The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States

By Samuel A. Floyd Jr. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

African-American
Modernism, Signifyin(g),
and Black Music

Watch the Chameleon: it treads ever so carefully, and it
can make itself hard to see.

South African Proverb

Rationalism in order to save the truth, renounces life.
José Ortega y Gasset

In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987), literature scholar Houston Baker marks September 18, 1895, as the beginning of African-American modernism, and he takes as its triggering event Booker T. Washington's opening address at the Negro exhibit of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. He bases his attribution on Washington's adroitness with the minstrel mask in announcing a plan of action, acceptable to both whites and blacks, that would ensure that a large portion of the nation's black citizens would get an industrial education. Baker defines the actual minstrel mask as "a space of habitation" in which resides, among other things, the denial of the humanity of Africans and their descendants. He views the minstrel mask as a "governing object" in a ritual of non-sense, which mandates that blacks "meld with minstrel's contours"; it is a mask of selective memory, misappropriating from the core culture elements of common use and "fashioning them into a comic array" (20, 21). The original, actual minstrel mask was used to remind

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