Behind the Scenes Minis: Arsinoë and SissierettaStuff You Missed in History Class
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- 26 Mar 2021
Tracy and Holly talk about the trickier aspects of researching a story like Arsinoë's, as well as women trying to find agency in Arsinoë's time. Discussion of Sissieretta focuses on how the press covered her appearances, and how many of the issues and racist treatment she faced still persist for Black performers today.
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Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Happy Friday, I'm Tracy B. Wilson, and I'm Holly Frying. This week on the show, we talked about arson away the second and the very convoluted Ptolemaic dynasty. I'm so glad you did this one. I did not mention it to you because she was on my list for a long time and I did what you initially did, which is that you looked at. It got very overwhelming.
It went later. Except I look at it very overwhelming to I can't. I just can't.
Well, so as I started working on this, it felt like it had some of the same beats as the Zoe and Theodore episode that we had just done. And so in other circumstances, I might have put this off a little bit more for later. But very fortunately, during the pandemic, I have generally been able to get every resource I needed or I've had enough of enough other stuff going on that I've been like, OK, I can just I can put this off until I can get to that library again.
There is one thing in particular that has been on my on my list for a really long time. There is one specific book that I really want. There is one library that is near me that has it. And just I just can't get to that library right now. But I have had Arseneau on my list for a long time and I would kind of poke at it. And then I realized there was a book that was in my library network, like my local library network, that that shares resources among themselves.
And for a long time that wasn't operating because of the pandemic. It has started again and the library has started up just a very lovely contactless up system for the books. And so I was like, great. It says it's going to take a little bit longer for request to be fulfilled. I'll go ahead and put this in and I'll just go ahead and do this episode when it gets here. And then it turned out to get here actually pretty quickly.
And I was like, well, I got to do this episode now because it's a library book. It's going to need to go back and see weeks. That was thing number one.
Thing number two was you and I record typically on Tuesday mornings since I already had this library book and I already had all this other stuff that I had pulled to research this episode you and I recorded on Tuesday morning. And then on Tuesday afternoon, I started to try to read about the Ptolemy's and everyone was named Ptolemy and my brain just rebelled. It was like, no, we're done, done for the day. You want to try to concentrate. It's not going to happen.
You should just call it a day and go take a ride on your exercise bike, because whatever you're attempting to work on, it's not going to work. After I had a nice, you know, sleep got up on Wednesday morning. Yeah. Got a lot more success with it.
Still, their family tree is like one of those fixes with a braided trunk, it is it's hard to pull it apart. So I'm thankful to you for having done that.
All the Ptolemy's yeah, it's rare. I mean, I frequently when I'm writing episodes, we'll try to just like when we come back from sponsor break, kind of just like nudge whatever is the thing back to the top of people's brains, because I know you're a lot of people listen to a podcast while they're doing other stuff. Maybe you're a little distracted taking a walk or doing dishes or, you know, people whose jobs allow for podcasts to be listened to while they're like people are distracted a lot of times.
And so, like a lot of times, repeat somebody's full name or repeat some little detail, like just a little thing to kind of resurface what was happening before the break. This is the first time I feel like I have had to have a whole paragraph of sort of a like Buttercup is mirroring Humperdink in little less than half an hour recap, which is what this felt like to me after the second break, all the spindles.
It's one of those things, right? This comes up all the time. And I know I probably always sound like a hippie, but I'm always like, why would anyone want to seek out power in this structure? Like, just run away, run away?
I mean, it just sounds so like a lot of a lot of Arseneau way of Egypt and Mastodon. That's the book that I got from the library by Elizabeth Dymally. CanI. Like a lot of the book is not directly about her, because we know so little about her and so much of it is about like here is all of the total chaos and stress that was going on in her life, as you know, when she was a child and the other wives were all trying to guarantee some kind of future for their sons.
The dynasty, like all of that, just sounds exhausting and terrifying to have to try to live through, especially when she was like a daughter in this whole system and had very little agency for anything with her life. And it makes me think about other women we have talked about in other contexts, like prior hosts of the show did a lot of stuff about the marriages and the stuff that that Catherine de Medici did that was regarded as just entirely underhanded.
And a lot of it was like trying to guarantee some kind of future for her children. Right. I do wonder if if the disappearance of her son, Ptolemy, isn't him not being out of that structure a little bit, being like, you know, it's like you don't really need the power here. I can, you know, maybe just have one wife and have a family. I don't know, maybe it seems easier. We're going to start just a little little olive farm.
Maybe it sounds heavenly if you were raised in that, doesn't that sound like just the ultimate peaceful escape from all of it? But we don't really know. He may have had a whole other agenda. That's maybe what I would do in that situation. Well, and there are so many people named Ptolemy that it's it's hard to know for sure what exactly became of him. So anyway, that's our sent away. I feel like the most Tang dynasty that we've talked about on the show this week, we talked about Sister Etta Jones.
Yeah, I really, really came to adore her while researching her.
I have to say, she was a very striking woman, like she knew how to wear a dress. Like I could look at pictures of her all day because she was very, very beautiful, but also just like had great style and like, she's just phenomenal.
There were a couple of things that I wanted to mention that they didn't really quite make it into the episode because it was running long and you got to cut something. One thing that I wanted to talk about was the the name of the Tennessee Jubilee Singers, because they were actually kind of coasting on the success of another group, which was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, which was a music group that had been touring to raise money for construction and other projects at Fisk University and was also an all black troupe.
And so they were everybody started putting Jubilee in their name, hoping that, like you would do it. And it actually became one of those things that leads to some confusion in articles about her, where people will say she was a member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. And it's like, that's not true. But to further complicate it, I don't even want a dog, any of those people that have written that because there were instances where she was performing in some of those multi act bookings where the Fisk singers also were.
