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This article historicizes musical symbolism in Melvin B. Tolson’s poem “Dark Symphony” (1941). In a time when Black writers and musicians alike were encouraged to aspire to European standards of greatness, Tolson’s Afro-modernist poem establishes an ambivalent critical stance toward the genre in its title. In pursuit of a richer understanding of the poet’s attitude, this article situates the poem within histories of Black music, racial uplift, and white supremacy, exploring the poem’s relation to other media from the Harlem Renaissance. It analyzes the changing language across the poem’s sections and, informed by Houston A. Baker Jr.’s study of “mastery and deformation,” theorizes the poet’s tone. While prior critics have read the poem’s lofty conclusion as sincerely aspirational toward assimilation, this article emphasizes the ambiguity, or irony, that Tolson develops: he embraces the symphony’s capacity as a symbol to encompass multiple meanings, using the genre metaphorically as a mark of achievement, even as he implicates such usage as a practice rooted in conservative thought. The “symphony,” celebrated as a symbol of pluralistic democracy and liberal progress, meanwhile functions to reinforce racialized difference and inequality—a duality that becomes apparent when this poem is read alongside Tolson’s concurrent poems, notes, and criticism. Such analysis demonstrates that “Dark Symphony” functions as a site for heightened consciousness of racialized musical language, giving shape to Tolson’s ideas as a critic, educator, and advocate for public health.


This article was originally published in Journal of the Society for American Music, available at DOI: 10.1017/S1752196321000043



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