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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
But the basic cause is, I think, that we are all members of a highly pluralistic society. We possess two cultures—both American—and many aspects of the broader American culture are available to Negroes who possess the curiosity and taste—if not the money—to cultivate them. It is often overlooked, especially in our current state of accelerated mobility, that it is becoming increasingly necessary for Negroes themselves to learn who they are as Negroes. Cultural influences have always outflanked racial discrimination—wherever and whenever there were Negroes receptive to them, even in slavery times. I read books which were free to me for my work as a writer while studying at Tuskegee Institute, Macon County, Alabama, during a time when most of the books weren't even taught. Back in 1937 I knew a Negro who swept the floors at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, who was nevertheless designing planes and entering designs in contests. He was working as a porter but his mind, his ambitions, and his attitudes were those of an engineer. He wasn't waiting for society to change, he was changing it by himself."


Cultural influences have always outflanked racial discrimination

there are people who shine shoes who, in their cultural lives, are on the high level of articulate culture

it's in the artifacts, you see

it's a give-and-take human thing rather than a racial thing

culture is about exchange and interchange, a dialectical and dialogical process in which cultural forms and ideas are utilized freely in an open, pluralistic society

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

What you enter into to make sense of things are patterns and variations in culture...idiomatic variations

They're the heirs of all the culture of all the ages...the ideas of people all over the world and people of different epochs impinge upon us, on part of our consciousness

the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other

the interior meanings and values and identities that we share with those of similar communities, whether it is a tribal community or a national community or a world community

an ensemble of stories we tell about ourselves

the inner environment of collective feelings, values, myths, and the sympathetic resonance we have in common with others we identify with


Culture was the foundation of Charles L. Black Jr.'s reaction to Louis Armstrong, not race. The fact that Armstrong was black, in racial terms, was a part of the meaning that Black attributed to the cognitive dissonance he experienced by seeing and feeling genius through the sound and performance of a black man, yes. But meaning is a cultural dynamic; and as such it surely can trip us up or free us based on how we as individuals and groups of people choose to respond to those meanings. Charles L. Black Jr. was freed from the constraints of "the judgment of the time and place" of the community in Texas in which he grew up by choosing to transcend them, which later helped the country move beyond the overt legal segregation in education via the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

He wasn't waiting for society to change, he was changing it by himself

Yet culture is also tools, according to the late-anthropologist Paul Bohannan in How Culture Works (1995). Bohannan details how culture "emerges from life just as life emerges from matter" and defines culture as a combination of the tools and the meanings that expand behavior, extend learning, and channel choice. Black exercised choice after he learned that the social norms were incomplete and inadequate, and his behavior expanded to incorporate his fellow Southern kin who happened to have darker skin.

The cultural tool that enabled this transcendence to occur was the music—a social and cultural artifact—the jazz, the might and right manner in which Armstrong took a cold metal instrument and blew threw it the warm majesty of his soul and his awe-inspiring talent. Jazz, as a cultural tool to reach bodies, hearts and minds and souls and spirits, also incorporates the affirmative values of fluid freedom within disciplined form, acceptance of the blues of life while perpetually swingin' to confront them, individual expression and style within an pluralistic, democratic ensemble context, integral improvisation as self-invention, technical mastery in service of emotional depth, and what writer Stanley Crouch calls the "sound of spiritual investigation in a secular frame."


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