today, African Americans are left out of the narrative. So, I would like to take this opportunity during African American History Month to discuss the issue of cultural misappropriation.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to complete my capstone research project with the history department, and my paper – Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo – looks at the issue of how society misappropriates African Culture, using the banjo as a case study.

For the purposes of my paper and for this post, I will define cultural misappropriation as the taking, by the dominant cultural group, of aspects, traditions, or artifacts, of a cultural minority without understanding, appreciating, or respecting the minority’s culture. This is my own definition based both on current definitions and my own research that I conducted for the paper.

The reaction that I receive when telling people about this paper is often of amused surprise. Amused because people usually view the banjo as somewhat of a comical instrument, and surprise because very few people, myself included prior to this project, know that the banjo did in fact originate in Africa. It came to the US in the minds and memories of slaves that were ripped from their homes and families by slave traders and brought to the Americas.

We do not think of the banjo as an African instrument because we associate it with the white American South and rural Country music.  And so, the question that I really tried to answer in my paper was “How did we get here?” How did the banjo go from its African Origins to its association with white people?

In my paper, I identify four eras in the misappropriation of the banjo that map the progression of the instrument from its African roots to the banjo as a white instrument.

The first era spans from the 1600s until approximately the mid-1800s. This is the era of the banjo as a source of recreation and community for African American slaves. During the period of the Transatlantic Slave trade, it was quite common for African Americans to be forced by slave owners to work on a plantation where no or very few people spoke the same language. This is due to the vast number of languages and dialects in Africa. However, one thing that was much more common across the African Continent was musical tradition. Musical instruments, like the banjo, and musical styles were more widely shared than spoken language. Therefore, this is how many African American slaves fostered a sense of community amongst themselves. It was a slight reprieve from the horrid living conditions and back-breaking labor.

The second era spans from the early 1800s into the early 1900s. This is the era of the Banjo as a source of freedom and income for African Americans. As more and more states began to outlaw slavery, many African American slaves ran to the north in order to obtain their freedom. However, due to entrenched and pervading racism, many still struggled to find work, and so many turned to performing as a way to make a living. For example, in his account Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup recounts that he used the violin to make money with the intention of buying his freedom. Much in the same way, other African Americans used the banjo. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Acts, there were many ads posted that offered descriptions of how to identify runaways, and very often included in the description was a line about how the man or woman played the banjo.

The third era spans from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. This is the era where the banjo takes on a much different meaning as a source of oppression for the African American Community. It is in this era where racist blackface minstrel shows began to gain in popularity across the country. These “comedic” musical shows made African Americans the punchline. Center stage in the caricaturization of African Americans was the banjo. This is when many in African American communities began to reject the instrument, and for good reason.

The fourth and final era spans from the early 1900s to the present. This is the era where the banjo is considered to be a symbol of the white rural south, country music, and the region of Appalachia. While minstrel shows eventually declined in popularity, the banjo did not. Many white Americans who played the banjo in minstrel shows while in blackface took to the instrument outside of that setting. This is the beginning of how we understand the banjo today.

The issue at hand is not that white Americans play the banjo, the issue stems from the misappropriation. Cultural misappropriation creates forgotten and unknown histories, and specifically the cultural misappropriation of African traditions serves to diminish the role that African Americans played in the historical narrative of the United States.

We historians have such a unique and exciting opportunity to discover these forgotten and unknown histories. These are places where we can add something significant to the historical narrative. Not only is that an exciting prospect, and something many of us desire, but I also believe that it is part of our obligation as historians to combat misappropriation. African American History Month should serve as a reminder that there is still much to be studied and uncovered. February should function as the catalyst, but the work should extend beyond the confines of these twenty-eight days.


Ryan Warriner is a senior at CMU studying Secondary Education with a double major in History and Social Studies with a concentration in Political Science. In addition to his studies, Ryan is a Resident Assistant in Thorpe Hall, the Presenters chair for the Teach to Reach Conference, and winner of the 2018 Robert Newby Award for Diversity Efforts. Ryan’s paper “Misappropriation of African Culture in the United States: the Banjo” will be presented at the 2018 Student Research and Creative Endeavors Exhibition (SRCEE) on April 11th from 1-4pm in Finch Fieldhouse. If you have additional questions regarding this post or would simply like to know more about the cultural misappropriation of the banjo, Ryan can be emailed at warri1rt[at]cmich.edu