Per Caritatem

With the generous help of several of my theology friends and other academic colleagues, I have put together a list of classic, contemporary, and secondary texts on Liberation Theology. The numeric list does not indicate ranking, prominence, or suggest an order in which the books should be read. However, the books marked “classic texts” were recommended multiple times by my colleagues and are seminal texts in the tradition. Lastly, I encourage you to leave comments suggesting other key works on Liberation Theology (or related liberating/emancipatory texts) that you have read and found valuable. Enjoy!Oscar Romero

[N.b. The book descriptions below are copied directly from Amazon.com and Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own: The Spiritual Journey of a People. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “After twenty years, We Drink from Our Own Wells remains a classic expression of Latin American spirituality by a pioneer of liberation theology. Starting from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s counsel to root spirituality in one’s own experience, Gustavo Gutierrez outlines the contours of a spirituality rooted in the experience of the poor and their struggle for life. His aim is to reflect on the contemporary “road to holiness” — the passage of a people “through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.”

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

Brief Description: “On Job asks a direct and profound question: How, in the face of so much suffering among the human innocent, can we talk about God? Theodicy is, of course, the business most central, intellectually, to liberation and theology, and Gutierrez is first and foremost a liberationist Christian. While On Job does not unravel the mysteries of evil (nor should it, Gutierrez observes), it does follow clearly mid with integrity Job’s progress toward God-talk and understmiding. In doing so, the author, by analogy, states movingly and potently the spirituality of Latin American Christians today. In his conclusion, Gutierrez offers us an explicit summary of his ministry and of the volume’s: “…for us Latin Americans the question is not precisely ‘How are we to do theology after Auschwitzt …In Latin America we are still experiencing … the torture we find so blameworthy in the Jewish holocaust But Christianity everywhere, Gutierrez continues, will be matured and perhaps even “…scandalized at hearing a frank avowal of the human and religious experience of the poor, and at seeing their clumsy attempts to relate their lives to the God in whom they have such deep faith.” All in all, not a shocking book; not an exciting book, not an easy book. Just an instructive, compassionate, graceful book, and one lacking in all politics save that of our shared humanity.”

  1. Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love. [Selections from Romero’s sermons]

Brief Description: “These selections from the sermons and writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero share the message of a great holy prophet of modern times. Three short years transformed Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, from a conservative defender of the status quo into one of the church’s most outspoken voices of the oppressed. Though silenced by an assassin’s bullet, his spirit and the challenge of his life lives on.”

  1. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Twenty years ago, when the civil rights and “Black Power” movements were at their peak, James Cone introduced a revolutionary theology based on the African-American experience of oppression and the quest for liberation. The book brought a new perspective to theology in the United States. Cone contends that theology grows out of the experience of the community; the community itself defines what God means. Western European theology serves the oppressors; therefore theology for African-Americans should validate their struggle for liberation and justice. In seven brief chapters, he argues passionately that God must be on the side of oppressed black people and develops the concept of a black God, noting: “To say God is Creator means … I am black because God is black!” The anniversary edition recognizes Cone’s contribution to U.S. theology with a 50-page section of critical reflections by six leading theologians including Gayraud Wilmore, Robert McAfee Brown and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Cone responds to these commentaries in an afterword. The foreword points out Cone’s influence on Latin American liberation theology. The interplay among text, commentaries, afterword and preface provides a lively discussion and analysis of developments in black liberation theology over the past two decades. The book should be read for the clarity with which it demonstrates the relationship between theology, oppression and liberation, and for its historic importance in raising the consciousness of its readers about the possibility of viewing God from a black perspective. Anyone concerned about U.S. social history, liberation theology and racism will find the book of interest. It is particularly suitable for university and seminary libraries.”

  1. James Cone. God of the Oppressed. [Classic text]

Brief Description:God of the Oppressed remains a landmark in the development of Black Theology—the first effort to present a systematic theology drawing fully on the resources of African-American religion and culture. Responding to the criticism that his previous books drew too heavily on Euro-American definitions of theology, James Cone went back to his experience of the black church in Bearden, Arkansas, the tradition of the Spirituals and black folklore, and the black history of struggle and survival, to construct a new approach to the gospel. In his reflections on God, Jesus, suffering, and liberation, Cone relates the gospel message to the experience of the black community. But a wider theme of the book is the role that social and historical context plays in framing the questions we address to God, as well as the mode of the answers provided. Revised, including a new introduction by Cone, God of the Oppressed remains invaluable for scholars, students, clergy, and everyone concerned with vital, contemporary God-Talk.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator: A View From the Victims. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Jon Sobrino continues the magisterial christology begun in Jesus the Liberator. In that book Sobrino examined the identity of Jesus in relation to his message, his interlocutors, and the conflict that led to his death. In this second volume he takes up the Resurrection of Christ, the Christology of the New Testament, and finally the christological formulae of the early church councils. Throughout Christ the Liberator Sobrino writes from the reality of faith, as set in motion by the event of Jesus Christ, and from the situation of the victims — the “Crucified People” of history — particularly the poor of El Salvador, with whom he works. With Christ the Liberator Sobrino’s christology takes its place among the most significant contributions of Latin America to the church and theology today.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays [Classic Text]

Brief Description: The provocative title of these essays plays on a traditional Catholic slogan: “No salvation outside the church.” Insofar as it implies God’s response to a world marked by suffering and injustice, then the poor represent an indispensible test, a key to the healing of a sick society.”

  1. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary source].

Brief Description: This book features a series of essays focusing on the history and key concepts of liberation theology. Part I deals with history, method, and distinctive features of liberation theology. Part II deals with the systematic contents of liberation theology.

9.  Leonardo Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “This work deals with the basic questions that are tackled by liberation theology – oppression, violence, domination and marginalization. It then goes on to show how the Christian faith can be used as an agent in promoting social and individual liberation, and how faith and politics relate.”

10. Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Wikipedia]: “A primary reality to which Juan Luis Segundo responds is the fact that liberation theology, like any theological movement in its developmental stages, performs theological work in traditional ways: by looking to the biblical and dogmatic traditions. Segundo explains that liberation theology performed its theologizing while “feeling a responsibility towards both the problems of real life and the canons of worldwide theology”. However, it did theology in the only way it knew how, with the “means at its disposal”. While liberation theology did not adopt the learned style of academic theology and conform to its standards of detail and form in presentation, it also did not theologize in an aggressive, abrupt, way in order “to meet some inescapable pragmatic necessity”. In other words, Segundo sees a need for a critical evaluation of theological methodology and seeks to aggressively attack all the inconsistencies and contradictions that fill the myriad sociological and theological understandings of the world. Segundo is not interested in the content of liberation theology as much as he is trying to think about “the method used to theologize in the face of our real-life situation”. Segundo is primarily concerned with the liberation of the theological process, and notices a problem with the way theology is done that constricts liberation theology from flourishing in Latin America.”

11. Christopher Rowland (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is widely referred to in discussions of politics and religion but not always adequately understood. The 2007 edition of this Companion brings the story of the movement’s continuing importance and impact up to date. Additional essays, which complement those in the original edition, expand upon the issues by dealing with gender and sexuality and the important matter of epistemology. In the light of a more conservative ethos in Roman Catholicism, and in theology generally, liberation theology is often said to have been an intellectual movement tied to a particular period of ecumenical and political theology. These essays indicate its continuing importance in different contexts and enable readers to locate its distinctive intellectual ethos within the evolving contextual and cultural concerns of theology and religious studies. This book will be of interest to students of theology as well as to sociologists, political theorists and historians.”

12. Ivan Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Beyond Liberation Theology sets the stage for future liberation theology. Within, Ivan Petrella provides a bold new interpretation of liberation theology’s present state and future possibilities. In so doing, he challenges a number of established pieties: Instead of staying within the accepted norm of examining liberation theologies individually as if they were closed worlds, he dares develop a framework that tackles Latin American, Black, Womanist, and Hispanic/Latino(a) theologies together; instead of succumbing to the fashionable identity politics that rules liberationist discourse, he places poverty at the forefront of concern; instead of seeking to carve out a small space for theology in a secular world, he shows that only an expansive understanding of liberation theology can deal with contemporary challenges. The end result is a wake up call for liberation theologians everywhere and a radical new direction for liberation theology itself.”

13. Robert McAfee Brown. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “In a manner that is vivid and lively, Robert McAfee Brown explains and illuminates liberation theology for North American readers who may have no previous knowledge of this dynamic Christian movement. Growing out of the experience of oppressed people in Latin America, liberation theology lends a transforming power to both the study of the Bible and the Christian duty to work for justice for all God’s people. With heartwarming, terrifying, and humorous stories, Brown shows the strength and significance of one of the outstanding developments in religious faith today and for the future.”

14. John J. Markey, Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North America. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “North Americans are enslaved by a false sense that self-centered idealism is morally good and necessary for achieving the common good. Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North Americans explores how those living inside the oppressive structures of the First World can be freed from false ideologies to achieve personal and socio-political conversion. Using the story of Moses and the Exodus, the book presents a spirituality of conversion for the privileged and develops a connection between the liberation of the oppressed and conversion of the privileged.”

15. Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. [Secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is a school of Roman Catholic thought which teaches that a primary duty of the church must be to promote social and economic justice. In this book, Christian Smith explains how and why the liberation theology movement emerged and succeeded when and where it did.”

16. Ivone Gebara. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Gebara’s succinct yet moving statements of the principles of ecofeminism shows how intertwined are the tarnished environment around her and the poverty that afflicts her neighbors. From her experiences with the Brazilian poor women’s movement she develops a gritty urban ecofeminism and indeed articulates a whole worldview. She shows how the connections between Western thought, patriarchal Christianity, and environmental destruction necessitate personal conversion to ‘a new relationship with the earth and with the entire cosmos.’”

17. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Google Books]: “In this text, Mary Daly examines religion as a major cause of women’s repression over the last 3,000 years. From Genesis to the writings of contemporary theologians, she exposes the misogyny which still continues to flourish in Christianity.”

18. William R. Jones. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Published originally as part of C. Eric Lincoln’s series on the black religious experience, Is God a White Racist? is a landmark critique of the black church’s treatment of evil and the nature of suffering. In this powerful examination of the early liberation methodology of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Joseph Washington, among others, Jones questions whether their foundation for black Christian theism—the belief in an omnibenevolent God who has dominion over human history—can provide an adequate theological foundation to effectively dismantle the economic, social, and political framework of oppression. Seeing divine benevolence as part of oppression’s mechanism of disguise, Jones argues that black liberation theologians must adopt a new theism that is informed by humanism and its principle of the functional ultimacy of wo/man, where human choice and action determine whether our condition is slavery or freedom.”

19. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latino/a Theology and Philosophy. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Decolonizing Epistemologies builds upon the contributions of liberation and postcolonial theories in both philosophy and theology. Gathering the work of three generations of Latina/o theologians and philosophers who have taken up the task of transforming their respective disciplines, it seeks to facilitate the emergence of new knowledge by reflecting on the Latina/o reality in the United States as an epistemic locus: a place from which to start as well as the source of what is known and how it is known. The task of elaborating a liberation and decolonial epistemology emerges from the questions and concerns of Latina/os as a minoritized and marginalized group. Refusing to be rendered invisible by the dominant discourse, the contributors to this volume show the unexpected and original ways in which U.S. Latina/o social and historical loci are generative places for the creation of new matrices of knowledge. Because the Latina/o reality is intrinsically connected with that of other oppressed groups, the volume articulates a new point of departure for the self-understanding not only of Latina/os but also possibly for other marginalized and oppressed groups, and for all those seeking to engage in the move beyond coloniality as it is present in this age of globalization.”

20. William T. Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. [Contemporary, secondary text]

Brief Description [from back book cover]: “In this engrossing analysis, Cavanaugh contends that the Eucharist is the Church’s response to the use of torture as a social discipline. The author develops a theology of the political, which presents torture as one instance of a larger confrontation of powers over bodies, both individual and social. He argues that a Christian practice of the political is embodied in Jesus’ own torture at the hands of the powers of this world. The analysis of torture therefore is situated within wider discussions in the fields of ecclesiology and the state, social ethics and human rights, and sacramental theology. The book focuses on the experience of Chile and the Catholic Church there, before and during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1973-1990. Cavanaugh has first-hand experience of working with the Church in Chile, and his interviews with ecclesiastical officials and grassroots Church workers speak directly to the reader. The book uses this example to examine the theoretical bases of twentieth-century ‘social catholicism’ and its inability to resist the disciplines of the state, in contrast to a truer Christian practice of the political in the Eucharist. The book as a whole ties eucharistic theology to concrete eucharistic practice, showing that the Eucharist is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the Body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.”

