The Book Cooks
Chapter 1: Is Jazz About Music Anymore?
“It is only music that matters. But to talk of music is risky, and entails responsibility. Therefore some find it preferable to seize on side issues. It is easy, and enables you to pass as a deep thinker.” —Igor Stravinsky
The history of jazz has been told and retold ever since the 1930s, when a handful of amateur enthusiasts first attempted to solve the mysteries of its murky and largely undocumented past. In the ensuing years, jazz has become the subject of serious study at numerous colleges and universities, dissected in an ever-widening stream of literature, and examined in films and television documentaries. Yet despite all this attention, a fundamental question seems to go unanswered, or at least unresolved: does jazz represent the expression of a distinct and independent African-American culture, isolated by its long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination? Or, even when produced by African-Americans (or anyone else for that matter), is it more properly understood as the juncture of a wide variety of influences under the broader umbrella of American and indeed world culture? For simplicity’s sake we can refer to the first approach as exclusionary and the second as inclusionary.
This is a question that ultimately doesn’t require an either/or answer as there is truth in both positions. But the degree to which one accepts one or the other of these contrasting orientations can produce startlingly different results. From a handful of basic assumptions a torrent of corollaries flow and these can have a direct impact on how the music is perceived.
It is my contention that the majority of jazz writers have overwhelmingly supported the exclusionary view. Stretching all the way back to the first generation of jazz writers and continuing up to the present day, jazz commentators and historians have tended to emphasize the differences between black and white culture, and categorize musicians according to race. This outlook is perhaps only natural, given that the music sprang from a black environment, and the overwhelming majority of its greatest exponents have been African-American. In addition, black and white musicians rarely performed together during the first thirty to forty years of the music’s history. Recorded evidence shows that stylistic differences according to race are often plainly discernable, especially in the early days of jazz.
But there is another reason why jazz writers have consistently emphasized the separateness and exceptionalism of the black experience. Going back to the beginnings of jazz scholarship and on through today there has been a marked tendency to combine the study of jazz with a desire to effect positive social change. Many jazz historians felt, and still feel, that it is their duty to use jazz as a tool to promote social and economic justice for African-Americans. Obviously, this goal is beyond reproach, and I support it wholeheartedly. In many ways jazz commentators, especially those of the prewar era, were remarkably effective in altering widely held notions of black cultural and intellectual inferiority. Their tireless championing of the many great African-American jazz artists provided a necessary antidote to prevailing and pejorative racial stereotypes. At a time when segregation was still legally sanctioned in many parts of the country, their efforts were not only controversial, but also courageous. I firmly believe these writers played a significant role in tipping the scales of public opinion, and paving the way for the groundbreaking civil rights legislation of the 1950s and 1960s. For this, any fair-minded American owes them a debt of gratitude.
But the willingness to combine history with a social or political agenda, no matter how noble and altruistic, presents a slippery slope. As we shall see, many writers were not above compromising historical accuracy in their zeal to promote social change. Some constructed elaborate theories out of the scantest evidence, if not whole cloth, and these in turn have been cited over and over throughout the jazz literature. Facts that did not fit prevailing ideologies were ignored, and mythology often trumped reality. Although myths have undoubtedly played a large and sometimes beneficial role in the popularization of jazz, they often bear little or no relation to reality.
Furthermore, the attempt to delineate the nature of jazz along racial lines has always been a tricky business, prone to false or misleading assumptions. It is indisputable that the origins of jazz lie in black culture: the “active ingredients,” those musical elements that set jazz apart from other styles, are deeply rooted in two preexisting African-American musical genres, ragtime and blues (though of course, both styles contain culturally hybrid elements as well). But black culture has always been much more porous and open to outside influences than most commentators are likely to admit. Secondly, jazz found acceptance very early on within a cross-section of American society, where it took its place within the sphere of popular, and eventually art music. As jazz made its way through this wide-ranging cultural maze it absorbed other influences that extended well beyond any mythological notion of a hermetically sealed black culture. I would argue that jazz attained much of its richness and sophistication from the interaction of a wide variety of musical traditions and attitudes, and that African-American musicians from the very beginning of jazz have been much more worldly and well-rounded than most writers give them credit for.
