The Halcyon Days of Jim Crow, Ctd.

Students at the Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (now Tennessee State University) in 1909.

In a post about some dope-looking charts made by W.E.B. Dubois for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris on the state of black life in America at the time, Adam offers up this aside:

But you can get a hint from this of the days when teachers at black schools were among the best in the country — Jim Crow was funneling the most educated black minds into a very limited set of professions.

This is a point that I find myself making a lot, especially during those nostalgic, rose-colored conversations about black collectivism and the strength of HBCUs in the Jim Crow era — and how integration subsequently eroded both. During Jim Crow,  the best career option for ambitious Negroes was  to attend  “normal” schools — or what we still sometimes refer to as teachers colleges — or blacks-only colleges that groomed them for the ministry.   Many of those normal schools are still around, albeit in different forms (Florida A&M and Hampton University began their lives this way). There’s a paradox here:  those barriers to professional opportunity were bad for any individual kid’s career prospects — to say nothing of being a fetter on the creation and diversification of black economic wealth — but were great for the prestige of teaching and for black colleges.

There’s a propensity to link the general condition of black Americans in general with the current robustness of  black institutions, even as those things have often been at historical odds.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

26 comments to The Halcyon Days of Jim Crow, Ctd.

  • Tiffany In Houston

    Would you mind linking the original post, please? Thanks. :)

  • J

    Institutions aren’t even the half of it. De jure segregation was morally untenable, but I lean toward the view that so-called integration has played a major role in the overall decline of black American culture. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Jim Crow era also represents the height of black American cultural achievement. The grand tradition embodied by Armstrong, Ellington, Toomer, Ellison, Hurston, Cruse, Murray, Bearden, Dorsey, Hamer, Randolph, and King has been shattered. And it hasn’t been replaced with anything comparable. Perhaps that explains the epigraph to Ellison’s Juneteenth: “To that vanished tribe into which I was born, the American Negroes.”

    • Can we acknowledge that “cultural decline” and “height of…black American cultural achievement” are both ridiculously subjective, arbitrary concepts? You’re drawing a through-line between, say, Hurston and King, as if they were contemporaries, or even engaging in the same “work.” They were both black and prominent during Jim Crow, but
      does that mean they were even participating in the same culture?

      This is the exact idea is what I’m pushing against in these “halcyon” posts: the idea that there was some ineffable nobility that’s been lost since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. i seriously doubt any of the people you named would trade our world for theirs.

  • J

    Is saying that Shakespeare is the greatest English-language dramatist “ridiculously subjective”? Or how ‘bout that the Renaissance represents a period of greater western cultural achievement than the period immediately following the fall of Rome? Or that it’s more important for an educated westerner to have read Homer than Jackie Collins?

    All cultural criticism, all history is fundamentally—not “ridiculously”—subjective. What of it? On the other hand, the concept of cultural decline can be pretty straightforward. Who would argue seriously that Native American cultures are as robust today as they were hundreds of years ago? Cultures die all the time—not that they always have to or shouldn’t be mourned when they do.

    Hurston and King were not simply “black and prominent during Jim Crow.” They both devoted their lives to the process of extending and refining black American vernacular culture—one for political ends, the other for aesthetic ones. They were both drawing on and playing with the same wellspring of traditions (black U.S. southern protestant folk idioms), which is to say that, yes, they were indeed participating in—and products of—the same ethnic culture.

    I don’t see how any informed observer can argue honestly that black American culture today is as complex, resonant, or influential as it was fifty years ago. There was a time when black American musicians, for instance, were one of the commanding artistic forces of western culture in general, influencing European art music, literature and the visual arts. Is this true today? What exactly are the cultural achievements of the post civil rights generation? It may be that distinct ethnic culture (or pride, for that matter) has lost its place in American life as a result of the homogenizing force of so-called integration (among other things). But to suggest that this black American ethnic culture does not, like all cultures, ebb and flow, that it never had a prime or a major moment on the national stage, or, even worse, that it never existed—well, that’s beyond ridiculous.

    • April

      “Is saying that Shakespeare is the greatest English-language dramatist ‘ridiculously subjective’?” Um, yes. In fact, in his day, that title probably would have gone to Christopher Marlowe. You ask as if though the claim has been some unalienable truth throughout history. And Native American cultures are in decline not because of integration, but because most of their population was killed off. This is not a good comparison to make.

