Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Christian Mayr at the Charles University, Again

Štěpanka kindly invited me to give my Christian Mayr lecture again, this time to her undergraduate class on immigration. While there wasn’t as much discussion afterward as when I spoke to her graduate students in December, the class was attentive and had a couple of questions afterwards. I was intrigued to find that students here (not necessarily Czechs, as the class is very international, but Europeans) were surprised by the phenomenon of light-skinned African Americans and saw some of the figures in Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs as appearing white.
This provided a good opportunity for discussion of some of the class, power, and gender issues inherent in slavery, in particular the problem of generations of masters routinely siring their own slaves while interracial couples who actually wanted to be together were usually reviled (especially if the woman was white). I suggested that they look at Mark Twain’s novel Puddin’head Wilson for a story about a white-looking slave woman who swaps her baby with the master’s legitimate child to get her son out of slavery. There is, after all, an entire tradition in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century American literature of the “novel of passing.”
Given the dynamics of antebellum Southern society, you would not be likely to find a white person at a black social event, which prompts the question of whether Christian Mayr actually attended a kitchen ball while at White Sulphur Springs, and if so, in what role. As a German immigrant, he certainly couldn’t easily pass as black.
I think there’s a lot more to this artist than meets the eye.
Next week I get to talk about the Harlem Renaissance and multicultural art to Štěpanka's class on the American ethnic experience, and at some point Jesse will instruct the immigration class on Czech-American polkas. It should all be quite entertaining.

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