“It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear.”James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone”, Collected Essays
A Black, gay intellectual and activist who did not adhere to one ideology, James Baldwin, born nearly a century ago, is a singularly important author for our contemporary world. Baldwin’s grasp of his times was exceptional—and exceptionally prescient and prophetic.
In these times, after events like many police murders of Black Americans, the racist Trump presidency, and the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, many social media posts, articles, and books, as well as Raoul Peck’s acclaimed 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, have reinvigorated the public’s interest in Baldwin’s work. One theme in his work that is gaining increasing attention is music. In his 1964 essay, “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin writes, “I don’t know anything about music,” but of course, he was being facetious, as literary historian Radiclani Clytus notes. Other scholars like Josh Kun, Emily Lordi, and D. Quentin Miller have written articles and book chapters in the last quarter-century about music in Baldwin’s work.
The most thorough treatment of Baldwin’s oeuvre in relation to music is Ed Pavlic’s 2016 book, Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. Pavlic admirably applies a musical and lyrical lens to Baldwin’s entire body of work rather than only works focusing on music. For this essay, however, I focus on select music-centered texts to examine what Baldwin’s ideas about music reveal about music and history in the 21st century. Though I mostly discuss nonfiction, Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) proves pertinent for my analysis.
In his writing, including about music, Baldwin highlights a crucial paradox: the simultaneous construction of race and the lived consequences of this construction. In other words, Baldwin critiques race as a made-up concept while acknowledging its resultant different realities for whites and people of color, especially Black Americans. He does not pretend to be “colorblind”, as he knows that ignoring race and racism would not solve anything, but his relentless inquiries into and critiques of white supremacy and of its ongoing significance make it clear that his prescience for today’s reality and his forward-thinking insight into what would become our world are most unusual.
From reading much of Baldwin’s work, including everything in the Baldwin anthologies Collected Essays and The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, I became aware of multiple themes in Baldwin’s music-centered texts, themes that reveal this acknowledgment and refutation of the concept of race by showing how racial slavery creates—in the present tense—differences in experiences and musical expression between people constructed as Black and as white. Themes that highlight his points about race include the roots of the music, the music’s reflection of specific attitudes, and interpretations of the music and its meanings.
Baldwin makes the significance of the history undergirding these themes clear and how that history begins for Black American music with American racial slavery. Baldwin’s writing illuminates the significance of racial slavery in American music history, and not only in genres associated with Black Americans.
When discussing Baldwin’s career and music-centered writing, it is important to view Baldwin’s body of work as an interconnected work that is dynamic and evolving. Many critics, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Julius Lester, have falsely distinguished between Baldwin’s earlier and later periods, arguing, for example, that his later work is simplistic in ways that his early nonfiction is not (Gates).
However, I view Baldwin’s decades of work as one body because of the consistent quality of his writing—editor Randall Kenan notes the quality of Baldwin’s sentences in his introduction to the Baldwin compendium The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings—and his carefully considered perspectives. In that vein, Baldwin’s work of different periods comments on each other’s ideas, regardless of chronology.
American racial slavery is not the aberration in US history that many assume it is. As historian David R. Roediger summarizes in How Race Survived U.S. History, scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois have argued that the system of capture and the forced transatlantic movement of Black bodies from different regions of Africa to the “New World” created the modern system of white supremacy. This argument means that such a system created whiteness and Blackness as we think of them today—that no such institutionalized distinction existed before the 17th century.
In his 1984 essay “On Being ‘White’ … and Other Lies”, published in Essence magazine and later collected in Roediger’s edited anthology Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, Baldwin writes, “No one was white before he/she came to America.” Roediger’s introduction to the collection argues that Baldwin was “[p]erhaps overdrawing a point, in that imperial expansion and the slave trade made race resonate globally,” but the argument was still “a useful provocation illuminating U.S. peculiarities.”
