“Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”
― Dr. Seuss
Where Have All the Children Gone?
As I watch YouTube videos of black girls who twerk, as I invite and request my students to study their performance as both play and to examine how others’ views of black girls’ childhood are distorted and distorting how those girls see themselves, I have been remembering my earlier work on black girls’ games. I don’t want to lose that black girls are children at play while also critiquing what it means to play with self (sexual)-objectification. This video doesn’t have that objectification piece in it from the girl or the boys. Check it out. Perhaps introducing this music and dance to adolescents would be interesting. Having them analyze its difference from US twerking in videos.
PS What I love about this video also is that they are playing freely in the mud after a rain in their yard.
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
― C.S. Lewis
“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning…They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.”
~ Fred Rogers (from the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)
“What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Toni Morrison 1997, 5)
I am considering writing a book about my pedagogical philosophy of teaching and learning about the soul of black folks through micro-sociologies of a gendered “musical blackness.” After delving into teaching surveys of ethnomusicology, anthropology and lately sociology, I am realizing that my strength as a professor lies in teaching at the micro level of culture and music. To understand what I mean let me define both microsociology and musical blackness. First, let me share the view of sociology I am coming from.
C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959): “The first fruit of this imagination—and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it–is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one” (quoted in Dalton Conley 2011, 5).
And in the interest of time, let me quote from a useful definition of micro-sociology found on a credible and authored website WiseGeek.com:
Micro-sociology is a subspecialty of sociology, primarily dealing with how individuals initiate and respond to various societal environments, conditions, and interactions. Sociology, as an area of study, involves analysis of the social interactions and processes of an entire society, as well as those of each individual member of that society. Macro-sociology is the term used to describe the social processes of an entire society, as a whole. Alternatively, micro-sociology is the term used to describe social processes as they relate to the individual community member. Contextual use of the term micro-sociology may dictate a slightly different or more targeted definition.
In short, micro-sociology is the small-scale study of human behavior and the reasons behind certain behavioral choices. How various biological and psychological factors affect the interactions of the individual are the primary focus of this subspecialty. Experts who study micro-sociology and micro-sociological theories attempt to predict or provide an explanation of certain behaviors, based on interpretative analysis. Unlike macro-sociology, which bases theories on statistical data about an entire society, micro-sociology is based on how the individual makes sense of his or her world.
The ethnomusicological and historical study of the music of African Americans has been dominantly shaped by a form of musical colonialism where to justify its existence we look for great role models of music making. We want to know the Mozarts and Beethovens of bebop or hip-hop. The fugues and symphonies of the William Grant Stills and Mary Lou Williamses. The waltzes of black social or concert dances, the hoofing of early jazz and the line dances of contemporary black popular music. We codify the bests and the most popular from Duke Ellington to Jay-Z but we rarely seek to understand the sociological imagination that produced it all and in the storytelling in textbooks we musical scholars have tended to downplay “how individuals” shaped by social norms and forces initiate and respond to the societies we are from psychologically, emotionally, kinetically and even biologically, which may seem taboo, but where else does the spiritual elements of desires for getting down and making it funky come from but some biological realms that include our nervous system, brain and body — note here the latest research in biosociology and its relationships to sociology:
“Biosociology” (not to be confused with sociobiology) is to understand how the interaction of biological factors and other types of factors produces behavior.
Our biology has been socialized though the social structures sustained by institutions and constructs that once imagined and practiced become “real” and shape our physical and acoustic ecologies which in turn sustains our invented linguistic narratives. Biology, not in the way we once imagined, actually shapes an ethic of transactions between ourselves and others (more on that in due time).
CONTRIBUTING TO BLACK FEMINIST MUSICAL THOUGHT
This brings me to my unique linguistic contribution as a scholar–to musical blackness. In my prize-winning book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, I wrote to counter the general view that black people are born musical, born to dance, it’s in the blood. As a social scientist and ethnomusicologist, I used the musical games black girls play to uncover a new narrative of our musical ways as African Americans. One that factored in the history and experience of both dominant genders — females and males, and one that factored in the learned ways we think, feel, believe and behave, in other words, culture.
Because of the stereotypes and social discrimination found throughout our systems of learning in the U.S., I needed to let readers in on how we learned to be and become musically black. I didn’t and do not write to tell “the truth” but rather I see my role as a scholar and as a native ethnographer as one where we allow new ways of thinking that are as evolved and adaptable to our environments and ecologies are a seed is adaptable to different environments. And thus it is imperative to notice that some seeds cannot or no longer thrive in certain ecologies or that dysfunction stems from the ecology not the seed. How we view or perceive our environment is shaped by the cultural lens you were born into and as adults can refocus and change. So play is an essential part of a rigorous intellectual capacity to grow and develop as a critical thinker and we are much more interested in learning answers and stagnating our mental capacities to learn difference constantly. This is what I am out to accomplish as a scholar-teacher. Keep all this in mind as you explore my definition of musical blackness.
