Amateur night at the Apollo Theater attracted not only Harlem’s African American population but a national radio audience. In this account, written through the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, Dorothy West describes an amateur night at the theater in November 1938 and reflects on the relationship between entertainment, race, and American life.
… The crowd has come early, for it is amateur night. The Apollo Theater is full to overflowing. Amateur night is an institution. Every Wednesday, from eleven until midnight, the hopeful aspirants come to the mike, lift up their voices and sing, and retire to the wings for the roll call, when a fluttering piece of paper dangled above their heads comes to rest–determined by the volume of applause–to indicate to whom the prizes shall go.
The boxes are filled with sightseeing whites led in tow by swaggering blacks. The floor is chocolate liberally sprinkled with white sauce. But the balconies belong to the hardworking, holidaying Negroes, and the jitterbug whites are intruders, and their surface excitement is silly compared to the earthy enjoyment of the Negroes. …
A Negro show would rather have the plaudits of an Apollo audience than any other applause. For the Apollo is the hard, testing ground of Negro show business, and approval there can make or break an act.
It is eleven now. The house lights go up. The audience is restless and expectant. Somebody has brought a whistle that sounds like a wailing baby. The cry fills the theater and everybody laughs. …
The emcee comes out of the wings. The audience knows him. He is Negro to his toes, but even Hitler would classify him as Aryan at first glance. He begins a steady patter of jive. When the audience is ready and mellow, he calls the first amateur out of the wings.
… Willie sings “I surrender Dear” in a pure Georgia accent. “I can’ mak’ mah way,” he moans.
The audience hears him out and claps kindly. … Vanessa appears. She is black and the powder makes her look purple. … Vanessa is an old-time “coon-shouter.” She wails and moans deep blue notes. The audience give her their highest form of approval. They clap their hands in time with the music. She finishes to tumultuous applause … Ida comes out in a summer print to sing that beautiful lyric, “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” in a nasal, off-key whine. … Coretta steps to the mike. Her first note is so awful that the emcee goes to the Tree of Hope and touches it for her. The audience lets her sing the first bar, then bursts into catcalls and derisive whistling. …
A white man comes out of the wings, but nobody minds. They have got accustomed to occasional white performers at the Apollo. There was a dancing act in the regular stage show which received deserved applause. The emcee announces the song, “That’s Why ——” he omits the next word “Were Born.” He is a Negro emcee. He will not use the word “darky” in announcing a song a white man is to sing.
The white man begins to sing, “Someone had to plough the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to work while the white folks played, That’s why darkies were born.” The Negroes hiss and boo. Instantly the audience is partisan. The whites applaud vigorously. But the greater volume of hisses and boos drown out the applause. The singer halts. The emcee steps to the house mike and raises his hand for quiet. He does not know what to say, and says ineffectually that the song was written to be sung and urges that the singer be allowed to continue. The man begins again, and on the instant is booed down. The emcee does not know what to do. … The studio officials, the listening audience, largely white, has heard a Negro audience booing a white man. It is obvious that in his confusion the emcee has forgotten what the song connotes. The Negroes are not booing the white man as such. They are booing him for his categorization of them. The song is not new. A few seasons ago they listened to it in silent resentment. Now they have learned to vocalize their bitterness. They cannot bear that a white man, as poor as themselves, should so separate himself from their common fate and sing paternally for a price of their predestined lot to serve.
For the third time the man begins, and now all the fun that has gone before is forgotten. There is resentment in every heart. The white man will not save the situation by leaving the stage, and the emcee steps again to the house mike with an impassioned plea. The Negroes know this emcee. He is as white as any white man. Now it is ironic that he should be so fair, for the difference between him and the amateur is too undefined. The emcee spreads out his arms and begins, “My people ——.” He says without explanation that “his people” should be proud of the song. He begs “his people” to let the song be sung to show that they are ladies and gentlemen. He winds up with a last appeal to “his people” for fair-play. He looks for all the world like the plantation
owner’s yellow boy acting as buffer between the black and the big house.
The whole house breaks into applause, and this time the scattered hisses are drowned out. The amateur begins and ends in triumph. He is the last contestant, and in the lineup immediately following, he is overwhelmingly voted first prize. More of the black man’s blood money goes out of Harlem.
The show is over. The orchestra strikes up, “I think you’re wonderful, I think you’re grand.” The audience files out. They are quiet and confused and sad. It is twelve on the dot. Six hours of sleep and then back to the Bronx or up and down an elevator shaft. Yessir, Mr. White Man, I work all day while you-all play. It’s only fair. That’s why darkies were born.
Source: Dorothy West, “Amateur Night in Harlem,” Federal Writers’ Project, 1938. Available via the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/wpalh001719/).