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Meet The Vanishing of Harry Pace Creators

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(By Josh Dudley) The mini-series The Vanishing of Harry Pace is about the man who founded the first Black-owned record label in the 1920s before passing as white and was nearly lost to history. I spoke with series co-creators Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee over Zoom.

After he founded Black Swan records the white record labels squeezed him out of business by buying out his artists and putting them on their own Jim Crow labels. After that, he became a trial lawyer and fought racially restrictive covenants before the Supreme Court. Afterward, he “passed” into a racially restricted white neighborhood with his family and died soon after. He “vanished” because his family withheld his story from history for many years and the story that The Vanishing of Harry Pace tells about race as a construct and what it tells us today is a powerful one. The series is part of the Radiolab feed. Jad Abumrad is the co-host of Radiolab while Shima Oliaee was also the co-creator of Dolly Parton’s America.

There are six episodes of the series and the final episode, part 6, premieres on July 9th. Shima tells me the episode is about the recording of the most historically significant record that Black Swan put out, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which is now considered the black national anthem. “We followed four generations of that song’s journey and how it has woven itself through time and what the song means for the future,” she says. “We kind of “Song Exploded” it.”

PBJ: How did you first hear about Harry Pace? Shima Oliaee: Paul Slade, who we worked with on Dolly Parton’s America, wrote a book about him called Black Swan Blues and he sent it to us. We started reading it and it seemed like Harry was a Forrest Gump character and was invisible to much of the world. He became a metaphor for many of the questions we were having about race. Jad Abumrad: There’s a lot going on in that story and when we tell history we tend to flatten it, but Harry’s story is so complex. He’s a guy who doesn’t seem to fit. He’s a black race warrior or race man as they were called at the time, but he looks white and at the end of his life he’s rejected by white people and Black people. That makes him contemporary in a way that still resonates with 21st-century America.

PBJ: Was that why you made it a mini-series instead of just one episode? Jad Abumrad: Somewhere the story started getting more interesting and it felt bigger than one episode with people like Roland Hayes (from Episode 5) and Lift Every Voice. Shima Oliaee: When you strike gold you tend to find a lot of other treasure.

PBJ: What can we learn from his legacy and why is it so important? Shima Oliaee: There’s a Buddhist philosophy that how one ends one life is how one begins one life so the end of your life is very important and the closing moments matter and I found the end of Harry’s life to be tragic. From his published writing, he seemed like an idealist, and it was such a tragedy for him to have his black employees threatening to picket him and his white neighbors be a threat to his safety and he had nowhere to go and he has a stroke and is bedridden and dies in 6 months and only his wife is there to bury him. What kind of a world do we live in where Harry Pace had to die alone under the guise of protecting his family who in turn tries to erase his history? It made me question the world that we built. Jad Abumrad: Who are we to judge the experience that someone like Harry Pace had? It makes you see that race is a paradoxical blend of life and death and is also arbitrary and you have to have compassion. I’ve been struck in places where Harry makes a decision that would have been easy to judge by other people. It’s hard to make your own way in life and the people who try deserve compassion.

PBJ: What surprised you the most? Jad Abumrad: In that moment in time it’s amazing to see how sophisticated he was with the way he carried himself and thought about race. I think of gen Z kids as sophisticated and know critical race theory like breathing but it’s amazing to see how deeply they were thinking about it. Shima Oliaee: It was almost beyond his generation and some of his works we read make the series feel relevant because race was so in his face while living in a new world of freedom in a way that smacks up against hypocrisy and hope. He and his contemporaries were able to write about it in refreshing thoughtful ways with the insight that race is constructed but terrible and foolish. They were able to poke fun at in a way that we don’t see a lot of today. It was a whole generation of renaissance people. And we don’t have a lot of their archives. They vanished.

PBJ: Did you think he was betrayed by Ethel Waters and the other Black artists who left him for a bigger white record label? Jad Abumrad: At the same time in a larger context Harry got the white labels to take Black music seriously and Ethel Waters got paid a lot more and in some ways that means that he won the larger war by losing the battle.

PBJ: Were there lasting effects of the case he fought before the Supreme Court? Shima Oliaee: He opened up 500 new homes in a neighborhood that is now 83 percent Black-owned now and is now known as the Southside of Chicago where the Obamas came from. Jad Abumrad: It was another 8 years before racially restrictive covenants were outlawed by the Supreme Court. The case wasn’t the end all but when he won the case on a technicality it galvanized the legal movement to take them down. It was a very important break in the foundation.

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