To Baldwin, many groups, including the Irish, Italian, and Jewish populations that came to the US, became white in ways that they couldn’t in their homelands—after distancing themselves from Blacks. The US’ dependence on racial slavery and the different forms of controlling Black labor since its nominal end make it clear that people of different ethnicities benefited—and still benefit—from what historian George Lipsitz calls “the possessive investment in whiteness” and its other side, the oppression of people of color.
That duality, the coexistence of slavery and freedom—of oppression and privilege—has been called “the central paradox of U.S. history” by historian Edmund S. Morgan. Morgan convincingly shows how the enslavement of one group depended on the freedom of another and vice versa. As Roediger discusses in How Race Survived U.S. History, before the advent of racial slavery and events like Bacon’s Rebellion and a 1691 law against interracial sex—the first law in Virginia using “white” to describe people—race was not a viable concept or institution. Therefore, Whiteness, Blackness, race, and racism are relatively recent historical constructions.
Black Notes from the Auction Block
In addition, racial slavery as a system of control and coercive labor did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or Juneteenth: the convict lease system (Blackmon), sharecropping and the resultant cycle of debt, lynching, Jim Crow segregation, and contemporary mass incarceration (Davis) all exist as racialized forms of controlling Black bodies and Black labor.
Some point out that there were whites who have been enslaved in the same system, but whites were not enslaved in masses based on their perceived skin color the way that Blacks were—and continue to be. Furthermore, today whites don’t live with the same experience or legacy of slavery: commensurate with Morgan’s argument, the legacy of that system for whites is of racial freedom, whereas for Blacks, it is of racial slavery. That is not to argue that whites don’t suffer, but racial oppression is not one of the reasons why they suffer.
How did the creation of Whiteness and Blackness affect music? Baldwin understood that Black experiences in the “New World” led to the creation of genres like jazz. His 1979 essay “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption” (found in The Cross of Redemption) starts as a review of critic James Lincoln Collier’s 1978 book, The Making of Jazz, and by the essay’s end, Baldwin explicitly addresses the salience of slavery in the roots of Black American music history.
Baldwin writes, “Life comes out of music, and music comes out of life: without trusting the first, it is impossible to create the second.” Here he argues that the relationship between music and life is reciprocal, that each emerges from the other, but that life experience precedes the making of music, which implies that the experiences of Blacks in America uniquely qualify them to play music that came out of their experiences. As he soon defines it, that experience starts—and ends—with slavery.
He continues, “The rock against which the European notion of the nation-state has crashed is nothing more—and absolutely nothing less—than the question of identity: Who am I? And what am I doing here?” For Baldwin, this question—the basis of individual humanity—is opposed to “the European notion of the nation-state”, an idea that was created in this country by Europeans imposing the system of racial slavery on Blacks transported from Africa.
To Baldwin, the emergence of humanity, life, and music from this system has been an achievement of Black Americans under the colossal weight of cruelty and oppression: a towering achievement that threatens to destroy the primacy of countries and nation-states over the rights of individuals and groups. Therefore, for Baldwin, Black resistance to white systems of domination creates this music.
Baldwin also writes, “… the music began in captivity, and is still, absolutely, created in captivity,” arguing that the system of racial slavery did not end with Emancipation and does not end with what gets called the civil rights movement, which he called “a slave rebellion” in “On Language, Race and the Black Writer” (found in The Cross of Redemption). At the climax of “Of the Sorrow Songs”, at a feverish pitch of intersecting ideas, Baldwin states, “It is out of this, and much more than this, that Black American music springs. This music begins on the auction block.” In an essay that started as a review of a book about jazz, Baldwin claims that jazz is part of a much larger tradition of “Black American music”, all of which “springs” from “the auction block”.
It is significant that Baldwin uses a symbol of racial slavery as a beginning from which Black American music emerges. Again, Baldwin is arguing that racial slavery never ended: claiming that Black American music “begins on the auction block” in the present tense is a crucial move that asserts the primacy of racial slavery in the lives of Black Americans in the 20th century and beyond.
