Monday, October 15, 2007
Selected Minor Works: Don't Check My Chromosome
Race and Music in America
Justin E. H. Smith
Books consulted or discussed in this essay:
William L. Benzon, Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books, 2002)
Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves (Belknap Press, 2004)
Cecil Brown, Stagolee Shot Billy (Harvard University Press, 2003)
David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006)
William Labov et al., Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change (Walter de Gruyter, 2006)
Jason Tanz, Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America (Bloomsbury, 2006)
A prisoner in a maximum-security facility in Warren, Ohio, where I once did some do-gooding, or tried, offered me this bit of folk wisdom: "You've got your white people, see, and you've got your black people; you've got your Chinese people, and you've got your Puerto Rican people. It's as simple as that." He himself was Mexican but for some reason his own people did not make the cut.
Is it as simple as that? 18th-century natural philosophers would have included Laplanders, and placed them at the bottom of the hierarchy (the great Aufklärer Alexander von Humboldt did try in his way to stick up for them, arguing that they are not really swarthy at all, just dirty). My Mexican felon had probably never heard of Laplanders, let alone Saami, but in any case he was being more comprehensive than Americans typically feel the need to be. For us, the taxonomy is usually binary: in the beginning, God created Black and White.
In America, the contingent fact that our phenotypes are relatively different has led us to believe that the differing phenotypes are what is causing the racism. Yet the faintest interest in comparison with other histories in other parts of the world would quickly reveal that interethnic strife is often just as nasty and intractable between neighboring groups with identical genetic backgrounds.
Our differing genetic backgrounds in America do not appear, from a historical perspective anyway, to be what initially made possible the creation of a new nation built on slave labor. At the beginning of the Age of Exploration, the slave trade had long been based in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. For reasons having mostly to do with the internal politics of the Ottoman Empire, this source dried up, and some adventurous entrepreneurs turned to West Africa. But they did not go there out of any a priori commitment to the subhuman status of Africans, and thus to their eligibility for a life of slavery. Rather, it seems, an economic necessity compelled the slave traders to look to Africa for the natural resource that sustained their industry, and in consequence over time, first an Atlantic, and then a global racial order emerged in which the subordination of Africans came to seem written into the natural scheme of things.
The people being sold and sent off to the New World were not, at least initially, undifferentiated blacks. Rather, they were simply prisoners, sold like the poor Crimean Slavs before them, by dint of bad luck and according to ancient rules of warfare. There is bountiful historical evidence that no single concept of blackness existed much prior to Marcus Garvey and the emergence of the pan-Africanist movement. Well into the 19th century, slaves continued to be identified in terms of their African ethnic belonging, and not every African ethnicity or social class was deemed suitable for enslavement. A revealing anecdote tells us of an African noble who worked as a slave trader with Europeans on the coast, who through mistaken identity was himself sold into slavery, worked for several years on a cotton or tobacco plantation somewhere in the South, finally was able to have his identity confirmed, received profuse apologies from his owners, was sent to England, and eventually made his way back to west Africa... where he resumed his former occupation as slave trader. Did he not feel any common bond of brotherhood with the Africans he was selling? Did he not learn a thing during his years of enslavement? Evidently he did not. The chromosome --or perhaps better, the phenotype to which it is said to give rise-- had not yet come forth as a criterion for the perception of bonds of reciprocal obligation and solidarity.
This will be the first in a series of essays on race, with especial attention to the fundamental racial rift in American history, namely, that between 'black' and 'white'. I will let the quotation marks drop in future occurrences of these terms, but the reader is invited to read them back in, and to think of them, specifically, as scare quotes. For to the extent that racial difference exists, it is not interesting; and to the extent that it is interesting, it is in fact just the same thing as cultural difference. I was only able to come to see this very gradually, after having spent years in countries other than my own and becoming convinced that America has no particular Sonderweg. Its internal conflicts may be approached just like those of any other country. They may, that is, be understood. Approached comparatively, scientifically, soberly, the difference between blacks and whites ceases to appear so much as a natural fact, and comes into clearer resolution as a consequence of a particular history. Of course it does. How could it not? And would it have been so hard for just one of the countless adults I encountered in my American childhood to have pointed this out?
