Articles, Blog

A musical that examines black identity in the 1901 World’s Fair | Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin

December 6, 2019

The archive. One may envision rooms and shelves stocked with boxes
and cartons of old stuff. And yet, for those who are
patient enough to dig through it, the archive provides
the precious opportunity to touch the past, to feel and learn from the experiences of once-living people who now seem
dead and buried deeply in the archive. But what if there was a way
to bring the archive to life? Jon Michael Reese: “The world
is thinking wrong about race.” Melissa Joyner: “This country insists
upon judging the Negro.” JMR: “Because it does not know.” AYGTK: What if one could make it breathe? MJ: “By his lowest
and most vicious representatives.” AYGTK: Speak. JMR: “An honest, straightforward exhibit.” AYGTK: And even sing to us, so that the archive
becomes accessible to everyone. What would performing
the archive look like? A performance that is not
simply based on a true story but one that allows us
to come face-to-face with things we thought
were once dead and buried. (Piano music) This is what “At Buffalo,”
a new musical we’re developing, is all about. Using collections
from over 30 archival institutions, “At Buffalo” performs the massive archive
of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the first World’s Fair
of the 20th century, held in Buffalo, New York. Now, if you’ve heard of this fair, it might be because this is where
then-US president, William McKinley, was assassinated. For nearly 17 years, I’ve stayed inside the gates
and the archive of this fair, not only because of that story but because of a real
life-and-death racial drama that played out on the fairgrounds. Here, in a place that was like
Disney World, the Olympics, carnivals, museums, all in one, there were three conflicting displays
of what it meant to be black in the United States. The archive says white showmen presented a savage black origin in the form of 98 West
and Central Africans, living and performing war dances in a recreated village
called Darkest Africa. And across the street, a happy slave life, in the form of 150 Southern
black performers, picking cotton, singing and dancing minstrel shows in a recreated antebellum attraction
called Old Plantation. As a response, the black Buffalo community championed
the third display of blackness: the Negro Exhibit. Codesigned by African American
scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, it curated photographs,
charts, books and more, to show black Americans
as a high-achieving race, capable of education and progress. When I first encountered this story, I understood from my own life experience what was at stake to have members
of the African diaspora see each other like this. For me, as the child of immigrant parents
from Ghana, West Africa, born in the American South, raised in Manhattan, Kansas, (Laughter) and having attended the same
elite school as Du Bois, I could see that the Buffalo fair
effectively pitted the black Northerner
against the Southerner, the educated against the uneducated, and the African American
against the African. And I wanted to know: How did these three distinct groups
of black folk navigate this experience? Unfortunately, the archive
had answers to questions like this underneath racial caricature, conflicting information
and worse — silence. (Piano music) Still, I could hear musical melodies and see dance numbers and the rhythms of the words coming off the pages
of old newspaper articles. And learning that this World’s Fair had music playing everywhere
on its fairgrounds, I knew that live, immersive,
spectacular musical theater, with the latest technologies of our time, is the closest experience that can bring
the archival story of the 1901 fair out of boxes and into life. Stories, like Tannie and Henrietta, a husband and wife vaudeville duo in love who become at odds over performing
these “coon” minstrel shows while striving for their
five-dollar-a-week dream in the Old Plantation attraction. Like African businessman John Tevi, from present-day Togo, who must outwit the savage rules
of the human zoo in which he has become trapped. And stories like Mary Talbert, a wealthy leader
of the black Buffalo elite, who must come to terms with the racial realities
of her home town. MJ: “The dominant race in this country insists upon judging the Negro by his lowest and most
vicious representatives.” AYGTK: Like Old Plantation
and Darkest Africa. MJ: “… instead of by the more
intelligent and worthy classes.” AYGTK: When fair directors
ignored Mary Talbert and the local black Buffalo community’s
request to participate in the fair, newspapers say that Mary Talbert and her club of educated
African American women held a rousing protest meeting. But the details of that meeting, even down to the fiery speech she gave, were not fully captured in the archive. So, “At Buffalo” takes the essence
of Mary’s speech and turns it into song. (All singing) We must, we are unanimous. We must, we are unanimous. MJ: We’ve got something to show — we’re going to teach a lesson in Buffalo. It would benefit the nation to see our growth since emancipation. Colored people should be represented
in this Pan-American exposition, it would benefit the nation to see our growth since emancipation. (All singing) They made a great mistake not to appoint someone from the race. We must, we are unanimous. We must, we are unanimous. We must, we are unanimous. AYGTK: Mary Talbert successfully demands
that the Negro Exhibit come to the fair. And to have the Negro Exhibit in Buffalo means that the musical must tell the story
behind why Du Bois cocreated it … and why Mary and the black elite
felt it was urgently needed. JMR: “The world is thinking
wrong about race. They killed Sam Hose
for who they thought he was. And more men like him, every day, more Negro men, like him, taken apart. And after that — that red ray … we can never be the same. (Singing) A red ray [A man hunt in Georgia] cut across my desk [Mob after Hose;
he will be lynched if caught] the very day Sam’s hands were laid to rest. Can words alone withstand the laws unjust? [Escape seems impossible] Can words alone withstand the violence? Oh, no, oh. [Burned alive] [Sam Hose is lynched] Oh, no, oh. [His body cut in many pieces] Oh, no, oh. [Burned at the Stake] [Ten Cents Slice Cooked Liver.] [Fight for souvenirs.] (Both singing) Who has read the books? Our numbers and statistics look small against the page. The crisis has multiplied. Our people are lynched and died. Oh, Lord. Something must change. AYGTK: Something must change. “At Buffalo” reveals
how the United States today stands at similar crossroads
as 1901 America. Just as the name of Sam Hose
filled newspapers back then, today’s media carries the names of: JMR: Oscar Grant. MJ: Jacqueline Culp. Pianist: Trayvon Martin. AYGTK: Sandra Bland. And too many others. The 1901 fair’s legacies persist in more ways than we can imagine. MJ: Mary Talbert and the National Association
of Colored Women started movements against lynching and the myth of black criminality just as black women today
started Black Lives Matter. JMR: And some of the same
people who fought for and created the Negro Exhibit, including Du Bois, came to Buffalo,
four years after the fair, to start the Niagara Movement, which set the groundwork
for the creation of the NAACP. AYGTK: It’s not just black folks who had a peculiar experience
at the 1901 fair. An official handbook informed fair-goers: MJ: “Please remember:” JMR: “… once you get inside the gate,” AYGTK: “… you are a part of the show.” Performing the archive in “At Buffalo” allows audiences to ask themselves, “Are we still inside the gates, and are we all still part of the show?” (Music ends) (Applause and cheers)


