Academic journal article MELUS

"This Sweet / Sweet Music": Jazz, Sam Cooke, and Reading Arab American Literary Identities

Academic journal article MELUS

"This Sweet / Sweet Music": Jazz, Sam Cooke, and Reading Arab American Literary Identities

Article excerpt

"Not Black. Not white. Never quite fitting in. Always on the edge"--Joanna Kadi, Food for Our Grandmothers (xvi)

Arabs in the United States fit uneasily into a racial schema that identifies individuals and groups as either "black" or "white." The many studies on Arab American ethnicity and racial formation show that historically Arab Americans were first considered "not white," then "not quite white," then later legally "became white." This study explores the vexed notion of Arab American "whiteness" or "in-betweenness," beginning with the question: How do three literary texts by Arab Americans engage with "blackness"? Here, I propose that reversing the terms of how race is read in relation to Arab Americans can lead to a better understanding of how Arab American authors claim and identify with "blackness" in their texts to expose and negotiate US racial hierarchies. This is important, I suggest, not only because they reformulate the positioning of Arab Americans within US racial hierarchies, but also as a contribution to rethinking these hierarchies, and the privileges and inequalities linked to them.

This article argues that Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz, Etel Adnan's "Beirut Hell Express," and Suheir Hammad's "daddy's song" use a strategy of identity building as Arabs/Arab Americans which affiliates and aligns the authors with African Americans. I argue that they do this by employing specific symbols in their texts that represent black America. Specifically, I demonstrate how all three texts invoke African American music as a metonym for black America and propose that this is a location for potential solidarity in the construction of Arab American identities. Arabian Jazz and "Beirut Hell Express" understand jazz as black and invoke this symbolically; "daddy's song" draws upon the African American musical icon Sam Cooke in a similar way.

Before moving on to the detailed analyses of these three texts, I will first provide a background to the history and context of Arab American racialization, relying on the insights of critical race theory and recent studies of Arab America specifically related to race. Next, I briefly outline some of the ways in which various groups--white, non-white, and not-quite-white--have staked their identity claims in relation to African Americans, and specifically to African American music. This background to the complexities of the relationships between Arab Americans and African Americans in the United States provides a lens through which to read the invocations of black music in "Beirut Hell Express," Arabian Jazz, and "daddy's song."

Arab American Racialization in the United States

The artistic and creative connections drawn in these literary texts between Arab Americans and African Americans must be understood in the context of the complex relationships between these groups; central to this relationship is the racialization of Arab Americans within the United States. (1) Being marked as different, alien, and generally understood as non-white or outside the mainstream in the United States has prompted many Arab Americans to seek out and build links to other groups of color, including African Americans. Such shared oppression has also led to shared action around many of the issues important to racialized groups in the United States. Long before September 11, 2001, issues on which Arab Americans expressed common ground with African Americans and other people of color have included: racial profiling; detention and murder for political organizing or even for the suspicion of political organizing; and the lynching of Arab Americans in the US South. (2) Political organizing is one of the primary locations for these solidarities (Saliba 309-11; Samhan "Politics" 11-28), but it is not merely in political terms that such solidarities have been articulated. As this article and others show, like other racialized groups in the US, Arab Americans have expressed their identification with African American arts, literature, and creative production more generally (Majaj, "Arab American Ethnicity" 323). …

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