Student's Original Research Shines Light on 'the Black Swan'

Kathryn Ostrofsky
Kathryn Ostrofsky

Story posted March 02, 2006

Kathryn A. Ostrofsky '06 started researching the opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, because, as she tells it, she was surprised that no one else had bothered to. Greenfield, nicknamed "the Black Swan," is perennially included in anthologies of black performers, but never discussed in depth or put in historical context. What Ostrofsky is uncovering could help shape the way historians view our country in the years leading up to the Civil War.

"(Kathryn's) work itself is important far beyond what is suggested by the topic's parameters," said Patrick Rael, associate professor of history and Ostrofsky's advisor on the project. "Cutting-edge historians of antebellum American history are melding questions of class, gender, culture and publicity in entirely new ways. Greenfield was singular - an African-American woman performing before mixed racial audiences. There was no one else like her, and no scholar has studied her using modern methods."

"Kathryn's work promises to help us understand some critical questions," Rael said. "What did it mean for a black woman to be on stage in antebellum America? Where did she fit within the shifting cultural hierarchies that scholars have identified? What can audience reactions (which we are supremely lucky to have in this case) tell us about how everyday Americans understood sex, race and culture in antebellum America?"

Ostrofsky said she tried to find a way to squeeze Greenfield into a suitable category, such as antebellum opera singers or black women in the public sphere. She decided instead to examine the way Greenfield's audiences struggled to do the same thing.

"Historians mention (Greenfield) generally as a footnote," Ostrofsky said. "They talk about her as an example - the token woman or the token black person or the token black woman."

Ostrofsky wasn't satisfied with that.

"I'm saying it's not really about her, it's about the reviews, about people trying to fit her into their political categories, to use her for their own purposes," she said.

Ostrofsky collected more than 150 reviews of Greenfield's concerts in more than 30 cities, mostly from an 1851-1853 tour of the northeastern United States. She then analyzed the reviews by entering key phrases into a database. She discovered five categories of descriptions: physical, non-physical, vocal, the audience and their reaction, and Greenfield's concert programs/accompanying musicians/managers.

Audiences and reviewers of the time had as much difficulty defining Greenfield as did later historians. White audiences viewed her as an oddity, an outwardly high-class woman singing opera, who was, of all things, black. They will praise her only as far as to say that she was talented for someone with no training.

Black reviewers felt both inspired and betrayed by her talent and success. Some were very supportive, partly because it was in their best interest to promote black artists who might help break down racial barriers. Others criticized her for catering to rich white audiences while not working to help the cause of other blacks.

From the Nov. 18, 1854, Provincial Freeman, a Toronto newspaper run by Mary Ann Shadd, a black abolitionist: "She rings to the fashionables, and turns up her ... nose to everything that does not smell of exclusiveness. She shuts the door to the poor, and only asks patronage of wealth."

Greenfield sang baritone, so she crossed the lines of gender in addition to class and race.

Ostrofsky said she has no idea how Greenfield herself felt about these issues, because she has been unable to uncover any interviews or personal writing.

Ostrofsky spent three weeks in Philadelphia, where Greenfield lived much of her life, on a fellowship provided by the Mellon Foundation and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR).

"That was a really amazing experience," Ostrofsky said. "I'm working on putting together a panel to present at the SHEAR meeting at next summer's annual conference. I eventually want to get my paper published in an academic journal."

Ostrofsky is applying to graduate schools, and plans to pursue a doctorate in history.

"The SHEAR/Mellon Summer Fellowship she earned is both a demonstration of what she had accomplished as well as an important stepping stone into the world of graduate school and professional history," Rael said. "I do not often suggest that newly minted graduates pursue graduate school, but Kathryn stands out for showing every evidence that she wants to be a historian."

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