So says Amiri Baraka in the Introduction to Blues People, his classic work on the place of jazz and blues in American social, musical, economic, and cultural history. From the music of African slaves in the United States through the music scene of the 1960's, Baraka traces the influence of what he calls "negro music" on white America -- not only in the context of music and pop culture but also in terms of the values and perspectives passed on through the music. In tracing the music, he brilliantly illuminates the influence of African Americans on American culture and history.
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When black people got to this country, they were Africans, a foreign people. Their customs, attitudes, desires, were shaped to a different place, a radically different life. What a weird and unbelievably cruel destiny for those people who were first brought here. Not just the mere fact of being sold into slavery--that in itself was common practice among the tribes of West Africa, and the economic system in which these new slaves were to form so integral a part was not so strange either. In fact, Melville Herskovits points out, "Slavery [had] long existed in the entire region [of West Africa], and in at least one of its kingdoms, Dahomey, a kind of plantation system was found under which an absentee ownership, with the ruler as principal, demanded the utmost return from the estates, and thus created conditions of labor resembling the regime the slaves were to encounter in the New World."' But to be brought to a country, a culture, a society, that was, and is, in terms of purely philosophical correlatives, the complete antithesis of one's own version of man's life on earth--that is the cruelest aspect of this particular enslavement.
An African who was enslaved by Africans, or for that mattter, a Western white man who was, or is, enslaved by another Western white man can still function as a kind of human being. An economic cipher perhaps, even subject to unmentionable cruelties--but that man, even as the lowest and most despised member of the community, remains an essential part and member of whatever community he is enslaved in; the idea being, even if an African from the GuineaCoast is sold or beaten into slavery by an African from the Gold Coast, there continues to exist, at the very least, some understanding that what the victor has reduced into whatever cruel bondage is a man--another human being. There remains some condition of communication on strictly human terms between Babylonian and Israelite or Assyrian and Chaldean that allows finally for acceptance of the slave caste as merely an economically oppressed group. To the Romans, slaves were merely vulgar and conquered peoples who had not the rights of Roman citizenship. The Greeks thought of their slaves as unfortunate people who had failed to cultivate their minds and wills, and were thus reduced to that lowly but necessary state. But these slaves were still human beings. However, the African who was unfortunate enough to find himself on some fast clipper ship to the New World was not even accorded membership in the human race.
From the actress Frances Anne Kemble's, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation: "The only exception that I have met with yet among our boat voices to the high tenor which they seem all to possess is in the person of an individual named Isaac, a basso profundo of the deepest dye, who nevertheless never attempts to produce with his different register any different effects in the chorus by venturing a second, but sings like the rest in unison, perfect unison, of both time and tune. By-the-by, this individual does speak, and therefore I presume he is not an ape, orangoutang, chimpanzee, or gorilla; but I could not, I confess, have conceived it possible that the presence of articulate sounds, and the absense of an articulate tail, should make, externally at least, so completely the only appreciable difference between a man and a monkey, as they appear to do in this individual `black brother.' Such stupendous long thin hands, and long flat feet, I did never see off a large quadruped of the ape species. But, as I said before, Isaac speaks, and I am much comforted thereby."
There was no communication between master and slave on any strictly human level, but only the relation one might have to a piece of property--if you twist the knob on your radio you expect it to play. It was this essential condition of nonhumanity that characterized the African slave's lot in this country of his captivity, a country which was later and ironically to become his land also.
Perhaps more weight will be added to the idea of the foreignness of the African in the New World if we consider that not only were the Africans completely different in appearance from their captors, but there was not even a semblance of similarity between the various dialects those Africans spoke and colonial English. In Greece, there were slaves who taught Greek children their grammar and conducted classes in botany, as well as performing more menial tasks. The Romans employed slaves in the theater, in gladiatorial combats, and utilized the highly-educated foreign slaves as instructors. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus were slaves. But the black slave in America had no chance for such intelligent diversion based on his skills or prominence in his own country. The African's sole purpose in America was, for the most part, to provide the cheapest agricultural labor possible to procure. Any deviation from this purpose was either accidental or extremely rare. (Even such a normal phenomenon as the "house nigra" was nonexistent on the smaller farms; on the larger plantation there were only one or two. Sometimes the house slave was merely the oldest or most infirm member of the owner's retinue; even after the advent of the African slave, for some time house servants on the larger plantations were indentured white persons.)
It is certain that it was this foreignness and the reluctance of the white American to think of the African as another man that helped early to fix the African's, and later the AfroAmerican's, place in American society--just as the color of the African's skin set him apart from the rest of the society blatantly and permanently. A freed serf, if he was lucky, could hope at least to matriculate into the lower rungs of the general society and perhaps find some genuine niche in the mainstream of that society in which to function as a citizen, a man. But the African, and later even the freed black, was always apart. A freed Negro, and there were quite a few of them even before the so-called Emancipation, would always remain an ex-slave. Otherwise, what was he doing in this country?