- Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery
Bryan Wagner's desire to trouble received ideas surfaces in the "the" of his subtitle. Does police power need an article? Isn't that an excess, a mistake? Wagner, who teaches African American literature and critical legal studies at Berkeley, offers concise narrative histories of police departments in several postbellum Southern cities such as New Orleans and Atlanta as a way of contextualizing The Grandissimes and Uncle Remus, but his study is animated by a broader interest in the legal theory and customary understandings that distinguish the police power—the constabulary's discretionary license to patrol, suspect, detain, arrest, and protect—from the juridical power to try and imprison, a power codified by law, assigned to the criminal justice system, and (at least nominally) bounded by constitutional guarantees. The police power, Wagner demonstrates, is of necessity unbounded. It acts, often proactively, to contain, immobilize, and remove real and imagined threats to public safety. Students and scholars of the early modern South will understand immediately why the figure of the black male vagrant—the rounder, the drifter, the traveling musicianer, the man "bound" for the prison farm or the chain gang—looms large in Wagner's study. The black vagrant was the caricatured, omnipresent, fear-inducing phantasm in the face of which the police power consolidated itself, as well as a misrecognized human subject struggling for survival. But this vagrant was also transformed, during the same harsh decades and [End Page 770] by a wide range of black and white folklorists, anthropologists, novelists, and other cultural mediators, into a startlingly charismatic origin-figure—a living emblem of "black culture" in its folk-aspect, yet one shorn of a political valence that Wagner's study seeks to reclaim.
To the extent that it focuses its critical gaze on both African American cultural production, musical and literary, and the (white) Africanist discourse that helps frame that work for public consumption, Wagner's study sits uneasily at the intersection of recent work by musicologists Ronald Radano (Lying Up a Nation) and Richard Middleton ("Through a Mask Darkly" in Voicing the Popular), literary scholar Keith Cartwright (Reading Africa into American Literature), and blues scholar Elijah Wald (Escaping the Delta). His work is for the most part careful, subtle, original, driven by a clear desire to communicate rather than preach or mystify, with enough dialectical zip to tease persuasive, sometimes brilliant readings out of the autobiographies, newspaper columns, jazz histories, song lyrics, and other texts it assembles. Yet several of his key lyrical readings strike me as badly in error—inventions rather than interpretations—and the introduction, exemplified by his claim that "blackness indicates . . . existence without standing in the modern world," is an unwisely reductive framing of what follows, placing Wagner at odds not just with a body of aesthetic and social commentary that understands blackness in a more positive light, but with the full range of individual and collective agencies asserted by black subjects during the period in question and explored trenchantly in the studies I've invoked above.
Wagner's foundational analytic gesture, which defines blackness "not as a common culture but instead as a species of statelessness," leads him to focus each of his four chapters on one or two representative engagements in which an avatar of Hurston's "man furthest down," his mobility and self-possession heavily conditioned by the police power of the segregated South, comes into productive contact with a freely-ranging interlocutor who gets hold of his story, his song—but also, inevitably, gets it wrong. Mis-tells it. Occludes the political economy conditioning the aesthetic statement. Makes a fetish of "purity" in an effort to preserve "folk culture" in the face of mass culture's depredations and the fading of a slave era while failing to recognize that slavery lived on, as the title of Douglas A. Blackmon's superb recent study of the convict-lease system in postbellum Alabama suggests, by another name. W. C. Handy's celebrated autobiographical report in...