  • Reply Ron Haytack December 5, 2019 at 1:29 am

    Lets not linger on the bad, lets work on good and the future!!!

  • Reply Teri Scallon December 5, 2019 at 2:06 am

    that blew me away…so good

  • Reply Andrea Aimable December 5, 2019 at 2:08 am

    What a wonderful play, it was very informative. The last three minutes gave me goosebumps. African Americans are VERY Talented.

  • Reply Juicy Smoothie Fruity Boy December 5, 2019 at 2:09 am

    Racism is still present. E.g. zwarte piet in the Netherlands. Look it up, black pete, zwarte piet, blackface.
    Then there is the subconscious racsim almost all of us have, it's disturbing.. Blacks distrusting and hating each other without even knowing it.

    In the end it's all just a scheme by the real elite. Divide and conquer, divide and rule. Like they separated blacks within the black community, so they do it to the whole of humanity. Put blacks against whites, fat against skinny, blue collar against white collar, etc. etc.
    We need to realize that we are one! It's all just one big illusion.

    One of the best ways I find is to raise your consciousness so that you feel that we are one.
    The two ways I've found to work the best are a raw vegan diet and spiritual practice, mainly yoga, meditation.
    I suggest everyone to do a juicefeast so you will experience the benefits of a raw vegan diet very fast. Including an expansion of love just as a result of that.

    Only Love!!! <3 😀

  • Reply Nae December 5, 2019 at 3:51 am


  • Reply Koozomec December 5, 2019 at 4:04 am

    Meanwhile on rail tracks, chinese immigrants at work.

  • Reply RdR December 5, 2019 at 4:51 am

    Sorry! Not interested in your identity games!

  • Reply Apurv A December 5, 2019 at 4:58 am

    This substanciates the age old adage : Old is gold

  • Reply Ben Gaviria December 5, 2019 at 6:00 am


  • Reply Sannidor December 5, 2019 at 8:49 am

    This is why Youtube allows supremacy praise – otherwise they would have to purge all the blacks reinventing their identity. Free speech is great.

  • Reply Elektric Skeptic Johaniskraut Bernstein Or'Cheard December 5, 2019 at 10:36 am

    Nothing more vocal than White Men afraid POC might get a f●cking voice. These comments here? Expected, typical, & heartbreaking…

  • Reply Tom Kot December 5, 2019 at 11:34 am

    I thought TED was about science not a badly acted burlesque show

  • Reply Tom Kot December 5, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    I think this in this TED performance they missed the slogan "ideas worth spreading" because there wasn't even any idea presented here. The question in the end "Are we all just part of the show?" also doesn't seem scientific, because how can such a claim ever be disproven? (Which is a criteria for being scientific).

  • Reply Khyrid December 5, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Hmm, interesting and thought provoking, also Epstein didn't kill himself.

  • Reply Gary December 5, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    This is not the type of content that made me subscribe to this channel.

  • Reply Lara Smith December 5, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    🦋so important to remember our history, even the mistakes then we can make sure we don’t repeat it

  • Reply Jordan Hilman December 5, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    TED is about to lose a subscriber. Sick of the left wing extremism being so persistant.

  • Reply SirNate December 5, 2019 at 5:59 pm

    I don't know why people are so triggered by this. I think the story of the World's Fair sounds so interesting and would make a great musical. It's important to understand our history (I don't think people were this upset about Hamilton) so that we can learn from our mistakes and so that we can understand today's events in a broader social/cultural context. And if you don't care about learning from our mistakes or cultivating a better understanding, then why are you even watching TED?

  • Reply Porscha Jewell December 5, 2019 at 7:49 pm

    Instead of feeling attacked or threaten by the history of "black identity", why not try to understand what's being shared? This is actually a challenge African-Americans still face today, within ourselves and within society.

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