1. Danté, Jimbo, and Mr. Disney
I spent my American childhood on a defunct chicken farm in Rio Linda, California: a particularly bleak, trailer-park-riddled exurb to Sacramento's north, just on the wrong side of a sprawling air force base. It is a town that seems to have been named by someone who did not speak Spanish, and knew nothing of adjective-noun gender agreement. Rio Linda is best known as the butt of a long-running joke on Rush Limbaugh's national radio show, who, in spite of his usual condescending populism, enjoys following up every multisyllabic or foreign term with a dumbed-down version of the same term, as he puts it, "for you people in Rio Linda." (I confess that as far as I'm concerned, this is Rush Limbaugh at his best.)
I have seen the stationery of the Minnesota Scandinavians who in the 1930s specialized in convincing their fellow Swedes and Norwegians to buy land in Rio Linda, sight unseen. The letterhead shows a paradisiac scene, of orange trees and bright sun, beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. My mother's ancestors were convinced, I believe, by that stationery alone. And even if there were in the end no orange groves, but only chicken coops, I believe there was always a certain pride in having made it to California, though they made it there alongside countless Okies and Arkies they would always find a bit beneath them (and that is the other half of my story).
I spent a year at Rio Linda Senior High School before dropping out (I am still waiting for my diploma honoris causa). Most of my memories of that year have to do with the class period I whiled away every morning in Mr. Disney's print shop, with sundry boys who had long ago been selected out of academic, college-bound classes. Rio Linda had a strong legacy of vocational training: print shop, metal shop, auto shop, all in high-ceilinged rooms with machines whirring and boys talking tough.
Now it is well-known that prisons and public schools are each other's mirror images, and evidently they are designed by the same architects, but nowhere is this clearer than in shop class. A photo of Mr. Disney's boys circa 1987 would leave you with roughly the same feeling as an archival image of a 1950s reform school, or an 1880s railroad crew: interchangeable, anonymous, cast-off young men with nothing, but nothing, to look forward to, and yet all (or most) beaming with a self-love that would have you believe they are young gods.
There was Danté, for example, with the shiny Lakers jacket, the cubic-zirconium stud, and the corn-rowed hair, whose probation officer would come by every few weeks to check on him, to whom Danté would always respond: 'Yes, sir.' And there was Jimbo, who was in the National Guard and had been kicked out of his home by an abusive stepfather, who was rumored to be a young initiate of the Ku Klux Klan, and to know something of the spray-painted swastikas that had recently appeared on campus. And there was me, lost in escapist fantasies of far-away lands, yet recording far more of this scene, in far greater detail, than I ever could have predicted, or at the time would have wanted.
It is thanks to Mr. Disney that I ended up spending only a year at Rio Linda Senior High School. The trouble started when I attempted to reproduce a flyer on the equipment made available in shop class for a Young Communist League gathering, forthcoming in San Francisco (100 miles or so away; in any case a different world). Mr. Disney wasn't having it, and Jimbo and Danté were squarely on his side. "Why don't you just go to Russia?" Jimbo taunted. "Shit. Russia? That ain't cool," Danté added. This was the end of what had for most of the year been a fairly secure détente between me and the print-shop boys.
We were permitted to listen to the radio during shop: this was the benefit of having no future. Jimbo would always turn the dial to KZAP, the rock station, and Danté to FM-102, the "urban hits" station. And it would move back and forth, from 'Jump' to 'Freak-A-Zoid'; from Chaka Khan back to 'Rock You Like a Hurricane'. It was all very cheerful, this endless struggle, but one did get the sense that were it not for Mr. Disney's iron-fisted control of that print shop, lives could have been lost on the proposition. And still some days, notwithstanding the swastikas and all the external markers of affiliative difference, something transpired during that period that can only be identified as cameraderie. Danté claimed to have a 35 year old lover, and Jimbo was impressed. Jimbo, in turn, had been to Chicago O'Hare on his way to basic training in Indiana, and Danté was enthralled by Jimbo's account of how large the terminals were.
