This essay traces the cultural legacy of the Port Royal Experiment, the Civil War–era social experiment in free labor conducted by Union forces on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Whereas literary and cultural historians typically focus on the “discovery” of slave spirituals by Northern missionaries and educators at Port Royal, this essay tracks how later writers, performers, and sociologists returned to the Sea Islands to reimagine the promise of free labor. The archive thus assembled includes Civil War–era ethnographies, memoirs, and reports; the scholarly monographs in UNC Press’s Social Study Series; and DuBose Heyward’s popular “Negro novel” Porgy (1925). Across this interdisciplinary tradition, writers of various stripes seek by turns to celebrate and contain the threat of the free but noncapitalist black body. The latter figure, recalling the disability category’s historical role in sorting people into work-based or need-based systems of social distribution, is commonly represented as disabled. Ultimately, the essay documents a dual development in US political economy as the marginalization of contraband slaves as capitalist laborers on the Sea Islands—the “failure” of the Port Royal Experiment—gives way to the consolidation of “black culture,” a success of a different kind.
As Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens (2017: 11) argue, archipelagic American studies presumes that island groups, neither strictly natural nor wholly cultural, find meaning “in the push and pull between the metaphoric and the material.” Taking stock of this back-and-forth means asking how the divergent claims of geology, politics, and culture create the archipelago as a nexus of contingency and contention. It also means rethinking our understanding of islands as such. In popular and academic discourse, islands are seen as tabulae rasae or “potential laboratories for any conceivable human project” (Baldacchino 2006: 5). Islands are secluded spaces of quarantine, exile, and weapons testing but also of utopian fantasy and knowledge production. As Stephens (2013) notes, when understood in this way as isolated and singular, the island may be the antithesis of the archipelago. This is not to say that archipelagoes are not composed of islands but to stress that the archipelago as concept illuminates “the island’s littoral connectivity to everywhere else, and certainly to other islands” (11). At base, this distinction between the solitary island and the networked archipelago is a question of how islands repeat. When approached as social laboratory or plantation, the repeating island is interchangeable and risks reproducing pernicious models of colonial expansion (DeLoughrey 2007: 26). Seen as archipelago, by contrast, the repeating island proliferates arbitrary and contingent interchanges among islands, island chains, and continents (Roberts and Stephens 2017: 33). To the query that Antonio Benítez-Rojo (1992: 3) poses in his foundational account of Caribbean culture, archipelagic American studies thus adds another. At stake is not just “which one, then, would be the repeating island?” but also, how do islands repeat and to what end?
The question of how islands repeat is also central to the legacy of the Civil War–era Port Royal Experiment. A crucial “rehearsal for Reconstruction” in Willie Lee Rose’s (1964) phrase, this wartime social experiment in free labor was launched by Union forces on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. After the area fell to the Union navy in 1861, US Treasury agents, investors, and missionaries arrived from the North to guide the transition from slavery to freedom. From the outset, there was broad enthusiasm about experimental conditions on the Sea Islands, which seemed a chain of perfectly enclosed social laboratories. Not only would geographic remoteness prevent outside interference, the newly arrived Northerners argued, but years of relative isolation made ideal test subjects of Sea Island slaves. Such confidence, however, soon gave way to intense disagreements among the various Northern interests represented on the Sea Islands. The architects of the Port Royal Experiment also clashed with the people they claimed to be helping, the so-called contraband slaves—a military neologism marking the uncertain legal status of men and women no longer enslaved but not yet free. At stake in these conflicts was ultimately the question of how the Sea Islands should repeat. Would the free labor system devised at Port Royal follow a colonial model of dispersion, creating a string of identical plantations across the South? Or would this experiment, breaking with the continental status quo, be guided instead by the improvisatory practices of local communities and alive to the economic autonomy fiercely claimed by formerly enslaved people?
In the end, what emerged from the Sea Islands was not the radical vision of land redistribution that contraband slaves demanded. Rather, in a process akin to primitive accumulation, these men and women were dispossessed of their subsistence plots and subordinated to the “discipline necessary for the system of wage-labor” (Marx 1990: 899). While devastating by any measure, the collapse of the Port Royal Experiment is often eclipsed in popular memory by the failure of Reconstruction a decade later. Today, in fact, the Port Royal Experiment is best known not for the social experiment in free labor conducted on the Sea Islands but for the slave spirituals collected there. As a distinguished body of scholarship has shown, the white Northerners who administered the Port Royal Experiment were enthralled by religious slave music and produced rapturous descriptions that set the terms on which songs of outrage and mourning were assimilated into US culture as concert standards.1 Important though this work has been, attention to the “discovery” of the spirituals has obscured a related but distinct legacy of the Port Royal Experiment, one concerned less with the sounds captured on the Sea Islands than with the economic questions posed there. This essay traces that overlooked genealogy by exploring how later writers returned to the Sea Islands to reimagine the promise of free labor. From memoirs to popular novels, performance, and sociology, this legacy is shaped by the heuristic value of islands and archipelagoes as spaces in which to continue rehearsing for Reconstruction.2
Anchoring this tradition, which I call the Port Royal archive, is the problem of the free but noncapitalist black body. A figure found in writings emanating from and returning to the Sea Islands across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the autonomous black subject who exists outside the market reanimates the archipelagic conflict at the center of the Port Royal Experiment—the incongruity between liberationist ideals of freedom as an open-ended, improvisatory project and historically specific regimes of economic citizenship. Nowhere do these concerns find clearer expression than in ideas about and representations of disability. As we will see, contraband slaves on the Sea Islands probably were disproportionately impaired. But the presence of disability in contemporary accounts and later reimaginings of the Port Royal Experiment has less to do with the lives or even with the bodies of these people than with how the social category of disability has historically mediated the individual’s relation to the market.3 As codified in English Poor Law, disability in the Anglo-American tradition marked a legal status exempting an arbitrarily defined class of people from wage labor and permitting them to beg or receive alms without penalty. In Deborah A. Stone’s (1984: 15) phrase, the disability category sorted people into “need- and work-based systems of distribution,” while reinforcing the primacy of the latter. Disability was the exception that proved the rule. In the Port Royal archive, this sorting function informs a representational economy in which the free but noncapitalist black body poses a related question—will free people work for wages? Disability in this tradition thus marks less a specific mode of embodiment than any estrangement from wage labor, whether due to physical impairment, political commitment, or personal inclination. Crucially, though, disability in the Port Royal archive is also a sign of ideological irresolution, a sorting still in process. The free but noncapitalist black body, in other words, is perceived as disabled insofar as it is both outside the market and forever on the verge of being rehabilitated as the universal subject of capitalism.
The literary and cultural history charted here illuminates how writers of various stripes sought by turns to celebrate and to contain the threat of this free but noncapitalist black body. But if the latter impulse came to dominate, this tradition also attests to how the failure of the Port Royal Experiment to reconcile the aspirations of contraband slaves with the doctrine of free labor became the basis for a different kind of success. Documenting a dual development in US political economy, the Port Royal archive shows how the eventual marginalization of contraband slaves and later African Americans as capitalist laborers on the Sea Islands went hand in hand with the consolidation of “black culture.” No longer potentially redeemable as the universal subject of capitalism, the black laborer was most valuable as the creator of a cultural good irreducible to exchange value but still amenable to capitalist exploitation. The task of modernizing the Sea Islands thus gave way to the goal of preserving their cultural distinctness, a movement the Port Royal archive at once records and engages. As the nature of black labor on the Sea Islands changed, so, too, did the conceptual significance of disability. The estrangement from the capitalist market that signified the disability of the contraband slaves and their descendants during the Port Royal Experiment was itself in later years transvalued into a kind of cultural capital that could be (re)appropriated by economic capital. Expressed in the neoliberal euphemisms of our own era, the free but noncapitalist black body disabled by wage labor becomes “differently abled” in the market of cultural commodification.
Mapping this transition across the varied terrain of the Port Royal archive requires a method we might call archipelagic. If thinking with archipelagoes means exploring the overlay of metaphor and materiality, it also involves reassessing “how, conceptually, we connect and disconnect parts and whole” (Shell 2014: 3). My goal here is less to define and delimit a sprawling interdisciplinary archive than to track a series of figurations across conventional boundaries of period, genre, and discipline. The essay begins with the writings produced on the Sea Islands during the Civil War by Union officials, educators, and entrepreneurs. The voices of contraband slaves are rarely heard in these communiques, though the challenge these men and women mounted to the emergent consensus resonates clearly. After showing how the coercive labor practices that emerged from the Sea Islands shaped turn-of-the-century agendas of social welfare reform, I then explore how sociologists from the University of North Carolina reproduced the Civil War–era social experiment in free labor in the 1920s and 1930s. These researchers affirmed the economic failure of that earlier venture even as they endorsed the redefinition of black labor as fundamentally cultural. This latter development finds fullest expression in the thorny history of citation and adaptation linking DuBose Heyward’s popular 1925 novel Porgy both to earlier written accounts of the Port Royal Experiment and to a later theatrical tradition that culminated in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935).
Archiving Port Royal
The Port Royal Experiment began in November 1861, when the Union navy sailed into the Port Royal Sound and opened fire on Forts Beauregard and Walker. The small garrison of Confederate soldiers stationed on the Sea Islands soon retreated to the mainland and advised white residents to do the same. These latter, among the wealthiest families in the South, abandoned their opulent plantations and a bumper crop of cotton (Ochiai 2001: 94). They also left behind ten thousand slaves, men and women who saw in “the day of the big gun-shoot” a chance to seize their freedom (Rose 1964: xi). After sacking the big houses and destroying the cotton gins, many began preparing for the future by planting subsistence crops like corn and potatoes (Foner 2002: 51). These improvisatory practices of emancipation, however, were not to carry the day. When the dust settled, the earlier precedent established at Fort Monroe was also enforced at Port Royal. Like the cotton they tended, Sea Island slaves were to be treated as abandoned property and labeled “contraband of war,” an expedient but equivocal category that marked their precarious legal status as neither bond nor free. Also unsettled was the territorial status of the Sea Islands themselves, a recaptured archipelago not yet reintegrated into the continental body politic.
Into the breach stepped federal administrators, abolitionists, and educators who arrived from the North by the hundreds to help the contraband slaves prepare for freedom. Enthusiasm abounded. As one abolitionist declared, “Here, within the protection of the arms of the United States might a new experiment of tropical culture by free labor be tried” (McPherson 2014: 159). And were this experiment to succeed, “how simple the process by which it might be extended wherever the arms of the nation may be predominant!” The unity of purpose with which the Port Royal Experiment began soon gave way to the fractious infighting of two opposed camps. With attitudes shaped by the romantic racialism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), abolitionists, educators, and missionaries aimed to teach the formerly enslaved to live as free people. Known as Gideon’s band, this group established schools, performed marriages, and promoted the normative family form (McFeely 1968: 52). A more influential role was played by US Treasury agents, investors, and entrepreneurs on the Sea Islands. These figures often shared the reformers’ idealism, but they placed greater emphasis on cultivating enlightened self-interest among contraband slaves. Investor Edward Philbrick spoke for many of his colleagues when he made his purpose plain: “I am determined to see if something can’t be done to prove that the blacks will work for other motives than the lash” (Philbrick 1969: 1). Such was the emerging consensus about the Union’s mission at Port Royal: to train a motivated workforce and resume the lucrative cotton production as quickly as possible.
It soon became clear that free labor meant something quite different to contraband slaves. Whereas Northern investors sought to return them to the plantations as wage laborers, many ex-slaves believed their labor would be free only if performed on land they owned and if it allowed them to live more or less independent of the marketplace. These expectations were rooted in the historical organization of slave labor on the Sea Islands. On cotton and rice plantations, labor was arranged into daily tasks that left slaves free to cultivate their own crops, fish, hunt, or enjoy leisure time. By selling what they produced, some slaves were even able to save enough money to purchase land (Foner 2002: 25, 51). When the Union landed at Port Royal, these men and women endeavored to transform the fugitive strategies they had honed over the years into economic autonomy. They met initially with some success and found support among Northerners who backed plans to redistribute confiscated land among formerly enslaved people. But if tolerated at first, the independent farming communities created by contraband slaves were soon dismissed as “disorderly” and “barbaric” obstacles to bourgeois agrarian society (Saville 1996: 24, 16). Formerly enslaved people were consequently forced to return to the plantations as wage laborers. A history of labor strikes and armed resistance leaves little doubt about what the contraband slaves thought of this arrangement. But the advice given by a Union officer on Edisto Island exemplifies the compromised vision of free labor that ultimately emerged from the Port Royal Experiment. Speaking to several thousand men and women gathered in protest, General Oliver O. Howard told them they “were now free as air to go where they pleased and work for whom they pleased” (Liberator1865).
