Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide: Day 22
Ragged, Jagged Jack and the Problem of Stereotypes
“Oscar did not dance with the adults. He entertained the children, who were in the corner of the barn opposite the fiddlers. He sang a song called ‘Any Rags?’ and danced while he sang. ‘Did you ever hear the story of Ragged, Jagged Jack?’ he sang. ‘Here he comes down the street with a pack on his back.'” ~ Oscar’s Gift
The scene at the barn dance in Oscar’s Gift where Oscar sings “Any Rags” is drawn from Micheaux’s life. Biographer Patrick McGilligan recounts that the homesteader and future filmmaker enjoyed attending local barn dances and would amuse the children with his rendition of the song, a schottische (a partnered country dance), recorded by baritone Arthur Collins in 1903. Collins helped to popularize what are known as “coon songs,” a legacy of blackface minstrel shows. The album cover for “Any Rags” shows a caricature drawing of a Black peddler, and the lyrics, while not as offensive as other examples from the time period, do rely upon stereotypes and exaggerated dialect.
I debated whether to include the scene in the story. In the end, I decided that the personal, human dimension it added to Oscar Micheaux’s character was valuable, and parents and teachers can, if they choose, use the song as a way to discuss racial stereotypes and the lingering, pernicious effects of music and images made popular more than a century ago.
“Whether it’s in the perceptions of black people who drive fancy cars—Miles Davis complained about being pulled over every five minutes for driving a Maserati—or whether it’s in the hardly updated version of Jim Crow and something like the welfare mother. I think there are still the lenses white people put on when they look at black Americans, and it’s sad but it’s kind of desperately indicative of the way in which this country still hasn’t surmounted the kinds of feelings that gave rise to minstrelsy in the first place.” ~ Social Historian Eric Lott
Here are some resources to consider:
- Stephen Foster: Blackface Minstrelsy (PBS: American Experience)
- Jim Crow in America (a teacher’s guide from the Library of Congress: Teaching with Primary Sources)
- Music That Scared America: The Early Days of Jazz (a teacher’s guide from the University of California, Irvine)
Click HERE for the full Oscar’s Gift Reading Guide.