restricted access Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination by Erich Nunn (review)
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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...