Foster vs. Cullen New York City. 70 years apart, and a complete culture shift away, we find ourselves emerged in two dissimilar worlds, told by two very different authors. Although both talk about the important issues of racism, they do it in two distinct ways.
Countee Cullen and Stephen Foster were both very influential artists of their respective times; however, they view of racial problems differed because of their own worldviews. When listening to Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”, written in 1851 (Florida’s state song since 1935 and expurgated in 2008), one might misconstrue this as a lament to the traveling soul who merely misses home. However, when you hear the original version which was written by E.
P. Christy and Foster, you find yourself emerged in a minstrel show. Written in the perspective of an African slave and translated into mock Ebonics, this song tells the story of the agony of a slave being sold to another family. One verse helps clarify the situation: “All up and down de whole creation sadly I roam, still longing for de old plantation, and for de old folks at home” (Bennett). Although the song was thought to be controversial as it romanticized the idea of slavery, it was the most sold piece of sheet music of its time (“Old Folks at Home”). In comparison, we have Countee Cullen’s poem, “Incident”, which was written in 1925 and later published in the book ‘Color’. However short, this piece of poetry talks about a pivotal point in a young black child’s life where they are confronted with raw, in your face racism. Cullen says, “Now I was eight and very small, and he was no whit bigger, and so I smiled, but he poked out his tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger'” (Cullen).
An interesting point to bring up is that Cullen had smiled at the young boy, maybe showing that he had not yet experienced personal racism first hand. Cullen ends the poem by saying “I saw the whole of Baltimore from May until December; Of all the things that happened, that’s all that I remember” (Cullen). This line is important to understand Cullen’s perspective. Although he was just a boy who simply seemed like he was trying to make a friend, the impact of this cruel remark made that his only memory of a place that he was excited to see. Although both pieces of art talked about race, Cullen and Foster approached them in very separate ways.
During the time that Foster, a white man, had written this song, slavery was still legal and seen as customary in this era, so the fact this was a song that mocked African Americans and was performed by white musicians in blackface, was not construed as “racist”. However, Cullen sees the world in a different color (no pun intended). Cullen, an African American man, can clearly see racism face to face, as it is something that had defined his whole career. Since he lived in a time when slavery had been abolished and there was an explosion of “Négritude, a pervasive international black literary movement… and a direct expression of irrepressible anger at racial unfairness” (Van Vechten), Cullen was able to express this racism head-on.
In conclusion, Cullen and Foster had lived diverse lives, and their artwork clearly expressed that. Although both talked about casual racism in their respective times, each had to face it in their own separate way based on their environment. Even though these pieces of art talked about the issues of color, they each only saw the world in black and white.