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Eric Sterling

Racial Discrimination, Exploitation, and Singing the Blues in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Racial Discrimination, Exploitation, and Singing the Blues in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This essay concerns the exploitation of African-American musicians by White businessmen in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; it serves as a microcosm of institutional racism in America. In Wilson’s play, the famous blues singer Ma Rainey, in the zenith of her career in the 1920s, makes a fortune for record producer Sturdyvant and agent Irvin, who treat her badly because they are racists with little respect for her talent and little understanding of the blues. Sensing their disrespect, Rainey comports herself like a diva to show them that she earns money for them and should be in charge of the song list and recording session. Levee’s impetuous stabbing of band mate Toledo over the innocuous stepping on his shoes manifests how the exploitation of Black workers by Whites leads to rage and Caucasians successfully turning Blacks against themselves. Levee’s shoes are important in the play, for they symbolize his dream of upward mobility, which will never take place after Sturdyvant steals his songs and Toledo dies. The attempt by trumpet player Levee to write his own arrangement of Rainey’s signature song signals his ambition to supplant her and his willingness to corrupt the blues for his own gain. The essay concludes with an exploration of why Wilson chooses to write about the blues in this play. The blues are integral to African-American culture—deriving from their African heritage and a source of comfort when working on plantations during slavery in America. In this play, like in most of his others, Wilson pairs two protagonists—one devoted to African-American culture of the past (Rainey) and an ambitious and mercenary character who looks toward the future and willingly sacrifices his heritage for financial gain (Levee). 

Key Words: blues, music, singer, racism, exploitation, shoes, culture, heritage, African-American, commercialize, commodity 


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