 

Max Roach Freedom Now 1960Free jazz, the New Thing, or the New Black Music as it was variously called exploded on the scene in the latter part of the twentieth century.[1] As is widely known, several prominent musicians such as Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp were influenced by the philosophy and teachings of the Black Power movement, which departed in important ways from earlier civil rights groups. As John D. Baskerville observes, the rallying cry of the black nationalists was not King’s “We Shall Overcome,” but “Black Power.” This new generation of black activists boldly proclaimed black pride and were outspoken advocates for the political and economic empowerment of black people. For example, black nationalists argued that America’s capitalistic (and racist) system “was a colonial system in which the colonized people are the Blacks.” Given this unjust social context, they urged African Americans to “gain control of the economic institutions in their community to build a Black economic power base.”[2] Through establishing black leadership and economic power, African Americans could better determine their futures and resist white exploitative practices.

Jazz musicians attuned to the message of Black Power devised innovative strategies to subvert and transgress white-imposed barriers. Having experienced for some time their own “colonized status” in America’s white-owned music industry, they developed what is often referred to as the “loft movement.” White club owners had little interest or patience with the New Black Music, as it was ill suited for their chief goal, namely, to turn the highest profit possible. For example, a single free jazz composition might last an hour or more depending upon the length of each improvised solo. Such extended forms and prolonged solos allowed the performers to develop and expand their musical ideas “in real time.” However, the club owners preferred shorter, “prepackaged” sets, as they “made their money by requiring a minimum number of drinks per set per customer. The more sets a group played, the more drinks could be sold.”[3] Additionally, quite often the drinks were highly priced, making it difficult for political activists, students, less affluent African Americans, artists, and others interested in the New Thing to support the musicians’ efforts. Not only were the profits funneled to the club owners, but the musicians also had little control over the direction of their art and over the audiences they wished to reach. Consequently, the loft movement was born as a way around the white dominated club scene. In short, musicians opened up their lofts (large apartments) as performance sites and charged their audiences modest fees. Thus, they were able to create a space where artistic expression (rather than profit) was foremost and to establish their own leadership and economic priority. Moreover, since by and large the lofts were located in black communities, the musicians had more say in determining their audience.

My second example of how jazz musicians transgress boundaries is more explicitly musical in nature. Here I focus on John Coltrane’s transformation of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things.” In order to grasp the cultural and sociopolitical dimensions of Coltrane’s version of the tune, we must consider some of the racialized musical discourses at play at the time. White control of the music industry meant that highly talented black jazz musicians were underpaid and were often denied prestigious performance venues. Moreover, it was frequently the case that black musicians’ talent exceeded their white counterparts, as is displayed by the fact that white musicians openly sought to imitate and internalize African American musicians’ melodic lines, rhythmic phrasings and patterns, and literally memorized improvised solos by jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and McCoy Tyner.[4] Given this background, when Coltrane’s version with its sophisticated structural, harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic modifications musically surpassed the original and culturally popular tune, the ramifications went beyond the aesthetic sphere and likewise impacted the sociopolitical realm.

Musically speaking, for example, the multilayered, polyrhythmic “feel” created by the drums, piano, and bass resulted in a complete alteration of the tune’s character. In Coltrane’s version, the construction and placement of rhythmic motifs in the vamp section superimposes a six metric feel rather than emphasizing the tune’s original ¾ time signature. In addition, the vamp section’s six feel contrasts with a different rhythmic pattern in the A section, which both supports the melody and returns the groove to a strong ¾ emphasis.[5] Such rhythmic complexity is completely absent from the original tune whose form and overall rhythmic quality come across as pedestrian. Rather than bind themselves to the original tune’s formal limitations, Coltrane and his group take the composition’s oversimplified and constricting structures as their point of departure and then bend, explode, and re-create them, producing something far more interesting musically than the original. The fact that African American jazz musicians of the Civil Rights Era actively transformed mainstream European-American compositions—not to mention artistically upstaged their white counterparts—carries with it social, political, and cultural significance. Such actions are, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. would say,  “signifyin(g)” acts.  In brief, Gates’s idea of musical signification is that the music itself has the capacity to “speak” ironically and strategically to social, political, and economic concerns and thus to function as musical expressions of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference.”[6] Lastly and building on Gates’s notion of signifying, Monson highlights how Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” employs European American musical standards for its own strategic aims. In other words, Coltrane’s transformed piece with its extended harmonies and polyrhythmic textures—both of which are musical qualities esteemed by modern and contemporary Western classical composers—not only outshines the original when evaluated by jazz aesthetical standards but also illustrates how jazz musicians can “invoke selectively some of the hegemonic standards of Western classical music in their favor.”[7]

My final example of a musical transgressive act with sociopolitical overtones is found in the freedom of improvised jazz solos—a freedom that promotes both individual expression and that enables one to alter structures. For example, turning again to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” the musicians’ extended solos allow for high levels of individual creative expression, yet the solos themselves are both constituted in conversation with the other performances (rhythm section, pianist, etc.) and have the ability to modify the structural parameters of the tune. After all, an improvised jazz solo can continue (at least in theory) as long as the improviser (and the group) desire. Moreover, a solo can take a tune in completely unexpected and “unwritten” directions via melodic superimpositions and rhythmic motifs introduced extemporaneously and taken up by the group as a whole. Not only does the kind of improvisation associated with jazz make each performance of the same tune unique, but it also highlights the capacity of jazz to create a flexible rather than rigidly static and restrictive form. Here we have a musical act of freedom analogous to and expressive of African Americans’ desire for social, political, and economic emancipation from the white-imposed, constraining structures that daily dominated their existence.

 Notes


[1] See also, Robin D. G. Kelley, “Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde.”

[2] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 487.

[3] Baskerville, “Free Jazz: A Reflection of Black Power Ideology,” p. 488.

[4] I do not mean to suggest that imitation in itself automatically translates into the superiority of the imitated over the imitator. Rather, the idea in this context is that African Americans were the both the key leaders and innovators of jazz and that their musical contributions fundamentally shaped a musical aesthetic that was (and still is) sought by their white counterparts. For a detailed discussion of the “blackening” of American mainstream music and the dominance of African American aesthetics in jazz, see Monson, Freedom Sounds.

[5] Monson, “Doubleness and Jazz Improvisation,” pp. 296–97.

[6] Gates, The Signifying Monkey, p. 51. See also, chapter 2 of the same work.

[7] Monson, Saying Something, p. 120.

 

Miles Davis My Funny ValentineAlthough it shares several features and impetuses with so-called classical modernism—for example, formal innovations and reaching new heights of expressivity—Afro-modernism of the 1940s manifests distinctive characteristics arising from and related to the particular socio-political and economic struggles of African Americans. Guthrie P. Ramsey highlights one aspect of Afro-modernism as the process of African Americans grappling with their place in the modern world and working out their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and stances artistically (Ramsey, 2003, p. 97). Whether we find Afro-modernist overtones expressed via bebop’s structural expansions, exceedingly complex harmonies, extended and virtuosic improvised solos, or hybrid African, African American, and Afro-Cuban musical styles, one must also take into account the tension-ridden, racially conflicted socio-political and economic context from which the music emerged.[1] Following Ramsey, I agree that it is a mistake or at least an incomplete characterization to describe bebop as chiefly concerned with the (abstract, ahistorical) principle of artistic autonomy. Granting this claim and considering the racialzed context in which it operated, bebop artists and advocates strategically employed a modernist narrative of autonomy in order to challenge and subvert stereotypical depictions of black musicians as mere entertainers (for whites). In the process of deconstructing white-imposed socioeconomic narratives of what a black musician is or ought to be, bebop artists self-consciously appropriated modernist tropes and discourses to construct their own personal and collective Afro-modernist stories. Yet, as Ramsey explains, not only do the new black-scripted modernist narratives proclaim that bebop was neither “dance music” nor “conceived for mass consumption,” it also asserted that bebop was “not designed for traditional ‘high brow’ concert audiences” (Ramsey, 2003, p. 106).

Although it drew upon past sources—from both the Afro and Euro traditions—and was thus clearly hybrid in nature, bebop as an Afro-modernist art form was something new. Having broken down the traditional rigid barriers and antagonisms between so-called “high” art music and “folk” music, as well as discourses claiming that art music has no political import, bebop opened up a new musical horizon whose artistic excellence carried socio-political substance. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. might put it, bebop musicians’ (re)harmonizations and transformations of musical “texts,” traditions, and discourses were signifin(g) acts. That is, not only the discourses about bebop but the musical pieces themselves are instances of “black double-voicedness” and repetition with a “signal difference” intentionally and strategically enacted to speak to social, political, and economic issues (Gates, 1988, p. 51; see also, chapter 2). In short, bebop’s harmonic, rhythmic, and structural complexity coupled with its blinding, virtuosic improvised solos and distinctive grooves combine to create an expression of black art music or strategic Afro-modern jazz, whose innovations and contributions, given the racialized context in which they emerge, carry with them multi-layered socio-political significations. To imagine that African American bebop musicians were simply performing and creating works for art’s sake in line with the Western art music tradition’s discourses on artistic autonomy is to ignore the harsh, racialized reality and lived experience of African Americans in U. S. history and to conceive of music as an ahistorical artifact untouched by its particular socio-political and cultural context.

 Although, as mentioned earlier, bebop artists were, on the one hand, decidedly not creating music for mass consumption nor for traditional “high brow” audiences; yet, like other highly skilled professionals they desired and rightfully expected a living wage. However, the complex of American racism and modern capitalism created a particularly constricting and slanted framework—a framework whose laws, discourses, and practices privileged (white) copyright owners while diminishing music-makers, especially black improvising music-makers. Before concluding, let me illustrate how bebop as an inflection of strategic Afro-modernism worked within and against these slanted structures and discourses in order to resist and transform the commodifying practices of capitalism—and of course simultaneously struggling against racist (il)logic.[2]While from a musico-theoretical perspective one could make a strong argument that composition and improvisation are emphases on a single continuum and thus differences between the two are more matters of degree; however, in the socio-economic sphere the difference between the socially prestigious label, “composer,” and the socially stereotyped label, “improviser,” is stark.[3] The traditional Western notion privileging the composer over the jazz improviser or the “mere” performer per se views the composer as the sole or primary originator and author of the musical piece. This understanding of what a composer is and does is intimately tied to the development of musical notation. A musical score takes the live, dynamic performed music and reduces it to signs on a page. From one perspective, such technologies are completely understandable, legitimate, and even helpful to the process of preserving and transmitting music to subsequent generations. From another perspective, these fixed (silent) signs make it easy to ascribe ownership and thus creative primacy and economic privileges to specific individuals. Within the framework of modern capitalism and its drive to commodify, ownership and copyright laws go hand in hand. Since the improviser is viewed as a mere performer, a conduit or tool, his or her significant contribution—or better co-creation—that transforms the silent signs on a page into (actual) music is diminished and this diminishment is made manifest in the economic realm.[4] As DeVeaux observes, even as the artistic talent of a jazz legend such as Charlie Parker is publicly recognized by musicians, critics, and jazz fans across the ethnic spectrum, nonetheless “in a music industry designed to funnel profits to the owners of copyrights, improvisers have found themselves in an anomalous and frustrating position. The history of jazz can be read, in part, as an attempt by determined musicians to close the gap between artistic ambition and economic reward” (DeVeaux, 1997, p. 9).

In fact, as many scholars have point out, the original Copyright Act of 1909 itself presupposes that only musical expressions that correlate to a written composition or score qualify as copyrightable material; thus, the composer, rather than the performer is given artistic preference or priority, which, in a capitalistic system, translates into economic privilege. Prior to the 1970s amendments to copyright laws, recorded versions or improvised performances based on but exceeding and often transforming written scores were not granted a legal copyright-protection status.[5] Consequently, songwriters (composers) and publishers receive the bulk of royalty payments, whereas performers (improvisers) are typically paid a one-time fee and their share of the royalties is significantly less (Monson, 2007, p. 336). Monson provides an excellent example of how such laws favored the composer/songwriter economically and continued to reinforce the idea that the composer/songwriter is the sole musical creator, whereas the improviser/performer is simply a conduit giving expression to the composer’s musical intentions. Take, for instance, Miles Davis’ 1956 recording of “My Funny Valentine” by Rogers and Hart. Here we have an improvised performance that includes significant harmonic and rhythmic additions, as well as masterful improvised solos creating a new form that many deem superior to the original version. However, as Monson notes, “Davis’s unique version of the tune was not copyrightable.” Moreover, not only did the songwriters and publisher receive the mechanical royalties, but when Davis’s version “was heard on radio or TV, additional broadcast royalties were earned by the songwriters and publisher and collected by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) (Monson, 2007, p. 30). Such a system clearly exhibits an unfair economic benefit for (mainly white) composers, publishers, and those controlling the radio and television broadcasting industry.

Notes

  1. Ramsey discusses several mid-twentieth century “processes and their contradictions and paradoxes” including: mass migration, the (mis)use of black bodies, an emerging black defiance that helped to fuel effective political strategies and collective actions, and lastly, the multiple and “conflicting discourses on art’s role in social change” (2003, p. 98, see also, chapter 5, “We Called Ourselves Modern,” esp. pp. 98–105).
  2. For a discussion of the resistance elements of bebop within the marketplace, see DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 20–27.
  3. For a theoretical analysis deconstructing the assumed rigid dichotomy between composition and improvisation, see Nielsen, 2009.
  4. DeVeaux sums up this process nicely: “Notation imposes upon music the idea of a permanent text to which authorship can safely be ascribed and ownership securely established. Such fixity is a necessary precursor to commodification” (1997, p.10).
  5. The federal copyright laws were amended in the 70s to cover recordings. See, Monson, 2007, p. 336, n.2. See also, DeVeaux, 1997, esp. pp. 11–12. As DeVeaux explains, the growing ascendancy of recordings over sheet music did not change the economic privileges and power structures. “[E]conomic power remained stubbornly in the grip of music publishers, who insisted (with the help of copyright law) that all financial benefits to creativity must flow to officially recognized composers. Since royalties for performance per se were relatively rare (contracts typically dictated a modest one-time fee), ‘mere’ performers saw very little of this money, unless they somehow managed to claim the role of composer” (12).

 

Works Cited

DeVeaux, S. (1997). The birth of bebop. A social and musical history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gates Jr., H. L. (1988). The signifying monkey. A theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. (2007). Freedom sounds. Civil rights call out to jazz and Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, C. (2009). What has coltrane to do with mozart:  The dynamism and built-in flexibility of music. Expositions, 3, pp. 57–71.

Ramsey, Jr. G. (2003). Race music: black music from bebop to hip-hop. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

 

Frederick Douglass StudyingThose familiar with Douglass’s Narrative of the Life will readily recall his creative, improvisatory maneuverings as he strove toward his goal of literacy. Given that the authoritative discourses did not even permit serious discussion of the possibility of a slave being formally educated, Douglass employed his creative intellectual and imaginative powers to create his own “school” by transforming his daily tasks into opportunities to improve his reading and writing skills. Whether it involved playing on white boys’ pride in not wanting to “lose” a writing game to a slave or bringing extra bread on an errand to gift impoverished white children in exchange for a “stealth” reading lesson, Douglass created educational sites out of mundane tasks—and more extraordinarily, he created these within a context of oppressive, unjust, and demeaning social relations. [1]

Douglass takes advantage of this antagonism and creates educational sites wherever he goes. Having utilized fences, brick walls, and pavement as make-shift copy-books,[2] Douglass states that his writing lessons were at last completed when could copy “the Italics in Webster’s Spelling Book” by memory. [3].  In addition to improvising with the objects just mentioned, Douglass notes that he had also make good use of little Master Thomas’s (Mr. Auld’s son) old and quite used copy-books. As Douglass explains, while Mrs. Auld attended her weekly Monday afternoon meeting, he would “spend time in writing in the spaces left in [little] Master Thomas’s copy-book, copying what he had written.” [4]. After seven long years with the Auld family, Douglass achieves his goal of literacy through intentional, creative acts of resistance. In other words, Douglass, well before Derrida and other deconstructionists, seeks those left over spaces, the in-between, silenced, erased and already “written” spaces in order, as Sisco puts it, “to exploit their rich potential.”[5]

However, Douglass’s attainment of literacy, just as Auld predicted, proves painful given Douglass’s status as a slave—one living yet socially dead. Having read and studied various essays and speeches arguing against slavery and promoting universal human rights, Douglass’s anger and hatred toward his oppressors intensified. As he explains, his new found ability to articulate with the utmost clarity why slavery was unjust and his increased knowledge regarding matters of justice and human rights gave rise to a deep discontentment—the “very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow”[6]. Commenting further on the double-sidedness of literacy for a slave, Douglass writes:

The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery. […] I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. [7]

Douglass goes on to say that he at times wished himself ignorant or a beast—in short, he preferred any condition that would rid him of his incessant thinking. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.” [8] However, he could not make his mind stop. “It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.”[9] In other words, wish as he may, there was no turning back to blissful ignorance. Douglass’s literacy made him aware of his wretched condition as a slave in a way that was not possible before. Listen, as Douglass continues his eloquent description of how his deep longing for freedom was ever before him, bidding him draw near yet leaving him bound, boxed in, and unable to reciprocate.

[Freedom] was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed [10].

At this stage, Douglass came to the painful realization that for the slave, literacy, how ever good and necessary its attainment may be, is not sufficient for true freedom. True freedom requires the ability to participate as a full citizen and to have equal opportunities for education, employment, housing, and other rights granted fully functioning citizens qua social and political agents.  This realization in no way diminishes Douglass’s extraordinary achievements in the midst of a hostile and oppressive society. As we have seen, Douglass’s resistance to and reharmonizations of the authoritative (white) discourses and unjust socio-political practices highlight his creative ability to reconfigure his environment and re-narrative his subjectivity. However, Douglass’s freedom through literacy was partial, and, paradoxically, the limited nature of his freedom become painfully apparent as a result of his literacy.

Notes

[1] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 41.

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 44–45.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Sisco, “Writing in the Spaces Left,” 201.

[6] Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 42.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 42­–3.

[10] Ibid., 43.

 

Black Swan AdvertisementBlack Swan Records was a small, black-owned record company created in the early 1900s under the direction and leadership of Harry H. Pace, a former student of W. E. B. Du Bois.[1] Although Black Swan’s lifespan was brief, an examination of its history and activities provides a glimpse into the complex, racialized music and recording industry in the early twentieth century. Discrimination in the world of music was just as prevalent as discrimination in other spheres of society, making it difficult for African American musicians to earn a stable, living wage. Moreover, white ownership of clubs, hotels, concert halls, and record companies created a power differential, which when operative within a racialized society, meant that white musicians often received the best performing venues—both economically and with respect to cultural capital. In contrast, blacks were given less prestigious performance sites and regularly received inadequate and incommensurate pay for their artistic contributions and musical performances. Given these conditions, Pace and his colleagues decided to create a black-owned record company that would promote and support African American musicians, treating them with respect and paying them commensurate with their talents. In addition, Black Swan Records had a lofty mission that included a desire to reshape negative racialized conceptions of black music, as well as to develop strategies for greater “access to, and control of, material resources” that would “support and encourage African American business development and economic self-sufficiency.”[2]

Early on when record companies finally agreed to allow African American artists to record their music, the industry only permitted styles that conformed to white stereotypes and negative valuations of black music. Thus, so-called comic “coon songs” and minstrelsy—the only styles endorsed by the industry for recording purposes—were established as qualitative standards for African American musical contributions.[3] In other words, the industry’s own racially biased judgments of African American music, combined with its selective, gatekeeping practices played a key role in constructing and perpetuating racialized conceptions and evaluations of black music as non-serious and subpar in comparison with European high art music. Within this rather hostile context, Pace, an entrepreneur eager to enact his own variation of Du Bois’s notion of racial uplift and socio-economic equality, established the first black-owned record company, Black Swan Records. Well aware of the racial prejudice, stereotypes, and negative estimations of African Americans and the alleged limits of their musical contributions, Pace devised a plan to record a variety of music performed by black artists. Among the wide spectrum of styles to be recorded were the following: blues, spirituals, opera, and concert music.[4] Racial uplift, economic independence, proper artistic esteem of African American music (as well as a simultaneous challenge to and subversion of white stereotypes and negative appraisals of black music) were all key components of Pace’s visionary project.