So I understand that people would overlap them.
Yeah, it just is one of those things. I kept trying to untangle it. And I'm like this. This says she is a Fiske's. No, this is no, this definitely says she not. It's a little bit tricky in that regard. We talked in the episode about how often reviewers talked about her looks. Mm hmm. It's so unsettling. And I shouldn't be surprised because we've run into this before, but they almost start to describe her.
Some are very flourishing and a little bit florid and they talk about how beautiful she is and whatnot. But others will only talk about that after they have kind of analyzed her almost as though she were livestock. And it's so dehumanizing. Oh, yeah. We're they'll even talk about, like, what her teeth looked like and like just really strange, obsessive discussion of her sometimes trying to make it seem like they are not looking at it in a racist way.
But I'm like, I don't know any other opera singer where you talked about her teeth for a paragraph like I don't this is weird. One thing that's interesting, though, is that we talked about the name Black Patty and how unpleasant it is, particularly to modern ears. But it's interesting because when she toured Europe, European critics were like, I don't like this name, which is not something that she ran into as much in the United States, although there were occasionally some.
But I mean, they would call it out and be like, I don't understand why she's billing herself this way. This devalues her. Why is she doing this? Which is just an interesting insight into the different mindsets of different places at that time with regard to to race. But also there was that issue that she talked about, where to her it wasn't necessarily that she took offense because it made it about her being black. She just didn't want to be compared to another singer as the way she was booked.
Right. Right. Because that's devaluing in a whole other way. Yeah. We also mentioned how she talked about and sidestepped issues of really discussing color and race in a lot of interviews. She would definitely address things. I mean, we referenced points where she was like black people shouldn't be treated like this as an audience member. But she really did seem to think that if she could just go out and be a black woman who was singing to mixed audiences, that that was going to help push the needle a little bit without necessarily she kind of took that attitude of if you're too assertive about it, you're going to do more harm than good.
But if they just see me, then then this will smooth the way a little bit. There are certainly discussions to be had around the merit of that approach versus. Sure, sure. But it is interesting that she really just saw like music as an ambassadorial effort to fix some of the problems in society.
Yeah, yeah. Her troubadours really were in ways that were often not called out or particularly well documented breaking a lot of those those grounds where they would be the first black troop to appear in various. Theaters, but it wasn't ever like something that they drew attention to because she she didn't want that right. It seems she didn't want it. I don't want to presume that I know what she wanted, but it seems that they did not bring that up in the press and say we are the first company that black performers that there was one story that I saw that was kind of funny and I thought it would be a good place to to land at least my part of this discussion, which is that there was one particular theater where they were the first.
I think not only were they the first black troupe to perform there, but the theater had made the concession that they would not segregate the audience.
But the poor ushers didn't know what to do because they had no training on how to handle it. And so there was some panic and it was like they just got through the night. But the ushers are like, we don't we've only done segregated. We don't know how to do this without people yelling at us. And I'm not sure how this is going to work, but it worked out again. Singing Smooth that one out.
But it's an interesting story that, you know, we often talk about when people sort of want to want to strip away the the old ways of doing things that are inherently racist and how there is a logistics question that often comes up in there.
Right about I feel for those poor ushers who didn't know what to do with themselves or their guests and probably being yelled at by people who did like where they were sitting. Mhm. Yeah. With no like advanced training of like OK, next week we're going to have this thing and we're going to change our policy and that's going to be hard. It was kind of like tonight it's integrated. Wait what.
Yeah, a little hard. Yeah. I kept being struck by how many parallels there were in her story and things that happened to her and the way the press talked about her and, you know, things that you still hear from performers of color today about how their touring lives are and about how they're talked about in the press.
And it was one of those things where it just, you know, reminded me that a lot of these same underlying issues are still operating in much the same way as they were.
Yeah, I mean, I think it's easy for people living today. I have certainly done it at times to think like, oh, people weren't enlightened and they weren't thinking about things in this way a hundred years ago.
One hundred and fifty years ago.
But then you read accounts and they absolutely were. They were absolutely people shouting about how foolish looking at people's race and valuing them based on it were. There were certainly people going, no, we should be integrated. This is stupid. Um, yeah.
So it it's a little heartbreaking because then you're like, well, why haven't we got any further than we have right now?
I don't have a good answer for that one. I mean, I have some answers. They're unkind, but I still don't know why we haven't gotten farther and in an on quite such a happy note. Sorry I dragged away your happy.
Right. I was telling the funny story. I will tell everyone. Please go look at pictures of Sister Rita, if you can, with all of her medals because they're beautiful. That's like a beautiful, gorgeous Victorian gown with all of these medals pinned to it. And it just looks cool. And I'm just going to plant this for someone out there. This would be a beautiful historical Halloween costume. Oh, for sure. Yeah. So we we are resurrecting our our social media that have lain fallow for too long, been a bit languishing.
Yeah. And and I had been getting pictures to accompany episodes this whole time, even though we somehow never managed to put them anywhere. And this morning I got one of this Lorretta and then I had already read through the outline, but I read through it a second time. And when I read through it a second time that the part about her, about the medals becoming this iconic look for her. And I was like, I get I can get a different picture.
So I intentionally went and got a different picture that has her and her dress with the medals pinned to the bodies. Beautiful.
Yeah. Yeah. I hope people dress as her for Halloween. I hope people dresses her for Tuesday.
Yeah, I love a Victorian gown and again, she had amazing style.
Oh man. She had a great style. So hopefully that's the scoop. So yes, since it's Friday, everybody hope you have a good weekend. Whatever's on your plate. We'll be back with a brand new episode. Well, first, we'll have a classic episode tomorrow and then we'll be back with a brand new episode on Monday.
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