makes an argument about miscegenation in pop music and the lack of it in indie rock. Whatever you may think of it, it’s an argument and he makes it. Saying he’s “full of shit”—that’s not an argument. Saying he needs “to move beyond the framework of worldviews codified on the plantation”—that’s not an argument, either. Richard Crary, on the other hand, has some interesting things to say at The Existence Machine here, here, and here. Someone else not afraid to think about the issue and the history is Stephan Talty, whose book Mulatto America I reviewed a few years ago . . .
You can take your race-mixing with a dose of sex-tinged idealism, as does a friend of mine who remembers those “coffee-with-cream” days of the 1960s. “That’s how we were gonna save the world,” he chuckles.
Or you can take it with a wink and a nudge, like the white folks behind the satirical blackpeopleloveus.com, whose black friends have posted testimonials like: “Sally loves to touch my hair! She always asks me how I got my hair to do this. That makes me feel special. Like I have magical powers!”
Or you can arch your irony to the point that it bends back around and into a high-fashion runways-of-Milan sort of sincerity, best exemplified by the bored-looking white model in an expensive sweatshirt that proclaims: “L’hip hop c’est chic.”
Oui, oui, bro!
Whichever way you like it, it goes without saying that black (and brown) plus white equals Red, White and Blue. “Mulatto America” is how critic Stephan Talty describes it in his 2003 book of the same name. It’s a book that takes seriously Ralph Ellison’s lament that our nation’s success “has been bought at the cost of ignoring the processes through which we’ve arrived at any given moment in our national experience.”
For Talty, those processes include a few well-rehearsed moments, such as when an African slave confronts his master’s religion and discovers in its teachings the key to his own freedom. Talty reminds us that when the Rev. George Whitefield kicked off the Great Awakening in 1739, the converted hordes were both white and black, unashamed to worship together. By the time society’s instinctive segregation reasserted itself, the slaves had stolen their masters’ ultimate power and handed it over to Jesus.
Talty’s prose breezes along—he’s a journalist, not a scholar, and knows his way around a good anecdote. If at times he’s preoccupied with old news, he’s alert to new angles. “Black Christians were often persecuted from both sides,” Talty notes, “whipped by masters (Christians and atheists) who had bought them, as one put it, to serve him and not God; and mocked by their fellow slaves for following that ‘white man’s religion.’”
This would not be the last time blacks accused one another of selling out. If Elvis appropriated the sounds of the black church and juke joints, then Sam Cooke went the other way. His greatest hits—“You Send Me,” “Chain Gang”—owe nothing to the former gospel singer’s roots and everything to the almost silly optimism of black pop’s predecessor, doo-wop. It was a style, Talty wryly observes, in which, “for the first and last time in the history of black urban music, young black men competed to see how unworldly they could sound.”
Black critics often substitute “white” for “unworldly,” and they point the finger at ultra-smooth Marvin Gaye for confessing his appreciation for, of all people, Perry Como and Dean Martin. He must have been kidding, critics say, or else mocking. Because Marvin Gaye was so cool, and Perry Como was so . . . white.
But Talty speculates that Como and Dean were tapping into something that crooners like Gaye and Cooke coveted: “lack of drama, emotional nonchalance, a facility for illusion, freedom from worry, a hint of erotic control (in Dean Martin’s Lothario act, especially), and an easy confidence that things were going to be all right.”
The American dream, in other words. And, as Talty points out, “These were attitudes not readily found in the blues or gospel.”
Selling out wasn’t the point. Expanding what it means to be black—beyond the constraints of slavery, the church and poverty—was. If Aretha Franklin chose to record an album of show tunes, then black concert-goers should have been appreciative, rather than shouting at her, “Be your bad self!” and holding up signs that read, “Aretha, please come home.”
Her fans may have been right aesthetically, Talty writes. “But the mistake comes in seeing Franklin’s love of material that is not representative of the black tradition as being somehow a betrayal of her inner self. It was, to the contrary, an affirmation of it.”
Black people were not fighting to be white people, as some would have it, but to be, at least in the perception of others, just people, in all the complex and mixed-up ways that should suggest. Sam Cooke’s sordid death in 1964 says it all. Although married, he was involved with a mixed-race woman who later claimed he tried to rape her. He was found shot to death in a cheap motel, while his Ferrari was left running in the parking lot. On the seat, the police found an open bottle whiskey and a copy of Muhammed Speaks.
Talty is most convincing when writing about music. His sports knowledge is spotty—he is unable to identify Althea Gibson as a tennis player, for instance—and such factual mistakes are not rare enough. One hopes that his mention of a World War I-era migration of blacks from north to south rather than the other way around was simply a typo. His chapter on the ’70s, meanwhile, is unconvincing and awkward in its focus on stereotypes of black pimps.
The idea, though, for Mulatto America originated with his wonderful essay on Cooke, and Talty delights in finding ways to utter Ruth Brown and Hank Williams in the same breath. His riff on the origins of the Donna Summers disco classic “Love to Love You, Baby” is weirdly thrilling.
In the end, Talty’s focus makes sense. After all, music has been the premier American venue for race-mixing. While black and white athletes together display their talents on the playing field, black and white musicians actually exchange culture and experience, and in so doing brew up something new.
Of course, the most sublime example of this is jazz. Talty rightly sees the art form as the product of a thoroughly integrated New Orleans but emphasizes that the point is not that jazz is merely an amalgam of sources—blues, ragtime, classical, brass band—but “that the music is comfortable playing all these musics from the inside. The borrowings are not mocking or unsure but marked by total confidence.”
Like Ellison before him, Talty is arguing that there was not and is no white mainstream music to which blacks can sell out. That’s because they’ve always been on the inside, always within hearing distance, never intimidated by new sounds. “Indeed, what group of musicians has made more of the sound of the American experience?” Ellison famously asked.
And it’s true. But the point that Talty makes—a point not made nearly often enough, especially among black critics and musicians—is that the give and take went both ways. When white jazz geniuses such as Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden came along, “they caused black artists and fans to suddenly see themselves in white people.”
Could the same be said about Eminem?
IMAGE: The Miscegenation Ball by Kimmel and Forster, 1864