What It Means to Be Black: A People and Their Music

“Beyond the obvious fact that you are black, is your music black music?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“To answer that, I’m going to give you a brief musical background of myself.”1

Excerpt of Isaac Hayes’ interview in The Los Angeles Free Press1

So begins an excerpt from an interview of the “black superstar” Isaac Hayes from a 1972 issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, in which Hayes discusses the blackness of not only his music, but himself. He recounts hearing a “hillbilly sort of country & western” music in his early childhood before hearing any swing or other black music. In addition to this, he went through many other phases, including multiple classical music phases, and only after that started learning jazz, while also singing gospel in church. He concludes:

“So I wouldn’t say I’m black. Sure I’m a member of the black race, and I can relate to black experiences. But musically, you have a fusion of cultures. You’ve got Africa in it, you’ve got Europe in it, you’ve got Latin America, you’ve got jazz, you’ve got pop, you’ve got country & western, you’ve got it all.” 1

This could be seen as a quite liberating view of a black musician’s music—almost transcending race, identifying aspects of his music that are grounded in many traditions. However, Hayes also takes the interesting step of applying this back to his race: “I wouldn’t say I’m black.” Being racially black and having black experiences isn’t enough to be black in the larger sense, which in Hayes’ view seems to include something more. When asked what he would “classify as pure black music,” he points to “songs expressing the black experience in the ghetto . . . that’s black music.”1 So if he made that kind of music, would he be more black? This, to me, is a surprisingly narrow view of what it means to be black.

Beginning of letter in The Chicago Defender2

A letter in a 1965 issue of the Chicago Defender reflects a related view: “Attending a recital of a Negro singer in Orchestra Hall, recently, I was amazed, disappointed and hurt, to note, that she did not include in her program, any Negro spirituals.” The letter then gives examples of musicians who “wrote many manuscripts telling of our 300 years of sorrow,” but argues that now “integration and acceptance of a few, on their way to the heights, is making them forget the ‘depths from which we have come.’”2

This is not arguing that one must perform a certain music to be fully black, but rather that being black necessitates the performance of a certain music. It makes a compelling argument for black musicians to remember their history, but how much must the music one performs be rooted in their history? If black people must absolutely perform “black” music, this forges a link between the musician and their music that leads back in the direction of Hayes’ idea of black music and its connection to black identity. There can be clear benefits to connecting identity with music, but to connect them in such a way that one cannot exist without the other risks whittling them both down to an essence that fails to adequately represent either.

1 Van Ness, Chris. “Isaac Hayes: Superstar behind the soundtrack for Shaft.” The Los Angeles Free Press, Jan 14, 1972. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=1101225.

2 Ruth, Smith McGowan. “Reader Disappointed when Singer Omits Negro Spirituals.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967), Feb 06, 1965. https://search.proquest.com/docview/493112600?accountid=351.

“Isaac Hayes – Theme From Shaft (1971).” YouTube video, 4:39, posted by Alamo YTC Germany, Oct 7, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q429AOpL_ds.

“Us” and “Them”: The Mentality of Minstrelsy

In my search for primary sources, I came across three commentaries on minstrelsy that held very different views of black performers. Despite their differences, though, they all gave clear examples of an “us” and “them” mentality—a white “us” viewing a black “them” as “other”—betraying a deep racism even when praising black performers or not mentioning them at all.

From the Freeman1

The most overtly racist commentary I came across was in the newspaper the Freeman, in which the author writes that the average African American comedian is a “perfect stranger” to originality, instead trying to “imitate the higher class of white comedians,” an attempt which “leave[s] you in disgust.”1 Such a broad denial of African American talent is an obvious example of racist “us” and “them” thinking, in which the “us” is clearly much better than the “them.”

 

In contrast, the Cleveland Gazette shares a view that is very complimentary of black performers:

From the Cleveland Gazette2

Even this view, though, shows a blatant “us” and “them” mentality. Mr. Frohman’s authority is given by his having “many years of experience with colored people.” This implies that black performers are different enough from white performers that one must have extensive experience with them in order to hold such a view. This seems almost dehumanizing to me, as one would speak in the same way of having experience with a certain type of animal.