Why does Baldwin use the auction block as his symbol of choice and not, for example, the capture of Blacks in Africa or the journey to the Americas on the Middle Passage? The auction block is the site of the commercial sale of enslaved people in the “New World”, the site on which people became official property. This experience, Baldwin argues, is the genesis of the conditions that give rise to Black American music, including jazz. The people profiting from the sale of Black bodies as property clearly had a different experience than those being sold, and this experience, too, informs the dissemination, consumption, and reception of Black American music.
Baldwin also shows that the attitudes reflected in the music are rooted in Black experiences in racial slavery. In his 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues” (found in The Cross of Redemption), Baldwin argues that Blacks’ acceptance of circumstances, rather than whites’ denial of such conditions, leads to change and the creation of great music. He writes, “And I want to suggest that the acceptance of this anguish one finds in the blues, and the expression of it, creates also, however odd this may sound, a kind of joy.”
Here Baldwin points, as he does in “Of the Sorrow Songs”, to Black Americans as the owners and creators of musical forms like the blues, though again, he claims, “I don’t know anything about music” in “The Uses of the Blues”. He is arguing for life experience and cultural context, rather than isolated musical sounds or individual inspiration, as primary factors that determine the creation of music. While that sentence about acceptance might not immediately suggest a linkage to past and present slavery, the sentence does when examined in relation to a passage in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, in the essay “Down at the Cross” (found in Collected Essays). In this passage, he argues that Blacks experience a feeling of genuine freedom in a way that, ironically, whites cannot:
We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears in some gospel songs, for example, and in jazz. In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them—sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about.
The freedom that he says Blacks feel when they can be themselves without the constraints of a larger culture is connected to the acceptance of surrounding circumstances, including slavery, and to the “double-edged” content of jazz and blues music. Many scholars—including Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., Portia K. Maultsby, Lawrence W. Levine, and Craig Werner—have argued that double meanings, irony, and satire exist in Black American music throughout its history, and Baldwin points to a difference in interpretation of songs, regardless of who writes them, between white and Black musicians.
Baldwin sees various groups’ interpretations of the music and its meanings as based on differing experiences throughout the history of racial slavery. Again, he believes that Blacks experience a feeling of freedom—independence from a larger system of degradation and oppression—in ways that whites do not because whites are tied to this system in a different way than Blacks are. In another text, Baldwin expands on this idea:
“… American slavery had two faces and still has two faces. One of them is visible, and that’s my face, because the Americans imagine that I am their slave, but that other face is your face and that’s the keystone to American slavery: what is happening to you. Now, it’s not a matter of your fighting for my liberty, it’s a matter of your contending with your parents, with your leaders for your life!”(Quoted in Pavlic, Who Can Afford to Improvise?)
Baldwin views this feeling of freedom as the key to life and to music—and, going back to his arguments in “Of the Sorrow Songs” and “The Uses of the Blues”, confronting and accepting “the auction block” is key to this life and music. Baldwin clearly believes that denying and ignoring the problems of slavery and racism do nothing to change them.
Interpretations Out of Sync
Interpretation of Black American music becomes a recurrent theme in Baldwin’s essays and his short story, “Sonny’s Blues”. Baldwin comments in “Sermons and Blues” (found in Collected Essays), a 1959 review of a collection of Langston Hughes’ poems: “… as the white world takes over this vocabulary—without the faintest notion of what it really means—the vocabulary is forced to change. The same thing is true of Negro music, which has had to become more and more complex in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience.”
This relates to the passage in The Fire Next Time because when Baldwin says, “Only people who have been ‘down the line,’ as the song puts it, know what this music is about,” he is referring to the increasing complexity of Black American music, becoming illegible to whites “in order to continue to express any of the private or collective experience” of Blacks in this country, making misinterpretation of the music increasingly common.
In “Last of the Great Masters” (found in Collected Essays), a 1977 review of a book about jazz piano great Earl Hines, Baldwin argues, “The men and women in this book were creating the only musical vocabulary this country has. They were creating American classical music. There isn’t any other, and the American attempts to deny this have led, among other disasters, to the melancholy rise and fall of the late Elvis Presley, who was so highly paid for having a Black sound in a white body. Utter madness, of course, but it does a lot to illuminate the economic situation of Black musicians, who have, alas, Black sounds in Black bodies.”