The Port Royal archive gives short shrift to these kinds of grievances, just as it conveys no recognition that contraband slaves sought a mode of freedom irreducible to the right to contract. Many of the reports, letters, and communiques that issued from Port Royal are instead ethnographic ventures in which Northerners describe “the strange environment in which they found themselves and the alien black folk among whom they worked and lived” (Southern 1990: xxxi). Drawing on the paternalism of abolitionist discourse, these documents often present contraband slaves as childlike and helpless. The prevalence of disability is perhaps more surprising, though only until we recall the historical conditions at hand. As Jim Downs (2012: 26) notes, men and women with physical impairments were probably the first to be abandoned by fleeing Confederates. Anyone on the Sea Islands during the battle, moreover, faced serious injury and remained vulnerable to illness and disease after the fighting was over. The story of a woman identified as “Aunt Bess” in the diary of missionary Laura Towne is probably representative. Physically impaired, “without a foot to stan’ on” (49), Bess could not follow the other slaves into the woods. Instead, she lay with her daughter in a cornfield, suppressing the child’s cough for fear of being discovered and waiting for the violence to end (94).
Because stories like Bess’s are rare in the Port Royal archive, it can be difficult to distinguish representations of disabled people from figurative invocations of disability. This distinction, however, may in fact be moot. Whether “real” or projected, disability in the Port Royal archive is less an object of documentary representation than a foil for framing the Union’s mission as a rehabilitative enterprise to transform contraband slaves into capitalist subjects. In this way, the Port Royal Experiment added an ambivalent valence to the cultural work of disability during the Civil War. Rather than honor heroic sacrifice or eulogize a body politic torn asunder, representations of disability at Port Royal reflect the mission’s resolve to determine the “fitness” of ex-slaves for citizenship by judging their capacity for labor. The sorting function of the disability category became a tool of racial discipline. Accordingly, as General Rufus Saxton (1985: 1029) observed, the scene of disability shifted from the battlefield to the social laboratory of the Sea Islands: “It was generally believed that the commission with which I was intrusted was given with a view to a critical test experiment of the capabilities of the negro for freedom and self-support and self-improvement, to determine whether he is specifically distinct from and inferior to the white race, and normally a slave and dependent, or only inferior by accident of position and circumstances.” These questions were not, of course, entirely new. But Saxton and others saw at Port Royal an opportunity for settling the issue conclusively, given the geography of the Sea Islands and the perceptions of Sea Island slaves. “Nowhere,” wrote lawyer Edward L. Pierce (1863: 301), who first recruited Northern volunteers to the area, “has the deterioration of the negroes from their native manhood been carried so far as on these Sea Islands.” If the contraband slaves could be made fit for economic citizenship, in other words, the template produced at Port Royal could be implemented anywhere.
More than the registration of corporeal difference, then, the invocation of disability at Port Royal marks a discursive problem space that white writers literalized as the geography of the Sea Islands and mapped onto the bodies of the area’s black inhabitants. For missionaries like William Channing Gannett (1865: 1), recently graduated from Harvard and immersed in Garrisonian abolitionism, disability was a visual index of slavery’s brutality. The “most shameful spectacle that ever saddened the earth,” he noted, was on the Sea Islands “opened for the nations to behold—the spectacle of a race of stunted, misshapen children, writhing from the grasp of that people which, in so many respects, is the foremost of the age.” The imprint of white hands on black flesh, disability provided the Union with a mandate at once rehabilitative and interpretative: “The harder masters,” Gannett wrote, “left their private mark upon their people for the Yankees now to read” (7). In other dispatches from the Sea Islands, disability haunts not because of its legibility but because of its profuse indecipherability. Missionary Austa Malinda French (1969: 41) feared that “even the vegetation” of the lowlands “partake[s] of the spirit of slavery”—a spirit evident in “sickly weeds” and “luxuriant, but misshapen” trees with “the most unsightly trunks and crookedest of all limbs.” In French’s Slavery in South Carolina and the Ex-Slaves; or, The Port Royal Mission, the strange flora of the Sea Islands externalizes the psychology of contraband slaves, men and women “crushed in mind by some great blow” and who “contemplate, in dull, heavy terror some past event, the recollection of which fastens their gaze and stupefies them” (108). French’s stylized prose recalls gothic associations of blackness with excess and abjection. But the spread of impairment between bodies and minds and between humans and the environment also renders the Port Royal Experiment an uncanny exercise in repetition. If the Sea Islands were reproduced on the mainland, would the nation not also be haunted by the “dull, heavy terror” of slavery and by the moral claims of the ex-slave?
In much of the Port Royal archive blackness is thus linked to disability through the “cultural codes of instantaneous, decisive disgust” (Schweik 2010: 108). Rendered unsightly, the bodies of Sea Island slaves index white anxieties that the peculiar institution may have incapacitated the contraband slaves for wage labor. A different set of rhetorical figures takes the fore in dispatches that focus on the Union’s rehabilitative mission. In many of these documents, the “before” of slavery is imagined not as spectacular injury but as impaired locomotion. The “after” of freedom is accordingly represented as restored mobility. Consider the amazement expressed by a former slaveholder on returning to the Sea Islands in 1863:
I never knew during forty years of plantation life so little sickness. Formerly every man had a fever of some kind, and now the veriest old cripple, who did nothing under secesh rule, will row a boat three nights in succession to Edisto, or will pick up corn about the corn house. There are twenty people whom I know were considered worn out and too old to work under the slave system, who are now working cotton. . . . I have an old woman who has taken six tasks . . . and last year she would do nothing. (quoted in Hoffman 1956: 16)
Not only is emancipation imagined as a rehabilitation into mobility, but mobility is a universal remedy, whether treating sickness, fever, age, or being “worn out.” The specter of the free but noncapitalist black body also haunts this account. Were those who “could not” work under slavery simply withholding their labor? Or was slavery itself a disabling enterprise? In either case, freedom is here equal parts cure and motivation, setting in motion both those who “could not” and those who “would not” work under slavery. It is also clear, however, that the writer does not mean to celebrate the mobility of freed slaves “voting with their feet,” or laying claim to their freedom by walking off the plantation. This act, as Leon F. Litwack (1979: 297) notes, was “the quickest way to demonstrate to themselves that their old master no longer owned or controlled them.”4 In the passage quoted above, by contrast, both the “old cripple” rowing to Edisto and the “old woman” who works her tasks of cotton have been rehabilitated as capitalist laborers. Their movements have been confined to the bounded spaces of agricultural production that recall nothing so much as the self-enclosed islands on which the Port Royal Experiment took place.
