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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: May 18

(Prefatory note: I began this first of the twelve Black History months of 2024-25 down with simultaneous COVID and flu – and the lost time and energy meant that many things planned for this month have not come to fruition. Time and energy are still in short supply, but I’m tired of keeping these notes trapped in my cranial cavity – so I’m sharing them with you here now. I hope you’ll find them interesting.)

This post is a tale of two Black women.

The essentials of the life of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907) are fairly well known. She was born of her mother’s rape by enslaver Armistad Burwell; endured harsh beatings from Burwell’s wife during her youth; at age fourteen was sent to Armistad Burwell’s son (Robert) in North Carolina, where she was repeatedly raped by a White store-owner over the course of four years; and from one of those rapes bore a son of her own, whom she named after her mother’s husband (George). Along the way she had become a gifted seamstress, and when she was sent to St. Louis to work for another enslaver (Hugh A. Garland) who was having financial difficulties, he “rented” her out as seamstress to the midwestern city’s ostensibly genteel White folk who needed her talent. And along the way she had met a free Black man, James Keckley, who in 1850 had asked her to marry him. Knowing that any children who came of the marriage would be enslaved, she instead persuaded Garland to let her purchase her own and George’s freedom for $1,200 (about $47,448 dollars today). Garland died but his debts remained – so his son (Armistad) agreed to let Elizabeth Keckley travel to New York to use her gifts as seamstress to raise the much-needed money she had agreed on to gain her release from enslavement with Garland.  She did so and was legally emancipated on 13 November 1855.

By the outset of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency six years later, Keckley was in Virginia. One of her patrons asked her to make her a dress for an upcoming visit with the new President and First Lady. Mary Todd Lincoln was so impressed with Keckley’s work that she employed her as her personal dressmaker, and over the course of the Lincolns’ White House years Elizabeth Keckley and the First Lady became confidantes. Indeed, Keckley became one of the East coast’s most sought-after dressmakers – and she not only maintained a dressmaking business, but also founded a relief organization to support the formerly enslaved Black folk who flooded into the capital during the Lincoln presidency and helped found a “National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.” After the White House years she trained Black seamstresses and taught as faculty at Wilberforce University before returning to D.C. and living in the “National Home” that she had helped found. In a bit of tragic poetry, she died in that same home for destitute women and children.

But Elizabeth Keckley’s main claim to fame was a memoir titled Behind the Scenes . . . or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House that she wrote and published in 1868. And this memoir was met by wrath and harsh ad hominem attacks from an ostensibly “genteel” White public.

            Which raises a question: WHY THE WRATH?

I’ll tell you, but first let’s connect to Margaret Bonds (1913-72) . . .

            Margaret Bonds’s name, too, is well known to many today, and so are some particulars of her life and work. She was the daughter of physician, author, and activist Monroe Alpheus Majors (1864-1960) and organist and teacher Estella C. Bonds (1882-1957), herself a charter faculty member of Chicago’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School of Music and founding member of the National Association of Negro Musicians. She was raised by her mother and studied with Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), William Levi Dawson (1899-1990), Abbie Mitchell (1884-1960), Florence B. Price (1887 or 1888-1953), and Tom Theodore Taylor (1885-1965) before earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the nominally integrated Northwestern University in 1933 and 1934. Realizing that she wanted to be a publishing composer, she moved to New York (home to more music publishers than any other city in the U.S.) in October 1939, and quickly earned a national reputation both for her music and for her activism on behalf of African Americans. In 1955 she became only the third woman in classical music to gain membership to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and in 1962-64 she became the first woman Black or White to win three awards in as many years from that organization. In the 1960s she also became a sought-after public speaker and interviewee, and by 1967 her renown was so great that Northwestern awarded her a prestigious Alumni Merit Award – an occasion that prompted Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley to proclaim January 31 1967 as the city’s official Margaret Bonds Day.

But Bonds was deeply troubled by the devastation of the Watts Rebellion in 1965, and in 1967 her commitment to working for racial justice led her to move to Los Angeles, where she became an active member of the progressive politics and vibrant African American cultural scene of southern California. She eventually settled in the heart of the Watts neighborhood and took a post as music director and piano teacher at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center (ICCC) – the U.S.’s first minority owned and operated multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-disciplinary visual and performing arts institution. She remained in Los Angeles, composing, collaborating, giving public lectures, concertizing, and directing the ICCC’s music-theater productions until her death in 1972.   

            And during the final decade of her life she used her public renown and influence to speak and write openly about the racism and sexism that she had endured throughout her life and career. Mindful of White society’s persistent dehumanizing and marginalizing attitudes toward Black folk, she explained that she had composed one of masterpieces, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (text by Langston Hughes) “in order to inspire black people . . . with courage, pride, – feelings of SUPERIORITY rather than INFERIORITY.” She said in a 1964 Washington Post interview that “Women are expected to be wives, mothers and do all the nasty things in the community (Oh, I do them), and if a woman is cursed with talent, too, then she keeps apologizing for it.” And in 1971, four years after receiving the Alumni Merit Award from Northwestern University, she finally broke her silence on what she had gone through to get her degrees from that school – this in a speech she gave at the ICCC’s commemoration of Hughes’s birthday. Describing Northwestern as “that cesspool of White supremacy, bigotry, [and] prejudice, known as Northwestern University,” she spoke of “refusals in restaurants, suspicious glances from shopkeepers and various effronteries and other insults to the quote ‘American way of life’” and noted that at the university “Colored girls weren’t even allowed to swim in the swimming pool [because T]heir black might rub off."

Finally, in 1969-71 Bonds also collaborated with librettists Janice Lovoos and

Yet despite its timely social critique and its obvious importance as an extended composition by a composer who, despite her race and sex, had achieved international renown by the early 1970s, Madame Lizbeth was never published or performed, and it has never been discussed (or even mentioned) in any currently available biographical writings about Bonds.