Musical blackness is an imagined “home,” constructed to represent a place of return, a place of social and political comfort. It is a learned place of inhabitance; an embodied dwelling that might be viewed as a protection from real and imagined threats. This kind of musical homework is not simply about a return to contemporary Nigeria or ancient Yorubaland imagined or constituted by the descendents of African slaves living in the United States. African Americans are embodying “home,” performig their affiliations and identification with the collective experience (and inherited socio-musical and cultural discourses) of blackness, as a result of perpetually confronting a kind of “homelessness” in this so-called New World dominated by descendants of Europeans, who themselves embody an imagined “home” in America at the expense of native Americans, who experience homelessness in a land that was [once] their own. “What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Morrison 1997, 5; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49)
Further elaboration is necessary to connect all this to the sound, setting and social significance of the music and soundscapes associated with African American musical discourse. Essential to the sociology (linking the personal to larger social histories), the epistemology (ways of knowing), and the ontology (ways of being) of a musical blackness is understanding the definition and uses of a “social construct.” We often banty about the notion that “race” is socially constructed, that is, that it is a social construct and too many hear that and jump to a conclusion that race is “not real.” It is imagined and therefore saying it is not real makes it disappear as a social force that is imbued in every social institution affected by colonialism and empire from “pajamas” (an Indian word appropriated into British and American languages while we never say a mumbling word about domination or exploitation of whites over people of color in a country that will now soon reach 1 billion in population and are still recovering in their post-colonial transactions) to the structural inequalities found in access to wealth, power and prestige globally relative to the performance, production, dissemination and consumption of music and music-making. THE PLAY OF RACE AND GENDER
In The Games Black Girls Play (2006), I state further:
We must realize that the practices and ideologies that socialize African American children or acculturate adults (of any ethnicity) into “black” ways of being musical are never mechanical reproductions of a distinct and unitary black musical identity. “Black” ways of approaching singing and chanting, moving and dancing, talking about and composing musical ideas (from lyrics to melodic and rhythmic improvisation) are a contemporary project. This project is always and already shaped by multiple, arbitrary, and shifting experiences–past and present–that are narrated as if sprung from one root, one point in time, one parent culture. Since the phenomenological experience of being musically black continues to register for African Americans [and others], scholars cannot, and should not, seek to erase its presence, because anti-essentialist rhetoric [or its latest manifestation as “post-racial”] wants to throw the baby (African American cultural identifications) out with the politically incorrect bath water (racial essentialism).
We don’t need another set of stories to usurp race as the myth producing African American alliances–following the argument by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah–but we do need more intersecting narratives that overlap with the ones that privilege the most expressive and problematic, the most emergent, and the historical experiences of musical blackness as predominately male and masculine. While group solidarity is an important force with real political benefits, “it doesn’t work without its attendant mystifications….You cannot build alliances without mystifications and mythologies” (Appiah 1995, 106; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49-50).
While black group solidarity through music has been a real and powerful agent in forging alliances–for example, to combat racism–it has rarely forged to combat sexism against African American women within black communities, popular culture, and the larger society. Subjugation of women’s gender politics stands in contradistinction to the fact that specific approaches to embodying rhythm or soul are primarily allied around the embodied public discourse of black musical bodies of men and women. But mythologies concerning male gender dominance in everyday life, as well as musical performance, tend to eclipse female participation and denigrate the feminine, so that even girls and women tend to overlook their own contributions and participation in sustaining the social practices that constitute black musical identity (writ large). Women and girls are not included among the master drummers or griots or, for instance, the corn shuckers to whom Roger Abrahams devotes an entire book, In his Singing the Master (1992), he attempts to trace the origins of African American national or cultural identity through musical practices associated with male slave labor. Often the exclusion of women and girls is not so overt.
My concern for the ways gender and the experience of girls and women intersect with masculinist readings of history and culture came about from my first teaching assignment in women’s studies. …Aversions to dealing with issues of women, gender and race disturbed me when I began teaching African American music, primarily because of my own gendered musical experiences as an African American women fascinated with studying hip-hop culture–perceived to be a predominately male and masculinist culture. From various “nonmusical” experiences in the classroom, I became convinced of a need to uncover the ways in which black musical identity as “black” or “male” is not a pure or finished product.