Economic success is also associated with disciplined mobility for an ex-slave named Limus whose story was used by the Boston Educational Commission for Freedmen. Limus, we read in a fundraising mailer,
leads them all in enterprise, and his ambition and consequent prosperity make his example a very useful one on the plantation. Half the men on the island fenced in gardens last autumn, behind their houses, in which they now raise vegetables for themselves and the Hilton Head markets. [Limus] has even a stable, for he made out some title to a horse, which was allowed; and then he begged a pair of wheels and makes a cart for his work; and not to leave the luxuries behind, he next rigs up a kind of sulky and bows to the white men from his carriage. (quoted in Pearson 1969: 37–38n1)
Limus’s movement is autonomous yet contained—first by the fence that announces his status as a landowner and then by the plantation that evidently marks both the edges of his freedom and the horizon of his social aspiration. The figure of Limus thus brings the archipelagic grounding of the Port Royal Experiment into striking relief. Not only are the ideological parameters of the market naturalized as the geological perimeter of the Sea Islands, but Limus’s story is a reiterable case study in the rehabilitative power of labor. But as recounted here, Limus’s “ambition and consequent prosperity” are leveraged in support of an organization that prioritizes economic citizenship over social equality. Even from the height of his carriage seat, Limus still “bows to the white men” he encounters on the street. The retelling of Limus’s story in a fundraising mailer, moreover, also underscores that his relationship to the market remains precarious. For although Limus’s narrative would seem to be a conventional success story, the tale of a contraband slave who became a self-made man, the mailer in which it appears circulated outside the market. Indeed, Limus’s story is framed as a “begging letter.” As such, his story is not evidence of the economic success of the Port Royal Experiment or of the universality of capital. Rather, it points to that project’s ultimate inability to bind contraband slaves to free labor ideology. This is not to say that Limus does not work. Rather, the kind of labor he is made to perform is of a distinctly cultural cast. Transformed into an icon of deservingness and used to pique the sympathy of donors in the North, Limus marks the arrival of a new metric of success. His story shows how black laborers on the Sea Islands are valued less as capitalist producers than as cultural icons. As such, Limus is less a poster child for the economic success of the Port Royal Experiment than a transitional figure in its ongoing history of archipelagic return. In the 1920s, that history would witness both the popularity of Heyward’s Porgy, whose protagonist also drives a borrowed cart, and the renewed interest among southern sociologists in the problem of the free but noncapitalist black body at Port Royal.
The Returns of Sociology
Beginning in the late 1920s, sociologists and social workers from the University of North Carolina traveled to the Sea Islands to assess the impact of the Port Royal Experiment some sixty years later. It was a homecoming of sorts. For while the UNC researchers were trained in the modern social sciences, their reformist commitments were rooted in the Civil War–era rehearsal for Reconstruction. Indeed, many of the Port Royal Experiment’s key players took influential positions in Northern charity organizations after the war, ensuring that the lessons learned on the Sea Islands found broader application. Edward Pierce, for instance, became secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Charities, where he supported antivagrancy codes and labor regulations based on the coercive policies developed for contraband slaves at Port Royal: “If they were to be free they would have to work” (quoted in Stanley 1992: 1287). Other participants in the Port Royal Experiment, perhaps taking inspiration from the geographic boundedness of the Sea Islands, focused on the institutions of social welfare. Like contraband slaves, inmates of almshouses, asylums, reformatories, and prisons were given no choice but to learn the transformative power of labor.
Such, in broad strokes, was the tradition of “charity and corrections” that dominated social welfare reform in the late nineteenth century and from which academic sociology emerged.5 It was in the same reformist spirit that sociologist Howard Odum created the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina in 1925. Although Odum had hoped to make Chapel Hill a southern outpost for advanced social theory, the institute remained invested in the rehabilitative power of work: “Self-respect, earning capacity, rebuilding of character and fortune are the normal and logical expectation of society’s unfortunates” (Odum and Willard 1925: 4). Such is the argument informing the Social Study Series published by the University of North Carolina Press. Under Odum’s guidance, this series included books like Income and Wages in the South (1930), Public Poor Relief in North Carolina (1928), and The North Carolina Chain Gang (1927). In 1930, three volumes about Gullah life in South Carolina expanded the range of topics covered but drew similar conclusions. Productive labor was no less important for black Americans at St. Helena Island, UNC researchers suggested, than it was for poor people, disabled people, and prisoners on the mainland. Behind this contemporary analogy was also a historical comparison: productive labor on the Sea Islands was as crucial in the 1920s as it had been in 1861. How, the question remained, could “society’s unfortunates”—among whom Odum (1926: 7) counted “poor, ill, defective, perverse, or otherwise handicapped” people but also African Americans—be incorporated into the circuits of capital?
Three volumes in the Social Study Series resulted from the institute’s research on the Sea Islands—Thomas Jackson Woofter’s Black Yeomanry: Life on St. Helena Island (1930), Guy B. Johnson’s Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina (1930), and Guion Griffis Johnson’s A Social History of the Sea Islands (1930). Each of these books sets out to examine the labor practices of present-day Gullah communities in order to gauge the long-term results of the Port Royal Experiment. As Woofter (1930: 243) wrote of the Union’s social experiment and its “[w]orld-wide significance in dealing with backward races”: “Two generations have been reared and the third is coming up since [Edward] Pierce wrote to President Lincoln that the people of the Sea Islands had in them great possibilities of improvement provided wise measures were adopted to ‘elevate them and prepare them to be self-supporting citizens.’ Enough time has elapsed to begin to see the results of the forces which have operated.” Woofter found evidence to support both sides of what appeared an either-or proposition: “In balancing the books on this experiment, a review of the preceding pages indicates many facts creditable to the community as a going concern and a few phases of life in which the Islanders have not adapted themselves to the American standards” (248).
