What Makes Culture Black?

Photo of an African man sitting playing a stringed instrument, his face turned away from the camera.

What Makes Culture Black?

Bryan Wagner

Alan Lomax, Prisoner with guitar,
at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana

Maybe the greatest challenge in writing about black vernacular aesthetics is remembering that Africa and its diaspora are much older than blackness. Blackness does not come from Africa Rather, Africa and its diaspora become black at a particular stage in their history.

It sounds a little strange to put it this way, but the truth of this description is widely acknowledged. Blackness is an adjunct to racial slavery. No doubt, we will continue to discuss and disagree about the factors that made blackness imaginable as well as the pacing of their influence. That process is quite complex, mixing legal doctrine from ancient slave systems with customs from the history of enslavement between Christians and Muslims to produce a new amalgam that would become foundational to the modern world. Blackness is a modern condition that cannot be conceptualized apart from the epochal changes in travel, trade, communication, consumption, industry, technology, taxation, labor, warfare, finance, insurance, government, bureaucracy, science, religion, and philosophy that were together made possible by the European systems of colonial slavery.

Due to this complexity, we will likely never be able to say with certainty whether blackness starts before or during the sugar revolution, or consequently whether slavery follows from racism or racism follows from slavery. We can say, however, what blackness indicates: existence without standing in the modern world system. To be black is to exist in exchange without being a party to exchange. Being black means belonging to a state that is organized in part by its ignorance of your perspective—a state that does not, that cannot, know your mind. Adapting a formula from the eve of decolonization, we might say that blackness indicates a situation where you are anonymous to yourself. Reduced to what would seem its essential trait, blackness is a kind of invisibility.

Taken seriously, these facts about blackness are enough to make problems for anyone who wants to talk about blackness as founding a tradition. Conceptualized not as a shared culture but as the condition of statelessness, blackness would seem to deny the perspective that is necessary to communicate a tradition. To speak as black, to assert blackness as a perspective in the world, or to argue the existence of the black world is to deny the one feature by which blackness is known. For this reason, it is impossible to speak as black without putting yourself into an unavoidable tension with the condition you would claim. Speaking as black can mitigate your condition, or make you into an exception or credit to your condition, but it cannot allow you to represent your condition, as speaking is enough to make you unrepresentative. You can be clean, articulate, and also black, but to be all these things at once is to admit to a life scored by its division (or its doubleness).

From Somerset v. Stewart (1772), there comes a line of thought that denies these facts on the grounds that individuals are audible to one another in nature before there is a law to intercede between them. The politics in this line is often communicated as a chiasmus about persons made into slaves and slaves made into persons, a trope whose limitation lies in the fact that it takes for granted a term (“person”) that is unevenly intelligible in the natural rights lineage that determines what blackness means. By returning to that lineage, and in particular to the symbolic scene where the enemy combatant is made into the slave, I believe that it is possible to think harder and better about the predicament of the ex-slave, without recourse to the consolation of transcendence.

I have just completed a book that addresses this predicament by reconsidering some of the foundational myths that have been crucial to the documentation of the black vernacular tradition. In thinking again about W. C. Handy hearing the blues on a train platform in Mississippi, Buddy Bolden experiencing the drumming at Congo Square, and John Lomax bringing his wax cylinder recorder into the southern penitentiary, my aim is not to propose a canon or to suggest that these cases are representative in the sense that many have presumed. On the contrary, I am hoping for something like the opposite: to name the blackness in the black tradition without recourse to the myths that have made it possible up to this time to portray the tradition as cultural property. My book charts an alternative history for the black tradition by interpreting these foundational myths against their grain. In my argument, the songs and stories that are conventionally framed by these myths as evidence for cultural continuity are understood instead as encoding the creative activity of self-predication, an activity that is necessarily engaged with the ontology of natural rights.

By taking seriously the emergence of black tradition from the condition of statelessness, we can learn a lot about the songs and stories that were preserved by cultural collectors like Handy and the Lomaxes: why, for instance, certain recognizable speaking positions are assumed (criminal, beggar, outcast) when the tradition stoops to dramatize its own perspective, or why the topos of warfare appears across the tradition in the service of a critique of law, or why the grain of the black voice is often suggested, even inside its own tradition, to approximate noise. Contrary to the notion that the perspective in the black tradition is foreclosed by the ethnographic norms that condition our knowledge of its history, I am arguing that it is possible to represent its contours by tracking its engagement with the legal idiom of natural rights, an idiom that is largely designated “police” when it is assimilated by Anglo-American jurisprudence in the eighteenth century. The law of police does not supply evidence for uninterrupted contact, or scenes where we can see the torch being passed, but it does offer cues that are sufficient to lead us back through accumulated layers of anthropological description to points where we can observe the black tradition explicitly invoking the historical language of natural rights as an index to its own formal development.

Bryan Wagner is an assistant professor in the English Department and a former Townsend Center Fellow (2007-2008). His forthcoming book is Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery.

This article can be found in the September/October 2008 newsletter.