Cover of How to Put On a Minstrel Show3

Lastly, I was interested by the extent to which black performers were left unmentioned in How to Put On a Minstrel Show by Harold Rossiter. As black performers were a realistically viable option in minstrel shows, one would expect at least a mention of them in such a guide—which includes mentions of female performers—but it fails to do so. The word “negro,” for example, only appears three times: twice in advice against using too much negro dialect, and once in advice against choosing a song that would be “unusual for a negro minstrel to sing.” “Negro minstrel” seems to refer only to the race of the character, and not the race of the performer, as this comment leads into a discussion of the particular types of music appropriate for minstrel shows, independant of performer.3 This complete dismissal of black performers as possibilities shows a mentality that is so consumed by the “us” that the “them” does not even exist as an option—that they’re simply unmentioned speaks volumes.

On the surface, these three sources have very different views of black minstrel performers. All three, though, prove to be ultimately based in the same mentality that black performers are a “them” distinctly “other” from a white “us.” This mentality existing underneath and across such difference shows how widespread and ingrained this mentality was during the height of minstrelsy.

The Camera Lens vs. the Public Lens: Perceptions of African Americans in the South

Portrait of Bill Tatnall1

When visiting the Library of Congress’s Lomax Collection, I was intrigued by the photos on the main page, which featured an African American man playing guitar (right). Clicking on the image, I saw “African Americans–1930-1940” listed as one of its categories, and clicking on that led me to a list of other images of African Americans in this time frame—standing, sitting, walking, running, and doing other normal, everyday activities, including more guitar playing (below).

Hurston and others2

Hurston and others3

 

 

 

In contrast to these photos, the following two images also caught my attention, captioned according to the Library of Congress’s summaries:

Left: “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem:” Seven illustrations from Mid-Week Pictorial, May 23, 1936, showing conditions in the South, including a man with a horse, poor children, a shack, an Alabama steel mill, construction of a house, and African American cotton pickers.4 Right: Cartoon shows two men with rifles, walking away from a lynching victim hanging from a…5

These were some of the few images listed that were not plain photographs, but images of commercial publications. As both feature whites, they were likely both intended for white audiences. More striking, though, is their representation of African Americans. The title of the first image, “The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem,” in addition to the summary’s indication that it is seven illustrations “showing conditions in the South,” would indicate that it is attempting to portray a broad view of the South. African Americans, though, are depicted only as cotton pickers, confining their place in the South to the cotton fields. The second image is even more striking; the two figures in the foreground are whites with guns, and in the background is an African American hanging from a tree, a lynching victim. This shows an even more explicit and extreme racial dynamic.

Neither of these images are surprising in their content, but stand in stark contrast to the many other images in the collection showing African Americans engaged in non-stereotypical and non-confining activities—acting like “normal” people and even playing “normal” Southern music. These two publications publications serve as a reminder that, for most of the commercialized white South of the early 20th-century, African Americans were African American first and Southerners second. They were cotton pickers and lynching victims, separate from the culture of white Southerners, from their horses and poor children to their banjo- and guitar-playing, despite the evidence we have that they were part of these cultural and musical phenomenon just as much as Southern whites.

1 Lomax, Alan. Portraits of Bill Tatnall and Susie Herring, Frederica, Georgia, from recording expedition to Georgia, Florida and the Bahamas. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660097/.

2 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston and other African Americans, probably at a recording site in Belle Glade, Florida, 1935. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660344/.

3 Lomax, Alan. Zora Neale Hurston, Rochelle French, and Gabriel Brown, Eatonville, Florida. 1935. Photographic prints. Lomax Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007660101/.

4 The new South facing its knotty land tenure problem. 1936. Photomechanical prints. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98519128/.

5 Chase, William C. Man and son walking with guns, and man hanging from tree in background, and the / Chase. 1935. Drawing on illustration board, crayon. Cartoon Drawings, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016679638/.