The first song within George Gershwin and Heyward DuBose’s Porgy and Bess, ”Summertime” is set among the poor black inhabitants of Charleston, South Carolina. The opera’s controversial plot follows the fate of a handicapped beggar and the scandalous woman that he loves. The larger cultural setting for “Summertime,” however, is the interest in black music and art held by white artists and intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s.
Several factors fed this interest. During the 1920s, black artists and intellectuals built a dynamic culture of their own. Writers like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston, painters like Aaron Douglas and Lois Jones, and musicians like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were among the contributors to this culture centered in Harlem and consequently labeled the Harlem Renaissance.
White intellectuals were drawn to this African American movement first for its inherent merits, but they also saw in the movement evidence of a freshness and innocence they believed absent from established art and music. However, white artists’ appreciation for black culture was compromised by the belief that African Americans offered “less civilized,” and therefore more “vital” and “natural,” forms of expression. Black writer Langston Hughes captured this underside of white fascination in his short story “Slave on the Block.”
Gershwin and DuBose deserve credit for wishing to explore African American culture and place it at the center of their “American” opera, but they certainly shared the racial views of their times. Gershwin hoped to capture the “humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.” DuBose chose to write about blacks because he believed that the “primitive Negro” was an “inheritor of a source of delight” that whites has buried through over-civilization. Both succeeded, but to many that success was also a failure.