Due to the law of unintended consequences many harmful side effects have arisen from the exclusionary viewpoint. A particular danger in racial essentialism is the stereotyping of musicians. In much of the literature jazz is represented as a kind of urban folk music, and blacks are typically depicted as natural and largely untutored musicians. This left a lot of creative and adventurous artists, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, open to censure when they departed from ideological norms. These views also hurt African-American musicians wishing to express themselves in musical genres other than blues and jazz. Black artists found it nearly impossible to find acceptance in the concert and commercial studio fields until comparatively recently, and there’s no doubt that an image of innate but culturally restricted talents helped reinforce discriminatory hiring practices. Even today, forward-looking African- American musicians can be criticized for deviating from norms advocated by certain black jazz authorities who feel that jazz should not stray too far from its “tradition” of incorporating blues and swing.
White musicians have been inversely stereotyped as inauthentic jazz players. They have been accused of “appropriating” a black style and at the same time criticized for not being able to master it. Though often victimized by the same shady business practices that plague black musicians, white musicians are widely presumed to be in a superior position to profit from jazz, mainly through proffering a watered-down version of the real thing. The African-American cultural critic Gerald Early wrote recently of the “frustration of being a white jazz musician in such a starkly racialized field, in some ways more repulsively racialized than in the 1920s or 1930s. . . . Even in this age of diversity we still seem to be bedeviled with the question of whether whites can play jazz, whether blacks are more gifted jazz players, whether whites have ever done anything truly innovative in jazz.”
A salient feature of exclusionist ideology is to regard black and white musicians as distinct categories. Typical of this approach is Jazzmen (1939), the first jazz history book published in the United States, with its separate chapters on African-American musicians (titled simply “New Orleans Music”) and white musicians (“White New Orleans”). During the 1930s many jazz writers were alarmed by the ascendance of Tin Pan Alley and the popularity of well-disciplined big bands with written arrangements, and to counteract this trend they often over-romanticized the early days of jazz. Accordingly jazz was portrayed as arising from an insulated black environment, unsullied by commercial pressures. It represented the pure and authentic expression of a peasant population forced to rely solely on its own cultural resources due to a forced separation of the races.
Ironically, the exclusionist outlook was introduced precisely when jazz bands themselves were integrating, a trend largely supported by the public. As the African-American pianist Teddy Wilson, featured with the Benny Goodman trio and quartet, wrote in 1941: “Lots of people have asked me about mixed bands and the attitudes of audiences toward them. All I can say is that we never had any trouble, and that we were always treated with the utmost respect and consideration.” As the music brought people together across racial lines, many jazz authorities were policing racial boundaries; their work and influence will be discussed in the following chapter. Some took contradictory stands; John Hammond, for instance, produced interracial recording sessions while writing stinging attacks on white musicians in general, as well as certain black artists who didn’t adhere to his populist principles.
Throughout the forties and fifties jazz continually grew more integrated. It also grew in complexity, developing at an ever-faster pace, and became heralded as America’s greatest contribution to the arts. The GI Bill produced the most educated audiences America had ever known, and by and large they welcomed a dizzying pace of innovation that came to be known as bebop, cool, and progressive jazz. Yet this was also an era in which writers such as Rudi Blesh, Marshall Stearns, and a little later Gunther Schuller insisted that jazz was essentially an extension of traditional African music.
In the turbulent sixties, jazz came to be viewed as a musical component of the black liberation struggle. Leading the way was the African-American author and activist LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka), who proclaimed jazz “black music.” In 1969 the white jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason agreed by saying, “Jazz is black music and as such is part of black culture, which encompasses what is being called these days ‘the black experience.’ It represents a world other than that reflected in the organs of white society.” The African-American saxophonist and social activist Archie Shepp went further, stating, “Jazz is a music born out of oppression, born out of the enslavement of my people.” To such commentators, the music was an emblem of black suffering at the hands of a racist white establishment. The idea that jazz was a manifestation of joy rooted in freedom of expression, or an ideal marriage between democracy and meritocracy, seemed hopelessly naïve to these new voices. Jazz became widely viewed as the embodiment of “black soul,” even as the vast majority of African-Americans were abandoning it in favor of more popular forms of dance-oriented music.
“Jazz as response to oppression” theories proliferated in the seventies, eighties, and nineties and filtered into mainstream conventional wisdom. These beliefs were taken up by a new generation of jazz scholars eager to display their liberal credentials at a time when the stereotype of black inferiority had been supplanted by the pervasive white-equals-racist paradigm. This was a period characterized by race-based initiatives and other forms of racial redress. For the first time in two hundred years of American history, simple exclusionary formulas were accepted, even extolled, by liberal intellectuals, who viewed them as a necessary price to pay for societal progress.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the supposed place of jazz in society had become less a forum for independent self-expression and more an emblem of black pride. Jazz musicians were expected to “celebrate” the jazz tradition rather than explore new creative territory. The original ethos of jazz, as far as promoting a unique and original vision, was largely discounted. And for the first time in the history of jazz, non-musicians seemed to be guiding the music’s direction more than the musicians themselves.
