Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, History, Media Archive on 2013-10-22 03:47Z by Steven

Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History

Issue 112, 2013
pages 117-130
DOI: 10.1353/tra.2013.0056

Nicholas T. Rinehart
Harvard University

Nicholas T. Rinehart debunks theories of Beethoven’s blackness and calls for a reimagining of the classical canon.

The Question

Was Beethoven Black? He surely wasn’t, but some insist otherwise. The question is not a new one—it has been rehashed over the course of several decades, although it never seems to have caused much of a stir in any public intellectual debates. Indeed, what is perhaps most fascinating about this question is that is has remained somewhat under the radar despite its stubbornness. Nobody really thinks Beethoven was black. And only a few have even stumbled upon the possibility. That Beethoven may have been black is pure trivia—a did-you-know factoid for the classical music enthusiast. The composer ranks with Alexanders Pushkin and Dumas as one of history’s great ethnic surprises, with the obvious exception that Beethoven wasn’t ethnic. He was simply swarthy.

The logic goes something like this: Beethoven’s family, by way of his mother, traced its foots to Flanders, which was for sometime under Spanish monarchical rule, and because Spain maintained a longstanding historical connection to North Africa through the Moors, somehow a single germ of blackness trickled down to our beloved Ludwig. This very theory—that Beethoven was descended from the Moors—has reappeared in several works throughout the twentieth century. Jamaican historian Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) popularized this theory in several writings around midcentury, but the birth of the myth can be traced back further to approximately 1915 or even earlier according to music historian Dominique-René de Lerma, the world’s leading scholar on classical composers of color. Rogers assented in his provocative and controversial works such as the three-volume Sex and Race (1941-44), the two-volume World’s Great Men of Color (1946-47), 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934), Five Negro Presidents (1965), and Nature Knows No Color Line (1952), that Beethoven—in addition to Thomas Jefferson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Browning, and several popes, among others—was genealogically African and thus black. Musicologist Donald Macardle and de Lerma both refuted this possibility with several decades between them. De Lerma also authored a brief account…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Passing for White, Passing for Black

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States, Women on 2013-04-02 03:42Z by Steven

Passing for White, Passing for Black

Number 58 (1992)
pages 4-32

Adrian Piper

It was the New Graduate Student Reception for my class, the first social event of my first semester in the best graduate department in my field in the country. I was full of myself, as we all were, full of pride at having made the final cut, full of arrogance at our newly recorded membership among the privileged few, the intellectual elite, this country’s real aristocracy, my parents told me; full of confidence in our intellectual ability to prevail, to fashion original and powerful views about some topic we represented to ourselves only vaguely. I was a bit late, and noticed that many turned to look at – no, scrutinize me as I entered the room. I congratulated myself on having selected for wear my black velvet, bell-bottomed pants suit (yes, it was that long ago) with the cream silk blouse and crimson vest. One of the secretaries who’d earlier helped me find an apartment came forward to greet me and proceeded to introduce me to various members of the faculty, eminent and honorable faculty, with names I knew from books I’d studied intensely and heard discussed with awe and reverence by my undergraduate teachers. To be in the presence of these men and attach faces to names was delirium enough. But actually to enter into casual social conversation with them took every bit of poise I had. As often happens in such situations, I went on automatic pilot. I don’t remember what I said; I suppose I managed not to make a fool of myself. The most famous and highly respected member of the faculty observed me for awhile from a distance and then came forward. Without introduction or preamble he said to me with a triumphant smirk, “Miss Piper, you’re about as black as I am.”

One of the benefits of automatic pilot in social situations is that insults take longer to make themselves felt. The meaning of the words simply don’t register right away, particularly if the person who utters them is smiling. You reflexively respond to the social context and the smile rather than to the words. And so I automatically returned the smile and said something like, “Really? I hadn’t known that about you.” – something that sounded both innocent and impertinent, even though that was not what I felt. What I felt was numb, and then shocked and terrified, disoriented, as though I’d been awakened from a sweet dream of unconditional support and approval and plunged into a nightmare of jeering contempt. Later those feelings turned into wrenching grief and anger that one of my intellectual heroes had sullied himself in my presence and destroyed my illusion that these privileged surroundings were benevolent and safe; then guilt and remorse at having provided him the occasion for doing so.

Finally, there was the groundless shame of the inadvertent impostor, exposed to public ridicule or accusation. For this kind of shame, you don’t actually need to have done anything wrong. All you need to do is care about others’ image of you, and fail in your actions to reinforce their positive image of themselves. Their ridicule and accusations then function to both disown and degrade you from their status, to mark you not as having done wrong but as being wrong. This turns you into something bogus relative to their criterion of worth, and false relative to their criterion of authenticity. Once exposed as a fraud of this kind, you can never regain your legitimacy. For the violated criterion of legitimacy implicitly presumes an absolute incompatibility between the person you appeared to be and the person you are now revealed to be; and no fraud has the authority to convince her accusers that they merely imagine an incompatibility where there is none in fact. The devaluation of status consequent on such exposure is, then, absolute; and the suspicion of fraudulence spreads to all areas of interaction.

Mr. S. looked sternly at Mrs. P., and with an imperious air said, “You a colored woman? You’re no negro. Where did you come from? If you’re a negro, where are your free papers to show it?” … As he went away he looked at Mr. Hill and said, ‘”She’s no negro.”
The Rev. H. Mattison, Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon Slave and Concubine: A Tale of Southern Slave Life (1861), 43.