[Paul] Gilroy states that gender and sexuality have played a significant role in reducing the “untidy patterns of differentiation to black masculinity as the primary, if not sole, signifier of race in mass popular culture.
Sexuality and gender identity are the other privileged media that express the evasive but highly prized quality of racial authenticity. Their growing power in configuring contemporary notions of blackness raises once again the critical issue of how the complex dynamics of race and gender come together. In a situation where racial identity appears suddenly impossible to know reliably or maintain with ease, the naturalness of gender can supply the modality in which race is lived and symbolized….The popularity of [Jamaican] slackness and the more misogynist forms of hip-hop can be used to support this diagnosis. The chief effect of this unhappy situation is that today’s crisis of black social life is routinely represented as a crisis of masculinity alone. The integrity of the race is defined primarily as the integrity of its menfolk. (1993 a, 7; quoted in Gaunt 2006, 51).
Thus, we tend to remember the authenticity of the blues through Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, but rarely through blues women, possibly because their association with the mass mediation of “race” records would be read today as “selling out” to the commercial side of music. But remembering blues women would require us to think of critiquing race as well as gender in our analysis of music and the recording industry.
The masculinist focus of dominant jazz, swing, and hip-hop histories may, in fact, stem from a long-standing white fascination with perceptions of black masculinity. If the appeal of mainstream music histories is their ability to dispense models of black masculinity to white consumers through information and anecdotes [i.e., Robert Johnson is a core one] about black men who play jazz and white men who successfully play black music, then it is no wonder that all-women bands, both black and white, find themselves the subjects of separate histories with limited readerships (Gaunt 2006, 51-52).
A PRAXIS: PLAYING THE CHANGES OF SOCIAL NORMS
I am finding that I need more sociological theories in my musicological and ethnomusicological interpretations of musical blackness as a sociological phenomenon such as Robert Merton’s theories of social roles, role strain theory, social deviance including the five types or modes of individual adaptation to constructed social norms and culture including conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.
The constructed histories of African Americans and their music, whether from the perspective of intellectuals or academics or from everyday philosophers and ordinary folk generally have tended to loosely and rather erroneously trade in Robert Merton’s theories of adaptation and social roles. Merton is the father of the term “role model” and during the 80s and 90s there were vigorous debate in all quarters about role models in the black community and in many ways, the deviant population must always have role models to rise up from the devalued position that the socio-political economy created for them as “slaves,” as “the proletariat” or working-class, from a Marxist perspective as emasculated men (i.e., “women”) estranged from their labour. The privatization of property separated men (women and children for that matter) from their land, the technology for tending to those lands and thereby the means of producing food and other stuffs for their own survival.
We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.
Music for music’s sake, music as entertainment, the commercial production, distribution and consumption of mediated words, sounds, and images (even Facebook and other social media which appears to be of the people is owned by the property owning classes’ white sons) and thus music, music-making and musically constructed meanings are extracted from local workers, from their local meanings and relationships, to continue the estrangement of listeners, fans, readers and viewers, singers, instrumentalists and dancers from owning their own greatness, their own creations, their own culture.
All this came to mind as most of my ideas do. Just before I wake or as I am waking up. It’s my most creative time. From about 5:30 – 7am. If I don’t get up and write these days, it disappears into the current robbing of time found in a usual day.
It also came as I prepare for both a job interview and the delivery of a new course called “Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-hop”. It’s a short winter intercession course at Baruch College-CUNY. There is less than a month to deliver and contribute to a problem in the fields of black feminist thought and black music studies while applying both anthro and sociological methods.
It occurred to me as I was asked to prepare a lecture for a course titled The Roots of Jazz that in this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation I must link the social conceptions and uses of “roots” to a deeper understanding of what musical blackness means in the context of jazz. And I want to do my thang at the interview. Demonstrate my liberty and freedom as both a scholar and as a descendant of people once enslaved in this nation, whose labor was not compensated, whose songs were free, to tell a different story not often found in articles and textbooks that dominate jazz classrooms. Classrooms that people of African descent are and have always been a minority. But spaces in which musical blackness can be privileged.
That’s my intention and my wish. 2013 is about truly converting wishbones to backbones. Reminds me of a popular girls’ game-song:
Little Sally Walker Sittin in a saucer Rise, Sally, Rise Wipe your weapin’ eyes Put your hand on your hips And let your backbone slip!
I’ve been telling myself for too long that I have everything I need to succeed. But what I learned in 2012 is that requires peace of mind, wellness and space to think (rather than thought) on what I have. I need to re-read my own book, mine the diamonds. In my own work, I’ve archived many jewels. Time to reveal them.
— Please inform the author if you cite this essay inside of ethically sharing the reach of the work. thank you.–