"One of y'all niggas is fat, y'all!" Danté yelled one morning as he walked by the fifth-period P.E. class I shared with Jimbo. He had Jimbo in mind, who had been cheating on his push-ups by allowing his gut never to leave the ground. Some mornings Jimbo would burst into shop class and exclaim, "Hey-yo, Dawn-tay," imitating the way he imagined black people to speak. One would be hard pressed to say whether this was tribute or derision, and into this ambiguity, I think, are condensed centuries of history.
Early that year, before my seditious pamphleteering had become a problem, Jimbo's sister, a sophomore to my freshman, found me 'sweet', and implored her brother to drive me home after school in the back of his pick-up truck, the one --and I am not making this up-- with the genuine 'Bocephus' sticker in the back window. Jimbo grudgingly agreed. Some days the truck was filled with other rough teens, chewing Skoal, listening to a Charlie Daniels Band cassette, talking about who was going to kick whose ass (I was a cipher: neither in danger of getting my ass kicked, nor eligible for any real experience of fraternity). One day we stopped off at the studio apartment Jimbo was renting above the Quik-Stop across from the air force base's main gate. There was a mattress on the floor, and a fold-out card table with a box of Frosted Flakes on it. There was an American flag nailed sloppily to the wall, and a hammer hanging on two nails next to the door. Jimbo noticed me looking at it and offered, by way of explanation: "That there's my nigger beater."
My first girlfriend's mother liked that word too. She also drove a pick-up truck, and on weekends went with her boyfriend up to Tahoe to see the classic-car shows at John Ascuaga's Nugget. She had a collection of Patsy Cline wigs that she wore to pairs dancing nights down at the Country Comfort Lounge in Folsom, not far from the legendary prison. "Niggers don't know nothin' else but fightin'," she said to me once. "God damn if my little girl ever gets pregnant by a nigger."
All of this is to say that this one little lexical item, which for the second half of my life has been utterly unspeakable in the circles I've come to frequent, was for the first half standard fare. I admit it had an air of naturalness about it. The way it was said made it seem as though there really was such a class of people: such is the mystifying power of language.
And it is also to say --and this will be a corollary more controversial, perhaps, than the first point-- that I take myself to be in a position to conclude a thing or two about race in America. Having spent time with white kids who had "nigger beaters," and black kids who called the boys with nigger beaters "niggas", what strikes me most --and what is missing most, say, from the judgments of Northeastern white liberals who meet full-fledged racists even less often than they meet black people-- is that it is precisely where racial difference is most stressed that the boundaries between racial groups are most fluid.
This is borne out linguistically: William Labov's sumptuous Atlas of North American English shows many of the same phonetic traits popping up on the South Side of Chicago as in majority-white counties of Alabama. And when Danté called Jimbo a "nigga", the only possible parsing of this fraught term's connotation was as "guy", which in the search for rough cognates calls to mind nothing so quickly as the Yiddish mensch. To switch, not unconsciously, from Yiddish to German, Danté and Jimbo were Mitmenschen.
For a number of years, I did my best to fit in in the Northeast, to pretend I was all Connecticut neocortex, with none of that swamp-dwelling reptilian American brain left in me. Recently, for whatever reason, I have been called back to trawl the swamp, as it were (from the safe distance of Europe, anyway: you won't find me conducting any ethnomusicological expeditions into the Ozarks of my ancestors any time soon), to reexamine its sundry life-forms and to see if I can't say something new about it.
This here's my attempt: America is not so much divided into black and white, as into those born into the swamp of race (all blacks, and all whites with roots in the South; all who spend time in prisons, or vocational schools, or shop class) on the one hand, and those on the other hand for whom it is a distant abstraction, a part of history but not a lived reality. If I may be permitted to riff on Stalin's comment about the 'Tartar' who lies beneath any scratched Russian: scratch a racist, and you'll find a wigger (a term I've seen several Northeastern academics --and not all of them Central Asia specialists-- misunderstanding as "Uighur"): the ambiguous Eminem figure who is simultaneously as black as a white person can be, yet, somehow, for all that, rightly or not, comes across just as cretinously white as David Duke.