The accusation was one I had heard before, but more typically from other blacks. My family was one of the very last middle-class, light-skinned black families left in our Harlem neighborhood after most had fled to the suburbs; visibly black working-class kids my age yanked my braids and called me “Paleface.” Many of them thought I was white, and treated me accordingly. As an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I attended an urban university to which I walked daily through a primarily black working-class neighborhood. Once a black teenaged youth called to me, “Hey, white girl! Give me a quarter!” I was feeling strong that day, so I retorted, “I’m not white and I don’t have a quarter!” He answered skeptically, “You sure look white! You sure act white!” And I have sometimes met blacks socially who, as a condition of social acceptance of me, require me to prove my blackness by passing the Suffering Test: They recount at length their recent experiences of racism and then wait expectantly, skeptically, for me to match theirs with mine. Mistaking these situations for a different one in which an exchange of shared experiences is part of the bonding process, I instinctively used to comply. But I stopped when I realized that I was in fact being put through a third degree. I would share some equally nightmarish experience along similar lines, and would then have it explained to me why that wasn’t really so bad, why it wasn’t the same thing at all, or why I was stupid for allowing it to happen to me. So the aim of these conversations clearly was not mutual support or commiseration. That came only after I managed to prove myself by passing the suffering Test of blackness (if I did), usually by shouting down or destroying their objections with logic…

…Trying to forgive and understand those of my relatives who have chosen to pass for white has been one of the most difficult ethical challenges of my life, and I don’t consider myself to have made very much progress. At the most superficial level, this decision can be understood in terms of a cost-benefit analysis: Obviously, they believe they will be happier in the white community than in the black one, all things considered. For me to make sense of this requires that I understand—or at least accept—their conception of happiness, as involving higher social status, entrenchment within the white community and corresponding isolation from the black one, and greater access to the rights, liberties and privileges the white community takes for granted. What is harder for me to grasp is how they could want these things enough to sacrifice the history, wisdom, connectedness and moral solidarity with their family and community they must sacrifice in order to get them. It seems to require so much severing and forgetting, so much disowning and distancing, not simply from one’s shared past, but from one’s former self—as though one had cauterized one’s long-term memory at the moment of entry into the white community….

Read the entire article here.

Tags: ,

“Tense and Tender Ties”: a review of Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (2011)

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2012-10-31 00:01Z by Steven

“Tense and Tender Ties”: a review of Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother (2011)

Number 108 (2012)
pages 129-140

Kimberly DaCosta, Associate Professor of Sociology; Associate Dean of Students
New York University, Gallatin

Psychologically conflicted, confused, traitorous, tragic, and deracinated: the public vocabulary used to describe multiracial people has hardly changed since the days when state laws banned marriage between black and white. Zeroing in on interracial kinship, Kimberly DaCosta close reads Janny Scott’s biography of Barack Obama’s mother.

My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?
Natasha Trethewey, “Pastoral”

“I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men,” said Cornel West in an interview published on the political blog, TruthDig in May 2011. “It’s understandable,” he continues, “As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation. When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening … Obama, coming out of Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination. It is understandable.”

West claims to understand quite a lot about Obama, intuited from the most general facts of his upbringing in an interracial and international family context. According to West, this upbringing has directly shaped (or perhaps “distorted” is the better description from West’s point of view) his political formation, alienating him from his people (“deracination”) and thus making him ideally suited to become what West calls “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”

“It is a tried and true ritual of American politics to interpret interracial intimacy and mixed race subjectivity as a sign of suspect political loyalty.”

When he made these statements, West was participating in a tried and true ritual of American politics—the one in which interracial intimacy and mixed-race subjectivity are interpreted as sign of, or explanation for, suspect or insufficient political loyalty. George W. Bush performed the ritual in 2000, successfully smearing John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary with a whisper campaign that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. Most recently, in a widely read and discussed New York Times opinion piece published just a few months after the West interview, Drew Westen, psychologist and self-described “scientist and strategic consultant,” explained Obama’s perceived political betrayal as a consequence of his insufficiently integrated identity. In Obama, Westen writes, we have “a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his reelection. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in Dreams from My Father appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there—the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in” (emphasis added).

These statements rely on familiar stereotypes of mixed race people—psychologically conflicted, confused, race traitors—for their impact, and evidence no more than a cursory knowledge of the details of Obama’s family life. Not that more detail about those relationships matters much to those making these kinds of political speculations. Ideologies, as Barbara Fields reminds us in the New Left Review, “are real, but it does not follow that they [need to be] scientifically accurate” in order to do their work. They work because they reflect the daily rituals that people engage in to make them seem plausible—rituals like the ones West and Westen are performing—that assert, while claiming to merely describe, the political impact of mixed-race subjectivity.

Janny Scott’s biography emerges in this moment in which the political utility of interracialism reveals itself yet again. If statements about the significance of Obama’s upbringing in his political decision-making proceed largely on the basis of supposition and innuendo,A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, published by Riverhead Press, provides some much needed context. Scott did not get to comment on this most recent controversy since the volume went to press before it occurred. Yet, her book can be read as a long (nearly 400-page) retort to those who would so blithely use interracial kinship and mixed-race subjectivity in this way…

Read the entire article in HTML or PDF format.

Tags: , , , , ,