Friday, August 08, 2014

Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates Jr. on "wildly creative creolization," race, American foundational myth(s) and the "tragic dimension of the American condition"

Hendrik Hertzberg and Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The African-American Century.” New Yorker 29 April 1996 (7 August 2014).

American myth is "A pretty story; and, like all folk tales, this one tells a kind of truth. But the reality is more complicated, darker (in more ways than one), more painful, and, ultimately, more heroic. The myth ignores the tragic dimension of the American condition, the dimension that challenges the moral seriousness of American thinkers and makes American art and culture, high and low, the most dynamic and pervasive on the planet—makes American culture American, in fact. Not all Americans’ ancestors came here to escape tyranny; many were brought here in furtherance of tyranny. …"

On music:

An observer from 1900 transported forward in time to this century’s end would be astonished at the ubiquity of the black presence in artistic, cultural, and quasi-cultural endeavors of every kind, from the frontiers of modern art (born when Picasso laid eyes on African masks), through the written word (more books by and about African-Americans will be published this year than appeared during the whole of the Harlem Renaissance), to the iconography of mass marketing (with Michael Jordan looking down from giant billboards like some beneficent Big Brother). The prime example, of course, is music, the most accessible of the arts. In 1900, ragtime was only just coming into its own, beginning the long and steady fusion of African-American themes and forms with those of European origin. In the early decades of the century, Negro music came to dominate the new technologies of sound recording and radio so thoroughly that, in 1924, an alarmed music establishment sought out a syncopationally challenged bandleader by the comically apt name of Paul Whiteman and designated him “the King of Jazz.” But jazz and its offshoots could not be so easily tamed. The wildly creative creolization of African-American and European-American strains produced a profusion of mulatto musics—one thinks of Ellington and Gershwin, Joplin and Stravinsky, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen—that spread their dominion across the whole world.

Economically, however, African-Americans remain left out. ...

No comments: