Enjoy this post by Vanessa Han, one of our Special Collections Freshman Fellows for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Hello and welcome! My name is Vanessa and I had the awesome experience of being one of four Freshman Fellows for this past school year. I spent my time exploring the Special Collection’s collection of Middle East-inspired music under the guidance of Sam Bessen.

During the initial months of my research, I combed through the archives digitally, taking note of particularly striking sheet music covers and recording certain patterns of depictions. For instance, I quickly noticed clear symbols used to connote the Middle East, whether it be sandy deserts, pyramids, starry night skies, palm trees, or caravans of camels. Once I felt as if I had gotten a better feel for the collection, I selected a few covers that I was interested in to take a closer look at their lyrics.

Entering the Special Collections room and laying hands on the songs themselves for the first time made a world of difference. As my hands ran over the paper covers with crinkled corners and torn edges, letting certain bright pops of color juxtaposed with the time-faded hues of other images wash over me, I was transported into the songs and immersed into the faraway worlds they attempted to evoke.

Looking at the lyrics in person also allowed me to become much more involved in the research process. For instance, I would often open a song  with a specific expectation of lyric-content depending on the title. However, the expectations rarely aligned with reality. For instance, some songs had no lyrics at all. These usually corresponded with certain titles that were more dance-like, such as “two-step”, “march”, or “waltz”.

After a few more in-person visits to explore lyrics in addition to a final look-through of the digital collections, I grouped the majority of album covers and songs within a few thematic categories under the umbrella of manifestations of racism. These categories included visual depictions, stereotypes, layered racism, and melding of cultures. After these categories were established, I then attempted to evenly distribute the most representative songs among the determined categories.

This led to the last step of my research and creation of my final product– an online exhibit. In this exhibit, I provide a brief analysis of each of the album covers in the context of the pattern that they encapsulate.

One song that left a particularly large impression is “Alleesamee.” I categorized this song under the heading Stereotypes, although it could also fall under Visual Depictions. Many songs do not fall cleanly within a singular type of manifestation of racism. Below is an excerpt from my analysis of this song:

“Below the title is a white woman with a terrifying smile and bulging eyes, wearing a traditional dress and holding a fan and an umbrella. The rest of the cover is crowded with cherry blossoms, lanterns with unintelligible characters, a pagoda in the background, and more items that may be perceived as Asian to outsiders.

Upon reading the lyrics, it becomes evident that the title, “Alleesamee” is a combination of “all” and “same”, demonstrating the blatant racism that people hold towards Asians by viewing every Asian as indistinguishable from one another. The rest of the lyrics explicitly mock the Asian accent while simultaneously sexualizing and fetishizing Asian women. For instance: “can you blame me for loving you”, “If you likee me like I likee you, plitty soon the wedding bells begin to ring Ching-ling-ling”, or “Nothing could be finer than your winky, blinky, chinky eyes of blue.” These disturbing lyrics display the obvious racism that Western artists exhibited towards East Asians, making fun of their accents, using racial slurs, and objectifying the women through the lyrics and the visual elements of the song.”

Overall, it was fascinating to explore my research interests related to racism through this archival collection. It was extremely enlightening to view how other countries and societies have been depicted in popular Western culture, and how similar themes remain prevalent today. I highly recommend browsing through the collection either digitally or in person when you have the chance!

Thank you to Heidi Herr, Sam Bessen, and the Special Collections for this incredible opportunity and all of the wonderful guidance along the way!

View the online exhibit