Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation

Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation

Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation

Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation

Synopsis

"A splendid and important book that clearly establishes Jon Cruz as one of the most significant cultural sociologists of his generation. The scope, depth, and originality of his theoretical analysis contributes to the general project of understanding cultural production, cultural 'objects,' and cultural interpretation and appropriation. The richness of his deployment of historical materials--whether travel diaries, sermons, or early journal articles--brings his analytic framework alive. Because his book engages crucial debates in history, ethnic studies, and cultural studies as well as in sociology, it should have a wide readership among academics in many fields."--Elizabeth Long, Rice University

Excerpt

When Frederick Douglass published his autobiography in 1845 he asked his readers to pause and listen to the songs of slaves. in their “songs of sorrow,” as he called them, we would hear their “tale of woe,” for “every tone was a testimony against slavery.” Douglass's invitation was heeded. By the eve of the Civil War, abolitionists were more than ready to hear the “spirituals”; black religious song making was even enlisted as cultural weaponry in the symbolic arsenal against slavery. Among the abolitionists a small number of individuals took the discovery of black songs quite seriously and set about finding and collecting examples of spirituals, which they transcribed and published. in their hands the religious aspects of black oral culture were transformed into written texts.

This “discovery” and the new attention it brought to black song making was unprecedented. It broke from the earlier frameworks in which black song making was heard as alien noise, and it created a critical humanistic interest in the music of African Americans. More important, this interest marked a major turning point in American intellectual development—it helped install the modern hermeneutical orientation toward cultural practices and laid the groundwork for a scientistic and objectivist treatment of black music. Douglass had called for an interpretive ethos of pathos. the new mode of hearing that he helped champion required an attentive and refined sensibility, one that sought out the inner world that was presumably reflected in the expressions of slaves. Their songs were to be grasped as testimonies to their lives, as indices of their sense of social fate.

Amplified by the abolitionist movement, Douglass's invitation rode the much larger and more powerful cultural current of what I call ethnosympathy. Ethnosympathy—the new humanitarian pursuit of the inner world of distinctive and collectively classifiable subjects—marshaled the interest in slave-based cultural practices. the new ethnosympathy embodied as well as fostered the importance of such practices as windows into the lives of people. This cultural orientation, which grew from the new value placed upon the inner world of the slaves, also had roots in the earlier endeavors to provide religious instruction to slaves. During the second half of the eighteenth and the early-nineteenth century, increased emphasis was placed upon extending religious teachings to slaves. By proselytizing the slaves, clergymen, owners, and overseers not only acknowledged that slaves had souls; they set in motion a cultural process that recognized slaves as potentially practicing Christians. Though slaves . . .

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