      It seems to me that you are arguing personal preference, because black American culture clearly still has a vast global influence. (Perhaps something called “hip-hop” might ring a bell.) If this contemporary aesthetic output is not up your alley, that’s fine. But it’s pretty hard to argue that it hasn’t had a significant global impact.

      • April

        I should add to the last bit–to make sure it doesn’t sound like a circular argument–that there are visual and musical collaborators in what is called “hip-hop” culture from France to Japan.

        Outside of hip-hop, it’s worth noting that the first black Nobel laureate in literature–which, according to you, has had no significant contribution since the post-Civil Rights era–is Toni Morrison.

        Your whole argument is highly subjective, just as art and culture themselves are. Cultural appraisals change from generation to generation (see, again, Shakespeare). Who’s to say what cultural critics 100 years from now will consider the “prime” of black American culture?

        • J

          What I was getting at about Shakespeare was simply that some opinions are more informed than others.

          I did not make any comparison between black Americans and Native Americans. I used the example of Native Americans to refute the claim that cultural decline is “ridiculously subjective.”

          As for hip-hop, its influence is palpable but limited to low culture. It is a popular medium driven and controlled largely by corporate interests. Jazz’s influence, in contrast, was both high and low—a reflection of its complexity. And no one told Thelonious Monk what to play. Moreover, I’m not even sure hip-hop is really part of the African-American tradition since the genre’s aesthetics are derived largely from Reggae and Dub.

          Toni Morrison, by the way, who is 80, does not belong to the post Civil Rights generation, which is what I was referring to.

          • again, when i made the argument of the subjectivity of your comment, this is the kind of thing i was referring to.

            As for hip-hop, its influence is palpable but limited to low culture. It is a popular medium driven and controlled largely by corporate interests. Jazz’s influence, in contrast, was both high and low—a reflection of its complexity. And no one told Thelonious Monk what to play. Moreover, I’m not even sure hip-hop is really part of the African-American tradition since the genre’s aesthetics are derived largely from Reggae and Dub.

            you thinking hip-hop base and without the richness of jazz looks to clearly be a function of your personal affinities. It’s not as if jazz wasn’t ever considered vulgar and “low,” or as if Zora’s use of dialect didn’t invite many of her contemporaries to characterize her writing the same way.

            this is really just about you not liking hip-hop, and having a preference to the cultural products of the CRM period. do you, of course.

            • J

              You’ve oversimplified my comment and taken it out of context. That comment was in response to the claims made for hip-hop’s influence. I wasn’t really commenting on the music as such and thus I’m not sure how you can arrive at the conclusion that I dislike it. From a purely formal standpoint hip-hop does not have the complexity of jazz or even much R&B. This is what makes it a low art in an aesthetic sense–not its supposed social impact, which is what led obtuse critics in the ’30s to call jazz vulgar. There are a million more things going on in, say, Ellington’s “Koko” or an Armstrong solo than there are in pretty much any rap song you can name. And that’s not an opinion. Formal complexity, of course, does not have to be the most important criterion for judging a work of art’s success or failure.

              Anyway, what I take issue with in your overall argument is the underlying assumption that any claim that there’s been a decline is simply an example of reactionary nostalgia. Narrow political progress does not mean general progress. It is possible for a people to move forward politically and economically and move backward culturally. Some of the greatest strides in science, technology, and politics were made during the 20th century, a century rife with cultural barbarism.

      • you beat me to this response. my immediate reaction to this yesterday was that J’s inability or refusal to see hip-hop — arguably the most pervasive musical idiom in the world’s history — as an obvious argument in defense the vitality and influence of American black culture speaks to his/her profound distaste for the genre. it’s a pretty inexcusable (or telling) omission.

  • I am totally behind G.D. and April here. The canonization of Shakespeare and jazz are both (ongoing) historical projects, not the result of something intrinsic to the art.

    I say this even though I happen to share J’s aesthetic: I am far less interested in hip-hop than in Shakespeare and jazz. Those are just my own affinities. I’ll argue for them, but I realize I’m trying to convert people to my own tastes. Even the artists I like within hip-hop, such as Little Brother, tend to match my own aesthetic preferences. They met at an HBCU and their rhymes are littered with references to Dred Scott, IPO’s, or jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader.

