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Strummin' on the Old Banjo: How an African Instrument Got a Racist Reinvention

You might not know it, but the banjo came from Africa. Several African nations have a traditional stringed instrument with resonance provided by a stretched animal skin. Slaves captured in those nations remembered those instruments and recreated them in America. But that history was deliberately covered up, according to Laurent Dubois, author of the book The Banjo: America’s African Instrument. The development of the instrument was attributed to white luthiers and musicians, in order to sell banjos to white people.

The lies perpetrated about the banjo varied, but they all reinforced the proposition that the instrument’s connection with enslaved people was tenuous. In his history of the instrument, banjo maker George Dobson admitted that the banjo had African antecedents, but he also imagined that “Negro slaves, seeing and hearing their mistresses playing on the guitar, were seized by that emulative and imitative spirit characteristic of the race, and proceeded to make a guitar of their own out of a hollow gourd, with a coon-skin stretched across for a head.” Stewart, after first claiming that the banjo “was not of negro origin,” relented a few years later, explaining somewhat apologetically that “Truth has often come into the world through lowly channels.”

“You can actually track the history of how the idea of the banjo has evolved,” Dubois says of the instrument’s whitewashing. “These ideas weren’t just ‘in the air.’ Nineteenth-century boosters like Stewart worked really hard to make the banjo not African, to unhinge it from its history. We’re still living with that.”

Harris and Converse were even more full-throated in their racism. Citing the banjo’s use in blackface minstrel shows, Harris suggested that “The whole idea of its origins on the plantations was a theatrical fantasy,” as Dubois puts it in The Banjo. Converse, who made his living publishing manuals for white audiences to teach them how to play the banjo, flattered his readers by assuring them that “There were no players among the slaves capable of arousing its slumbering powers,” insisting that only “white admirers in the North” could awaken the instrument’s “inherent beauties.” Never mind that the techniques in his book were as stolen from enslaved people as the banjo itself. The banjo’s destiny, Converse wrote, need not be as “an accompaniment to the darkey song that told of the cotton fields, cane brakes, ‘possum hunts, sweet tobacco posies, or ‘Gwine to Alabama wid banjo on my knee,’ etc.”

Dubois tells us about the history of the banjo, which is entwined with the history of slavery in the US, from the instrument’s African roots to the suppression of its story, at Collectors Weekly.

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