Ultimately, it was left to Guion Griffis Johnson to pass judgment on the Port Royal Experiment. Her Social History of the Sea Islands opens with a stirring portrait of the naval maneuvering by which the Sea Islands came into Union possession. Passing by the forts guarding the entrance to the Port Royal Sound, the advancing fleet “turned and delivered, in their changing rounds, a terrific shower of shot in flank and front” (1930: 155). After taking possession of the area in its entirety, the Union navy discovered that the planters had fled: “not a white person of Confederate sympathies could be found in Beaufort or on the plantations.” As described by General Thomas W. Sherman, in charge of the expeditionary corps that landed at Port Royal, “the wealthy islands of Saint Helena, Ladies, and most of Port Royal [were] abandoned by the whites, and the beautiful estates of the planters, with all their immense property, left to the pillage of hordes of apparently disaffected blacks” (quoted in G. G. Johnson 1930: 156). Far from quibbling with Sherman’s disparaging tone, Johnson takes the chaos of this scene as emblematic of the difficulties faced by the Union architects of the Port Royal Experiment. In the pages that follow, she details the various efforts of abolitionists, missionaries, and contraband slaves to restructure the organization of labor on the islands. Her account is filled with cautious hopefulness; parsing the memoirs, reports, and personal letters that make up the Port Royal archive, Johnson pieces together a coherent and more or less linear narrative.
Johnson’s ultimate assessment of this venture arrives with all the abruptness and finality she attributes to the Union navy on that fateful day in 1861. The Port Royal Experiment, she concludes, was a resounding failure, though not in the terms laid out by that project’s administrators. If Union officials like General Rufus Saxton sought to determine how years of debilitating subservience had affected contraband slaves’ capacity for productive labor, Johnson argues that the most pressing injuries sustained by these men and women were due not to the peculiar institution but to Union labor policy. Rather than being forced to compete on the open market, she suggests, contraband slaves and freed people were insulated from economic pressures with which they would later have to contend. The “character of the Negro as a hired laborer,” Johnson (1930: 199) maintains, “had been injured by the inflated prices which the soldiers paid them for their wares and by the injudicious policy of their well-meaning friends of the North.” Nor could the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau to protect formerly enslaved men and women from unscrupulous planters help but change the nature of the work they performed. Theirs was not truly free labor, Johnson concludes, echoing the sentiments first voiced by a missionary at Port Royal: “their freedom had come too easy for them” (quoted on 199).
Johnson’s indictment of the Port Royal Experiment, focused as it is on the short-lived efforts of Northern reformers to help freed people carve out a space of economic autonomy, is also an indictment of the labor practices cultivated by Gullah communities on St. Helena Island in the late 1920s. Hardly free laborers in any meaningful sense, Johnson suggests, these men and women are at best idle and at worst vagrant. The takeaway is clear, at least when A Social History of the Sea Islands is read as part of the Social Study Series. The failure of the rehearsal for Reconstruction begun on the Sea Islands during the Civil War was complete, having produced not free labor but the sort of social need best targeted with the coercive practices of reform outlined by other UNC authors. That social welfare tradition was itself crucially shaped by the architects of the Port Royal Experiment, many of whom were far from sympathetic to the aspirations of freed men and women. Read as part of the Port Royal archive, however, Johnson’s condemnation of Gullah labor facilitates repetition of a different sort. The relevance of the Sea Islands in the future, she suggests, will have less to do with the Civil War–era social experiment in free labor than with the ongoing legacy of the musical traditions discovered during that hopeless venture. These latter traditions, as Guy B. Johnson argues even more forcefully in Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, has nothing to do with free labor, much less with freedom as such. The repeating island that emerges from the studies conducted by UNC sociologists is less a space for continuing the work of rehearsing for Reconstruction than an insular cultural preserve to be visited, protected, and walled off from contemporary politics.
The Social Study Series in this way at once anticipates and depoliticizes the work carried out in the 1930s by a number of linguists, anthropologists, and historians who set out to study and preserve the Gullah culture of South Carolina and Georgia. Of particular interest to these later investigators was the question of whether the Gullah language is “merely a debased dialect of English learned by the negroes from the whites” (Krapp 1925: 252) or, as Lorenzo Dow Turner (1974: iii) influentially argued, “a creolized form of English revealing survivals from many of the African languages spoken by the slaves who were brought to South Carolina and Georgia during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth” (see also Herskovits 1941). For Turner, the stakes of this debate lay in the founding of African American studies and in that field’s efforts to politicize black culture for emancipatory ends. The UNC sociologists, by contrast, sought with their scholarship to preserve a cultural resource whose value was its seclusion from the mainland and sequestration from the political mainstream. As Woofter (1930: 6) notes in Black Yeomanry, a bridge then being built on the Beaufort River would soon remove “the last barrier of isolation.” The Social Study Series would help to shore up that insularity and underscore that the most productive work performed by black Americans on the Sea Islands was exclusively cultural in nature. This verdict was but a repetition and sharpening of the conclusion reached at Port Royal during the Union’s ill-fated rehearsal for Reconstruction, a conclusion that would shape as well the reception of one of the most influential white-authored “Negro novels” of the 1920s.
Adapting the Archipelago
Part local color fiction, part formulaic love story, DuBose Heyward’s Porgy recounts the experiences of a disabled “beggar” who crisscrosses mainland Charleston and the adjacent Sea Islands in search of a safe place to ply his mendicant trade and in romantic pursuit of the wayward Bess. When it first appeared in 1925, the press praised Porgy as a uniquely “sympathetic” portrait of black life and a welcome change from the more explicitly caricature-driven works soon associated with Carl van Vechten. If more cautious in their admiration, black writers such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown also praised Heyward’s novel (Knight 2001: 322; Hughes 1960: 43). Porgy even served as a high-water mark in the “sensitive” representation of black life by white writers in W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1926 Crisis symposium “The Negro in Art.”6 The subsequent reception of Porgy is more checkered, as is the novel’s history of theatrical and musical adaptation. The 1927 Theatre Guild production, also called Porgy and featuring an all-black cast, was positively received on the whole. But when Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess debuted in 1935, Duke Ellington’s condemnation soon carried the day: “the times are here to debunk such tripe as Gershwin’s lamp-black Negroisms, and the melodramatic trash of the script of Porgy” (quoted in Tucker 1993: 117). A literary–cum–musical experiment, the legacy of Porgy and Porgy and Bess would seem to epitomize the vagaries of early twentieth-century racial appropriation. But these texts and performances are also rooted in the social experiment in free labor conducted at Port Royal some sixty years earlier. With each adaptation of Heyward’s novel, the Sea Islands are reimagined as an insular enclave for continuing the interrogation of black labor. With each iteration, the difficulty of transforming Porgy from a free but noncapitalist black subject into a disciplined wage laborer underscores his far greater value as a cultural icon.