    That said, I think there could be an intersection between the idea of a possible “decline” and integration. In a late-1980s interview, Toni Morrison argued that, before it became a global phenomenon, black music served a “village” function, telling black people who had moved from the rural to the urban about the pitfalls and havens to be found along that path. She argues that once that music began to be addressed to white America and then world (post-Motown, I assume), its function and addressee changed. She is not against the circulation beyond the “village,” but she is convinced that this function of spreading folk wisdom *inside* the community is still necessary. She made the case that the novel could take up that slack.

    It may not be as true anymore that black writers can talk directly to black readers–partly due to Morrison’s own global profile, but its an interesting possible theory regarding the ‘shift’ and possible abasement of black culture.

    By which I mean this: white audiences and global audiences have certain needs and desires of black American performers. Certainly the fantasies of blackness as a playground of sexual license, misogynist violence, and macho posturing have done more to entertain hip-hop’s white consumers than to give black people insight into the still-unsolved problems of racial capitalism. A comparison of the message of a Curtis Mayfield anthem to, say, Nelly’s “Tip Drill” makes that point clear.

    So, while I won’t argue for a decline, I do wonder whether or not the attempt to capitalize on white American (and, indeed, global) taste for black depravity has contributed to a shift in artistic content. Thoughts?

    • J

      Arguing for your tastes is a necessary part of being a critic or just an informed citizen. If we dismiss this as merely an exercise in subjectivity we’re simply saying everything is the same. Everything is not the same.

      Toni Morrison takes questions of cultural decline seriously. She doesn’t just dismiss them. In fact, this is precisely what her novel Paradise is about. I don’t necessarily agree with her conclusions in that book, but I respect the fact that she has actually thought through what integration means for black American folk culture. It’s a subtle book that recognizes the importance of both tradition and change.

      That interview sounds interesting, and I think she has a point. The novel can still serve this function. Can you provide a link or a note so I can track down the interview?

  • J –

    Please forgive the long response in advance.

    1) I’m stopped by your “everything is not the same.” What is at stake for you in the maintenance of a single yardstick for measuring cultural achievement across all time and space? (If we buy Albert Murray’s discussion of culture as ‘equipment for living’ then culture would have to change to meet the challenges of living in different times and places.

    How could you persuade others who have different technical knowledge and affinities to sort particular art in the same way that you would? And, finally, do you think it possible to disentangle the notion of artistic standards entirely from a Western tradition that has tried to suggest that women, racial subordinates, queers, and children could neither make worthwhile art nor learn to be good critics of it? In other words, can you ensure that your cultural hierarchy will be solely merit-based and not carry any assumptions that automatically privilege the art you are best trained to appreciate?

    2) I think, in the end, the dispute on this page boils down to a question of whether or not ‘culture’ (especially aesthetic renderings of the world) determine the way that a group of people live and die. This would be true enough if any culture lived in isolation; then their ways of seeing (and not seeing) would be all that mattered in their social lives. But certainly African-Americans are, no less than any other group world-wide, set within a stream of historical and continuing relationships *to* other social groups. Consequently, internal cultural ideals and norms cannot be the final determining factor in a set of both national and global relationships.

    I find your concern about the Decline of Culture (in the Matthew Arnoldian sense) to be a bit out of step with the well-established recognition that culture exists in the midst of many other streams (such as war, economics, history, and social policy). Given that art is not utterly autonomous but exists within this larger field of forces, I don’t find art itself or the activity of the cultural critic to be as heroic as you describe it, the ‘necessary part of being… an informed citizen.” I think art and criticism are one path, but not the “Way, the Truth, and the Light.” Have you read Terry Eagelton’s book _Literary Theory_? That’s a good starting point for a different examination of literature and other cultural forms than Culture with a capital C.

    I say this, even as someone who loves literature and shares your taste. I have grown to see that the beauty, profundity, and complexity I see in art will not by themselves save the world. And often the making of great art can participate in and perpetuate the kinds of violence I, as a black target of such violence, would like to see stopped.

    3) As for the matter of taste, many scholars in who study the neuroscience of affect suggest that such things as taste are so visceral and automatic as to bypass conscious thought. This would make them particularly resistant to change. See the work of Paul Ekman. I happen not to agree with this work, as I think they create a false dichotomy between visceral reactions and fully conscious reasoning. Since I don’t believe in the latter (full consciousness? I wish!), the fact that the former is somewhat beneath the threshold of awareness does not concern me.