Still, white Americans in search of roots simply have no choice but to look where Marshall Mathers has gone without apology. As Tom Breihan put it recently in the Village Voice: what else do you expect the white kids to be doing? Listening to Nickelback? They are crossing over to the only thing that's living and pulsing, the only thing that's ever lived and pulsed in American folk history. Allan Bloom would no doubt have hoped to convince them of the sublimity of Mozart's 'Requiem', but he is now assuredly as dead as the Salzburger himself, and with him, we may hope, the myth that white Americans are, in their souls, Europeans. We are not. We ---except perhaps for a few Mayflower children to whom I, anyway, am not related-- are all descendents of the Middle Passage.
2. The Storm-and-Stress of Stagger Lee
In 1895 in the redlight district of St. Louis, a black man shot another black man over a Stetson hat, or perhaps a gambling debt, and so gave rise to the legend of Stagger Lee. The legend passed through a blues permutation at the hands of Mississippi John Hurt and others, and by the late 1950s it had evolved into an ebullient rock-and-roll song. At this point I am going to have to ask you, reader, to be patient, and to sit through a few viewing sessions made possible by YouTube. Here, to begin, are the Isley Brothers ("America's most frantic threesome," the host calls them), circa 1960:
The white teens --London "mods", evidently-- are in ecstasy. Perhaps they are just happy to be on television. The three brothers seem, anyway, to be having fun too. The one has a toy gun, and the other is laughing as he collapses to the ground, a feigned victim of brotherly murder. All are dressed up to meet television standards, indeed to meet the standards that rock-and-roll itself enforced until the mid-1960s, until TV and film went technicolor, and LSD replaced chewing gum as something for the guardians of youth to worry about. The brothers all have matching skinny ties, and matching lye-straightened pompadours, about which Malcolm X writes at fascinating length in his autobiography (or perhaps it was Alex Haley). The lyrics are hard to decipher, but if you listen closely all of the elements of the Stagger Lee legend are there: Billy, the .44, the gambling debt, the Stetson hat as what Henry Louis Gates would no doubt call a 'signifier'.
What strikes me most about this clip is the sheer joy of it. The lead singer, Ronald Isley, is currenty in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, an institution best known as Timothy McVeigh's last stop. He is in not for murder, but for tax evasion, yet it is a fitting enough blues ending for the life of an American folk musician par excellence, who was there at the inception of all sorts of trends and careers that now are part of history. A sessional musician who performed with the Isley Brothers in the early 1960s, Jimmy James, would soon change his name to Jimi Hendrix and under that moniker would do versions of blues songs that did not hide what they were about: typically, murder, as well as other, familiar paths to ruin. But for a time, under the TV cameras, and the chaperoning gaze of the TV host, Stagger Lee was good fun.
There have been countless other versions of the Stagger Lee legend. YouTube offers up more clips of chubby white lawyers and accountants in places like Columbus, Ohio, imitating Mississippi John Hurt than you will ever be bored enough to watch. There is also a Grateful Dead version, but you, reader, are invited to skip this chapter of Stagger Lee's history too. Let us instead move forthwith to what I take to be the most significant development in the Stagger Lee legend since its incorporation into rock-and-roll by Lloyd Price in the 1950s, to wit, the Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave's version of the song, from his 1996 album, Murder Ballads:
Where to begin? As an aside, I note I have long sensed that if only I were naturally as thin as Nick Cave, my life would have been just as charmed. To which complaint many might reply, But your life is charmed, and to which I would reply, in turn, Tell it to my flab. I am a tiresome school marm, while he has countless minions of sweet goths lusting after him. In any case race and its representation in art and culture are at issue here, not weight, and in this connection I agree with Will Self, writing in the Guardian ('Dark Matter', June 2, 2007), that Nick Cave is among the best and most significant lyricists of our age, and if he chooses to appropriate the Stagger Lee legend, this is with good artistic reason.
