3. I’m Going to Marry the Devil’s Daughter: Blues Tricksters Signifying on Jim Crow
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107  3 I’m Going to Marry the Devil’s Daughter Blues Tricksters Signifying on Jim Crow There are, for example, many hidden references to the white man in the Negro’s songs. This is an interesting field of research in which little has been done. — Guy B. Johnson, “Double Meaning in the Popular Negro Blues” (1927) The Lion’s Den The claim that the white man is the devil, by now a cliché of black supremacist politics, achieved early and notable mainstream exposure in Alex Haley’s 1963 interview with Malcolm X published in Playboy magazine.1 “The first time I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s statement, ‘The white man is the devil,’ ” insisted his most charismatic disciple, “it just clicked.” The general sentiment, if not the precise statement, has a long history in African American political and religious thought. It surfaces in the eighteenth century, as the first Great Awakening begins to evangelize slave culture, and, as a series of coded indictments, it pervades the spirituals. As overt condemnation, the equivalence of white man and devil traces back at least as far as David Walker’s Appeal (1829), where the author’s outraged screed led him to indict “the whites” as a group, down through history: “We view them all over Europe, together with what were scattered about in Asia and Africa, as heathens, and we seem them acting more like devils than accountable men.”2 It was the slaveholding American South, however, where Walker saw the deviltry of the former emerging most poisonously: not just grievous physical mistreatment and economic exploitation of black by white, but a comprehensive spiritual and intellectual deprivation, a denial of the means for achieving “good sense and learning,” that prevented black slaves from becoming conscious—as he now was—of the burning injustice of their degraded condition: 108 Blues Tricksters Signifying on Jim Crow Do you suppose one man of good sense and learning would submit himself , his father, mother, wife and children, to be slaves to a wretched man like himself, who, instead of compensating him for his labours, chains, handcuffs and beats him and family almost to death, leaving life enough in them, however, to work for, and call him master? No! no! he would cut his devilish throat from ear to ear, and well do slaveholders know it.3 Walker was living far north of the Mason-­ Dixon line when he penned these lines, of course, as was Frederick Douglass when he wrote in his Narrative (1845) of the slave traders who swarmed over him in jail after his attempted escape in Easton, Maryland: “I felt myself surrounded by so many fiends from perdition. A band of pirates never looked more like their father, the devil.”4 The rhetoric of demonization cut both ways on America’s racialized antebellum landscape: the “dissatisfied” slave, according to Douglass, “has the devil in him”—or so the slaveocracy insisted—“and it must be whipped out.” Betsy Freeland, the mother of Douglass’s then-­ master William Freeland, was so infuriated by Douglass’s brazen play for freedom and the corrupting influence he’d had on her other slaves that she called him a devil, a yellow devil, and a long-­legged mulatto devil, all in the space of four sentences—at least as he tells it.5 As for Walker, the antipathy with which he and his abolitionist tract were viewed by southern whites is well known, and he did not test their forbearance in person. He may have thought that the white man was the devil during his youth in North and South Carolina, but that was not a sentiment one could utter publicly on southern soil during the antebellum period and remain alive, much less broadcast nationwide from that location. That was still residually true in 1963, when Malcolm X sat down for his Playboy interview in the relative safety of Harlem. The post-­ Reconstruction and Lost Generation decades, a time in which the devil became pointedly associated with blues music, sit on the continuum that runs from Walker to Malcolm. As the whips and chains of chattel slavery were reconfigured into murderous vigilantism and the “slavery by another name” of peonage and convict leasing, the slavemaster-­ as-­ devil (along with his overseer and patroller allies) was supplanted in the black popular imagination by his successors: the white bossman, sheriff, and prison-­farm warden, all of whom became ways of symbolizing an emergent prison-­agricultural complex that Houston A. Baker...