2017-2018 Dean's Essay Prize Winners

First Prize: Kaiya Smith Blackburn
Essay:Black Israelites, Social Justice, and Kendrick Lamar: Meditations on a Rhetorical Branch of African American/Jewish Relations”.
Prize: $1,000.

African American communities from the eighteenth century onward have successfully interpreted the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures to befit their existential reality and reinforce their humanity. On the sonic landscape of the spirituals, African Americans have identified with the Torah’s themes of social justice, liberation, and equality. With songs such as “I Am Bound for the Land of Canaan,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Steal Away,” African slaves and their descendants identified directly with the suffering Children of Israel – they engaged with scripture as a living, malleable organism, and carved within it a likeness of their own experience. The reinterpretation of scripture has thus been central to the self-definition, identity-formation, and social cohesion of many African American communities from the first theological utterances of the earliest bards, to the more contemporary exaltations of black artists throughout the postmodern nation. This analysis evaluates the network of African American identifications with central stories and principles of the Torah, situating it within the overarching social sphere of African American and Jewish relations. While the earliest alignments with the enslaved Hebrews of Exodus by African Americans occurred prior to substantial contact between blacks and Jews, black theology has continued to evolve within the context of an integrated history with Jews. One particular branch, – stemming in part from interaction with Jews in America – is the Black Israelite theological phenomenon. I focus on Kendrick Lamar and his fourth studio album DAMN. (2017), which employs Black Israelite biblical rhetoric profoundly, to evaluate this cultural entanglement.


Second Prize: Kristin Franseen
Essay: “Onward to the end of the Nineteenth Century”: Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Nostalgic Musical Time Travel
Prize: $500.

In the fourth chapter of my dissertation, I theorize the role of nostalgia and memory in Edward Prime-Stevenson’s music criticism and amateur sexology. While Prime-Stevenson had a successful career as a music critic in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s, he left the United States around the turn of the century to pursue sexological research in Italy and Switzerland. During his time in Europe, he wrote and self-published an early gay novel, Imre: A Memorandum (1906), and one of the first histories of homosexuality in English, The Intersexes (1908/1909), under the pseudonym “Xavier Mayne.” Music appears as a theme in both of these works, and The Intersexes in particular presents Prime-Stevenson’s approach to finding queer musical meaning in symphonic music and Wagnerian opera. Decades later, Prime-Stevenson revised his earlier newspaper writings in an effort to preserve his journalism in a more permanent format in Long-Haired Iopas and A Repertory of One-Hundred Symphonic Programmes (1932/1933).  

All of these books were distributed by Prime-Stevenson in extremely limited editions, and both the texts and his surviving notes suggest a deep musical and personal longing for the 1890s. They feature dedications to Prime-Stevenson’s friend and ex-lover Harry Harkness Flagler, and focus largely on repertoire that he and Flagler experienced as concertgoers in the early 1890s in New York City. The composers and works Prime-Stevenson identifies as central to the “Uranian” [homosexual] musical experience also appear in his mainstream music criticism. In Long-Haired Iopas, sexuality and the erotic appear as a primary force that can never quite be unpacked in a satisfactory manner. Prime-Stevenson alleges that recent psychological interest in sexology accounts for the widespread success of Wagner’s Parsifal, describes the diversity in the ways he claims men and women respond to and perform music, and toys with issues of forbidden love and male friendship in his biographical musings on bachelors in music history. Ultimately, however, these seemingly disparate approaches to musical-sexual knowledge all link back to his personal views on music appreciation. Prime-Stevenson’s layers of secrecy and frequent obfuscation can make it difficult to piece together his research process, although some of his claims are corroborated in writings by others, including Ethel Smyth, Edward Carpenter, Rosa Newmarch, and Magnus Hirschfeld.  More than anything, however, Prime-Stevenson attempted to construct queer music histories where none had previously existed, citing unverifiable gossip and turning to personal experience when the surviving historical record did not live up to his lofty aims. His last book, a collection of “playlists” of phonograph recordings, continues this canon-building project, and can thus be read as a kind of nostalgic communion with other listeners across time and space.