Although African American music quickly became a major force in American popular music culture, black artists and performers “exercised little control over the terms of their employment or the kinds of music they could produce professionally, and by the late 1910s they were even being displaced as the primary interpreters of the musical styles they had originated.”[5] Finally after constant pressure from the African American community as well as key court decisions and patent expirations that allowed new record companies to compete in the market, African American singer, Mamie Smith, was allowed to record with Okeh Records. Smith’s two records were released in February and August of 1920 and were instant hits, selling extremely well among African Americans.[6]

Even though Smith’s success opened up possibilities to record for other, up-and-coming African American artists, the white-owned music industry continued its race-based discriminatory practices. For example, Pace and W. C. Handy, the well-known blues musician, wrote several songs together and formed their own publishing company, the Pace & Handy Publishing Company (hereafter, Pace & Handy).[7] Although their firm was doing relatively well and had now relocated to New York, it continued to encounter racial barriers. On one occasion, a white-owned record company would not allow white singers to perform a blues piece penned by Pace & Handy. On another occasion, a white recording manager “refused to issue records of songs published by Pace & Handy because he did not want the black publishers to earn royalties from the phonograph company’s records.”[8] Pace also approached record companies about the possibility of recording African American artists performing music other than the blues—for example, opera and other “high art” and classical styles. Here again Pace encountered widespread racialized views of blacks and their musical abilities. In fact, the white managers were quite frank, informing Pace that “white prejudice made it commercially impossible” for their company to record black artists who performed music outside blues and other so-called “low art” forms. Classical music was associated with a civilized, cultured white society and “high art,” whereas blues music was alleged to be more suited to the “raw” vocal styles and less cultivated music of African Americans.

Eventually, Pace parted ways with Handy in order to establish Black Swan Records—a company dedicated to his vision of racial uplift, the achievement of social equality, and black economic independence and self-determination. Central to the realization of this vision was the promotion of African American musical talent. On the one hand, gifted black artists producing excellent music encouraged and strengthened the black community, fostering pride in African American artistic achievements. On the other hand, black musical achievement challenged white society’s negative valuations and confining, racially biased stereotypes regarding African Americans and the status and range of their musical abilities and aesthetic contributions. Thus, Pace’s plan was to record talented black musicians in order to actively shape and re-shape public opinion regarding African Americans. Du Bois likewise believed that music could be, and indeed must be given the circumstances, deployed for social and political purposes. For example, in his essay, “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois writes, “until the art of black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”[9]

Although Black Swan Records issued a wide range of music performed by black artists—everything from the “serious” music of concert vocalists Revella Hughes and Carroll Clark to the more popular styles of blues, ragtime, and jazz—the company’s financial stability depended largely upon its production of popular music. In fact, the enormous success of blues singer Ethel Waters’s first record in the early 1920s among both black and white audiences not only kept the company afloat but also enabled it to turn a small profit.[10] Waters’s musical ability and her wide-reaching success was such that it helped to reshape and to challenge the notion of blues as a lower and disreputable form of music—a notion held by many in both black and white populations. Even so and in spite of the commercial success of its increasingly popular blues records, Black Swan “remained committed to middle-class ideas of refinement and self-control.”[11] In short, tensions between Pace’s musical mission to foster “a taste for high musical culture,” his ambivalent position on popular music and his strategic use of popular music to further his more lofty musical mission ultimately proved incompatible and unresolvable.

Other factors likewise contributed to the company’s downfall—the advent of radio, an ill-timed business decision, and the increasing popularity of blues and jazz.[12] Regarding the rising popularity of blues and jazz, Suisman highlights a certain irony in that the success of Black Swan’s recordings of blues artists encouraged other white-owned record companies to sign and promote African American blues artists. In other words, because of the company’s selectivity regarding signing contracts with certain more respectable blues musicians, once the “‘hotter,’ rougher-edged artists” grew in popularity, it became “more difficult for Black Swan to promote its program of musical uplift and increased the economic power of Black Swan’s rivals.”[13] Thus, its commercial success with the blues and other popular music artists it chose to promote made it impossible, economically speaking, for Black Swan to fulfill key aesthetic components of its broader vision (that is, musical uplift). Moreover, Black Swan simply could not compete with the larger budgets of white-owned record companies; consequently, many of their singers choose to sign contracts elsewhere.

The emergence of radio in the music industry also negatively impacted Black Swan’s momentous yet brief existence. As millions of dollars were invested to fund radio broadcasting, the entire phonograph industry witnessed a sharp decline in sales.[14] Under economic duress and facing the possibility of losing his company, Pace made a decision that contradicted his musical and social mission to promote exclusively black artists and their musical endeavors.[15] Although it was originally conceived as a desperate, temporary measure, Pace began issuing records of white artists under pseudonyms creating the impression that they were black artists.  Undoubtedly, Pace’s decision involved deception and was less than optimal; yet, from an analytical perspective, it presents us with an interesting historical case that challenges the cogency of racialized musical categories or labels. That is, a key aspect of Pace’s project was to confront and critically question various racialized views of music, in particular, those views claiming that African Americans were incapable of producing and performing music exhibiting the seriousness, complexity, and aesthetic value of their European counterparts. In addition, as musical styles such as blues and jazz became increasingly popular with both black and white audiences, these styles became associated with African American artists.  Such an association is not completed unwarranted, since at the time the leading innovators in these genres were by and large African American. However, if issued as essentialist claims regarding black music, such assertions are problematized and rendered incoherent by the examples of Black Swan’s white artists who, as it were, “passed” as black artists. That is, when audiences heard the white performers’ music, the alleged racial difference was not perceived. Ironically, as Suisman observes, “the deception demonstrated the contingent, extrinsic character of racial categories in music, which [in fact] had been one of Black Swan’s basic goals. […] Racial difference was not audible; rather, it was artificially and arbitrarily assigned.”[16]

Despite its short career, Black Swan Records under Pace’s leadership accomplished much for African American artists and the black community as a whole, especially when one takes into account the structural injustices and discriminatory practices firmly entrenched in American society during that period. By promoting black musicians and showcasing the wide range of styles and musical capabilities of African American artists, Pace challenged many common racial stereotypes and negative appraisals of blacks’ abilities to make significant aesthetic and cultural contributions. However, one could argue that Pace himself employed and furthered a racially biased aesthetic standard. That is, through his adoption of musical categories and descriptors such as  “high” and “low” musical art and his urging of potential African American customers to purchase “higher class” concert and other “serious” music performed by blacks, Pace casts a shadow on the artistry and cultural contributions of blues and jazz. In short, his statements imply that European, classical traditions are the standards by which one must judge musical excellence.

Notes

[1] For a detailed historical study of Black Swan Records, see David Suisman, “Co-workers in the Kingdom of Culture: Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” The Journal of American History 90 (2004): 1295–1324. The present section on Black Swan Records draws heavily from Suisman’s article.

[2] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1295.

[3] Ibid., 1296.

[4] Ibid., 1297. As Suisman explains, “blues” in this context refers to “vaudeville blues,” which typically consisted of a female singer accompanied by piano or a small band (ibid., 1307).

[5] Ibid., 1299.

[6] Ibid., 1300.

[7] Ibid., 1301.

[8] Ibid., 1302.

[9] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” in The New Negro Renaissance: An Anthology, ed. Arthur P. Davis and Michael W. Peplow (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975), 496. On Du Bois’ complex “elitism” and his anti-dualistic notion of art as an “aesthetic politics” that weds Beauty, Truth, and Freedom, see Ross Posnock, “The Distinction of Du Bois: Aesthetics, Pragmatism, Politics,” American Literary History 7 (1995): 500–524.

[10] Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Political Economy of African American Music,” 1307–8.

[11] Ibid., 1310.

[12] Ibid., 1316. I focus on two of the three factors listed here. For a detailed account of the ill-timed business expansion, see Suisman, “Black Swan Records and the Politial Economy of African American Music,” 1316–17.

[13] Ibid., 1318.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 1319–20.

[16] Ibid., 1320.

 

Martin Luther King Jr.In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s essay, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” he observes that true peace requires “the presence of some positive force—justice, good will and brotherhood.” In today’s world, this sense of solidarity and concern for the good of others—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, the unemployed, those with little or no access to healthcare and so forth—seems to have diminished significantly.

In contrast, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was animated by a strong sense of human solidarity, believing that as those created in God’s image we belong to one another. In addition, Dr. King’s belief in human solidarity, the inherent dignity of all human beings, and the need to work toward creating a world where all humans can flourish compelled him to action. As we know, he chose the path of non-violent direct action and protest, convinced that this was the path most consonant with his Christian faith. Of course this was not an easy path. He received criticism from black activists as well as white society. His protests even landed him in jail and ultimately cost him his life.

In Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he writes, “‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ Then a few lines later he continues, “[m]oreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

In what  follows I address what critical race theorists and sociologists refer to as white advantage, white privilege, white habitus, or the “invisibility” and normativity of whiteness.  My hope is that by interrogating whiteness we might become aware of and uproot racial prejudices in our own thinking and awaken in ourselves a sense of solidarity and genuine concern for human flourishing for all.

Unlike people of color, whites (focusing primarily here on America’s history) are rarely if ever confronted with their phenotypic differences (especially skin color) in ways that severely and negatively impact the course of their lives. Moreover, very few white people have given extensive thought to the advantages they have simply because they are white. For example, being white has not resulted in their being denied entrance into public spaces such as restaurants, swimming pools, social clubs, housing districts, and public schools. Nor have they had to endure constant racial profiling by police officers, routine “tracking” and surveillance by security guards when shopping, or regularly having others clutch at their purses when they enter a crowded elevator together. In contrast, people of color daily deal with these and multiple other confrontations.

Black intellectuals have described the disparities in lived experience between whites and blacks in various ways. W. E. B. Du Bois employs the metaphors of the “veil” and “double-consciousness” to describe the complex, intertwined relationship of blacks and whites in America. The African American must navigate two worlds, the “black” world and the “white” world: “two worlds separate yet bound together like those double stars that, bound for all time, whirl around each other separate yet one.”[1] If we combine the multivalent figures of the veil and double-consciousness, we see that Du Bois was acutely aware of the paradox of the African American’s world. That is, the black person was both socially and politically invisible (existing behind a veil) and yet hyper-visible given the negative meanings imputed to his or her skin color—meanings which carried significant social, legal, political, and personal implications and prevented African Americans from flourishing as human beings and fully participatory citizens.

In keeping with King’s vision and legacy, I offer the following reflections on whiteness and our ongoing need to interrogate our socialized ways of being so that we, like King, might become “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities” and commit ourselves to struggling against us/them, insider/outsider, deserving/undeserving (citizen) and myriad other false dichotomies.   Given that as humans we are complex social, psychological, intellectual, emotional, embodied beings,[2] I draw special attention to how spatial and social (re)segregation and accompanying socially conditioned practices contributes to and furthers white advantage, thus creating significant barriers for the development of interracial empathy and genuine solidarity.

In his recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone critiques Reinhold Niebuhr for his failure to address America’s appalling racist history. Cone cites a passage from novelist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin (1924–1987) that is worth repeating. (Baldwin and Niebuhr had been engaged in an ongoing dialogue about these issues.) Regarding white people, Baldwin states: “‘I don’t mean to say that white people are villains or devils or anything like that,’ but what ‘I do mean to say is this: that the bulk of the white […] Christian majority in this country has exhibited a really staggering level of irresponsibility and immoral washing of the hands, you know. […] I don’t suppose that […] all the white people in Birmingham are monstrous people. But they’re mainly silent people, you know. And that is a crime in itself’.”[3] As many contend (including myself), this white silence and lack of willingness to confront America’s violence against and exploitation of African Americans and the enduring legacy and consequences of its racist practices and policies prevents America from a true reconciliation with its past—a reconciliation required in order to achieve solidary among its citizens and to avoid repeating past patterns of oppression and violence.

Although Jim Crow laws and policies such as racially restrictive covenants are no longer enforceable, our schools and housing divisions continue the legacy of segregation. The fact that such segregation still divides our schools, neighborhoods, and parishes is a strong indicator that systemic and structural inequality and white advantage remains a serious social problem in our society. As Alex Mikulich observes, drawing upon work by sociologists John Powell, Douglas Massey, and Nancy Denton, “housing location is critical to predicting access to quality public education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation, and child care. The national extent of white hyper-segregation cannot happen without the participation of the majority of white people and institutions, including whites who claim good intentions toward people of color.”[4]

One’s “spatial” location with respect to housing is closely connected to one’s potential for upward mobility in the socio-economic sphere. How so? One’s residence significantly determines the educational opportunities for one’s children. With housing and schooling (re)segregation we again see a continuation and reproduction of structural racism carried on by white practices (e.g. real estate practices and unofficial “red-lining”) that have become normalized and which remain largely un-interrogated by whites themselves. Although it has been over fifty years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that segregated schools were unconstitutional, our schools today are as segregated as ever.  As Gary Orfield explains in his study, “Schools More Separate” (2001), “white students remain the most segregated from all other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where less than 20 percent of the students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined. On average, blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53% to 55% students of their own group.”[5]

As Mikulich highlights, there are significant overlaps between Dr. King’s vision and the Catholic social teaching. For example, both emphasize the preferential option for the poor, the interconnectedness of human beings as God’s image bearers, and the importance of and call to human solidarity. Whether official encyclicals or pastoral letters of note, Catholic social teaching presents moral, spiritual, and socio-economic principles that appeal not only to Catholics but to all people of goodwill concerned to promote social justice and the common good of all. Archbishop Francis Cardinal George, for example, penned a beautiful and timely pastoral letter entitled, Dwell in my Love, delivered on the 33rd anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 2001). The title of the letter is taken from Scripture, viz., from the Gospel of St. John 15:7–10.[6] In his letter, Archbishop George recalls his own first experiences of the reality of racism, or rather his experience of seeing his African American friends experience racism under Jim Crow laws. He had been on a summer trip in Memphis and was not allowed to sit with his African American friends on a bus. This very different experience of “space” made him aware of his advantaged social position as a white man. The every day way that he occupied space freely and non-confrontationally had been part of his world for as long as he could remember; it was taken for granted and was never intellectually scrutinized. However, his African American friends experience the world quite differently. They experienced a lack of spatial occupation on a regular basis and were daily reminded of why such spatial exclusions existed.

As his letter unfolds, Archbishop George highlights what he calls “spatial racism.” As he explains,

“Spatial racism refers to patterns of metropolitan development in which some affluent whites create racially and economically segregated suburbs or gentrified areas of cities, leaving the poor — mainly African Americans, Hispanics and some newly arrived immigrants — isolated in deteriorating areas of the cities and older suburbs. […] Spatial racism creates a visible chasm between the rich and the poor, and between white people and people of color. It marks a society that contradicts both the teachings of the Church and our declared national value of equality of opportunity.”

Whites tend to be unaware of this chasm or see it as “natural,” “normal,” or just the “way it is with different groups congregating together;” in contrast, people of color are acutely aware of this divide.

In addition, whether speaking of literal physical space or more figuratively as moral, intellectual, and social space, this separation between whites and people of color—a separation that all too often has resulted in economic, social, and other benefits for whites—makes it difficult for many whites to empathize with the experiences and frustrations of people of color.[7] Moreover, it makes practicing solidarity nearly impossible.

To be clear, class in also a significant factor in this discussion, as poor whites experience the world quite differently than whites who occupy the upper middle and higher rungs of the socio-economic sphere (the latter of which are my primary addressees under the generic heading “whites”). As is the case with other groups, whites are socially conditioned. For example, they are socialized through the spaces of privilege they occupy—their more or less all white schools, neighborhoods, parishes, etc.—to see their experience—their “white habitus” as normal, natural, and even the standard for all things intellectual, moral, cultural, and so forth.

The term “white habitus” comes from sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.[8] According to Bonilla-Silva, “white habitus” is “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ tastes, perceptions, feelings and emotions and their views on racial matters.”[9] As Mikulich explains, white habitus is cultivated “within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhites.”[10] White habitus involves both position and practice. Here position refers to social geography, spatial location, and possessing socio-economic dominance and power broadly speaking. Practice speaks to “the ways that whites are socialized [via families, institutions, social narratives, etc.]to perceive and act within the world.”[11] White culture not only actively shapes and forms the largely segregated social landscape or geography of residential and educational but is it also conditioned by such segregation (morally, intellectually, etc.).

Here are few examples from ethnographic studies as presented by Mikulich.[12] White descriptions of their own lives and experiences “within white gated communities” indicates that “white self-perceptions of  ‘niceness’ and fear of others” are often employed as ways to “justify living in a residential development that excludes racial others.”[13]   In addition, by describing themselves as “nice” and perpetuating a fear of others attached to certain geographical spaces, neighborhoods etc., whites “inscribe racist assumptions into the landscape.”[14]Operating within the “white habitus,” the white neighborhood is perceived as “normal” and evaluated as “safe,” whereas the black neighborhood is “racially segregated” and less “safe” or even “dangerous.”

In short, “white habitus and white hyper-segregation” not only prevent the kinds of meaningful interracial interaction and relationships required for genuine solidarity and empathy but they also—if not confronted and altered—reproduce and perpetuate racialized ways of thinking, being, and acting (as well as unjust social structures). Confronting white myths, white advantage, and the ways in which we are complicit in seeing the world and others through our own racialized “white habitus” is extremely challenging personally and communally and is (in my experience at least) often not well received. However, if we fail to engage these issues that have been part of the social fabric of our country from its very beginning and “continue past patterns of silence,” then we open ourselves to the possibility of once again confirming James Baldwin’s analysis that whites remain “trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, New York: Vintage, 1993, p. 8).[15]

 

 

Notes


[1] W. E. B. Du Bois. “Beyond the Veil in a Virginia Town,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887­1961,  edited by Herbert Aptheker. Originally published 1897 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), 49.

[2] This list is not meant to be exhaustive.

[3] As cited in James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 55.

[4] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?” in The Almighty and the Dollar: Reflections on Economic Justice for All, edited by Mark J. Allman (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2012), 207. Significant aspects of and ideas for this post are modeled after and taken from Mikulich’s chapter.

[5] Gary Orfield, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/schools-more-separate-consequences-of-a-decade-of-resegregation/orfield-schools-more-separate-2001.pdf.

[6] “If you dwell in me, and my words dwell in you, ask whatever you want and you
shall have it. This is how my Father is glorified; you are to bear fruit in plenty and so be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Dwell in my love. If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.”

[7] Social scientists call this lack of empathy “social alexithymia.” As Joe Feagin explains, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 89.

[8] See, for example, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 2nd ed. (Landham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2006), 103.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mikulich, “Where Y’at Race, Whiteness, and Economic Justice?”, p 210.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] As cited in Mikulich, ibid., 211.