Business interests aligned with society’s desire to expatiate for past racial sins by promoting young and unknown black jazz players. The stars of bygone years were in declining age and the major record companies decided to create overnight jazz sensations, and just as artificially as the pop stars they routinely mass-produced. This was advantageous from a bottom-line standpoint: young players could appeal to the all-important youth market, and potentially yield a long-term return on investment. They also often lacked the business savvy of more experienced musicians. Since many segments of the American public, as well as certain key overseas markets, associated authentic jazz with African-American players, it was only prudent business policy to concentrate on young black musicians. I don’t mean to imply that these “young lions,” as they came to be known, were devoid of talent, but most were awarded their enviable status before they had a chance to earn it. Once again the ethos of jazz had been subverted.
The exclusionary agenda may have reached its apotheosis in the ten-part, six-million dollar television series Jazz, produced for PBS by Ken Burns and aired in 2001. Burns was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Race is the soul of the country, and nowhere is it more evident than in jazz, where a music came out of the black community and with great generosity was shared with the country.” The Burns series, though touted as groundbreaking in its exposition of racial dynamics throughout jazz history, was in fact a rehash of stale ideas that had become reflexive conventional wisdom for a period of thirty years.
What’s the upshot of all this social engineering in the name of jazz? Why is it misleading to characterize jazz as black music pure and simple? First of all, the concept of “black music” hardly provides a full and accurate picture of such a multifaceted cultural phenomenon as jazz. As art critic Robert Hughes states, “Surprises crackle, like electric arcs, between the interfaces of culture. . . . Separatism denies the value, even the possibility, of such a dialogue. It rejects exchange.” In an age of ethnocentrism and identity politics the tendency has been to ignore or severely downplay these interrelationships. “Because race-based politics and programs thrive on differences,” wrote Alfred Appel Jr. in his provocative book Jazz Modernism, “academic multiculturalists would discourage the idea of jazz as multicultural.” Dan Morgenstern, probably the dean of jazz authorities for the last three decades, has spoken out against the “excess baggage of historicity, questionable aesthetics, and political correctness that seem to becloud much of our present-day perceptions of jazz.”
Even more significantly, exclusionist ideology has had a profound impact on the music itself. Extra-musical agendas have so overtaken the jazz world that I fear they threaten its very artistic survival. Any art must constantly renew itself by absorbing outside influences and fresh ideas. If such innovations are regarded with suspicion, as contaminating the purity of an already established art form, there is little room for creative growth. Not surprisingly, conservative musical trends have dominated the jazz world for the past quarter-century.
Moreover, in an era devoted to promoting group identity, the very notion of individuality has been called into question. It is impossible to imagine jazz divorced from the strong and singular personalities who created it. Nevertheless, pressures to conform to ideological norms have had the effect of stifling individual creativity. Already there are rumblings in Europe that America has ceded its lead in creating cutting-edge jazz, and many American musicians have suffered a significant drop in work as a result. Without the European and Japanese market, jazz may cease to exist as a viable profession for American musicians.
Yet there is still more bitter fruit that exclusionist ideology has produced. The integration that flourished within the jazz world from the mid-thirties onward became compromised with calls for black nationalism in the sixties. By the eighties, the tendency was for jazz groups to self-segregate, a trend that hasn’t entirely disappeared today.
Through the dark days of legalized segregation and on into the civil rights era, jazz shone as a beacon for achieving interracial respect and understanding. It seemed as if the dream of a color-blind society was within reach in the jazz world, where musicians were judged on merit and not skin color. Status in the jazz world was conferred on the basis of real achievement and not some artificial standard of rank or pedigree, and the music itself was infused with honesty and integrity.
Many older players have told me of the respect and affection permeating the jazz world they knew. Tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips (born Joseph Filipelli in 1915) thought it only natural to seek out African-American mentors: “I was only a kid but Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young encouraged me. Before that Pete Brown. I played with Frankie Newton and he gave me plenty of encouragement. I was twenty-two or –three and we opened at Kelly’s Stable. Nat King Cole was the relief trio and Art Tatum played the off night. We all used to hang out together. There was no racial thing at all—none whatsoever. I used to go up to Harlem to Monroe’s and I’d get home at eight in the morning. I met Charlie Christian there, and Jimmy Blanton there. There was plenty of encouragement. It was just beautiful. Everybody was happy. You’re supposed to be happy playing.”
