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  • The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism
  • Gordon J. Marshall (bio)
Muyumba, Walton M. The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.

Many texts that have examined African American culture after 1950 have done so from the perspective of the Civil Rights Movement. These studies usually submerge the cultural struggles of African American intellectuals within the necessary and important political and social history of the period; they consequently neglect the work of writers and social critics that do not exclusively focus on Civil Rights. Those historians that focus on jazz or on individual authors move in the other direction, lifting the music/culture of jazz or the writings of an African American writer out of the larger context of the period. In writing The Shadow and the Act, however, Walton M. Muyumba has managed to return both jazz culture and the writings of African American thinkers back into the larger struggle not only for racial equality but also for an individual African American identity in the postwar American landscape.

Muyumba premises his text by claiming that it is a study of jazz and pragmatic philosophy couched within the larger context of African American culture after the Second World War. The Shadow and the Act also goes well beyond yet another study of jazz culture and African American literature, taking three of the larger postwar writers—Ralph Ellison, James Baldwi,n and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka—and explaining their significance to the success of the Civil Rights Movements and the growing centrality of African American [End Page 1134] culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Muyumba has carved out a fresh space for the postwar African American intellectual but also a fresh perspective from which to consider them. The text is divided into four movements, reflecting the organization of a jazz score. The first section is an analysis of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker's impact on African American culture and American culture as a whole. The three following sections focus on Ellison, Baldwin, and Jones/Baraka, respectively. Muyumba's arguments about the impact and influence of these writers' works on both African American and American culture are furthered by his examination of the blues idiom and jazz improvisation; Muyumba applies these musical concepts to the political and literary writings of the three authors, and argues that their fiction creates a discourse of blackness that forces itself to the center of the American identity.

Muyumba defines the blues idiom as an autobiographical narrative set within the common cultural framework of African American life. That is, while the blues song is a specific narrative of the experience of the writer/musician, it is general enough to resonate with most listeners. In opposition to the generalizing nature of the blues idiom, jazz improvisation is an expression of the unique individual identity of the performer. In music and in literature, the improvised solo may appear to be spontaneous; yet it is the result of countless years of practice and the attainment of expert knowledge. Muyumba argues that Ellison, Baldwin, and Jones/Baraka had to possess twice as much knowledge as the white writer: a firm basis in American literature and an understanding of African American literature as well. He positions the improvised solo as the formation of a uniquely African American/American identity which is founded within and outside of a white defined idea of America.

The text is grounded within the theories of pragmatic philosophers such as John Dewey, William James, and Richard Rorty. Muyumba balances their claims of a pluralistic democratic ideology in postwar America against W. E. B. Du Bois's and Alain Locke's analysis of racial conflicts in American culture. Pragmatism is an effective theoretical tool in Muyumba's argument for two reasons. First, it is uniquely American and thus the best analytical system for understanding how a sense of "Americanness" is constructed and how that social and personal (and, in this text, male or masculine) identity can be altered to give African Americans a central role in American culture. Second, like jazz improvisation, the blues idiom, or the writings of Ellison...


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