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Nicholas M. Evans Jazz, Minstrelsy, and White-American Blues (on Gene Lees, Cats ofAny Color: Jazz, Black and White [New York: Oxford UP, 1994]; and Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class [New York: Oxford UP, 1993]) [T]he contemporary account of the so-called white ethnic experience emerged into prominence during a period when the civil rights movement was most active.... [T]he European-American identity provides a way for whites to mobilize themselves, bridging what were once their own ethnic divisions, in opposition to the challenges of non-European groups. (31617 )—Richard D. Alba Expressive culture offers a wide array of contexts in which white American identity is negotiated. Racial figurations of whiteness and blackness become particularly charged in the realms of jazz music and blackface minstrelsy. Gene Lees' Cats ofAny Color, a collection of essays and musician interviews from Jazzletter, which Lees edits, presents whiteness largely according to sociologist Richard D. Alba's analysis. Even though Lees attempts to deconstruct essentialized whiteness by emphasizing white musicians' ethnic diversity, ultimately he relies on a hypostasized notion of European-American identity to combat the reverse racism that he believes plagues contemporary jazz. In contrast, Eric Lott's Love and Theft, a cultural and historical study of minstrelsy's emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, employs poststructural theory to historicize formations of working-class whiteness among intersecting discourses of race, class, and gender. Differences between Lott's and Lees' methodologies derive not least from their divergent professional affiliations: Lott is a Columbia-educated professor of American Studies at the University of Virginia, Lees a longtime journalist and jazz critic who edited Down Beat from 1959 to 1961. Still, the two can be placed in dialogue since they both approach whiteness as a politically charged category of identity. That such disparate critical voices converge suggests a relatively recent and wide-ranging concern for managing the meanings of a racial identity that has been relatively unexamined and imagined as stable. As reactionary attacks on affirmative action and other "race-based" social policies grow, whiteness is becoming redefined—often in ideologically conflicted manners—in the most politically efficacious terms available. Lees' work participates in this process of redefinition, while Lott's work indirectly exposes the process itself as a historically contingent attempt to retain dominance in negotiations of social power. 82the minnesota review Milton Gordon's well-known sociological theory of assimilation has contributed significantly to the status of whiteness as an essentialized, invisible category of identity/ This theory ensconced bourgeois upward mobility as the standard for all Americans, instituting for those who can pass for "white" an identity whose racial/cultural contours remain profoundly ambiguous. These contours are characterized largely by absence, as is suggested in the way that Alba, after Stanley Lieberson, refers to assimilated whiteAmericans as simply "unhyphenated " (311). According to this perspective, the only cultural identity that assimilated whites embrace is an abstract, homogeneous "American" citizen-subjectivity shaped mainlyby an individualist class ethos. Yet Alba's work addresses an issue that complicates this prescription for homogeneity: the reemergence in the 1970s and 1980s of asserted "ethnic" identity among whites—English, Irish, Italian, Jewish . As the epigraph to this essay suggests, Alba interprets this re-emergencenotas anexpressionofearlier socialdivisionsamongthesegroups, but as a reactionary recasting of abstract whiteness into a collective European-American identity positioned over and against racial minorities . Distinct ethnic histories become flattened in favor ofa generic story of immigrant experience: "From every group, one hears essentially the same story ofpeople who came poor, suffered from discrimination and other early burdens, but worked hard and eventually made their way in the new land" (Alba 313-14). "The thrustofEuropean-American identity ," Alba concludes, "is to defend the individualistic view oftheAmerican [socioeconomic] system, because it portrays the system as open to those who are willing to work hard" and pull themselves up by their bootstraps (317). The European-American narrative redefines "the essentialAmerican experience," grantingits narrators national socialprestige (315) and encouraging the disdain of African-Americans, Mexican -Americans, and other minorities who promote affirmative action as a necessary corrective to persisting systemic discrimination (317). In sum, although assertions of ethnic white identity may partially dispel the invisibility...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 81-91
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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