The West Coast-based trumpeter Conte Candoli told me, “Most of the guys I know like Sweets [Edison], Clark Terry and Dizzy: you would never know there was any kind of racial scene because they were just glorious—great people. Even Charlie Parker.” And Louis Armstrong himself once said of his audiences and legions of white fans, “I have always loved my white folks, and they have always proved that they loved me and my music. I have never had anything to be depressed about in that respect, only respect and admiration.”
“We were miles ahead of everybody else,” stated the African-American bass player Milt Hinton. “Musicians have been integrating way before society decided to do that.” But as jazz scholar Ted Gioia recently noted, “Jazz stood out, at least for many decades, as one of the few arenas where some of us (maybe even most of us) could throw away our racial baggage that simmered through the rest of society and deal with each other through the unmediated channel of artistic collaboration. Somehow we lost that thread. Instead of leading the rest of society we have fallen far behind. The clamor of racial politics now resounds loudly in the jazz world.”
This complex subject is typically reduced to simplistic clichés. In his book Rhythm and Business, Norman Kelley repeats a familiar refrain: “The history of black music has been a continuous replay of the uncontested and lucrative exploitation of black cultural forms by whites.” Harold Cruse, in his influential 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, noted a “whole history of organized duplicity and exploitation of the Negro jazz artist—the complicated tie-in between booking agencies, the musicians’ union, the recording companies, the music publishers, the managers, the agents, the theater owners, the night-club owners, the crooks, shysters, and racketeers.” While I don’t dispute many of these claims, I think they should be examined dispassionately before drawing the standard sweeping generalizations.
Jazz simply could not have made it from the cabaret and dance hall to the concert hall without the intercession of businessmen. For one thing, the music would never (or barely) have been recorded. Untold opportunities for African-Americans would not have existed if not for the efforts of white promoters. Certainly their motives were often not altruistic, but by opening doors, they enabled many artists to prosper. And there have always been those on the business side whose involvement with jazz is solely a labor of love.
Since the dawn of the new millennium there have been many hopeful signs that exclusionary ideology—certainly in its more extreme forms—is receding, not only in the jazz world but in society as a whole. Barack Obama in now the first African-American president of the United States, and his message of racial transcendence has found deep resonance throughout the country.
Yet jazz remains encumbered by the socio-political baggage that has clung to it since its story was first told. Allow me to show you what I mean. Following are two alternative histories of jazz. The first is a standard politically correct version as taught in many colleges across the land:
Blacks were the most lowly and despised class in New Orleans. Discrimination shut them out of the wider world and they had to devise their own cultural practices. When Jim Crow laws swept through the South after Reconstruction, the proud French-speaking Creoles were consigned to the same lowest rung of society inhabited by blacks. The melding of a sophisticated Creole tradition with the crude but heartfelt music of darker-skinned descendants of slaves produced jazz.
Jazz initially received little attention from whites, with the exception of a few white musicians who produced a pale imitation of it. But the white public came to embrace jazz once it had been watered down to suit their tastes. As these young white musicians sought fame and fortune, the real authentic black jazz players were making much less money playing for their own people. Following the Great Migration, black areas in the North were just as shut in by racism and discrimination as the neighborhoods where jazz grew up in New Orleans.
Jazz finally reached the masses in the 1930s, but only when white swing bands appropriated the styles of black bands playing in Harlem and Kansas City. Black musicians became so frustrated with this turn of events that they developed a new music they hoped white musicians couldn’t steal: bebop.
White musicians responded by devising “cool jazz,” yet another watered-down
Now let’s consider another encapsulated history that I believe is much truer to the historical record:
The white public developed a taste for the music of African-Americans as far back as colonial times. Meanwhile, blacks were increasingly acculturated to European-derived musical styles. The broad acceptance found by minstrel companies (both white and black), gospel choirs (such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers), and later ragtime, attests to a widespread, cross-cultural interest in African-American music. Though African-American music has maintained many distinctive qualities, it has always absorbed many hybrid elements.
When syncopated dances swept the country in the 1890s black bands were preferred across the land, especially by the white upper class. In New Orleans all bands played roughly the same repertoire, though in differing ways. There, too, the new syncopated styles made black bands more popular than white bands. Many white musicians took to these new styles, which could be heard throughout the city. These musicians had to adapt to remain competitive. Soon many played jazz exclusively, as indicated by the abundance of non-reading professional white musicians in turn-of-the-century New Orleans.