    This is not to say that our tastes are not real or worth arguing for (as I already conceded in my first post). Rather it is simply to acknowledge that the attempt to universalize them will necessarily fail–and I believe it should fail. Both the shaping of taste (through education or acculturation) and the elevation of certain tastes are exercises in power. Therefore, I am happy to argue for the pleasures of that art which suits my taste. I am happy to argue for certain interpretations of art and to suggest that certain art offers a way of imagining a better world (and to start building it). I think you and I share this.

    However, I recognize that there is and should be a limit as to how much I can make what is meaningful to me meaningful for those who do not share my position in the world. We are in the same world, but we are separated by space and time and we thus experience the same “weather patterns” — from actual weather to the impact of war, economic upheaval — in different ways. The reason that certain art is meaningful to me has as much to do with my history, training, and dispositions as a reader/listener/viewer as it does with qualities intrinsic to the art. I am sure that a sound engineer could find the poetry in many a hip-hop song that you might dismiss from a literary or musicological perspective as deeply lacking.

    That is why I call the whole thing subjective. Had I expertise in every culture and every technique, then I could have the God’s-eye-view necessary to make judgments across genres, periods, and geographies. But, until then, most of us are using a set of aesthetic criterion proper to one artistic tradition to judge others that are made differently and for different uses and thus require another critical aesthetic as well.

    4) Morrison’s discussion of “village literature” appears in scattered places throughout Danille Taylor Guthrie’s _Conversations with Toni Morrison_ but especially, as I recall, in her interview with Thomas LeClair.

    • J

      I appreciate your thoughtful response. I don’t support “a single yardstick for measuring cultural achievements across all time and space.” I believe in many yardsticks—complexity, novelty, subtlety, inventiveness, timing, etc. We’re talking here about black Americans, and it is my belief that over the past five decades or so the culture has become attenuated due to a variety of factors, one of which is so-called integration. I think the lack of cultural achievement—artists and intellectuals drawing from folkways to create a rich, nuanced portrait of black American life—proves this. Much of what passes for black American culture today lacks the qualities I mentioned above and does not enrich the community’s vision of itself, which is a problem.

      I think you’re misinterpreting Albert Murray somewhat. Murray is drawing on Kenneth Burke’s idea of rhetoric as ritual, a method of fending off malaise, despair, entropy, chaos, etc. In Murray’s view, one which I share, the most accommodating and nuanced cultural aesthetic in the American context is a blues-based one, a body of black American-derived rituals that emphasizes swing, which is to say improvisation, calculated restraint, discipline, and composure in the face of defeat. These are, partly, “Race Man” values, the kind of values that were scoffed at by “black nationalists” in the ‘60s and are all but forgotten in post Civil Rights black culture (a notable exception being the country’s highest ranking politician, who recognized very early on the merits of the grand Afro-American cultural tradition and subsequently assimilated himself into it). Murray firmly believes that in America the blues tradition trumps all others. He is, in short, arguing for greatness (see The Omni-Americans, Stompin’ the Blues, or Blue Devils of Nada).

      One more thing about Murray, that national treasure, who remains largely unheard of and unread by Americans both white and black. He is pro-integration (as am I, when integration is genuine), but he came up in segregated schools and his entire body of work amounts to a love letter to the community of African-Americans that nurtured him during Jim Crow. Anyone who reads him or Ralph Ellison’s essay “The World and the Jug” (give it a look sometime, G.D.) would have to object to the claims made in the initial post about how during the first half of the twentieth century the best an ambitious black person could hope to become was a minister or a teacher. Tell that to Ellison who was working on becoming America’s Wagner at the time. Such claims are completely ridiculous and untrue, though they suit a particular rationalist, neoliberal conception of progress. They do not, however, account for the achievements of Murray or Zora Neale Hurston or William Hastie or Charles Drew or Ernest Gaines. Such a narrative suggests that black people were merely victims during Jim Crow, that they had no agency, no imagination. It is a purely political or sociological interpretation of black American life, which is why I found it necessary to bring culture into the conversation in the first place. Cultural achievement can also be a yardstick for progress. How then does post-racial, post-Civil Rights, postmodern black culture measure up with its previous incarnations? Looks pretty damn shabby to me.

