- Songs and Intellectuals: The Musical Projects of Alain Locke, Alejo Carpentier, and Mário de Andrade
Paul Gilroy’s effort to grasp the cultural and political currents of the black Atlantic finds one of its guiding threads in black music, its social relations, and its circulation in this vast area. The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the complex reception of their performances of spirituals by diverse audiences on both sides of the Atlantic functions as a key example in his critical and nuanced examination of the politics of black authenticity. This discussion, in turn, directly contributes to Gilroy’s case for a theoretical model of diaspora that understands ethnicity as “an infinite process of identity construction.”1
It makes intuitive sense that a similar focus on music should allow us to extend Gilroy’s approach to the black Atlantic beyond the boundaries of the English-speaking world, especially given the vitality, creativity, and global reach of African-inflected musics all through the Americas. That is not as easy as it seems, of course. Still, Gilroy’s treatment of the Jubilee Singers provides a fruitful perspective for exploring the opportunities for and challenges of including two other major languages of the Americas, Spanish and Portuguese, in the conversations of the Atlantic diaspora. In particular, his discussion of the work of Alain Locke (1885–1954), a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance and the editor of the influential anthology The New Negro (1925), opens up a promising comparative perspective.
A professor of philosophy at Howard University, Locke had received his PhD from Harvard in 1918 and had been the first African American to receive a Rhodes scholarship. He wrote about African American culture and supported the work of African American intellectuals throughout his career. In The New Negro, Locke brought together creative pieces by African [End Page 210] American writers as well as essays on African American culture and its relation to Africa. For George Hutchinson, Locke’s goal as an editor was to affirm the “ideal of a national Negro cultural awakening” through the orchestration of “numerous different voices and points of view.”2
Gilroy quotes from the opening paragraph of the essay on music that Locke contributed to The New Negro:
The spirituals are really the most characteristic product of the race genius as yet in America. But the very elements that make them uniquely expressive of the Negro make them at the same time deeply representative of the soil that produced them. Thus, as unique spiritual products of American life, they become nationally as well as racially characteristic. It may not be readily conceded now that the song of the Negro is America’s folk song; but if the spirituals are what we think them to be, a classic folk expression, then this is their ultimate destiny. Already they give evidence of this classic quality. . . . The universality of the spirituals looms more and more as they stand the test of time.3
Locke’s representation of the spirituals as folk music of national and universal significance finds a close analogy in the treatment of certain vernacular musics that are culturally identified as having African roots by two influential Latin American intellectuals, the Cuban Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980) and the Brazilian Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), particularly in their essays on music that date from the 1920s.
Carpentier and Andrade are recognized now as major literary figures of the twentieth century and remembered, above all, for their achievement as fiction writers. In the 1920s, at the beginning of their careers, both writers were engaged in polemics for artistic renewal and played an important role as intellectual leaders.4 Andrade was one of the organizers of the 1922 Week of Modern Art in São Paulo, usually regarded as the starting point of the modernist movement in Brazil. Carpentier was at the center of the Afro-Cuban movement in Cuba. Like Locke, Carpentier and Andrade were both advocates for African-inflected musics in Cuba and Brazil. In the 1920s, a defense of black vernacular musics was likely to be met with a dismissive, if not hostile, response, as Locke’s remark that “it may...