When black and white bands from New Orleans took to the road and spread jazz up north, many observers pointed to the interracial character of the music. But Prohibition would segregate jazz musicians almost as much as the Jim Crow laws of the South. Prohibition was rarely enforced in the emerging black belts, so organized crime moved in and established a new form of nightclub that took the country by storm: the black-and-tan. Black-and-tans were not limited to a few upscale establishments, such as the famed Cotton Club, but were a vast nationwide phenomenon. African-American bands were hired to “jazz it up” for whites eager to trade their disposable cash for sin, at least as far as imbibing illegal alcohol. The power and excitement of the “wild” and hot music they performed became a major attraction in itself. The stereotype of blacks as jazz players would both help and hinder black musicians, but the image became fixed in the public mind.
Then . . . but that’s the subject of this book, and what follows will fill in many of the gaps of this storyline and refute much of the conventional wisdom found in standard jazz texts. The point is that one view of history paints jazz as restricted, limited, conditioned by the evils of segregation—a cultural expression so ingrained in the black experience that whites can barely fathom its true meaning. The other view, the one presented in this book, places jazz squarely within the mainstream of American culture, even though it was created and in large part creatively driven by blacks. As a living art form, jazz is open to anyone with something personal and unique to contribute. The jazz ethos is again free to live and flourish.
I can personally attest to the many obstacles facing musicians today as a result of the “de-musicalizing” of jazz. Creating the music is the easy part—getting anyone to listen objectively through the white noise generated by politics and business is much more difficult. For as long as I’ve been a professional musician I have attempted to present an alternative way of improvising and composing. This style, which I call “metatonal” music, offers a third approach to jazz, other than traditional harmonically based methods and free jazz. To date, not one article has been written about metatonal music, even though I have recorded several examples since 1985 and written a book on the subject. Many other musicians active today are also eager to contribute new ideas, yet too often find their efforts greeted only by deaf ears and closed minds. All of this confirms my belief that jazz and music parted company long ago.
I have responded by doing what artists have done since time immemorial: namely, continuing to create while managing the necessities of life as best I can. I used to think that art of high quality and originality would eventually be recognized, especially within the jazz world. I must say I don’t believe that anymore.
I am well aware that by merely raising many of these issues I will be accused of pursuing my own selfish agenda. This I won’t deny and wish to state it explicitly: I want to see music judged on its own terms, free of external considerations. Of course jazz is an immense subject that touches on many other areas of human experience. But I feel strongly that any examination of jazz must be grounded in a knowledge of—and hopefully love and respect for—jazz as music first and foremost.
This book begins by looking at the major jazz writers from the 1930s up to the present, and examining their work in relation to the historical record. Then we’ll return to the 1960s to see how radical and unpopular ideas evolved into mainstream conventional wisdom. I’ll show how these ideas, along with attempts to achieve racial redress, have dominated the jazz world since the 1980s. We’ll next examine the business side of jazz to see how much the familiar scenario of artistic exploitation—and especially black artistic exploitation—fits the reality. Finally, I’ll look at the issue of race itself, and conclude by considering the present state of jazz and what the future may hold.
My book does not purport to be a full accounting of jazz history, but rather an examination of interracial contact—where the dark and the light folks meet—as it applies to the music. Plenty of jazz history is intraracial: of and between African-American musicians, or, to a lesser extent, white musicians. But I feel that this history, particularly as regards black contributions to jazz, is already well documented. Some may accuse me of overstating the importance of cross-racial influences on jazz. However, I am not trying to place any strict quantitative value on my findings, but simply presenting them so others can draw their own conclusions.
I am all too aware of the pitfalls of frankly discussing racial issues in present-day America. Race has been called the wound that won’t heal. Almost any position on it will be regarded unfavorably by someone. The African-American sociologist Yehudi O. Webster sums up these difficulties: “Any remark about the black experience may be considered controversial, or objectionable. For example: ‘blacks have their own culture.’ One response could be: ‘It is racist to suggest that blacks, despite almost four centuries of residency, are not fully Americanized.’ If the contrary is voiced—‘blacks do not have their own culture’—the reaction could be: ‘to deny the uniqueness of the black experience is racist.’”
