Arts The Death of Black American Greatness
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)