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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Untranslateable: Elsie Houston 

The first extended scholarly English-language biography of Elsie Houston has been published, half a chapter in Micol Seigel's new book, Uneven Encounters: Making race and nation in Brazil and in the United States. Seigel's linguistic skills and academic research position has given her access to material I could never dream of finding, though like me, she has found huge holes in the EH time line and a number of "facts" that turn out to be strategic falsehoods.

Here's some new information:

First, additional insight into her relationship with Benjamin Péret:

Friends of Houston's remembered Péret as eccentric and always financially unstable. Houston's sister claimed that "the marriage got in the way of [Houston's] career" and that "Benjamin didn't like music. He got in the way of her studies." (p. 169)

Second, Seigel implies that Houston deliberately "ratcheted up" her social position in New York. My sense is that she may very well have invented her relationship to Sam Houston and her mother's Portuguese roots (distancing herself from any African ancestry).

Third, Seigel notes that Etta Moten Barnett used Houston's recordings to "demonstrate the proximity of black U.S. and Afro-Brazilian culture," noting a Chicago radio program from 1955.

The whole book, beyond the EH section, is worth your time, especially if you are interested in race and transnational history. I am extremely sympathetic to Seigel's overall position that strictly comparative studies (US vs Brazil, e.g.) are nonsensical.

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