      So that’s really what I’m driving at here. There’s something deeply wrong with the narrative that suggests black life was miserable and unforgivably limiting during segregation and that it’s nothing more than sentimental and impractical nostalgia to reflect on what was truly valuable about black life then. It is absolutely necessary to think about what is worth preserving within a culture as times change because culture represents equipment for living. If you don’t do that you end up with the palpable despair and nihilism that afflict many black communities throughout the country today—the subject of Cornel West’s Race Matters.

      Btw, I’ve read Eagleton’s book, and you can probably tell from this response that I do not care for his Marxist interpretations of culture, which I find reductive (though sometimes provocative). Thanks for the Morrison reference.

      • again, this is what i mean.

        Much of what passes for black American culture today lacks the qualities I mentioned above and does not enrich the community’s vision of itself, which is a problem.

        this is necessarily about your sympathies/prejudice/affinities. since this isn’t a factual argument, it’s only compelling as anyone finds your starting premises. You keep repeating that you feel that black culture has become less rich, as if this is something that’s plainly true.

        Anyone who reads him or Ralph Ellison’s essay “The World and the Jug” (give it a look sometime, G.D.) would have to object to the claims made in the initial post about how during the first half of the twentieth century the best an ambitious black person could hope to become was a minister or a teacher.

        oh, boy. at this point, I’m going to assume you’re deliberately misreading me. do you.

        • J

          During Jim Crow, the best career option for ambitious Negroes was to attend “normal” schools

          This is not a factual argument either. Who are you to say what “the best career option” is or was for anybody ever? No statement that expresses value is factual. Also, it is not historically correct. Anyway, you have not presented any facts to disprove “the idea that there was some ineffable nobility that’s been lost since the end of the Civil Rights Movement,” which, you admit, is your main point.

          • you know, this part about “the best career option” actually is not a crazy criticism. what i should have written was that teaching/ministry was a career path that came with social status and was also an attainable profession for Negroes during the Jim Crow years. that’s my bust. i should have made that clearer.

            But this…

            “the idea that there was some ineffable nobility that’s been lost since the end of the Civil Rights Movement

            …is pushing back on your point, that this is a thing that’s obviously true. it’s like you’re asking me for facts when i say i don’t buy your argument that Chicago-style pizza is better than NY-style. You’re not making a factual argument.

  • I can be more brief this time, J.

    I am not misinterpreting Murray; I’m suggesting that his favored terminology might as easily support a notion that different equipment is needed for living at different moments.

    I would consider “complexity, novelty, subtlety, inventiveness, timing, etc.” not as separate yardsticks but as various gradations on a Murray/Ellison scale that, we must acknowledge, was attempting to bring about a rapprochement between Cold War American/Western values and black American culture. In other words, they put forward a vision of black culture that was not a radical or Communist ‘outside’ of American culture but the highest expression of it. But these are not factual statements; they are political maneuvers that are intimately tied to the ways in which black Americans’ membership and participation in the nation had been denied. If you think of Murray and Ellison in the context of McCarthyism, their strenuous protest about how American the negro is makes a bit more sense. It wasn’t purely that they “saw the light” of the flaws in Communism, any more than did Dr. King. Rather, they saw what happened to DuBois, Robeson, and so many others, and developed a rhetoric of Americanness to continue a movement for freedom and recognition that had been stalled by the (sometimes accurate and sometimes nonsensical) charge that civil rights was connected to Communism.

    3) Finally, unless I have missed it, I don’t feel you have addressed this set of questions: What is at stake for you in the maintenance of a single yardstick [a "stomping the blues, Americanist yardstick, to wit] for measuring cultural achievement across all time and space? …

    How could you persuade others who have different technical knowledge and affinities to sort particular art in the same way that you would? Do you think it possible to disentangle [Murray's] notion of artistic standards entirely from a Western tradition that has tried to suggest that women, racial subordinates, queers, and children could neither make worthwhile art nor learn to be good critics of it? In other words, can you ensure that your cultural hierarchy will be solely merit-based and not carry any assumptions that automatically privilege the art you are best trained to appreciate?

    • J

      If you think of Murray and Ellison in the context of McCarthyism, their strenuous protest about how American the negro is makes a bit more sense.

      I find this argument, which has been made by Marxist critics like Barbara Foley (what nerve!), incredibly cynical, even insulting. Ellison always thought of himself as a westerner and as fundamentally American, even while he was a member of the communist party, as did both Wright and Murray. This is something that they all picked up from studying literary modernism, which emphasized the importance of folk elements in national identity and cultural production, not in response to McCarthyism. These men were artists first and foremost, not political reactionaries.