The connection between DuBose Heyward’s best seller and the Port Royal Experiment is not as unlikely as it might seem. Heyward grew up in Charleston as the scion of an aristocratic family that had left behind some of the largest mansions encountered by the victorious Union navy in 1861. Like many white children growing up after Reconstruction, Heyward was raised by an African American “Mauma” and may well have learned Gullah before learning English (see Hutchisson 2000 and Slavick 1981). His mother, Jane Heyward, also claimed intimate acquaintance with the Sea Islands and published a book of Gullah verse in 1895. Heyward’s own literary ambition developed only gradually, beset as he was during his younger years by a series of mysterious illnesses. When he turned to writing after a fitful recovery from what was eventually diagnosed as polio, Heyward immersed himself in Gullah culture.7 From his earliest poems, published in regional anthologies like Carolina Chansons: Legends of the Low Country (1924), to the later novels and plays, Heyward returned continually to the Sea Islands. Like other members of Charleston’s white elite, Heyward saw the archipelago as both mirror and inverse image of the mainland—geographically near but temporally far, an insular preserve somehow prior to the devastation of the Civil War.
This anachronistic spirit of refuge and recovery suffuses Porgy, perhaps most clearly in the setting of Catfish Row. A dilapidated mansion previously inhabited by “governors” and “ambassadors of kings” (Heyward 2001: 24), Catfish Row is now home to the black Americans employed on the waterfront. It was “not a row at all,” Heyward’s narrator observes, “but a great brick structure that lifted its three stories around the three sides of a court” and safeguarded a space of cultural authenticity (24). The courtyard’s “fourth side,” only “partly closed off,” becomes the text’s fourth wall, inviting readers to scrutinize this insular space as an ethnological display (24). This impulse is underscored perhaps even more forcefully by Dorothy Heyward’s stage directions, which render insularity as sound design:
As the curtain rises, revealing Catfish Row on a summer evening, the court reëchoes with African laughter and friendly banter in “Gullah,” the language of the Charleston Negro, which still retains many African words. The audience understands none of it. Like the laughter and movement, the twanging of a guitar from an upper window, the dancing of an urchin with a loose, shuffling step, it is a part of the picture of Catfish Row as it really is—an alien scene, a people as little known to most Americans as the people of the Congo.
Gradually, it seems to the audience that they are beginning to understand this foreign language. In reality, the “Gullah” is being tempered to their ears, spoken more distinctly with the African words omitted. (Heyward 1927: 2–3)
By translating the visual grammar of the optical zoom into the sonic resolution of cacophony into communication, the stage directions frame everything that follows as a spectacle of insularity. This spectacle is then made available for scrutiny only by an act of seeing that is also an act of aural attunement and figurative travel. After their ears have adjusted, in other words, audiences arrive as participant observers in the archipelagic environs of Catfish Row.
If the seclusion of Catfish Row promised an authentic, immersive experience of Gullah culture, insularity was also a measure of characterological interiority. For many theatergoers, the scene that best captured Porgy’s achievement in this regard was the funeral wake held on Kittiwar Island after a deadly hurricane. Praising a play that “loomed high above every Negro drama that had ever been produced,” James Weldon Johnson (1968: 211) focused on the “religious frenzy” that consumes the residents of Catfish Row in this scene: “their swaying bodies and uplifted hands suddenly thrown in black shadows against the background of the white-washed walls of the room; singing and singing—there have been few scenes in the New York theatre to equal it in emotional power.” Porgy’s wake scene was also popular among vaudeville performers, who adapted it into a synecdochical set piece. As one critic described an act in Lew Lewis’s musical revue Blackbirds of 1928 titled “Porgy”: “They sang for the dead, in a shadowy chapel, in long prison-colored overalls, shaking themselves, the shadows behind them, then the whole auditorium, and then at last I even thought of that most stable, buried thing in the whole universe, the biodynamic instincts of the human personality, with their great ancestral rhythms” (quoted in J. W. Johnson 1968: 213). The emotional power of the wake scene models what we might call archipelagic ecstasy, as the mourners’ grief reverberates out from their bodies and collapses boundaries at once geophysical, psychic, and epochal. The result is a sense of “biodynamic” interiority that exceeds individual consciousness and conjures an irrepressible force of communal improvisation. Ultimately, though, the momentum of the wake scene builds but never breaks. The “great ancestral” rhythms are contained by the “shadowy chapel” of their incantation, walls that give contour to this frenetic sadness but also confine the mourners physically to a space both insular and segregated.
At once irrepressible and safely contained, the archipelagic ecstasy of Porgy’s wake scene finds a parallel in the disabled protagonist’s pursuit of economic autonomy. Like the mourners’ anguish, by the end of the narrative Porgy’s mobility is both absolutely autonomous and radically circumscribed. In this regard, Porgy’s itinerant travels through downtown Charleston and the adjacent Sea Islands clarify how Heyward’s novel and subsequent theatrical adaptations revisit the Port Royal Experiment. As in earlier entries in the Port Royal archive, the spectacle of impairment in Porgy becomes a figurative shorthand with which to stress the protagonist’s precarious relation to the market. Porgy’s uncertain economic status is announced most clearly in a puzzling scene in Heyward’s novel that is absent from the Theatre Guild production and from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Here we meet Porgy soliciting donations with a living-statue routine. On a competitive block prized for its regular foot traffic and well-heeled patrons, stillness is the secret of Porgy’s success:
Either by birth, or through the application of a philosophy of life, he had acquired a personality that could not be ignored, one which at the same time interested and subtly disturbed. There was that about him which differentiated him from the hordes of fellow practitioners who competed with him for the notice of the tender-hearted. Where others bid eagerly for attention, and burst into voluble thanks and blessings, Porgy sat silent, rapt. There was something Eastern and mystic about the intense introspection of his look. (Heyward 2001: 17)
Porgy’s tableau vivant stops traffic and provokes discussion: Is his stillness a congenital condition or a function of “personality” or learned disposition? Is Porgy to be pitied, envied, or followed as a guru of “Eastern and mystic” otherness? The narrative’s failure to pinpoint the cause of Porgy’s stillness marks his free but noncapitalist black body as a problem in need of resolution. Reimagining the historical sorting function of the disability category as a novelistic set piece, this scene poses a question: can Porgy’s evident desire for economic autonomy be reconciled with the discipline of the market?
