Sounds of Black Culture Shouldn't Be Marginalized.
Sounds of Black Culture Shouldn't Be Marginalized.
James W. Cook, Lawrence B. Glickman, and Michael O'Malley. The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, and Future. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008
Unlike the Glickman collection, the best way to understand this edited collection is begin with the larger thematic essays before delving into the case studies. More specifically, the best way to understand this edited collection is to follow the career of Lawrence Levine, in whose memory the book is dedicated.
Levine’s intellectual career started with a biography published in 1968 on Williams Jenning Bryan titled Defender of the Faith: William Jennings Bryan, the Last Decade, 1915-1925. As Karen Halttunen notes in the epilogue titled “The Art of Listening,” Levine wanted to write a second book on the civil rights movement, however realized that he was replicateing the approach of his Bryan book by "allowing the leadership to speak for the masses.” “How," he wondered, "did one penetrate the thought and aspirations of people who left few written records behind them, especially in the era of slavery and the decades following emancipation?”
The answer was what scholars call the “emphatic” or “visionary” approach that materialized in his second book, Black Culture and Black Consciousness. In the 1970s, cultural historians such as Levine became concerned with two aspects of the cultures of non dominant people: they wished to reveal subalterns’ “way of life,” and they wished to understand subalterns’ “consciousness” and its development over time. Historians were interested in the way of life of subalterns because saw it as a central aspect of subaltern identity and heritage. As such it was crucial to developing alternate histories.
However, historians in the late 1980s and 1990s became skeptical of Levine’s emphatic approach he incorporated into Black Culture and Black Consciousness. Instead, cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall wrote that, "the fact is ‘black’ has never been just there either. It has always been an unstable identity, physically, culturally, and politically. It too, is a narrative, a story, a history. Something constructed, told, spoken, not simply found” (327). These scholars were influenced by the work of Michael Foucault who stressed “deconstructive history” and “discourse.” As Michael O’Malley summarizes in the article “Agendas for Cultural History,” cultural historians who worked in the discursive mode grew suspicious of histories that tried to recover the voices of others or to speak or subaltern or neglected groups. If the term “American Indian” was itself a discursive formulation, then trying to recover the voices of “American Indians” perpetuated a kind of imperial fiction as if it were fact. Rather then writing about actual people, authors seemed to find it less problematic to write about the discourse of the American Indian. It’s a familiar move – not writing about women but about the ‘discourse of gender,’ not writing about Chinese immigrants but about the ‘discourse of race.” (285).
However, at the same time, O’Malley states the problem very effectively, while “cultural historians who worked in the discursive mode grew suspicious of histories that tried to recover the voices of others, or to speak for subaltern or neglected groups . . . perpetuating a kind of imperial fiction as if it were fact. But the resulting histories are ‘long on thesis’ and ‘short on actual human beings." (423).
This purpose of the edited collection is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, but rather to “return” to the visionary and emphatic mission prevalent in Black Culture and Black Consciousness. It’s really quite unclear how the following calls to action by Nan Enstad, Philip J. Deloria, and Jean-Cristophe Agnew, and James Cook resort back to the visionary and emphatic “championing of the subaltern” mission of Levine, but I think their suggestions are useful. So whether or not they make sense to me in the lineage of Levine, they make sense insofar as they are merely good ideas for future scholarship.
Nan Enstad argues the historians should begin (or focus again) on grief and complicity. Part of what engendered hope in earlier historical narrative was the example of people endeavoring to create beauty in their lives – music, art, community, social change – despite their losses, their grief, and their errors” (335). Enstad argues that whether through success or failure, historians should “recognize and become responsible to this commonality rather than to fantasies of autonomy and mastery.” She focuses on a transnational story of a Chinese artist commenting on the North Carolina tobacco trade and its negative impacts on Chinese in China, but she’s also concerned with a more immediate contemporary moment: the aftermath of 9/11. If historians (and politicians specifically) reincorporate grief into their understandings of the world, they would respond differently to terrorist attacks. Instead of mobilizing anger, they might reflectively ask, as grievers often do, how could this have happened? How was I involved?
While Enstad urges a “return” to grief and complicity, Jean-Christophe Agnew, “Capitalism, Culture, and Catastrophe,” calls for new “empathic” cultural history that takes account of the traumatic or catastrophic moments of life in a capitalist society and culture. Catastrophe, he argues, has played a major role in shaping the work of cultural historians, as their interests have shifted from an earlier focus on slavery to the current emphasis on contemporary politics and culture in the context of global capitalism” (422). Specifically, he looks at Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul and compares it to Karl Polanyi’s catastrophic account of the arrival of a “free” market in land and labor in England. Without being too insensitive, Agnew urges us to challenge the slave/free polarity, and instead think about a more graduated spectrum of market coercions (404).
James Cook's “Return of the Culture Industry” returns to Theodor Adorno’s culture industry concept, which has been extensively critiqued by cultural historians who affirm the agency of individual consumers and uncover their strategic appropriations of mass culture. What remains valuable about Adorno, Cook argues, is his ‘stubborn refuels to consider questions of aesthetic form or ideological function apart from the mediating structures of capitalism” (421). Adorno is good at recognizing that commodity fetishism. Won’t make aesthetic judgements without placing it in its context (however he does make insane comments).