The magnum opus of Margaret Bonds’s thirty-five-year career as composer for the theater has thus effectively been silenced, erased – censured by a deafening silence imposed from without.

            Which raises a question: WHY THE CENSURE?


Bitter Laurel is an important and deliciously direct connection between Margaret Bonds and Elizabeth Keckley, but that connection is only the surface. There are also other parallels that run much, much deeper and are more troubling. As the title of this post suggests, they have to do with Black women’s reinscription and White society’s reprisal.[1] 

            In Keckley’s case, the reinscription consists in her telling the biography of her life and the traumas inflicted on her Black body because of her race and her sex in a fashion that lays bare the falseness of White society’s supposed gentility, and in her honest exposition of what she did to surmount those traumas and obstacles – never with malice, but also not with the sort of submissive deference that White society would have desperately (oh, so desperately) preferred. In Bonds’s case, the reinscription came in the 1960s, when she, like Keckley, broke her silence about what her Black body and Black spirit had to endure, about the monumental will for self-affirmation and achievement that would benefit others. This was a will that White society desperately (oh, so desperately) wished she were lacking because it enabled her to essentially force the “cesspool of White supremacy” that had subjected her to those racist depredations in the 1930s to cease denying her the recognition she had earned – giving her a prestigious award in a ceremony that also included 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Her reinscription consisted also in her drawing a pointed parallel between the Black Vietnam soldiers who were fighting and dying in a pointless war for a country where their basic civil rights and humanity were in dispute – a parallel that may also be construed as existing between herself and Elizabeth Keckley.

And there is more – for the White world would not let those reinscriptions go unchallenged. It had to retaliate. In Elizabeth Keckley’s case, the reprisal took the form of an initial uproar in the White press, followed by a drop-off in sales that, Keckley believed, was the result of Robert Todd Lincoln’s machinations to suppress her book. In Bonds’s case, it took the forms of the erasure of Madame Lizbeth and the widespread (and false) use of a common anti-feminist and anti-Black biographical trope: portrayal of the late Los Angeles period in which Bonds wrote that work as a largely rudderless period of artistic decline fueled by depression and drink (medical and psychiatric conditions both, and ones that have never been tendered by anyone credentialed to do so), and indeed the radical reinscription of her entire life and career as exponents of those of Langston Hughes. These Black women’s bold and painfully honest reinscriptions met with reprisal in the form of a vast White cloak of censure via erasure and silence.


All this raises many other questions, but I’ll close with this one: what to do now? 

            The question troubles me because I am a White male who has spent a lifetime being taught not to understand, much less empathize with, the situations of Black women such as Keckley and Bonds. And yet White males (including me) have to try – simply because to do otherwise would be to grant victory to those who retaliated for Elizabeth Keckley’s and Margaret Bonds’s reinscription. That would be unconscionable.

            So here’s my own attempt at some first steps toward an answer: one way to repudiate White erasure of Keckley’s reinscription is to read what she wrote. Her Behind the Scenes is easily (and freely) available online, of course, and it and her other writings are available in Sheila Smith McKoy’s excellent two-volume Elizabeth Keckley Reader (Hillsborough, North Carolina: Eno, 2016-17). There’s also a healthy body of secondary scholarly literature about her, and historian Lina Mann’s biographical review for the White House Historical Association is thorough and well-balanced.

            Repudiating White and male retaliation for Margaret Bonds’s reinscriptions is more complicated and difficult – not least because Madame Lizbeth / Bitter Laurel remains unheard and utterly unknown. Moreover, virtually all the biographical literature about Bonds ignores the late Los Angeles period that was home to the composition of that work, and those writings that do discuss those years commit the specious biographical error mentioned above. Until Madame Lizbeth is performed, published, and discussed,[2] the most effective way to repudiate White retaliation against Bonds is to recognize the biographical trope’s cardinal features (attaching Bonds to Hughes as early as possible, construing her entire career in terms of his work, and portraying her life and work after his death as a period of inexorable decline). Instead:

  • Remember that because Hughes’s biographers generally grant Bonds little more than a sentence or two their relationship is unlikely to have been as essential to their respective works as Bonds’s biographers generally suggest.

  • Acknowledge that there is no support for the oft-asserted alcoholism and depression that supposedly fueled that specious decline in her later years.

  • And perhaps most importantly: study, listen to, perform, and teach pieces other than the comfortable mini-canon of Bonds that currently exists. I’m not saying that people should quit looking at and performing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand, The Ballad of the Brown King, and Troubled Water, of course. Rather, I am suggesting that there’s a whole lot more to Margaret Bonds than that, and it is a problem that those works are already built into the fragmentary, flawed, and in many ways false portrait of Margaret Bonds that circulates freely on the Internet. Put differently, the conventional wisdom is comfortable with those pieces. If we want to challenge it, we have to adduce pieces that it is NOT comfortable with.

For now, the best way to repudiate White retaliation against Margaret Bonds for her reinscriptions may be to turn our gaze away form the works that are comfortable to that relation and toward the works that challenge it in her own voice.

At every turn, reject the retaliatory portraits of Elizabeth Keckley and Margaret Bonds. And at every turn, affirm their reinscriptions in every way possible.

[1] Reinscription here denotes the “re-establishment an existing concept in a different form or context from its conventional one but without any radical transformation” (Oxford Reference) – or, put more simply, a recentered retelling of an existing concept or narrative.

[2] There is a brief discussion in my forthcoming biography of Bonds (currently at press with Oxford University Press), but limitations of space in that life-and-works study of Bonds’s entire life and career leave ample room for closer examination and commentary.

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