Papers presented by Anna Hajdik since 2019

2023 Detroit, MI, United States

"Herb Jeffries, the Reinvention of Racial Identity, and the Business of Black Movie Westerns in 1930s America"

Anna Hajdik, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater

Abstract:

A native of Detroit, Herb Jeffries became a successful singer, actor, and nightclub performer that initially came to prominence as America’s first black singing cowboy in a series of ‘B’ westerns released in the 1930s. This paper will first interrogate Jeffries’s unique persona as “the Bronze Buckaroo.” The films Jeffries starred in catered to urban black movie audiences by blending frontier imagery with decidedly urban locales, thus playing to notions of the western as a form of escapism while also situating these films squarely within the dominant geographic confines of the urban black community. With film titles like Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939), these movies were cheaply produced and yet highly successful at the box office, especially in major metropolitan regions. An examination of how these films were financed by independent studios outside of the powerful Hollywood studio system may also reveal an important counter-narrative of black entrepreneurship with regards to film production and movie theater ownership prior to the Civil Rights Movement. This paper will also consider how Jeffries’ racial identity became an especially fascinating component to his life. Over the years, he gave several interviews to prominent African American publications like Ebony and Jet, where he expressed pride in his black ancestry. But the reality was more complex. His actual ancestry was ambiguous, and in 1959 in order to marry a white showgirl, he claimed to have only “passed” for black and consequently, he distanced himself from his “formerly black heritage.” Ultimately, Jeffries' story speaks to many important issues related to the power of black representation in film prior to the Civil Rights Movement and raises a host of questions related to the contradictions of culture and identity.

Keywords: