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Canadian Review of American Studies Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 1994, pp. 1-18 The Emancipation of the Negro and the Negro Spirituals From the Racialist Legacy of Arthur de Gobineau JonMichaelSpencer In terms of what Africa means to millions of African Americans today, the racialist legacy of Arthur de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races ([1853) 1915) has followed us. It has followed us via a genealogy of African and New World African scholars who adapted Gobineau's idea of black essentialism. This legacy in the thought of Edward Wilmot Blyden, Alexander Crummell, W. E. B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, and others is the premise behind Anthony Appiah's complaints in In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992). Briefly, the problem Appiah identifies is that the Europeanist thought to which these black scholars subscribed left people of African descent with a self-denigrating notion: that we have an inherently (ontologically) distinct history, tradition, personality, and purpose which imprint upon our culture such traits as emotionality rather than intellectuality, sensuality rather than rationality, and inferiority rather than "superiority." While the intent of claiming that blacks were "distinct but equal" was to vindicate and liberate the Negro, these negritudinaires,so Appiah's argument goes, built their new myths about blackness on the foundation of Gobineau and thereby merely relativized the supposed inferiority of blacks. Whether this is true or not, the "black personality" ideology of Senghor did play a part in reinforcing the distinctions whites made between the westernized black person and the "real" black person; and it was the real 2 Canadian Review of American Studies black person around whom they built their theories of blackness. We see this distinction being made the first time the distinguished black musicians R. Nathaniel Dctt and Dorothy Maynor performed together in New York, Dett as the director of the Hampton Institute choir and Maynor as a chorister and soloist. The choir was performing at Carnegie Hall in April of 1928. Edward Cushing, writing for the Brooklyn Eagle on the 17 April, said Maynor's soprano solo in "As By the Streams of Babylon┬░ was so striking that the piece had to be repeated; but Olin Downes, writing for the New York Times on 18 April, insisted that the real Negro had been eclipsed by white musical influences, that interpretation "more racial in quality" would have been welcome. Downes immediately commenced his racialist theorizing about the Negro: "The negro's musical impulses are not those of the white. He is less restrained, and often more individual as well as spontaneous in his expression." Then Downes proceeds to theorize generally about the real spirituals: "Some negro spirituals are wildly dramatic. Often they have rhythms and phrase lengths which cut entirely free from white tradition. Many of them are rollicking rather than pathetic or tragic in expression." Since the spirituals that the Hampton ~hair rendered were not of Downes' real kind, he then says of the performance: "Need last night's program have contained nothing but solemnly religious music? Could not certain of the harmonizations have been less formal, more exotic? For us there was too much evidence of the musical influence of the whites and not enough of the originality of the race which has given America the spirituals and the dance rhythms that have gone over the whole world." Downes finally concludes, but with seeming hesitance (even after reestablishing racial difference): "With these reservations, it must be said that the choir made an excellent showing." As students of music at Hampton Institute during the mid-1970s, a little more than three decades after Dett's death in 1943, my colleagues and I were not left with this kind of racialist legacy. The musical tradition that such musicians as Dett and Maynor helped nurture at black colleges and universities, beginning in the first half of the century, made a distinctive contribution to our education by challenging the commonly held views about the Negro personality. Although Dett described the spirituals as music that enunciates a universal feeling among Negroes, this universal feeling Ion Michael Spencer I 3 was not an essentialist racial trait but an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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