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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Generalize/essentialize before reading critiques of such generalizations

I've sometimes accepted writings of various authors uncritically, without really problematizing the authors' arguments. For example, I wrote two papers asking what makes a particular novel (Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon) and the work of a particular musician (Ella Fitzgerald) "African American." I basically chose between various critics' frameworks for African American music and literature to examine how Ella Fitzgerald and Song of Solomon fit within these frameworks or do not. The music-related paper is below:

Part of why I'm writing about these generalizations is related to a book chapter I read recently by musicologist Ronald Radano, in his book Lying Up a Nation. The book's first chapter, while perhaps too dense and theoretical for some, was useful for me in its attempt to destabilize essentialized judgments about what "black music" is. In particular, I was struck by Radano's argument that ideas and definitions of "black music" have been produced in a white-dominated world and discourse on music. This has huge implications for some of the theorists I've read, including Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., and Portia K. Maultsby (see Ella Fitzgerald paper link), because some of their more Afrocentric ideas of black musical difference were produced within white frameworks (later in the book, from what I remember the chapter saying, Radano writes about how even the idea of propulsive rhythm as a key trait of black music in the U.S. and elsewhere was produced in white Modernist contexts).

This book chapter got me thinking about several ideas about which I've read varying perspectives, including the idea of blackness being produced by, and in opposition to, whiteness and vice versa. I suspect that in a white supremacist world, every group of color's histories are intertwined with whiteness, as whites' histories are intertwined with theirs. This breaks down the myth of cultural purity or autonomy, whether spoken about by neo-Nazis talking of a "pure Aryan race" (which doesn't exist) or by Amiri Baraka in his book Blues People, which often uses the adjective "autonomous" to describe the history of African American music. Now, of course, white and black nationalism have very different goals and results for different groups of people, so I want to be clear that I do not believe Baraka's ideas have the same uses and consequences as those of neo-Nazis. But the idea of supposed cultural purity as problematic is something that really sparked something in my imagination, so that I hope to read more about it in the future.

Another idea I thought of was the idea of "the music itself." Years ago I thought that music could be judged without any social context in mind. I realize now that even that is a position with a particular social context of privilege. Radano challenges the idea that constant characteristics of music can exist over centuries, as timeless, separate from social contexts.

A final idea: one could think from reading this blog post that Radano thinks black music and studies of it are only derived from European and Eurocentric origins; far from it. Radano acknowledges that American society has privileged whites and that in such white supremacist contexts, black musicians could bring their own ideas to the table, but even those were produced within, and against, an artificially separated white set of assumptions, ideas, theories, and so forth. I think Radano is right in arguing that Afrocentric discussions of music have still produced within a white-dominated world; for example, a seminal text arguing for African retentions in African American culture was written by a white scholar, Melville Herskovits.

So perhaps this book will cause me to rethink how I consider race to operate in various cultural forms, like literature and music. We shall see.

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