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James Baldwin Digs Into the Roots of American Music

James Baldwin’s writing about music illuminates the significance of racial slavery for all American music.

“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.

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