In Stagolee Shot Billy, a fascinating if problematic book, Cecil Brown studies the legend of Stagger Lee, and in particular its ancestral relationship to gangsta rap. (I should perhaps confess at this point that I am such a staunch defender of orthographic correctitude as to have long avoided writing about race in America, simply because I have immense difficulty bringing myself to spell certain unavoidable words in their now-accepted hip-hop variation.) He also considers the legend's attractivess to white musicians. Brown cites William L. Benzon's argument that "European-American racism has used African-Americans as a screen on which to project repressed emotions, particularly sex and aggression. The key to this insight is the concept of projection." One aspect of this projection, Benzon goes on, "is that whites are attracted to black music as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express though music from European roots." Cave for his part offers his own explanation of his decision to record a version of the song: "The reason why we [recorded it] was that there is already a tradition. I like the way the simple, almost naive traditional murder ballad has gradually become a vehicle that can happily accommodate the most twisted acts of deranged machismo. Just like Stag Lee himself, there seems to be no limits to how evil this song can become."
Brown and Benzon are skeptical of the motivations of a white artist like Cave, yet it is worth asking what sort of depths the singer could have scraped had he not had the African American tradition available to him. In a typical love song ('Do You Love Me?', 1994), Cave describes the object of his desire as "red-shadowed, fanged/and hairy and mad," and when he catches sight of her, it is more fear than longing that she conjures in him: "Here she comes/blocking the sun/blood running down the inside of her legs." Whatever 'repressed emotions' are coming out here, they are not being projected onto the screen of black culture. If anything, these images are distinctly rooted in European folk culture, which is to say European folk fears: vampirism, menstruation, female body hair. Let no one then say that white musicians must look to African-American forms in order to bring to light their darker demons. For Nick Cave, this turn is elective.
Cave is no doubt the first self-described Christian apologist ever to have sung: "I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole. He claims to have heard this line in an old blues recording by a man identifying himself as 'Two-Time Slim' (google this last phrase and you will get nothing but the MySpace pages of insufferable 20-year-olds). His is a Christianity as far removed from that of the social conservatives as possible: it takes seriously that dogmatic point --which all recite, but few dwell on-- that men are fallen, and goes on to describe the pain and terror, and occasional joy, of this fallen state. It seems to me that his version of Stagger Lee is a sort of pursuit of this fallenness to its most extreme limit. On Cave's view, no doubt --and here he is in agreement with the majority of Christian theologians-- fallenness is a condition of humanity as such, and not, as it were, those other people's property.
It may be that Cave is afforded depths of experience by elbowing in on a musical tradition to which he cannot claim any hereditary right. But he also musically conveys depths of experience in my view more forcefully than the great mob of gangsta rappers who owe a similar debt to the legend of Stagger Lee and to the African-American tradition of toasting, or reciting stories in verse. For Brown, "[t]he screen Cave adds to the Stagolee tradition tells us more about the culture of the singer than it does of the culture of the song. Stagolee as African-American tradition is the screen that allows the projection to take place." But what, I wonder, has Brown really learned about Australia by listening to this piece? Certainly nothing about Aborigenes, or the experience of the Scotch-Irish penal colonist. Cave sings Stagger Lee as a trawler and an archivist, though admittedly not as an American.
Why focus on an Australian who chooses his forms of musical expression cautiously, as opposed to an illiterate trailer-park-dweller like Eminem who simply cannot help but do what he does? (And is it for just this oneness of Eminem's being and language that Seamus Heaney praised our white rapper laureate not so long ago as having "created a sense of what is possible" and "sent a voltage around a generation"?) What I wish to show with the example of Nick Cave is that even a studious Australian can with some effort tap into the vitality of this tradition, and express, as Benzon puts it, a part of himself that could not come out through European forms. He does not have to, but he can. And this has always been a fortiori the case for white Americans, and still more, I venture, for those white Americans from the swampier parts, where the word "nigger" is still casually used (in either its '-er' or its '-a' variant).
Benzon and Brown would have it that 'Europeans' like Eminem and Nick Cave consciously turn to musical traditions that afford them depths of experience they can not get from their own. (Is Sydney punk in the late 1970s, by the way, a 'European form'?) Might it not rather be the case that there are pale-skinned people dispersed around the globe who, by dint of history, fail to find a way to express themselves, or everything they want to say, through European forms? If I may paraphrase Tom Breihan: What else do you expect them to do? Be Nickelback? Whitesnake? Mozart?