      What is at stake for you in the maintenance of a single yardstick [a "stomping the blues, Americanist yardstick, to wit] for measuring cultural achievement across all time and space?

      I’m not in favor of any such thing. I don’t wish to apply western standards to nonwestern people. I’m in favor of judging African-
      American cultural achievement according to the highest standards of the western cultural tradition. We are westerners are we not? That is the tradition we have inherited, no? We can compete within that tradition just like any other minority.

      I think I answered your question about what is at stake for me. It’s nothing less than what I see as the spiritual well-being and consciousness of black Americans, indeed all Americans, who stand to learn from the wisdom embodied in their complex cultural traditions.

      I take your point about the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that has marred western culture and its aesthetics, but I don’t think the standards themselves are racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. Aestheticism is about form and many discerning critics who champion the western tradition have acknowledged the greatness of works by people from socially marginalized groups. From a literary standpoint, I’ve enjoyed Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison, and Djuna Barnes as much, if not in some cases more, than their white male contemporaries and I believe firmly in the western (some would say eastern!) tradition of formalism. I cannot guarantee the absence of bias, but I have yet to encounter a convincing argument that aestheticism itself is prejudiced against any of the groups you mentioned. Look at how successful Toni Morrison is. To suggest, for example, that new standards were introduced just to elevate her to the status she enjoys is to insult her work.

  • J

    You’re not making a factual argument.

    Are you serious? You’re the one who admits that with these and other posts you set out to dispute certain value judgments and you’re criticizing me for not making a “factual argument”? This is about my biases yet you’re the one using history not to investigate how things *actually* were for black folk during Jim Crow but to prove that there was never an “ineffable nobility” (straw man)? How unbiased and objective of you. You clearly have no agenda whatsoever.

  • J–

    I’m sorry to see that I wasn’t the first to think of Murray and Ellison as ‘responding’ to their Cold War setting. Damn!

    My goal in mentioning Ellison’s affiliation with the Communist party, however, was not to peg him as a reactionary (I’m not name-calling). Rather, it was simply to point to a time when Americanism and Communism had not yet been set against each other and people interested in social equality could think of themselves as both American and Communist (hence the CPUSA). Indeed, before the breakout of the Cold War, a wide array of American interested in social equality considered Communism and anarchism possible routes to getting there… The viability of this route was precisely why it had to be so publicly and violently shut down.

    As you know, Communism is opposite capitalism, not democracy. Particular Communist states can be democratic or autocratic. The Cold War purposely muddied these distinctions and people had to make (or recast) their choices in the high stakes of that moment.

    (By the way, I should say that I’m not sure Wright and Ellison belong, as you put them, in the same sentence regarding an essential commitment to ‘America.’ After all, Wright died in voluntary exile from the US.)

    2) Returning to Ellison, I think it strange that you ascribe to him a pre-existing “Western” ideology opposed to Communist thought when, in fact, Marx is as Western as they come! His critique comes from *inside* British industrial capitalism; it surely does not have much to say about the role of slavery in the colonies, women’s reproductive labor, or peasant agricultures of Asia. This is why everyone outside of Western Europe who has picked up Marx has had to revise him–both Mao and Lenin, to start.

    3) I do not think every aspect of African-American culture should be judged by “the highest standards of the Western tradition.” After reading Tricia Rose’s _Black Noise_, I grew to respect the difference between, say, an Ellison reading and riffing on Dostoevsky and a Jamaican-American DJ interweaving Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, the Clark Sisters and more to catch the minds and imaginations of dancers from throughout the African diaspora in NYC. (My reference to the vaiorus afterlives of bob Marley’s Jammin’ is surely outdated, but my musical taste runs to Old School).

    By the way, if you watch the film _Scratch_, you may find more similarity between early hip-hop DJs and Murray’s blues musicians than you would expect, as both responded to the needs of dancers with improvisatory “breaks”–even using the same language for that moment in time.

    4) The place where you and I depart, it seems, concerns the location of African-American culture and the appropriateness of Western standards to judge it. In this matter, I think there is an interesting, generative contradiction in Murray –who, as you know, hates Morrison and believes precisely that lower standards were devised to “condescend” to her work.

