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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
Charles L. Black, Jr. became a constitutional law professor who, for a half century, helped shape the legal minds of students at Columbia and Yale law schools (current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton studied with Black, and consulted him when she was working on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 on the Nixon impeachment inquiry). Charles L. Black, Jr., as remembered in his New York Times obituary on May 8, 2001, helped "Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., and others, to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kan., whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, became the Supreme Court's definitive judgment on segregation in American education." Charles L. Black, Jr. is a sterling example of moral courage, and his story above, which comes from an essay in the Yale Review titled "My World with Louis Armstrong," demonstrates, too, the power of culture over race.

I assert that one of the ways we can begin move beyond the scourge of race and racism is to view human dynamics and interaction (including, of course, jazz) in terms of culture rather than race, as a start. Let's briefly look at the two ideas aside from jazz, and then bring back in the music.

Race is a slippery, shape-shifting idea that in its modern guise has only been around for a few hundred years. Before modernity, race was used to classify groups of people, but it wasn't as tied to physical and phenotypic characteristics as it has become in more recent times. Before the modern period—in the West, approximately the time from the European Enlightenment to the late-1950s—language, custom, religion, status and class were more important than physical appearance in determining categorization of groups based on difference.

And while it's important to acknowledge that scientific research has shown that a suspicious or negative view of "others" different from oneself or one's group seems to be a universal cognitive response among humans, it's also crucial to say that the race meme is what post-modernists call a "social construction." It's a social invention used to categorize others and justify social and economic domination; scientific research has also revealed that a folk conception of race is not based on genes or biological essences. Early scientific research in the 18th, 19th, through the middle 20th century not only equated race with biology, but also used scientific rationale to explain why certain groups were "inferior" to others, which gave justification for chattel slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of social and material domination inscribed into law as well as what author Albert Murray calls the folklore of white supremacy.

So if, as Herbert Spencer argued in the 19th century, human races evolved based on the "survival of the fittest," that logic demonstrated why those at the bottom of the social totem pole are there. His adaptation of Darwin's theory of evolution to the social realm was an example of a conflation of distinct categories—individual, cultural and social—that plagues us to this very day.

The European Enlightenment led to the ideas of liberty and natural rights as universal human values—in theory. Abstract ideals such as democracy, freedom and equality were all foundational principles to the founding of the American nation, yet ironically those salutary values were equated with whiteness and measured by the extent to which blacks (and others not considered "white") were not free and equal.

In the Winter 2011 issue of Daedalus, the quarterly journal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Amherst College Professor of American Studies Jeffrey B. Ferguson has an essay titled, "Freedom, Equality, Race." In it he says: "Many writers have observed that the Enlightenment, through its emphasis on human powers, gave freedom its modern meaning; but it also codified the modern idea of race as one way to distinguish those worthy of liberty from the irrational, uncivilized, and superstitious 'others' who supposedly lived in a perpetual past. In other words, this period handed down most of the reasons to believe in race along with the justification for despising and resisting it...From their inception, the concepts of freedom and race have reinforced each other in the making of modernity; they continue to do so today, though the concept of race has shifted in its definitional grounding, from nature to culture...the post-civil rights concept of race relies on values, modes of signifying, and behavior."


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