On my humble analysis, American popular music (whether made by Americans or not) has gone through successive cycles of blanchissement, a process that generally continues until it reaches intolerable proportions, and suddenly the floodgates open and the white musicians again are free to acknowledge their debt. The floodgates opened, for the better, when Elvis Presley moved into "race music" territory; and rather less interestingly with the displacement of hair metal by rap metal 15 or so years ago. My sense is that "emo" is at present over-ready to be blown off the stage by something more vital, something less whiny and irrelevant, which is to say again something that re-taps the roots of American folk culture: a culture which never had any special subdivision labelled "whites only" to begin with.
3. Bing and Time
If you simply need an American, anyway, here is Bing Crosby doing a version of "Old Man River":
I confess every time I watch this it makes me shiver. Bing's delivery is simply perfect. Still, frankly, there is something about this performance that I find much more disturbing than even Nick Cave's version of Stagger Lee. There's almost a sense that Bing is inhabiting the role of the person who is inflicting the sweat and pain, not the role of the one suffering from it. Note the diabolical spirit that overtakes him two-thirds of the way through, with 29 seconds left on the clock: it is a mocking and sadistic slavedriver speaking through him; not a slave. And when Bing Crosby sings about his "aching feet", one can not help but imagine him kicking them up on the club table after a particularly arduous 18 holes. The sort of suffering that brought this song into existence, though, was of an altogether different caliber.
The river in question is the Mississippi, though those who first sang the song no doubt imagined themselves on the Jordan, on the Nile, replaying the lives of the long-suffering people of the Good Book. It must have made a great deal of sense, to see the Mississippi as one continuous flow with those ancient, Biblical currents, just as the plight of the slaves in the New World was so easily imagined into the pages of the Old Testament. Obviously, at its most general, the river is not any particular river, but only a metaphor for time. Aristotle asked long ago: if time is a river, then what is it flowing in? This is a good question, but for lyrical purposes the metaphor works. An individual man's life is short, but the river's flow is infinite, and this contrast is a source of both succor and dread.
The river represents endless time, unchanging time, just the sheer and continuous flow of generation after generation laboring for nothing. But there is another kind of time into which Old Man River was eventually to be channeled: historical time, in which the song's various appropriations and mutations throughout the years would change the meaning of its very words. Historical time, unlike endless time, can move faster or slower, according to the spirit of the age. Recently, it has been speeding up exponentially, so that now Bing comes across as coeval with Moses, and the prefix 'ur-' becomes indistinguishable from 'pre-': the origins of things are irrelevant, and only their latest version matters. This process was already well underway when Bing sang.
How can Bing possibly be so callous as to believe that he is in a position to sing the pain of a slave? He believes no such thing. He likely believes nothing at all about the song he is singing. He is singing on television, the same medium that allowed the Isley Brothers to transform Stagger Lee into an expression of joy.
During my first séjour in Berlin 17 years ago, NWA was all the rage. Clueless German youth would sit in bars, rolling their own cigarettes, entertaining serious conversations about the economics of Reunification, or the need for more transgender restrooms, as in the background Ice Cube, in the role of 'Dopeman', instructed a buyer to have his girl get down on her knees, and suck his dick. Only a few of the Germans seemed to have sufficient English to detect that the scene being described bore only the most distant of relations to the poetry of Black Liberation à la Gil Scott Heron, to which they were all, they claimed, ideologically committed. Ice Cube has since moved on to other roles, and in Berlin things are, mutatis mutandis, quite the same.
It strikes me now that what those German kids were missing, in all their political earnestness, was that the music in the background was a toast, which is to say a narrative art, if not its most inspired instance, and not some sort of program statement. Ice Cube and Eazy E had something to say, but they were never exactly the Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of Black America. I am prepared to say that these white kids in Berlin were fundamentally misunderstanding this black music, and had no business listening to it. I am also prepared to say that American kids are not, for the most part, prone to this sort of misunderstanding. There is a shared history ensuring that the Urformen of the legends that gave rise to the music will make some kind of natural sense. Others can electively seek to understand these forms, and come to interpret them with genius. A certain broad segment of white America, the one I have been attempting to describe, cannot fail to understand them.
Berlin, 5 October, 2007
In memory of Kyle 'Tracker' Brown, 1971-2007
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Posted by Justin E. H. Smith at 03:57 AM | Permalink