Initially, the answer would appear to be yes. After this strange scene, Porgy soon becomes an entrepreneur on the move. When the friend who had been taking him to downtown Charleston is arrested, and with his small store of coins nearly exhausted, Porgy surveys his modest room in search of another way of earning money. His gaze settles on “a chromo of ‘The Great Emancipator’” hanging on the wall, a coincidence that sets up a heavy-handed analogy between Porgy’s need for work and the end of slavery. Like his contraband ancestors, once he assembles his goat cart Porgy has free rein to ply his trade wherever he chooses. Such is his “new emancipation,” Heyward’s narrator remarks:
From his old circumstances which had conspired to anchor him always to one spot, he was now in the grip of new forces that as inevitably resulted in constant change of scene. Soon he became quite a metropolitan, and might have been seen in any part of the city, either sitting in his wagon at the curb, or, if the residents of the locality seemed lenient in their attitude toward goats, disembarking, and trying his luck in the strip of shade along the wall. . . . Always kind hands dropped coins in his cup, and sped him on. They were great days for Porgy. And great were the nights when he would tell of his adventures to the envious circle that gathered in the dusk of the court. (Heyward 2001: 44–45)
While the goat cart brings no change in Porgy’s occupation, it puts him in control of his comings and goings for the first time. But as during the Port Royal Experiment, the limitations of equating freedom with market participation quickly become apparent. In Heyward’s novel, however, the disciplining of black labor happens not by forced contracts or debt peonage but through the self-enclosure of genre. Sped along by the alms of generous pedestrians, Porgy’s mobility is initially bound by the cultural logic of sentimentality. A set of formal strategies for evoking empathy across differences of race, gender, class, and ability, sentimentality invariably shores up the social boundaries it would appear to transgress. The emotional connection fostered in this way displaces intractable political problems into the realm of feeling, where they are resolved at the surrogate level of interpersonal relations. The political as such remains untouched. So it is that the only roadblocks Porgy meets on his travels are personal in nature—failures of stamina or poor luck in encountering the occasional bad apple. Porgy has but to keep moving to sustain the sentimental fantasy of freedom as unencumbered mobility.
The penultimate scene in Heyward’s novel, likewise absent from the Theatre Guild production and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, summons not sentimentality but the genres of slapstick humor and the tragicomic to keep the itinerant Porgy on the straight and narrow. After killing a competitor for Bess’s love, Porgy is confronted by police officers seeking someone to identify the body. Worried that his guilt might be discovered, Porgy flees in his goat cart. Rather than relating the life-and-death pursuit Porgy experiences, the narrative presents, instead, the chase as a farce: “For, after all, what could have been funnier than an entirely serious race between a negro in a dilapidated goat-cart, and the municipality’s shining new patrol wagon, fully officered and clanging its bell for the crowds to hear as it came” (Heyward 2001: 153–54). Porgy is soon taken into custody but not before his desperate escape entertains Charleston’s lunching classes. In the end, Porgy returns to Catfish Row and finds that Bess has abandoned him for the big city. He is thus left alone to come to terms with the newly fortified bounds of his social and economic life as first observed by a neighbor named Maria: “The keen autumn sun flooded boldly through the entrance and bathed the drooping form of the goat, the ridiculous wagon, and the bent figure of the man in hard, satirical radiance. In its revealing light, Maria saw that Porgy was an old man. . . . She looked until she could bear the sight no longer; then she stumbled into her shop and closed the door, leaving Porgy and the goat alone in an irony of morning sunlight” (157–58). The tragicomic image with which Porgy concludes evokes the novel’s opening scene and the puzzling immobilization Porgy performs there. But rather than ask what he is waiting for, the end of the novel reframes the only apparent failure of the Civil War–era Port Royal Experiment. There is little doubt that Porgy’s labor, like that of the contraband slaves on the Sea Islands before him, will never be seamlessly incorporated into the circuits of urban capital. But that failure leads to success of a different kind, as Porgy becomes a cultural icon and a symbol of unbounded freedom. This mythmaking process, moreover, is spurred in turn by the promise of further revival and restaging. With each new adaptation of Heyward’s novel, black life on the Sea Islands is tasked anew with probing—and ultimately shoring up—the universalist promise of economic citizenship.
Islands of Omission
The renaming of Porgy and Bess suggests the obvious: in Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera, the love story sidelined in Heyward’s “Negro novel” takes center stage, where it provides the context for many of the score’s most memorable songs. But the transition from Porgy to Porgy and Bess is also a question of endings. If Heyward leaves Porgy in the cold, frozen by Bess’s departure and powerless to pursue, starting with the Theatre Guild’s 1927 production and canonized in the great American songbook by Gershwin’s “Lawd, I’m On My Way,” Porgy’s story on stage concludes on a different note. Calling his goat and summoning his courage, Porgy leaves Catfish Row to rescue Bess. In more recent productions of Porgy and Bess, the only remnants of the protagonist’s mobility disability at the opera’s close are the actor’s kneepads, newly visible as he stands for the first time and makes his way offstage with crutches or a cane. In a 1986 British production, Porgy even threw down his crutches, called for his “coat” (not his goat), and walked offstage (Hyland 2003: 178). However he exits, when Porgy leaves the archipelagic bounds of Catfish Row he enters the repertoire of US national culture as a heroic figure of black self-sovereignty, any trace of his former mendicancy all but erased.8 The free but noncapitalist black body on the Sea Islands is recuperated not as a wage laborer but as a cultural producer.
