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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.

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 of 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 qualifies 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 of 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 in 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 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.

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