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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
AM: Yes. Absolutely. We're looking for universality. We're looking for the common ground of man. And what you're doing when you separate the American from all of that, is you're talking about idiomatic identity. You see? And if you go from culture, instead of the impossibility of race...It doesn't meet our intellectual standard with a scientific observation and definition. You see, race is an ideological concept. It has to do with manipulating people, and with power, and with controlling people in a certain way. It has no basis in reality...So what you enter into to make sense of things are patterns and variations in culture. What you find are variations we can call idiomatic—idiomatic variations. People do the same things, have the same basic human impulses, but they come out differently. The language changes because of the environment and so forth. Now, you can get the environment, you can get the cultural elements, and from those things you can predict the behavior of people fairly well. But if you look at such racial characteristics as may be used—whether it's the shape of certain body parts, the texture of the hair, the lips, and all—you cannot get a scientific correlation between how the guy looks and how he behaves. If you find a large number of people who look like each other and behave like each other, it's because of the culture... If you've got guys from stovepipe black to snow blond, you're going to find all the variations in mankind, even though idiomatically they might speak the same, they might sound the same.

Murray and Ralph Ellison—Murray's friend and fellow student at the Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s and author of the classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man—form an intellectual foundation and bulwark that I call the Ellison-Murray Continuum. In-depth study of their writings will reveal a continuity of themes and preoccupations, yet with different styles and modalities of expression. The two were in full agreement about the import of blues and jazz as exemplars of black American culture writ small as well as American culture, values and meaning writ large. As you'll see, they also shook hands in their view of race and culture.

In 1963, Ellison wrote a definition of "cultural complex": "I'm talking about how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them to find their way, and about that which helps them to be at home in the world. All this seems to me to constitute culture." From the kinship and comfort of "home," the internal compass implied by "what helps them to find their way" to the normative values of "what is abiding in it" as well as the personal and interpersonal response to social reality ("their environment"), Ellison crafted an interpretation of culture clear in common sense tonalities while maintaining fidelity to the term's anthropological origins.

Here's Ellison on the origins of a hybrid national American identity: "Out of democratic principles set down on paper in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights they were improvising themselves into a nation, scraping together a conscious culture out of the various dialects, idioms, lingos, and mythologies of America's diverse peoples and regions." Conscious culture is an important idea because usually we think of culture as so inherited by our environment as to be underneath our waking awareness of it, like fish in the sea. Yet by way of thorough education and commitment to specific principles and values, you can consciously create and/or influence a culture.

Once you're hip to how culture works, you can articulate and re-enact the force of culture for the good, the beautiful and the true. This is one of the highest purposes and functions of art and artists. You can use culture, in her personal and interpersonal extensions, to bring about changes in the social realm that can be seen and measured. But you have to play, to swing, to swim in the realms of the invisible, but no less real, dimensions. Inner, interior dynamics, from feelings and memories to cultural tools and meanings, can be marshaled in this way. That's what writers do; that's what artists do. Music itself is called the art of the invisible, so turn inward, to the world out of which music flows. The narrative arc here points to the always resonant metaphor of the hero. So, one way to use culture, in this heroic model, this hero metaphor, this variation on Heru (Horus) of ancient Kamit (Egypt), is to combine your personal energy, integrity, talent, intellect, and power with others who share the same vision, mission, and willingness to act courageously in the world.

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