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Black Culture

In response to:

A Special Supplement: American Slaves and Their History from the December 3, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

I read Gene Genovese’s article on the history of the slave [“American Slaves and Their History”] in the December 3rd issue. You people—editors, that is—have got to be kidding. Cecil who? And four lives in what business? Come on, now—would three in 100 of your readers know Cecil Taylor (“the great black pianist”) if he fell on them? (Ditto for A.B. Spellman, so far as that goes.) And if there are, perchance, a handful of readers who may even have heard Cecil—and not just heard about him—you can bet they didn’t learn of his existence in your pages. Why Ned Rorem loves the Beatles is, one surmises, suitable fare for readers of the NYR; but why virtually every major white composer in this country during this century has “loved” the music of Black America even to the point of silent appropriation—on that topic the Review maintains a discreet, but certainly consistent, silence.

Which brings me, finally, to my point. It is not only that Black America has an indigenous culture of its own to claim, as Genovese has latterly discovered; it is that Black culture is so much more powerful—so much “heavier,” if you want it in the vernacular—than that which the majority has to offer that generations of white artists from Stephen Foster and Dan Rice to the Beatles have drawn upon it as their source of inspiration. So if one is going to go about setting the record straight, as Genovese now (to his credit) strives to do, one has to do more than concede that Black people were not totally depersonalized by slavery. One must also focus on and articulate the fact that Black culture was in many if not most cases so magnetic that it quietly but steadily subverted what was supposed to be the dominant culture (almost exclusively to the economic and status benefit of white popularizers such as Jolson, Goodman, Whiteman, and so on, of course).

A good way to begin would be by taking some cognizance of the existence of contemporary Black culture; yes, the spirituals certainly are marvelous, but what about the fact that one can hear nothing but warmed-over Charlie Parker licks from all-white studio bands on those late-night television shows, while Parker himself died at the age of 35, penniless and with a chronic heroin habit? Do you suppose, for instance, that now that A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives has been reissued in paper, it would be too much to ask that you review it the second time around? Or do we have to wait another century before The New York Review begins to deal with the reality of twentieth-century Black culture and its impact on white America?

Frank Kofsky

Department of History

Sacramento State College

Sacramento, California

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