    So, I’ll put it down here, but then I’ll have to leave the last word to you. I have enjoyed our conversation, but I should also get to my required writing and away from my leisure writing.

    Murray suggests, on the one hand, that the only people who exemplify the ideals of openness to change and improvisation in the face of disjuncture are black Americans, whom he raises to the status of Omni-Americans. At the same time, however, he places black cultural production *within* an American/Western frame–precisely the one that has been unable to acknowledge the critical vantage point from which his insight about the sterile culture of the conservative, risk-averse, immutable white Americans who actually call themselves “All-American.”

    I think the legacy of the various -isms you mention is a simple one, Those who come from a denigrated group are acceptable within a Western canon, but only to the extent that they are seen to transcend the very particularity for which they were first denigrated. The logic is that a woman, if she does it like a man, is a genius. But no man must rise ‘above’ maleness, no white person is asked to rise above their nation or class as if it those were parochial. (Who has suggested that Dostoevsky is “too Russian?) No one with any credentials. You, as a reader, have to get with Dostoevsky or too bad for you. However, minoritized writers are expected to ‘transcend,’ translate, abandon, explain, transpose. To hell with that!)

    Thus, the problem regarding the Western aesthetic, as I see it, is not about the absolute exclusion of ‘minoritized’ persons from artistic canons. Rather, the real problem is the insistence that the real location of artistic genius and skill is above, rather than rooted in particularities. If there is any height to be reached, it seems to me proportional to the depth with which one examines particulars. After all, no art is made without given conditions and raw materials–instruments, scales, narratives, technologies…and rules for using them. The extent to which one creatively addresses the limitations of those given conditions and materials is, to me, the measure of greatness… but it is a definition that must be responsive to variations in given conditions and materials.

    To conclude at last… My sense is that, in the same way that white modernists from Picasso to Gertrude Stein were invigorated by the potential for a new language and a new vantage point present in both the form and content of black speech, so too have the most awe-inspiring black artists taken up a position that is within, outside, beneath and above the white West (to be reductive). That’s why when white artists want to get outside they have to black up! That’s why they borrow from African diasporic forms and tropes.

    I do think black folks are inside the West. However, having been the subjects of slavery and colonialism (and their after-lives) has allowed us both to retain and also to generate cultural forms and perspectives that are not reducible to Western ones.

    • J

      I understood you to mean that Ellison and Murray’s Americanist ideology can be read as a reaction against McCarthyism—that is, as a self-serving effort to play up their patriotism during a period when being called “un-American” could have serious consequences. My point is simply that Ellison, Murray, and, yes, Wright (see “Blueprint for Negro Writing”) were literary men and serious students of modernism, an artistic movement that emphasized localism. William Carlos Williams was insisting on the importance of developing a distinctly American literary voice in the ‘20s, as was Dewey in the ‘30s. Constance Rourke had done it even earlier. Ellison, Murray, and Wright were simply part of this intellectual tradition.

      I’ll give Tricia Rose a look, but I would encourage you, in turn, to read Martha Bayles’s aesthetic critiques of hip-hop.

      I’m not really sure what you’re referring to when you say that Murray “hates Morrison.” As far as I know, Albert Murray thinks very highly of Toni Morrison, who has written blurbs for his books. Ellison expressed his admiration for her work in interviews as well. Stanley Crouch, one of Murray’s acolytes, has criticized Morrison’s work. Crouch, however, should not be confused with Murray.

      You may have a point in suggesting that the western aesthetic tradition, at least a certain strain of it, locates artistic genius above particularities, but you are wrong to suggest that minorities and women are the only ones held to this standard. In fact, I was just reading the other day that Dostoevsky accused Turgenev of not being Russian enough! Do you not think there were white, male southern writers who, before Faulkner, were accused of being too southern, too provincial? Many white critics found John Cheever’s work too provincial. Samuel Johnson thought Laurence Sterne’s work didn’t have a broad enough appeal. It was too idiosyncratic, which is just another way of saying too particular. Many a white male writer has been accused of not being cosmopolitan enough.

      Anyway, modernism and postmodernism, both western movements, reacted against all that. They questioned the cult of the universal and did in fact locate artistic genius in particularities, the local, folklore, etc. The multiculturalist reaction against classical western aestheticism is in fact itself a western phenomenon. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a work of unrivaled particularity and it is widely hailed as the greatest novel of the 20th century. So your argument is valid, but only up to a point.