From reading his argument in “Of the Sorrow Songs”, it is clear that Baldwin views jazz as a larger Black American musical tradition; therefore, when he writes of jazz musicians creating “American classical music”, he is not speaking only of jazz. Like W. E. B. Du Bois’ writing about spirituals in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, Baldwin is arguing that Black Americans have created a larger tradition that is original to America in a way that other traditions are not. He cites Elvis Presley’s appropriation of “a Black sound in a white body” as evidence that “the American attempts to deny this” have led to creating something supposedly original and instead derivative of Black American music and lives.
As D. Quentin Miller notes in his chapter on Baldwin and music in A Historical Guide to James Baldwin, one way that Baldwin showed his love of music was in the frequency of musician characters in his fiction, including in novels like Another Country. The most famous example is in his short story “Sonny’s Blues”, originally published in 1957. The title character is a Black jazz musician arrested for using heroin, and his unnamed brother, admittedly oblivious to what music means to Sonny, narrates the story. In a key passage, the narrator says,
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
Although the narrator knows less about music than Baldwin (despite Baldwin’s claim in “The Uses of the Blues”), Baldwin writes this passage as if the narrator is stumbling upon a great truth. Indeed, Baldwin’s claims in The Fire Next Time and “Of the Sorrow Songs” show that he agrees with the narrator that “not many people ever really hear it.” The narrator, however, is Black, so the passage reveals that to Baldwin, whites are not the only people who misunderstand music, including Black American music.
Nonetheless, like Ralph Ellison’s nameless narrator in Invisible Man, published in 1952, the narrator of “Sonny’s Blues” believes that music is deeply misunderstood by the dominant white capitalist culture: Ellison’s narrator asserts, “I know now that few really listen to this music,” while Baldwin’s narrator argues similarly in the above passage. That both narrators assert this point as a form of certitude (“I know”, both write) suggests that this is a particularly strong conviction for the texts’ authors, regardless of the level of identification Ellison and Baldwin hold with their narrators.
For Baldwin, in the above passage, he writes that music, specifically jazz and other Black American forms, is both social and individual in its meanings—public and private, as Pavlic notes in Who Can Afford to Improvise?—and like his argument in “Sermons and Blues”, the music becomes more complex from the musicians, and to the listeners, when those “personal, private, vanishing evocations” become more than abstractions: something personally “evoked in” the musicians become harder to decipher and more important to express “because it has no words” which makes it “triumphant, too”.
When Baldwin writes that “his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours”, he is writing of a racial “ours”—the triumph is of an instrumental utterance being understood by others, regardless of its complexity, and as Baldwin argues in The Fire Next Time and elsewhere, not everyone understands this music.
Recorded misinterpretations of Black American music go at least as far back as the mid-19th century, for example, in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative from 1845, when Douglass describes whites misunderstanding spirituals (sorrow songs) as evidence that Blacks were happy being enslaved. Many Black American authors and critics in the decades and centuries since, including Amiri Baraka, Nelson George, and Tricia Rose, have written about white misinterpretations of Black American music, including in jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
Listen and Learn
Baldwin stresses in multiple places the importance of hearing, as seen in the above passage from “Sonny’s Blues” and in “The Price of the Ticket” (found in Collected Essays) from 1985, where he writes of his relationship with the painter Beauford Delaney:
I walked into music. I had grown up with music, but, now, on Beauford’s small black record player, I began to hear what I had never dared or been able to hear. Beauford never gave me any lectures. But, in his studio and because of his presence, I really began to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller.
Here Baldwin stresses that constant but passive immersion in music, including while in youth (“I had grown up with music”), is not enough to comprehend its meanings, the multiple “authoritative and double-edged” meanings that he writes of in The Fire Next Time. What makes Black Americans “authoritative” for Baldwin when performing music is their role as authors, creators of this music that whites have often tried to steal from them, as he notes in “Last of the Great Masters”.
