by Mark Anthony Neal
For the uninitiated, chitlins (chitterlings) are the innards—the intestines—of pigs; distinguishable from tripe, which is the stomach lining of pigs or cows. During the ante-bellum period the leftovers of slaughtered pigs, including the intestines, were given to enslaved Africans on plantations throughout the American South. It was, in part, a survival mechanism and pure improvisational genius, that centuries later chitlins are the epitome of Soul Food, appearing on the menus of highbrow gastro-pubs and available in grocery stores, cleaned and de-odorized.
Yet as a symbol of the color line (and class line) in pre-Civil Rights America, the term has become a pejorative, and no where more so, than in reference to the Chitlin Circuit, the network of clubs, theaters, dancehalls and barns that Black performers were relegated to during the era of legal segregation. For many, the Chitlin Circuit is a literal reference to America’s underbelly; dirty, funky and filthy. Ironically, as both a Black reality and part Afro-mythology, the Chitlin Circuit was, perhaps, the most critical site for the incubation of modern Black culture.
The Chitlin Circuit is the subject of Preston Lauterbach’s new book, The Chitlin Circuit and the Road to Rock ’N’ Roll, centering on musicians and promoters like bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, Denver Ferguson, Walter Barnes, Sax Kari and the great Louis Jordan. The aforementioned figures navigated above-ground and underground spaces, and within legal and illicit economies, to create rich networks of independent Black businesses, largely within the realms of entertainment. In its most shadowy forms, the Chitlin Circuit found numbers-runners, bootleggers and racketeers managing artists and promoting shows—relationships that were echoed generations later during the early days of Hip-hop. In its most respectable form, the spirit of the Chitlin’ Circuit could be witnessed in Negro League baseball.
The earliest strains of the Chitlin’ Circuit could be found in the traveling tent shows of the late 19th century, supporting Black Vaudeville acts, who often performed in blackface. Early Black performance legends such as Bert Williams, George Walker and Ava Overton Walker started their careers on the Chitlin Circuit. The circuit became more formalized in the early 1900s with the development of the Theater Owners Booking Agency (TOBA), a collective of White theater owners who arranged tours of Black artists throughout the country for segregated audiences. Artists who worked for TOBA often joked that it stood for “tough on Black asses.”
The history that Lauterbach tells in Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock’N’ Roll begins, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, which Black promoters began to exhibit more influence on the Chitlin’ Circuit. In terms of both a business model for performers and venue owners and performances themselves, the Chitlin Circuit was a site of innovation. Part of that innovation came from the close proximity that audiences had with performers, as the latter often had the chance to work out new material receiving immediate feedback from audiences. Historian Mel Watkins notes that “audiences were outspoken and inhospitable to acts that were either lackluster or strayed too far from preferred black performance style.”