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144 Chapter 10 TOLABORWITHDIGNITY ALBERTAHUNTER’SRESPECTABILITYANDRESISTANCERHETORIC Coretta M. Pittman Today, Alberta Hunter might be better known to blues and jazz fans rather than casual music fans. As part of a group of black women who wrote and performed classic blues music in the 1920s and 1930s, Hunter gained fame with “Down Hearted Blues,” which she wrote and first recorded for Paramount in July 1922 (Taylor with Cook 53–54). Though perhaps less recognized in contemporary culture than her contemporaries, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith, she is an important figure in her own right, who had a long and prosperous career in a precarious industry. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1895, Hunter realized early on that she did not want to be limited by employment choices that forced black women into domestic work and other poorly paid jobs. Realizing she had singing talent, Hunter left home at sixteen and moved to Chicago, where she began her career, performing steadily for decades. She stopped for a time, working as a nurse from the mid-1950s to the 1970s, but she later resurrected her entertainment career in the late 1970s, enjoying a return to stardom before dying in 1984 at the age of eighty-nine. In addition to being a singer, Hunter was also a race woman committed to challenging racial discrimination she experienced firsthand and witnessed on the road as an entertainer in the United States and abroad.1 A closer look at Hunter’s commitment to racial justice reveals that she focused her outrage on the unequal pay black entertainers received from white theater owners and booking agents, mainly in the United States, as well as the poor treatment they received on the road because of their race. Hunter’s distaste for the discrimination she and other black entertainers faced from market forces that underemployed and underpaid them and also treated them like second-class citizens is evident in a number of entertainment columns she wrote for the black press and in interviews she gave to journalists from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. Moreover, she often implied in her own writings but expressed 145 To Labor with Dignity explicitly in her interviews with journalists the frustration she experienced as a black artist in the United States. The entertainment industry, at least in the United States, gave her and other black performers opportunities to record music and to perform in theaters throughout the South and North but it also expected those same artists to abide by the Jim Crow laws that kept them separate and unequal. The dichotomies—black stars performing for white audiences , performing in clubs they were barred from entering, being underpaid because of race, and being unable to stay in hotels across the United States because they were black—always gnawed at Hunter, who believed she and other black people deserved all the rights and privileges afforded to white people. Hunter wrote entertainment columns for three black-owned newspapers: the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Baltimore Afro -American, and she also gave interviews to journalists who wrote for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier and the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. Her biographers Frank C. Taylor and Gerald Cook note that the black press relied on black performers to relay “what they and their colleagues were doing [abroad]” because “they couldn’t afford staff reporters in Europe” (90). Hunter sent back reports about her and other black performers’ successes and sometimes failures in Europe and America, but she also brought attention to matters of race, unlike some other black performers who wrote for the black press as well.2 Hunter seems to have been motivated to write both about entertainment and race; her themes, which focused on labor politics, personal responsibility, and open defiance of Jim Crow laws, were based on an innate sense that racial discrimination was anathema to her sense of self-worth and self-determination. Reflecting back on her life, Hunter remembered how she felt about racism as a child, “I was always equal,” she told her biographers. “I always felt I was good enough to do anything . . . that anybody else could do.” As an adult and more specifically as an entertainer and entertainment writer, “she boldly pushed segregationist barriers aside” (Taylor with Cook 12). A review of Hunter’s newspaper columns and interviews demonstrates how she politicized her role as an entertainment columnist. She did this explicitly by employing two rhetorical approaches: respectability and resistance rhetoric. By using...


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