Baldwin’s arguments might seem to conflict with scholars who write about Africanisms—traits and practices surviving from different African cultures in the Americas—in Black American music traditions. Baldwin was clearly an Americanist as a thinker rather than an Africanist, but when he writes, “This music begins on the auction block”, he is not saying that racial slavery erased all remnants of many African cultures. Rather, he believes that the experience at the root of the music begins on the auction block and can include the African musical and cultural practices that scholars like Maultsby and Floyd write about in their work.
In addition, Baldwin’s point that acceptance, rather than denial, of circumstances can lead to changing them is a crucial, potent argument for contemporary culture. Whether it’s through conservative attacks against Critical Race Theory or liberal “colorblind” ignorance of the importance of race in American life today, many deny the importance of acknowledging this country’s history of slavery, genocide, and imperialism for moving forward. Acknowledging history is a critical step for making the US live up to its rhetorical ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Some object that acknowledging racialized differences in experiences can be essentialist or racist. It is true, as Baldwin would be the first to point out, that genetic differences between groups constructed as white and Black do not exist; as he wrote in “On Being ‘White’ … and Other Lies”, “[T]here are no white people”. However, if people constructed as of different “races” are treated differently by systems of power, that creates a gulf in experience and outlook, though such people do not differ genetically. Once again, acknowledging that difference in experience—not in genetics—is crucial for America to move forward.
Furthermore, even though whiteness has no biological basis, racism as a system of institutionalized discrimination exists as white supremacy and not as “reverse discrimination” against whites. Simply put, racism against whites does not exist because racism is more than simple prejudice or ignorance. Baldwin argues this point in No Name in the Street from 1972.
What else can we learn from Baldwin’s writing about music for today? Because Baldwin points to slavery as affecting whites differently than it did and does affect Blacks, Baldwin’s points about Black American music hold true for much more of American music than he may have let on. Although, as seen above, he writes about whites in music like Elvis Presley and implies that white-dominated genres do not count as “American classical music”, it is worth extending his argument to genres constructed as white: does all American music begin on the auction block?
The social construction of American music—not only of race—begins there. Of course, indigenous Americans made music long before their land was stolen and later became the United States of America. However, such music-making is generally not accounted for in most histories of, for example, American popular music, including ones that view race as crucial (Garofalo and Waksman, Wald, Powers). Arguing this point does not mean that indigenous American music isn’t music—again, how most people in this country think of American music, including its history, should include indigenous Americans, but the beginning of American music as many conceive of it today began—and begins—with American racial slavery.
The implications for white-dominated genres like rock, country, and American folk music are that blackness and whiteness and their unequal relationship are critical parts of these genres as well. What Toni Morrison calls the “Africanist presence” in all is strong—both in the genres’ roots in Black American music and culture and in their seeming self-definition in what they stand against. This duality is especially noticeable in country music: the banjo is an African instrument, but the backlash of many country fans against Black artists like Mickey Guyton and defense of Morgan Wallen’s use of racist epithets makes Baldwin’s point strong—this music, too, begins on the auction block.
American music is significantly marked, possibly even defined, by the unequal and inequitable interaction between people constructed as white and Black. This does not mean that other categories like class, gender, and language do not matter. It also does not mean that Blacks cannot gain economic power within systems that racially oppress them. But today, to use Raymond Williams’ terminology, Black American genres like hip-hop have become incorporated into the dominant culture. There are Black artists, Black corporate executives, and other figures with different levels of clout, but that point does not prove that Black music is not still rooted in racial slavery: people constructed as white still have institutional power on a racial level that people constructed as Black do not.
Having a Black president did not change this fact, and Edmund Morgan’s thesis about the dual centrality of slavery and freedom to American history holds true. Even though Baldwin argues that Blacks understand freedom better than whites, the interrelation of the two groups goes far deeper than many whites are willing to acknowledge. As Baldwin writes in “The Uses of the Blues”, only when Americans accept their history can they work to change it. The uses of Black American music, then, can help America to move forward—if used properly.
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Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on 25 June 2021. We are re-running it in honor of Juneteenth 2023.