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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.

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 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.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Collected Essays. The Library of America. 1998. (The essays were originally published between 1947 to 1985.)

Baldwin, James. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Edited by Randall Kenan. Vintage Books. 2010. (Writings were originally published between 1947 and 1987.)

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues”. Going to Meet the Man. Vintage Books. 1995. pp. 101-141. (The short story was originally published in Partisan Review in 1957 and collected in Going to Meet the Man in 1965.)

Baraka, Amiri. “Jazz and the White Critic”. Black Music. William Morrow & Co. 1967. (“Jazz and the White Critic” was originally published in 1963.)

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor Books. 2008.

Clytus, Radiclani. “Paying Dues and Playing the Blues: Baldwin’s Existential Jazz. The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin. Edited by Michele Elam. Cambridge University Press. 2015. pp. 70-84.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? AK Press. 2003.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Signet Classics. 2012. (Douglass’ Narrative was originally published in 1845.)

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin Books. 1996. (The book was originally published in 1903.)

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage Books. 1989. (The book was originally published in 1952.)

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. Oxford University Press. 1995.

Friedberg, Joshua. “Racializing Rock: The ‘60s and the White Sounds in Pet Sounds”. PopMatters. 2016.

Garofalo, Reebee and Steve Waksman. Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A. 6th edition. Pearson. 2014.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Fire Last Time.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: James Baldwin—Updated Edition. Edited by Harold Bloom. Infobase Publishing. 2007. pp. 11-22. (The essay was originally published in 1992 in The New Republic, vol. 206, no. 22, pp. 37-43.)

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. Penguin Books. 2003. (The book was originally published in 1988.)

Kun, Josh. “Life According to the Beat: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and the Perilous Sounds of Love.” James Baldwin Now. Edited by Dwight A. McBride. New York University Press. 1999. pp. 307-328.

Lester, Julius. “Some Tickets Are Better: The Mixed Achievement of James Baldwin.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: James Baldwin—Updated Edition. Edited by Harold Bloom. Infobase Publishing. 2007. pp. 133-139. (The essay was originally published in Dissent in 1986, issue 33, pp. 189-192.)

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press. 2007. (The book was originally published in 1977.)

Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press. 2018. (The book was originally published in 1998.)

Lordi, Emily J. “James Baldwin and the Sound of Soul”. CR: The New Centennial Review. Vol 16, No 2. 2016. pp. 31-46.

Maultsby, Portia K. “The Translated African Cultural and Musical Past”. African American Music: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Edited by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby. Routledge. 2015.

Miller, D. Quentin. “Using the Blues: James Baldwin and Music”. A Historical Guide to James Baldwin. Edited by Douglas Field. Oxford University Press. 2009. pp. 83-110.

Morgan, Edmund S. “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox”. The Journal of American History.  Vol. 59, No. 1. 1972. pp. 5-29.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press. 1992.

Pavlic, Ed. Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. Fordham University Press. 2015.

Peck, Raoul. I Am Not Your Negro. Magnolia Pictures. 2016.

Powers, Ann. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music. Dey Street Books. 2017.

Roediger, David R. How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Eclipse of Post-Racialism. Verso Books. 2019. (The book was originally published with a modified subtitle in 2008.)

Roediger, David. R., editor. Black on White: Black writers on What It Means to Be White. Schocken Books. 1998.

Rose, Tricia. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk about Hip Hop. Basic Books. 2008.

Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Werner, Craig. A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. University of Michigan Press. Revised and updated edition. 2006.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford University Press. 1977.