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The Law and Black Folk
Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery by Bryan Wagner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 307. $37.00 cloth.

Ever since W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, scholars have deliberated over what it means to have a soul, to be black, or to be part of the folk. In Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery, Bryan Wagner gives us a new way to consider these issues that is provocative and, indeed, disturbing. Blackness, Wagner claims, is not something passed down through bloodlines or as a cultural inheritance; rather, it is a certain type of statelessness produced when one is allowed to exist—but only without standing—in the eyes of the state. Furthermore, it is this understanding of blackness (one of statelessness, not of soulfulness) that grounds what we commonly call the black vernacular tradition. Indeed, this version of the black tradition predicates its own emergence on its engagement with the law that would construct the existence of its practitioners only as one of criminality. For Wagner, if we miss understanding this aspect of blackness, we miss the violence recorded in these cultural expressions.

Wagner proposes this alternative history of the black vernacular tradition by debunking some of what he calls the central myths of its accepted history and by detailing the ethnographic procedure that made certain kinds of music into folk music (253). He begins by showing the way in which the laws arising out of a natural law tradition [End Page 339] produced a particular notion of blackness. For him, the term police power refers not just to the formalized institution of law enforcement (although it certainly includes that) but also more broadly to the power of the state to produce certain types of subjectivities through the writing and enforcing of law. Indeed, the state's sovereignty relates to its police power, and, in the particular case of blackness, the state's police power sees blackness only "for the presumed danger it poses to public welfare" (6-7). Furthermore, this power was not only consolidated in the state itself, as it was extended as a "racial privilege of all whites over all blacks, slave or free" (7). Because this police power conceptualized blackness only as a threat, it legitimated any effort to eliminate that potential threat preemptively before it could culminate in action. For Wagner, the black vernacular tradition arises out of its interaction with this kind of legal thinking, and we'd be better served by understanding how black culture responded to police power rather than by misunderstanding "the voice's insistence for a positive property such as soulfulness" (21). Indeed, as Wagner states,

[M]y aim is to specify the historical statement against which the black tradition has dramatized its own emergence. Whether it is abstracted in codes or embedded in cases, the law leaves a paper trail that can be used to reconstruct the historical coordinates that are invoked in the tradition's representative structures of self-address.


One of Wagner's most powerful examples is the history of Uncle Remus, the African American character created by Joel Chandler Harris in Atlanta at the close of the nineteenth century. Probably many Americans think of Uncle Remus either as the storyteller featured in Harris's Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880) or as the demeaning narrator featured in Disney's 1946 film, Song of the South. What Wagner reminds us of, however, is the seriousness with which folklorists took the Uncle Remus stories for their "scientific worth" (116). As Wagner details, Remus became structurally important both to the study of black folk culture and to the professionalization of that type of study. Remus, then, influenced folklorists' "theories of black tradition, in particular those theories that would describe the tradition as a cultural inheritance from Africa;" indeed, he "structured the archive through which the tradition has been imagined" (122). By reading through issues of the Atlanta Constitution, the newspaper that initially published Harris's Remus pieces, Wagner links the production of this character with the debate simultaneously...