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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Death of Black American Greatness

Posted by on June 21 at 11:37 AM

Four or so years ago, I was invited by the leading black American Marxist, Dr. Manning Marable (he runs the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University) to contribute a short essay (1000 words) to a journal he edits, Souls. This was the subject of that particular issue, Winter 2003: “Where Is Black Culture?”; and this was the title of the essay I submitted: “The Burden of the Golden Age.” In just over 3000 words, I basically argued that black culture was not actually in decline but had the appearance of being in decline. It was a matter of determining the new locus of black, artistic creativity, as it had clearly moved from traditional sites—such as the church, the jazz stage, the novel.

This video of John Coltrane performing “Impressions,” which I watched last night, killed the opinion I expressed in “Where Is Black Culture.”

To be honest, to be fair, to be direct: black culture is long past its peak, its point of greatness (roughly from a burst of energy in Cane to a final flicker in Song of Solomon). Black Americans simply do not make art that is as powerful, as creative, as technically sophisticated as what we see in this footage. I love hiphop, but it will never reach such levels of greatness, which require a kind of labor that drains every resource, every minute of the day—indeed, a whole childhood is surrendered to an instrument. Such expenditure is foreign to the state of black arts in our times.

At the end of the Village Vanguard performance of “Impressions” (recorded in 1961), we hear the musicians (Coltrane, Dolphy, Jones) laugh. That type of laughter—a laughter that can only come after the presence of too much greatness—has become extinct.

And now that I’m thinking about Coltrane, I must draw a quote from another man who is always on my mind, Hegel: “It oppresses us to think that the richest forms and the finest manifestations of life must perish in history, and that we walk amidst the ruins of excellence.” (Philosophy of History)

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By your criteria "white" culture is even deader. So what's the beef? America no longer has a culture; we'll just watch that of others from now on.

I see what you're saying, Charles, but I don't know if I agree. I think that often you do not see the great works of an era until it is through the lens of history.

Hey Nigga Schola,

Things have been active in the Auburn trailer park where I live. The corn we planted is half a foot high, and the squash has blossoms on it. My older cousin brought a load of steer manure to feed the plants with. That should help.

Speaking of steer manure you are the last person I expected to be spouting off about great culture. Isn't that to binary? Great culture - bad culture? Your editor has a brother who lectures about the high-low culture dialectic and how South Park is the same as Moliere. I believe the point is in a hundred years we'll think Seinfeld is better than Voltaire.

As a devout Hegelist - the Lutheran Christian philosopher you love to quote - you'd better steer clear of claiming one kind of music is higher than another. Hot-cold, light-darkness are just tensions within monism, the Being resolving itself.

Being an ingnorant gay cracker, I'd say Josephine Baker could outperform any HipHop artist we've got today, and do it in French, without putting down gay people in her lyrics.

Any dumbass knows that American Jazz music will be around a century after every HipHop CD is rotting in a landfill. But remember the highly educated believe all hierarchy is white oppression, so Josephine Baker=The Simpsons=Thighmaster Infomercial.

Ooops my older cousin just got home from swing shift and wants a beer.

P.S. If you do want to construct hierarchies, compare Seattle Library with The Library of Alexandria, it'll put things in another perspective.

Ignorant Gay Cracker,
Please call now. We have vitamins and life drinks. Work a full day. Live a full life. CALL NOW!

Charles, get deeper into Hegel. Hip Hop is righteous, so is Jazz. Why choose when both are real?

Oppression is a subtle mofo, resist the binary, human freedom is always evolving.

I don't know the first thing about Trailer Parks or Hegel, but thanks for the link to the phenomenalogical footage of a CLASSIC Coltrane and Co. performance! Maybe someday someone of his calibre will take the stage again.

You just described all popular culture. Anyone with a modicum of musical talent can become a musician. The true greats, the musicians with Coltrane-caliber talent, are drowned out by the wannabes.

I'd say this is also true of literature and art. For every Toni Morrison, there are a hundred hack writers.

Charles, etc. The decline of culture is not limited to black culture, and not limited to music. (Of course you know this.) What I am frightened of is the nature of the next wave. With means of production so widely circulated and so easily afforded, with the bar for accessing an audience so ridiculously low, what will propel culture to ascend? What rewards are there reserved for art that is truly great? Will we get a culture of sophistication; will the cream (sorry about the racial connotations here) rise to the top? Or will we be locked into an inhumane and rapidly oscillating series of local crests - which never reach high enough - and troughs. Will art again enlighten and not just entertain?

Similar thoughts crossed my consciousness after viewing The Science of Sleep at the SIFF closing gala.

There was enough of Stolen Kisses and La Salamandre in there to register how much contemporary cinema lacks of its last golden age, la Nouvelle Vague, how minor a talent Gondry is compared to Truffaut or Tanner.

By the end, the love story (such as it was) just ended up being creepy, the philosophical ruminations trite.

Yet I had to admit, it was better than most films I see these days, and managed a certain surrealist charm almost its own.

Maybe if we spent more time creating art, and not just critiquing it - like Truffaut did to start the wave going - things would improve.

I thought I caught a glimpse of you at the afterparty, Charles, heading towards the bar for a free drink.

How come no review here?

Oh, and Jean Godden was there too.

i missed that science of sleep movie. no interest in it for me.

Coltrane is an unfair standard to hold any culture to. He was just a freak of nature. He makes all of today's artists, black, white, hispanic, Arab... look ridiculous.

oh, so you were just crashing the party for the booze


Winton Marseilles? David Chapelle? Chuck D? Jean-Michel Basquiat? Ok he is dead, but he is more recent than the great Coltrane. Beetlejuice?

For black greatness post coltrane, I would also add the likes of Melvin Van Peebles, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimi Hendrix, the Bad Brains, Pure Hell, some of the old school rap and hip hop--Afrika Bambatta, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Eric B and Rakim, Cold Crush Brothers, and Schooly D. Plus one of the greatest comedians of all time, Richard Pryor, who inspired thousands of black comedians.

You are a righteous scholar Charles, but I wonder if your insistence of a lack of black greatness post Coltrane betrays a bit of the old fogie in you.

Does Anthony Braxton not exist? William Parker? Heck, even Ornette and Cecil are still playing...

Hip hop is all over the air waves..playing the same party music as the embarassing 80's (Poison etc.) The greatness to come from hiphop will be that these folks took charge, made their own business, and made their own money. That is where the greatness lies.

Greatness is a style. But there are other styles. Boldness, for example.

.. and what, samuel delany and octavia butler ( recently deceased ) don't count as artists or black ?

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