This post originally appeared on Futuristically Ancient
Modern Griots Interviews: Louis Chude-Sokei [Editor-in-Chief for TBS]
Last year, I introduced to you all to the upcoming release of Louis Chude-Sokei’s The Sound of Culture. Well, the book is finally here and I had the privilege to interview Louis about his book and his research. Louis is a truth-speaker and an illusion-breaker who is not afraid to challenge and enlighten us on preconceived notions about our identities and histories. That is what I enjoy about this is exploring and presenting the numerous looks into our past that help us to understand and weave together our current time and move us forward! Enjoy Part 1 of Louis’ interview today and part 2 on Wednesday!
“…I also began to think through theories of masquerade and carnival as a way of apprehending the productive instability of so-called “blackness” and to subject American racial thinking to a more diasporic lens…”
1) How did you get started in your research? What led you to your interest in studying minstrelsy and its links to race, performance/masquerade, history, music and technology?
As a writer and scholar, one is always surrounded by or immersed in one’s interests and ideas as well as those of others. Research is an ongoing state of being, and that’s a great privilege as well as accomplishment. With the topic of minstrelsy, I came to it accidentally while focusing on black immigrants in America during the period critics call “modernism.” For black Americans, this is the “Harlem Renaissance.” I’d always known that Caribbean blacks played a significant role in that movement and in the birth of pan-Africanism, but their roles were often tempered as they were historicized as “black,” which is to say African American.
In exploring the process by which “blackness” can erase cultural distinctions (often in the name of solidarity) and establish its own hierarchies, I began to hear calypso differently (seeing its participation in the Harlems Renaissance alongside jazz and blues); I began reading Claude McKay, Eric Walrond and Eulalie Spence differently (as black immigrants struggling with racism as well as an American form of blackness that sometimes had little room for divergence and diversity). Additionally, I began to focus on what we tend not to focus on: how blacks see, represent and relate to other types of blacks—a topic that I think is sorely under-theorized and is in fact feared and avoided.
It was after erecting the theoretical architecture of this black on black cross-cultural dynamic that I “discovered” Bert Williams, the black minstrel superstar that arguably helped make the Harlem Renaissance possible, had helped start the black recording industry, had integrated Broadway, had become the first black movie star, and had achieved all that via the blackface mask.
Bert Williams was a black immigrant, a Caribbean person who “played” a racist stereotype and attempted to humanize it and change its racist meanings from behind the mask. It blew me away to discover in his writings that he’d seen that stereotype as specifically being of African-Americans, not Caribbean blacks and certainly not of himself. Through that I began to think about the way race is performed by and amongst different types of blacks as they interact with each other, particularly in America. I also began to think through theories of masquerade and carnival as a way of apprehending the productive instability of so-called “blackness” and to subject American racial thinking to a more diasporic lens.
The new book, The Sound of Culture, isn’t about blackface, however. But since minstrelsy is at the heart of the technologization of race via film and recording, as well as central to the performance of identity in a hierarchical society, it is as inescapable as our futile attempts to escape it.
“…Avoiding trauma or historical complexity is not my strong suit. I’m not sympathetic to those who wish to maintain fantasies of racial innocence and fragility…”
2) What was the process like and your favorite part about putting together the book, Sound of Culture? Do you have a favorite essay?
The book can be traced back to a series of essays I’ve published over the last 20 years about reggae, hip hop, and DJ-culture as products of black on black cross cultural interaction, immigration and new modes of technological engagement in the wake of pan-Africanism and black nationalism. It also includes work I’ve done on African Internet crime, minstrelsy and phonography, and the increasing science-fiction-ality of global black popular culture. This began when I was a DJ/musician and a SF-head way before Afrofuturism became a “thing,” so I found myself working in parallel with that movement.
The process was easy in that I just returned to the essays (which can easily be found but will be collected in one volume next year), and decided to write a broader historical and theoretical narrative around them — one that would make them conceivable even though they were written first (kind of like Michael Thelwell’s attempt to write the novel The Harder They Come as if it could have been the source of the film had the book appeared first). The best part was listening to the sounds that feature in the book and inspired it: jazz and dub, primarily, and tracing the literature and thinking around them, from slavery to cybernetics.
I can’t identify a favorite chapter since they are all so different and cover so much ground: but I particularly love the end of the introduction where I discuss the dub album by The Mad Professor called “A Caribbean Taste of Technology.”
3) What is your response to those who react strongly against blackface and minstrelsy, who might be turned off from studying it?
I’ve definitely had to suffer the brunt of having not only written a black book on minstrelsy (or a black book about black minstrelsy), but for suggesting that it’s necessary to return to blackface to make sense of our current moment as well as our future. Not everyone has been happy about that, or about the resurgence of interest it helped generate. Avoiding trauma or historical complexity is not my strong suit. I’m not sympathetic to those who wish to maintain fantasies of racial innocence and fragility. We owe it to those who made unimaginable choices in the past to study the nature and impact of those choices: without their compromises we wouldn’t have the luxury of complaint. That’s what I would say if I were moved to say anything at all.
But minstrelsy’s importance is due to its capacity to hurt, and therefore speaks for itself. It is literally at the core of American popular culture and its cross-racial, cross-sexual and immigrant traditions. It was the ground from which the first professional black performing artists grew as well as the science and art of recording sound; and due to the fact of its profound influence in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, Mexico and Latin America (where it is still very much alive), it’s central to other popular cultures as well.
It’s also crucial to know that exclusively negative assessments of blackface didn’t begin until the 1960s, and so much of our hostility is produced less by knowledge of it but instead by shifts in black cultural politics, which themselves need to be understood and critiqued. It was never always assessed as a negative phenomenon, especially given the fact that many blacks that put on the mask did it for quite activist and racially assertive reasons.
…To be continued.
Watch the trailer for the book and buy yourself a copy here!