A friend in academia asked why on earth I wanted to kick this “hornet’s nest” around. The answer is: I don’t, but I feel someone has to. I would prefer it not be me, but having accepted the challenge I also accept the inevitable consequences. For the record, I am an integrationist—a believer in Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and granted equal protection under the law, regardless of skin color. If that makes me an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, or even a racist in the jaundiced eyes of some, so be it. Deep in my heart of hearts I am secure in the knowledge that I am not.
I should make it clear that nowhere in this book do I question the existence of black culture. Nor would I fail to acknowledge the tremendous impact it has had on American culture as a whole. However it’s often impossible to determine precisely where one begins and the other ends. I also do not dispute the fact that jazz was created by African-Americans, nor that the vast majority of its greatest exponents have been black. This amazing profusion of world-class talent has no historical parallel, except perhaps the Italian Renaissance. I would not argue that these artists have received too much attention; if anything they have not received enough. The point I wish to make is that the leading figures of jazz, regardless of race, have created music that can stand on its own terms next to the best art of any epoch. Their work doesn’t need to be propped up with the aid of socio-political theorizing. And any true understanding of jazz music requires a wider lens than a narrow “black culture” perspective provides.
This book may raise more questions than it answers. It should not be taken as the last word on anything, but rather, as a call to further research. Where I criticize certain conclusions by well-known and widely accepted writers and pundits I don’t mean to suggest that their work should be condemned outright. On the contrary, I have the greatest respect and sympathy for most of them, especially that first generation of jazz writers who strove to create a coherent history out of a stack of old records and a few stray interviews. I merely ask that we take a fresh look at the many smug assumptions hovering all around us like pestering gnats.
In the chapter on jazz mythology (“Good Intentions and Bad History”), the reader will notice that I do not address the question of whether or not jazz originated in New Orleans. Though some writers, notably Charles Edward Smith and more recently Francis Davis, have disputed this notion, I do not. Undoubtedly, similar musical developments were taking place in other parts of the country, but nowhere did they reach the level of maturity and sophistication achieved in New Orleans. Numerous citations—in newspapers and eyewitness accounts stretching from New York to California—affirm that early New Orleans musicians were perceived as distinctive, even revolutionary, when they performed outside their hometown.
Before we begin, I’d like to introduce two highly influential personages, largely unknown to the jazz community, who nevertheless did much to inform the evolving racial debate of the twentieth century. Their work became the theoretical backbone for many of the activist jazz writers from the 1930s up to the present day. They are Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his student, Melville Herskovits, a key pioneer of cultural relativism.
Both believed their work as scientists needed to serve a higher social purpose. “It is one of the duties of science, too often neglected, to combat prejudice,” wrote Boas in 1939. His face bore scars from duels with anti-Semitic classmates in his native Germany. When Boas emigrated to America in 1883, the fledgling disciplines of anthropology and sociology were dominated by white supremacists searching for a scientific basis to explain the perceived inferiority of non-Aryan races. Boas succeeded in turning these ideas on their head. In an 1894 speech, he declared that current anthropology was nothing more than a political tool for suppressing the American Negro. He demonstrated that every claim of black inferiority was either false or dependent on the Negro’s history of privation. The plight of the American Negro was the product of racism, he maintained, not the cause of it.
Over the next half-century these views gained wide acceptance as they were spread and developed by a host of Boas’ influential students. Among them were Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Clark (who, in addition to being the first African-American president of the American Psychological Association, provided key testimony in the 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation), and Melville Herskovits.
Like Boas, Herskovits was Jewish and a victim of discrimination. When Margaret Mead went off to Samoa she attempted to sublet her New York apartment to Herskovits but management refused him access. Herskovits was to take Boas’ egalitarian notions a step further. Whereas Boas believed in the primacy of the individual, Herskovits stressed the importance of the group and the equality of all cultures. “Cultural relativism,” he wrote in 1955, “is a philosophy that recognizes the values set up by every society to guide its own life, and that understands their worth to those who live by them, though they may differ from one’s own. Instead of underscoring differences from absolute norms that, however objectively arrived at, are nonetheless a product of a given time and place, the relativistic point of view brings into relief the validity of every set of norms for the people who have them.”
These ideas opened the floodgates to radical new ways of thinking, which provided the intellectual underpinning for a new academic orthodoxy. Taking these views to their logical conclusion, one is obliged to infer that any mode of human conduct is as valid as any other. Individuals are to be viewed primarily as members of a group. No group can rightfully judge another. Any notion of universal truth must be scuttled. Art is to be judged primarily for its cultural relevance. The idea of merit is an elitist fiction.
We are now ready to proceed.
© 2010 Randall Sandke