Philip J. Deloria's “From Nation to Neighborhood: Land, Policy, Culture, Colonialism, and Empire in U.S.-Indian Relations” argues that what we should “bring back” stretches to include legal/political history, especially the shifting imperial and colonial frameworks created by federal Indian policy and law. He uses this periodization to demonstrate that at different historical moments, native people may be usefully seen as imperial subjects, colonized subjects, national citizens, abject outsiders, members of indigenous political collectives, and participants in a global political consciousness based on aboriginally and indignity. Any study of Native Americans that treat them solely as cultural representations, or ethnographic agents creating their own culture, or victims of encounter and imperial development, is necessarily partial” (423).
The Indian Trade and Intercourse acts of the 1790s made sure that the localism that had characterized the colonies was eliminated in favor of centralized control of the imperial state. By 1831, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall considered Indian “domestic, dependent nations” and in need of containment by being forced into agrarian practices. United States’ colonial territories were no longer outposts and footholds contesting for Indian land. Now the situation was reversed. Indian lands were remnant outposts, tightly bounded and patrolled spaces that existed within the state and territorial system of the U.S Empire (359). Imperialism and colonialism offer two interlocked but distinct lenses: the first is directed roughly toward the metropole and its practices and policies; the second toward the human relations proceeding from on-the-ground situations. In the first moment, Americans established the structures of imperial expansion, and empowered those structures in relation to both settler colonialism and the Indian people who would bear the losses of American expansion. In the second, they focused more precisely on the colonized – on geographic containment and on social transformation” (360). The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (“Indian New Deal”) made Indians semiautonomous and limited empowerment. Indians, over the course of history, shifted from “violent” to “contained” to now “pacified” (367).
Ultimately these were the best four articles in the collection, and its unclear what the case studies have to do with Levine. I was already familiar with Stephen Robertson, Shane White, Stephen Garton, and Graham White’s work on Harlem families, vice prosecutors, and prostitution in the 1920s and 1930s, but it’s unclear what their essay “The Envelope, Please” which argued that “the recovery of some of the long-forgotten stories of black con artists allows us to begin to view the Harlem of the 1920s from a perspective different than that offered by writers of the Harlem Renaissance” adds to a conversation about changing methodologies and theories. Elaine Tyler May, who contributed an article in the Glickman collection, wrote my favorite article“Gimme Shelter: Do It Yourself Defense and the Politics of Fear.” She echoed Nan Enstad’s concerns about the aftermath of 9/11 and posed the following question: How can we understand the connection between the age of atomic attack drills and the era of school shootings? She argues that the obsession with security and the politics of fear so prevalent today are part of the cultural inheritance of the early years of the Cold War. Laura McEnaney in Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the Fifties. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 2000 makes a similar argument. But May shows how Elizabeth Gordon, editor in chief of House Beautiful argued against Internationalist Style and believed that privacy was necessary to cultivate self-reliant citizens (222). Americans associated Blacks with communists, and by the 1970s, Blacks were the enemy, not necessarily communists. Law and Order and fear of the youth drove most Americans and presidential campaigns. Comes out of her book, Homeward Bound. Containment policy of George Kennan gets transferred into the culture of the family.
Prop 1: The “new cultural history” of the late 1980s was not a wholly distinctive histographical phenomenon, or as a field itself, but one moajor development within a much longer twentith-century. 1910s: Franz Boaz; 1930s and 40s Caroline Ware, Melville Herskotivz (7).
Prop 2: The Broad historical interest in culture that first took root during the 1930s did not simply disappear in the years following WWII. The postwar years were not dominated by “presidential synthesis” and “consensus history.” Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Thoedore Adorno, Dwight Macdonald, and David Reisman. U.S. Cultural history was something of a mess during the 1950s and 1960s.
Prop 3: More recent varieties of U.S. Cultural history have regularly encompassed a wide range of ‘culture concepts.’ Culture as artistic expression (Nathan Huggins’s Harlem Renaissance)”; Culture described as the larger matrix of commercial institutions and structures,
Prop 4: In actual practice, most cultural historians have sought to work across these concepts. Lawrence Levine in Black Culture and Black Consciousness required both a functionalist tools of cultural anthropology and the formalist scrutiny reserved for canonical works of art.
Prop 5: Previous confusion surrounding the parameters of cultural history has stemmed in part from a long-running tendency to elide the field in more general U.S. Surveys
Prop 6: Many of the seedbeds of U.S. Cultural History can be found in the work of those whose first identified themselves as specialists in other fields.
Karen Halttunen. “The ART OF lISTENING”
Argument: Not long into his readings of civil rights leaders and black intellectuals, he realized that he was replicateing the approach of his Bryan book by ‘allowing the leadership to speak for the masses. How, he wondered, did one penetrate the thought and aspirations of people who left few written records behind them, especially in the era of slavery and the decades following emancipation?” Black Culture and Black Conciousness shifted to Levine’s “emphatic” approach which has drawn criticism from those who follow the “discursive” model. Levine’s ethnographic listening in Black Culture and Black Consciousness could be seen as native for confusing power with culture, colonialist in purporting to speak for subalterns, and essentialist in treating “African American” as a single, objectively real social group.
So an article like Waldo Martin’s “Be Real Black for Me: Representation Authenticity, and the Cultural Politics of Black Power” defends Levine against charges from Black cultural studies that claimed they were essentialist and totalizing” (420).