Hey, Grey Lady! Your beard is showing.
My recent return to Yankeeland was heralded by two significant things: a misbegotten black rock article by Jessica Pressler in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times and myriad posters for "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War," part of a series of Northern slavery-related exhibits on display at the New York Historical Society. Every year when February rolls around, my initial instinct is to shudder in horror at the euphoric pop flotsam derived from the brief annual marketing pact between often diametrically opposed proponents of the Western Myth and Black Romance. Now, in 2007, as I am delivered from Dixie back into the Northeast preserve of (dwindling) Anglo-American cultural hegemony, here is a moveable feast for thought on offer.
It's intriguing that many of the thought threads and sound-and-vision tropes from our long national nightmare -- which always resurface in this shortest, cruelest month of February -- should have neatly converged three Mondays ago in NYU Professor Tavia Nyong'o's History of the Body course -- shortly before the Tavis Smiley-led first installment of year-long events celebrating America's 400th Anniversary in Auld Varginny. Nyong'o, a Kenyan-American performance studies scholar, was the Loaf's guest this time last year for a talk on black rock tied to a screening of Ray Gayle's documentary Electric Purgatory (a film Pressler and her partisans would do well to view before attempting any further discourse on the subject). And so, I was returning the favor by illuminating his students' reading of Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection with a discussion of the notorious Confederate anthem "Dixie" and subsequent 20th century Southern rock that flourished in the Civil Rights Era, trenchantly interrogating minstrel legacies.
Pressler's article -- which will be examined next issue -- was weak on several points (and since disavowed by some of her sources), but perhaps its worst demerit is a lack of significant historical perspective on the resistance to blackfolks' right to rock. Our NYU discussion of minstrelsy -- triggered by spins of Elvis Presley's schmaltzy, 1972 recording of "Dixie" (covering Mickey Newbury's "An American Trilogy") and an early Edison reel of same -- delved into the ways antebellum minstrelsy gave birth to American national identity, popular culture and the 20th century music industry. "Turkey in the Straw" and "Blue-Tail Fly" composer Dan Emmett Rice's "I Wish I Was in Dixie's Land" is a fascinating artwork to ponder in February and in response to the NYT article, for it was penned by a minstrel composer from the old Northwest frontier (Ohio), was first published by a pre-Tin Pan Alley company/a hit on Broadway -- and, apocrypha has it, referred both to Dixie, a Manhattan slaveholder who sold his chattel into the South on the eve of New York's 1827 abolition of that peculiar institution, or to Manhattan Island itself.
The battleground over "Dixie" primarily centers on whether whites, of the Old South or New, have the right to glory in their heritage (I think they do) and the right of blackfolk to repudiate its public pervasiveness (if in fact, the anthem lacks Africanist provenance). For a visual representation of same, check "math artist" John Sims' Recoloration Proclamation site, with its "Afro Battle Flag" and "Dixie remix" project featuring DJ Spooky. As the NYU class astutely surmised, in this month of all we require a clear-eyed observance of the gap between empathy for the historical plight of American Others and a dearth of (largely European-American) engagement in ethical practices. The Hartman tome illustrates this with a telling quote from the so-called Great Emancipator, on a steamboat down the Mississippi in 1841:
"A gentleman had purchased 12 negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together ... One whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true it is that 'God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb,' or in other words, that He renders the worst of the human condition tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing but tolerable."
It's lingering American sentiment Lincoln espouses above -- that the "happy darkies" of Stephen Foster and Rice a) were carriers of inviolate Africana that perpetually sang and danced due by nature, and b) were so subhuman as to feel no pain beneath the worst of the lash. Here, Lincoln, who had "Dixie" played at the White House after General Lee's surrender, was invested in and fixated on the freedom of essential blackness, his slave encounter reflecting his era's wildly popular minstrelsy procedures and presaging reams of 20th century white narratives recounting "an illusory plentitude of fun and feeling" (per Hartman) amidst blacks across the tracks. The following installment on Pressler will observe that I ain't just whistlin' Dixie about white Negro sentiment shackled to the black body and voice.