      I’ll have to leave it at that because I have reading of my own to do. Good exchange though, and I’ll be checking out your blog.

  • J–

    I couldn’t resist a short reply.

    Your reference to Wright’s “Blueprint” seems not to grasp that his ‘localism” as not “simply” modernist or Rourkean. It was also Popular Front strategy. It was only when the Comintern moved away from popular front strategies that Wright parted ways with the party. (See Mullen’s _Popular Fronts_). I maintain my point that Americanism and communism were not viewed as diametrically opposed before the Cold War. There is something ahistorical about your attempt to make them always and ever thus, as is your strange suggestion that Marxism is not Western.

    On the other hand, I take your point that I misspoke when I wrote “no” white man is asked to do these things. What I meant to say, however, was that the path out of particularity for white writers has been easier and has, in fact, been forged on their shared access to something that they have agreed that white women and colonized people can’t have. (I taught in an all-white, all-male English department. I’ve seen this up-close.)

    I’m suggesting that all good literature is particular (no narrative could occur in a completely unspecified place and time with utterly unspecified objects and relationships, no here/there/he/she/it/we/they). It is not the job of the writer to avoid particularity but the job of the reader to go down into and rise above the particularity. I have found troubling, pervasive, and persistent the unwillingness of traditional white readers to do so (and I’ve found this with American and European students). They either want to naively dismiss the particulars or suggest that nothing can be said beyond them, when it comes to work especially by black American writers.

    Finally, I am not aware of the full history between Murray and Morrison, but I recall reading in Henry Louis Gates’s interview with Murray (“King of Cats”) that he felt Morrison’s Pulitzer for Beloved was undeserved. He compared her unfavorably to Jane Austen, whom he considered the kind of woman writer whom “you can’t get your fastball by.”

    Perhaps he changed his opinion.

    Thank you for this exchange and, in advance, for visiting my blog.

    • J

      I never said communism and localism were always incompatible. What I said was that Ellison, Murray, and Wright came to emphasize localism as a key to art and identity through their readings of modernist authors, particularly Joyce and Mann, to say nothing of the most “modern” 19th century author, Dostoevsky. In other words, their ideas about the novel and black people’s relationship to America did not come from communism but from modernism (i.e. novel reading).

      I also never suggested that Marxism wasn’t western. I never even discussed Marxism as such. What I find strange is how you seem to conflate Marxism and communism, as if they mean exactly the same thing.

      I once was in a seminar with a student who described a major modernist work by a white male American author as “the worst book he had ever read.” This was in Europe. The so-called traditional reader of any color is provincial and ignorant. This does not reflect a problem with western aesthetic ideology but with individual readers who lack the cultural capital, training, or intellectual curiosity needed to understand different aesthetic experiences. They’re just poor readers.

      In the article you mention Murray is referring to Morrison’s Nobel Prize, not a Pulitzer. He said that it “smacks of do-goodism,” probably because there had been a petition to get her the initial Pulitzer. He’s not commenting on her work, but the politics behind her getting the prize. Murray believes that art stands or falls on its own. I’m not sure how you can conclude from this that he “hates Morrison.”

  • J, my friend, unless you’ve read Mullen (or any of the other literature about Popular Front strategies), your insistence that modernism was the sole source of these three wrtiers’ “ideas about the novel and black people’s relationship to America, is selective. The influence of Joyce and Dostoevsky on these three writers is well known and I don’t dispute it. What I do dispute is the puritanism of your “not x but y” formulation, when, in fact, their very careers suggest an interplay of Communism and Americanism followed by a break.

    I haven’t read ‘King of Cats’ since it was collected in Gates’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. So, assuming you’ve read it more recently, I have to defer to you on the Noble/Pulitzer crux. However, your factual correction regarding the Morrison prize in question does not address the fastball comment and the unfavorable comparison to Austen. Are these not about Morrison’s work? Moreover, in the impertinent comparison to Austen, with whom Morrison shares only sex but neither nationality nor style, do we not have an example of poor reading, even from someone with gobs of cultural capital and intellectual curiosity?

    The way you slip from “probably” to “is” and end with correction is not arguing in good faith.

    Please read yourself, J. I do. (Read you and re-read myself).

  • J

    The notion that I am not arguing in good faith while you are busy putting words in someone’s mouth is almost as laughable as the suggestion that “factual arguments” do not involve bias.

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