As traced from Civil War–era dispatches to sociological studies of the 1930s and the afterlives of Porgy, the Port Royal archive thus records how the improvisatory mode of rehearsal begun on the Sea Islands is repeatedly precluded. This ongoing history of experimental failure, moreover, also continues to facilitate a different kind of success, as the consolidation of black culture on the Sea Islands becomes an alternate measure of capital’s universality. But though shaped by this dual development in US political economy, the Port Royal archive is not monolithic. And if the voices of contraband slaves have largely been silenced from this unlikely tradition, we need go no further than Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to hear the sounds of dissent. In a chapter titled “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois famously glosses the mournful cadences of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” by revisiting the promises broken at Port Royal. The scene is Edisto Island in 1864, as General Howard arrives to address an audience of several thousand formerly enslaved men and women who have gathered in tense opposition to the news they know is on its way. The lands they had been farming, in many cases for years, were to be sold to Northern investors or earmarked for pardoned Confederates. “Ten master songs, more or less, one may pluck from this forest of melody,” Du Bois (1996: 208) notes: “One of these I have just mentioned. Another whose strains begin this book is ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.’ When, struck with a sudden poverty, the United States refused to fulfill its promises of land to the freedmen, a brigadier-general went down to the Sea Islands to carry the news. An old woman on the outskirts of the throng began singing this song; all the mass joined with her, swaying. And the soldier wept.” Du Bois’s pithy account is justly famous, rendering with incredible concision both the economic failure of the Port Royal Experiment and the resilience of the slave community in protesting the Union’s disingenuous commitment. Not the document of transhistorically authentic suffering prized by white Northerners on the Sea Islands, for Du Bois the spiritual is a living testament to the efforts of enslaved men and women to shape the political present and collectively to imagine a coming freedom beyond wage labor. Not a melancholic expression of mourning, frozen in the face of misfortune, Du Bois’s sorrow song is an improvised performance of solidarity amid a momentous loss that is at once entirely unprecedented and fated to repeat continually in the years to come.
Understood as such, Du Bois’s succinct gloss of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is part of a concerted effort in The Souls of Black Folk to return not only to the Sea Islands but also to the improvisatory potential of the Port Royal Experiment. Du Bois’s commitment to a mode of repetition shaped not by the demands of racial capital but by the free play of social and cultural experiment is clearest when we look at the poetic license he takes with earlier entries in the Port Royal archive. Du Bois’s rendering of General Howard’s speech on Edisto Island, which glosses the eyewitness testimony of a missionary present in the audience, is a case in point. As reported from Edisto Island, the chorus singing after the bad news was anything but spontaneous, as Du Bois suggests. Indeed, the missionary makes clear that the music was coerced: “A committee of black men goes out to consult. Meanwhile, what shall be done with the silent assembly, whose fierceness flashes from their eyes like that of a tiger in the jungle? Judge Whaley talks. The general proposes they sing. No response. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land!’” (Liberator 1865). The contraband slaves do eventually give in to Howard’s wishes, but it remains clear that theirs is a command performance intended to comfort the reluctant general. In the materials Du Bois draws on, the failure of the Port Royal Experiment to meet the aspirations of freed people in the capitalist market thus gives way to a different kind of success. The spiritual is from this vantage a work song by another name. Crucially, though, the kind of work it facilitates is cultural rather than strictly agricultural.
In rewriting this coerced performance as an impulsive and collective outpouring of grief, a collaborative undertaking in which General Howard can likewise join, Du Bois’s thinking is more than simply wishful. He instead returns to the radical promise of free labor that the historical exchange had actually rendered obsolete. Another omission on Du Bois’s part is equally telling. On Edisto Island, evidently sorrowed to hear the dissenting contraband slaves object to his proclamation “in such an unchristian spirit,” General Howard provided one final justification for their dispossession. “He himself professed to be a follower of Christ,” a witness recalled, “who taught us to forgive our enemies and said that he had been in twenty-two battles, had lost his arm, and been severely wounded many times; he was willing to suffer more, if necessary, and yet he forgave them, from the bottom of his heart” (Liberator 1865). In an effort to dispel resistance and dissent, Howard here flips the figurative script that emerged at Port Royal. Disability no longer signifies the contraband slaves’ precarious relation to the market or the promise of self-sovereignty through free labor for all black people, whether disabled or not. Rather, disability becomes for Howard a marker of white sacrifice and white prerogative. Creative profusion thus gives way to rote reiteration, just as repeating islands of possibility become plantations once more. By contrast, Du Bois’s misreading gives formerly enslaved men and women—rather than General Howard—what will amount not to the last word on the Port Royal Experiment but rather to an open invitation to further rehearsal.
On Sarah Orne Jewett’s relation to the Port Royal Experiment and questions of racial capacity, see Kuiken 2017.
The word disability is defined differently in different contexts. Many early disability activists and scholars, however, drew a useful heuristic distinction between disability and impairment. The latter from this vantage refers to any loss of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function. Disability is by contrast socially constructed—by policy decisions and architectural barriers, employment laws and social security classifications. Following Susan Wendell (1996), more recent writers have shown how strict distinctions between the social and medical models of disability are reductive and have sought instead to develop theories of “complex embodiment” (Siebers 2008). Recent approaches have also emphasized how the concept of disability is always historically embedded. Disability, for instance, can be approached as a social, cultural, or political identity (or all three); the basis for nineteenth-century charity programs and “freak shows”; a medical diagnosis; an outcome of war; a rationale for eugenic cleansing; or a “socially dehumanizing construct [developed] in tandem with theories of racial degeneracy” (Mitchell and Snyder 2003: 852). In this essay, I focus on how the social category of disability, descended from English Poor Law, sorts people into two categories—those exempted from labor and those not. In much of the Port Royal archive, however, the historical sorting function of the disability category competes with literary discourses that understand disability as personal tragedy.
Walking off the plantation presupposed a particular kind of body, to be sure. But when understood as self-estrangement from the market, walking off the plantation was also an act of solidarity with former slaves whose alienation from wage labor was rooted in mobility impairment.
Hughes (1960: 43) wrote that Heyward had seen “with his white eyes, [the] wonderful, poetic human qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive in his book.” In 1926, Du Bois asked: “Does the situation of the Negro in America with its pathos, humiliation, and tragedy call for artistic treatment at least as sincere and sympathetic as ‘Porgy’ received?” (quoted in Crisis Symposium 2007).
The 2011 revival by Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks, called The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, transforms many of the opera’s openly racist scenes into moments of empowering self-reflection. But the triumphant ending, which disability studies scholars would liken to “supercrip” narratives or “inspiration porn,” remains.