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Culture on the Margins

Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation

Jon Cruz
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Culture on the Margins
    Book Description:

    InCulture on the Margins,Jon Cruz recounts the "discovery" of black music by white elites in the nineteenth century, boldly revealing how the episode shaped modern approaches to studying racial and ethnic cultures. Slave owners had long heard black song making as meaningless "noise." Abolitionists began to attribute social and political meaning to the music, inspired, as many were, by Frederick Douglass's invitation to hear slaves' songs as testimonies to their inner, subjective worlds. This interpretive shift--which Cruz calls "ethnosympathy"--marks the beginning of a mainstream American interest in the country's cultural margins. In tracing the emergence of a new interpretive framework for black music, Cruz shows how the concept of "cultural authenticity" is constantly redefined by critics for a variety of purposes--from easing anxieties arising from contested social relations to furthering debates about modern ethics and egalitarianism.

    In focusing on the spiritual aspect of black music, abolitionists, for example, pivoted toward an idealized religious singing subject at the expense of absorbing the more socially and politically elaborate issues presented in the slave narratives and other black writings. By the end of the century, Cruz maintains, modern social science also annexed much of this cultural turn. The result was a fully modern tension-ridden interest in culture on the racial margins of American society that has long had the effect of divorcing black culture from politics.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2321-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-18)

    WHEN FREDERICK DOUGLASS published his autobiography in 1845 he asked his readers to pause and listen to the songs of slaves. In their “songs of sorrow,” as he called them, we would hear their “tale of woe,” for “every tone was a testimony against slavery.” Douglass’s invitation was heeded. By the eve of the Civil War, abolitionists were more than ready to hear the “spirituals”; black religious song making was even enlisted as cultural weaponry in the symbolic arsenal against slavery. Among the abolitionists a small number of individuals took the discovery of black songs quite seriously and set about...

    (pp. 19-42)

    WERE FREDERICK DOUGLASS alive today he would certainly wonder about the career of the slave songs that he implored white abolitionists to hear. He might wonder as well about the professional folkloristic studies of black cultural expressions that were being produced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. We might wonder how he would ponder the dilemma presented by an era that produced a vibrant intellectual interest in black folk culture, but that placed a much greater emphasis upon methodological and taxonomic sophistication as it abandoned the pathos he had tried to bring to the songs of sorrow. What would he...

    (pp. 43-66)

    HOW DID the captors, owners, and overseers of slaves hear black music prior to the rise of the abolitionist movement? What did they hear? And how did they respond to or act on what they heard? Prior to the mid-nineteenth century black music appears to have been heard by captors and overseers primarily asnoise—that is, as strange, unfathomable, and incomprehensible. However, with the rise of the abolitionist movement, black song making became considered increasingly as a font of blackmeanings. Today we recognize this new, mode of hearing, with its emphasis upon the meanings of culture producers, as...

    (pp. 67-98)

    PRIOR TO THE nineteenth century the music produced by slaves appeared to have little value other than meeting the managerial needs of owners and overseers. But by the outbreak of the Civil War a profoundly important cultural change had taken place. The antislavery sentiment, which had existed since the early-eighteenth century, had matured to become the most powerful social movement in American society. A large body of antislavery literature had emerged, including important autobiographical narratives written by former slaves. These writings were unprecedented. Through the “slave narratives,” deeply personal accounts of what it meant to live the life of a...

    (pp. 99-123)

    AS THE SPIRITUAL emerged within the new order of recognition and interpretation, it became immediately more than a category of singing; it marked acultural complexby functioning as a two-dimensional testimony. On the one hand, it was most commonly recognized both as a testimonyofblack meanings, as a signifying system for the psychological, spiritual, and collective subjectivity of slaves, and as a symbol of the slaves’ perseverance within a history of oppression. On the other hand, it functioned as a testimonyforthe emerging critical perceptions of white northern progressives. Their recognition and use of the Negro spiritual...

    (pp. 124-163)

    ON APRIL 14, 1861, the long-smoldering antagonisms between the North and South finally broke out into war. Following the surrender of Fort Sumter to the Confederate Army, the North, in one of its first military responses, used the Union’s combined army and navy force to annex Port Royal, a major sea island off the coast of South Carolina. Port Royal and environs gave the North a strategic foothold between the major Atlantic ports of the Confederacy. A month after the fall of Fort Sumter, the first wave of former slaves crossed Union lines at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on the Chesapeake...

    (pp. 164-188)

    BLACK MUSIC MAKING, “discovered” or not, continued to flourish as a popular vernacular, a sphere of cultural work, a situated grammar, and an arena of social perceptions of everyday life. Nonetheless, it was being mapped by the new appropriators, who, in turn, were producing a new cultural knowledge. Higginson and Allen, along with others who shared their frameworks, may or may not have understood black music. There are plenty of arguments to pursue, which are supported by a large body of scholarship, with regard to their “misreadings.” However, I do not wish to concentrate on whether the appropriators got things...

    (pp. 189-199)

    AS WE HAVE SEEN, it was within the cultural conjuncture of what Max Weber called “elective affinities”—the historically specific and strategic integration of ideas and interests—that troubled cultural entrepreneurs from the North were able to turn their gaze to the South’s and the nation’s moral and social crisis. In the North they could read as well as hear what the radical black and white abolitionists had to say. In the South they could hear black song making. It was Frederick Douglass who first bridged the thick descriptive power of the slave narratives to the subterranean and clandestine world...

    (pp. 200-206)

    WRITING IN 1977, Lawrence Levine put the modern redemptive mission most succinctly: “It is time,” he wrote, “for historians to expand their own consciousness by examining the consciousness of those they have hitherto ignored or neglected.… The problem is that historians have tended to spend too much of their time in the company of the ‘movers and shakers’ and too little in the universe of the mass of mankind.” What was at stake in Levine’s view was the redemptive project: “Even in the midst of the brutalities and injustices of the antebellum and postbellum racial systems black men and women...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 207-258)
    (pp. 259-274)
    (pp. 275-288)
    (pp. 289-289)