Scholar delivers inaugural lecture in African American material culture series
Music played an important role in the
lives of many 19th century American families, when having a piano in the
parlor was seen as a symbol of middle class refinement and
respectability that went “hand in hand with genteel womanhood” — and
African Americans were no exception to this view.
That observation was made by internationally renowned scholar and
author Psyche Williams-Forson during a talk titled “How Sweet the Sound:
African American Performances of Class and Citizenship Using the
Piano,” which she delivered March 1 at the University of Delaware.
Hosted by UD’s Center for Material Culture Studies, the event was the inaugural lecture in the new African American Material Culture and Public History speaker series.
Williams-Forson is professor and chair of American studies and an
affiliate professor of women’s studies and African American studies at
the University of Maryland. A founding scholar in the field of food
studies, she is the author of the award-winning book Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power.
In her talk at UD, Williams-Forson analyzed the material culture of
African American homes in the 19th and early 20th centuries, focusing on
the symbolism behind owning a piano in its relation to larger issues of
equality and economic freedom. She discussed class tensions and how
people throughout U.S. history have measured their citizenship through
definitions of materialism and economic freedom.
African Americans worked hard to obtain luxury goods, such as the
piano, for reasons much larger than just “trying to be equal” to their
white counterparts, Williams-Forson said. Materialism was critical to
the fulfillment of citizenship and equality, she said, discussing such
issues as the difference between owning and playing the piano, and the
work ethic that was put into owning one.