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Reviewed by
Erich Nunn. Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2015. 224 pp. $24.95.

“What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?” Stuart Hall’s question posed in a 1992 essay of the same name remains hotly debated. After all, race is socially constructed to reinforce hierarchies of power, and acculturation throughout the African diaspora is the product of what Hall describes as “selective appropriation, incorporation, and rearticulation of European [and Native American, I would add] ideologies, cultures, and institutions, alongside an African heritage” (28). So how “black” is black popular culture if race is not biological and innate, and if culture is constantly evolving and “impure”? In Sounding the Color Line, Erich Nunn takes a strict constructivist approach to the question. He argues that record labels and white folklorists like John Lomax imposed artificial racial distinctions between hillbilly music and the blues, when, in his estimation, Southern music is an impossible tangle of cultural borrowing, blending, and mimicry. Nunn’s constructivist approach sets up the second half of his book, which examines the possibility of what he deems interracial cultural crossings in the New Negro Movement, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. In defining the meaning of culture, Nunn abandons what he deems racial “essences” in favor of “affective experiences” that make cultural forms accessible to virtually anyone, regardless of their race. To Nunn, since culture has no fixed racial boundaries, these fictive boundaries can be traversed and blurred through performance, consumption, and (usually lurid) fascination.

Hall’s answer to his own question also recognizes the limits of essentialism. He seeks to focus on a politics beyond policing what is and is not authentically “black” in order to pointedly critique the tendency to narrowly define black culture on the single axis of race, while ignoring diversity among black experiences based on gender, sexuality, and class—an issue, I might add, that Nunn hardly touches upon save for a few lines in the Introduction. However, unlike Nunn, Hall’s understanding of black culture begins with the assumption that “there is, of course, a very profound set of distinctive, historically defined black experiences,” experiences that shape black identities and cultures throughout the diaspora (30). What is even more important is that Hall cautions that “a movement beyond this essentialism is not an aesthetic or critical strategy without a cultural politics, without a marking of difference” (29). Hall rejects essentialism because it “naturalizes and dehistoricizes difference, mistaking what is historical and cultural for what is natural, biological, and genetic” (29). In other words, Hall recognizes that a rejection of essentialism is not a rejection of the historical and the cultural. For Hall, the ultimate agenda for black politics should be for blacks in the diaspora to be black and American (or British, etc.), but the fulfillment of this agenda should not obscure the ways in which blackness is culturally distinct and the product of historical experience. On this point, Nunn demurs. In his desire to abandon essence for construction, he largely ignores the [End Page 85] cultural politics underlying black popular culture, which has often been, of necessity, oppositional to the mainstream precisely because of white supremacy past and present. Bear in mind that for many African Americans, culture provides a space for black affirmation and self-definition beyond the white gaze. (Hence the narrator of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout [2015], who wryly laments: “But being black ain’t what it used to be. The black experience used to come with lots of bullshit, but at least there was some fucking privacy” [230].)

So even though Nunn cites Paul Gilroy’s assertion that black musics in the Atlantic world are forged in the experience of slavery, he quickly brushes aside the historical and political, countering that scholars should give greater emphasis to “the interracial dynamics—often coercive and exploitive, but productive nonetheless—that helped produce [musical forms in the United States]” (107). In essence, Nunn’s understanding of “construction” largely lumps the historical and political into the category of essentialism, which diminishes how racial categories have always been proxies for power despite the fact of race as a social construct. Interracial cultural connections are not inherently tinged with exploitation, but while white Southerners’ consuming or performing “black cultural forms” may provide a feel-good moment that superficially bridges black and white communities, real power imbalances and structural inequalities persist untouched. And those material conditions help to produce the color line in the first place. Racial boundaries have been transgressed throughout American history, but as one really must ask, at what cost, and to whom?

Nunn recognizes that whites have historically exploited and mocked African Americans through blackface minstrelsy and through essentialist notions of race that naturalized stereotyped cultural tendencies. However, for all his digging into interracial cultural connections, Nunn’s analysis of figures like Lomax and the white country singer Jimmie Rogers would have benefited from a more critical analysis of the history and aesthetic consequences of white co-optation of African American music. In particular, I would have liked for him to engage with what Paul C. Taylor calls “the Elvis Effect” in “Funky White Boys and Honorary Soul Sisters” (1992). White artists, Taylor points out, have consistently profited off of African American music by adopting (or ripping off) the styles, songs, or genres of African American musicians while the black innovators and creators of those styles, songs, and genres remain obscure and often impoverished. This history of white co-optation shifts the terms of the debate over “honorary” white artists performing “black music” from cultural essentialism to the arena of history and politics; that is, to a history of white supremacy and a politics of racial solidarity in the face of white supremacy. Taylor writes, “[this co-optation of “black music”] shows that there may be concrete political concerns that make racial solidarity an attractive mode of political and cultural practice. It reminds us that anything validly claiming the title “black culture” comes from the concrete strivings of black people rather than from some essence outside of culture. And it reminds us that the strivings of those people take place … in the context of a rich historical drama that is shaped by power relations, by economics and politics” (334-35).

At times Nunn seems blithely unaware of the Elvis Effect. For instance, he cites as evidence of interracial “imitations and adaptations” that the British rock band Led Zeppelin’s early albums included songs written by the African American blues musician and songwriter Willie Dixon, but he neglects to mention that Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement and won an out-of-court settlement (103). The pillaging of “black music” has been consistent throughout American history, and, as Taylor argues, this history should be the “backdrop” for interpreting white artists performing “black music.” Diminishing the significance of these “power relations,” strips from these musical forms the politics behind the culture, which is to strip it of much of its meaning. [End Page 86]

Some language in the text raised serious concerns for me. In several passages, Nunn flaunted longstanding conventions for what terms are acceptable for describing African Americans by writing “negro” with a lowercase “n” and without quotation marks. (See pages 37, 38, 43, 164, and 165 for examples.) I am reluctant to chalk up this language to a question of historic usage since, historically, African Americans insisted on capitalizing the term as a mark of respect in the face of persistent white supremacy. This conventional use of the term exists, clearly, in order to indicate when a writer (or speaker) is using a term as opposed to referencing its use in another source; hence the imperative to use quotation marks when referencing racial slurs, offensive language, or anachronistic terms. These conventions are not trivial; rather, they reflect a desire among African Americans to define their identities and cultures on their own terms.

Overall, Sounding the Color Line adds to an ongoing conversation that gets to the very meaning of culture, and this book has the potential to spark further study into interracial cultural encounters. But to capture the complexities of cultural production in the racially charged context of the American South, power and history need to be at the forefront of that conversation. Otherwise, the distinctions between blending, borrowing, and stealing—and there are such distinctions, though they are by no means easy to demarcate—become blurred, and the historical roots of culture become eroded.

Mari N. Crabtree
College of Charleston