Continuing in my celebration of Black History Month, I’m going to return to the 1925 anthology that is often thought of as the launching point of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. This book’s editor Alain Locke wanted to demonstrate the breadth of new expression by Afro-Americans in his time, and so concentrated on young and living artists for the most part. In traveling back to 1925 to visit this book, I have to readjust myself to the way Locke and his alternate presenters frames these young artists compared to how someone might do so today.
Each essay I’ve read so far in The New Negro is written in a careful and august style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is not overly academic, and the introductory essays don’t descend into esoteric terminology. It appears that Locke wanted this book to speak to any educated person, white or Black — and probably to non-American’s too. But there’s a focus on the fine arts and how Afro-American work may be measured favorably in those fields — and then some discomfort with the popular arts where Afro-Americans are also increasingly visible to white folks.
There are some complex reasons for that, more than today’s post will have time to go into in any depth. The simplest heading for a large concern there is “minstrelsy,” the long-standing and once highly popular American tactic of using Black characters to represent unvarnished and unrepentant foolish and clownish behavior,* extended often through the use of white actors or artists portraying Black characters. In the popular arts, some of the breakthrough “cross-over” artists of Locke’s time were working off the grounds of this comic and derogatory white approximation of Blackness, giving them back a Black reflection of a racist white reflection of Blackness. Tough way to work!
Midway through I’ve come to the book’s section on music, and in this case Locke himself leads off that section with an essay somewhat different from the main thrust of the book, a lengthy appreciation of “The Negro Spirituals,” a folk music form with almost entirely anonymous composers that came to cultural attention in the 19th century, not in his modern 20th. Locke deftly deals with the dialect of those lyrics, and even at times concedes a judgement of simplicity on the music, countering by pointing out the — well — spiritual concerns, and the evident depth of feeling. He points out that European composers had long been drawing on that continent’s folk music and orchestrating it for concert halls** and suggests the same may be a path for Spirituals going forward.
The next essay in the Music section of The New Negro does speak to a 20th century Afro-American form, one not yet considered a fine art: “Jazz At Home” by J. A. Rogers.*** Rogers has a lot to say in his essay, and for someone like me who many decades later became interested in Blues, Jazz and their descendant forms, it’s interesting to see how one intelligent Afro-American in the middle of the emergent “Jazz Decade” of the 1920s viewed this music. Here’s a few excerpts that will give you the flavor:
The Negroes who invented [Jazz] called their songs the ‘Blues,’ and they weren’t capable of satire or deception….[Jazz] is a release of all the suppressed emotions at once, a blowing off of the lid, as it were. It is hilarity expressing itself through pandemonium; musical fireworks…..in idiom — rhythmic, musical and pantomimic — thoroughly American Negro; it is his spiritual picture on that lighter comedy side, just as the spirituals are the picture on the tragedy side. The two are poles apart, but the former is by no means to be despised and it is just as characteristically the product of the peculiar and unique experience of the Negro in this country.
Jazz, it is needless to say, will remain a recreation for the industrious and a dissipater of energy for the frivolous, a tonic for the strong and a poison for the weak. For the Negro himself, jazz is both more and less dangerous than for the white — less, in that he is nervously more in tune with it; more, in that at his average level of economic development his amusement life is more open to the forces of social vice….Yet in spite of its present vices and vulgarizations, its sex informalities, its morally anarchic spirit, jazz has a popular mission to perform. Joy, after all, has a physical basis. Those who laugh and dance and sing are better off even in their vices than those who do not…. It has come to stay, and they are wise, who instead of protesting against it, try to lift and divert it into nobler channels.”
The “Um, actually…” annoying and opinionated pedant in me wants to correct him at times,**** which when you think about it, is presumptuous. I’ve got decades of scholarship and hindsight that I didn’t have to do myself to prop me up. Rogers couldn’t listen to Charlie Patton records anytime he wanted to in 1925, so if he thinks Blues was sorrowful and was “incapable of satire or deception” I can’t bring him my evidence back to his time. And if he views Jazz in 1925 as merely happy-go-lucky, is he a reliable first-hand witness to his time and place that I’m not — or is he reflecting the types of Jazz that found the quickest acceptance by broader audiences including whites? Rogers lived long enough that it’s possible he could have listened to “A Love Supreme” before he died, and if so he would have found there the spiritual jazz expression he predicted.
So here I am, some other kind of fool, writing this introduction to — what? — some introductory essays, because directly following Rogers essay in our 1925 book is today’s piece, a poem by another writer who was totally unknown to me: Gwendolyn B. Bennett. She gives us an example of how poetry differs from the typical essay, and it’s not hard to think that Locke consciously chose that position, because her poem extends his and Rogers’ essays, giving us a set of words that are aware of the ideas they wrote about, but Bennett is telling sharply how those ideas feel.
Gwendolyn B. Bennett at the keys.
Bennett’s poem, which she called just “Song” is too good to be overlooked, and so despite my current limitations with creating musical pieces I felt I had to present it. One choice I had to make in inhabiting it was just what was Bennett’s overriding stance on the dialectic between Black musical expression — even sincerely joyful Black expression — within an ignorant majority white culture. As in Rogers’ essay, Bennett’s poem seems to be balancing, recognizing the salve of joyful music, and the grace of Black joy and art against Black sorrow. I cannot ask Bennett, but I decided this piece’s performance needed to bring forward the white culture not quite grasping the Black performers’ balancing act, keying off things like the compressed eloquence of lines like “Breaking heart/To the time of laughter/Clinking chains and minstrelsy/Are welded fast with melody.”
In so doing maybe I bring a little white history to Black History Month. After all, it is presumptuous for a white guy to perform a Black woman’s poem, but I can bring my experience of ignorance.
To hear Bennett’s poetic summary of the dues Afro-American music owes to Black History, and my attempted illumination of what non-Black America owes to that art — however ignorantly — use the player below. Or if you don’t see the player, this highlighted hyperlink will also play my performance. Want to see the poem’s text? Here’s a link to that
*My cultural curiosity causes me to note that the trope of finding some outsider group to assign the most unalloyed foolishness to for what will be read by the insider group as humor is widespread. See the Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare, dumb Polish/Irish/Scandinavian/Italian, etc. immigrant jokes, and hillbilly plays. Of course in America, the ways these ready-mades were employed using Black faces on top of the outrages of slavery was extraordinarily cruel.
**Locke also points out the historical link between Spirituals and educated culture in that many of the pioneering Black colleges had raised funds by touring Afro-American choirs presenting arrangements of these songs.
***Oh man, there is nowhere near enough time to discuss Rogers! He doesn’t seem to have been a music writer, but is instead a self-educated and often self-published crusading polymath with an unquenchable interest in every unlit corner of Black history. His books helped inspire a young Henry Louis Gates Jr.
****This is one of my worst personal characteristics. Hopefully I keep it away from you dear reader. Rogers is so concerned with uplifting the race, that he seems to have internalized (from white critics?) a fear that Jazz and Jazz lovers are backwards and that their effects were achieved naively. And many of the most popular jazz records of the 20s were fast numbers that stressed novelty effects, like this one by “The Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” White guys. Um, actually…