Original mutts, owing little to Africa

June 03, 1996|By Stanley Crouch

NEW YORK -- It has come to my attention that certain people are disturbed by my use of the word ''Negro'' rather than the contemporary mouthful ''African-American.'' I don't care, but some have urged me to explain myself. My reasons are both simple and complex.

I believe that the whole obsession with Africa is overdone and simple-minded. The Negro, as some contemporary scholars from Africa point out, has created a distinctly original and internationally influential modernism that is unrivaled by that of any other black, brown or beige people on this Earth.

No, I don't believe that Negro Americans are innately superior to Africans -- or anybody else. I am not talking about genetics. As Nelson Mandela proves, Africans at their finest are as fine as any people in human history.

Middle Ages

I am talking about a people who have been in this country so long that they grew up with the Industrial Revolution, just as the nation did. While Africans were still living in the Middle Ages -- if even that close to what was going on in the modern world -- Negro Americans were having an influence on this country's sense of democratic fairness. And they were equally influenced by the ideas about individual freedom that evolved out of the technology of increasingly precise engineering.

Negro Americans produced major figures across politics, education, technology, medicine, the military and the arts. The substance of their contributions is indelible. It includes, through organizations like TransAfrica, a substantial influence on the release of Mr. Mandela from prison. All of that is Negro and American, not African.

The rising wave of '60s black nationalism eventually became Black Power, which spurned the integrationist goals of the civil-rights movement in favor of an exaggerated identification with Africa, Third World revolution and hostility toward Western culture.

While black nationalism unarguably helped many get out from under negative feelings about their dark skin, their hair, their broad noses and their large lips, the rest of it was a Balkanizing blunder our nation has not completely recovered from.

I went down that path -- read many books on African history, art, religion and so on. But I eventually recognized through the work of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray that we were many things and had been so in many places of this nation, while we were Africans in America for only a short period.

Cosmopolitan blood

Our bloodlines soon become cosmopolitan, a fusion of African, European, Indian and sometimes Asian stock. We are, essentially, mutts -- not inferior mutts, but, given the record, often championship mutts. That's plenty.

When I listen to Scott Joplin's ragtime and realize it was probably the first urban American music, the first bright and optimistic picture of the city, I don't hear anything African in that sound. That's primarily because traditional African music is not about urbanity -- railroads, bridges, skylines and all the other things that we mean by urban.

When I read Frederick Douglass, I don't see any ideas that resemble the traditional African vision of society, which is far from democratic.

Mutt music

Although there are surely African elements in the blues and jazz, both are mutt musics that bring those elements together with the Western harmonic heritage that goes back to Bach.

And all great Negro athletes play games that were invented by white people, just as they invented the instruments jazz musicians use.

In short, prior to the international impact of Nelson Mandela's appropriation of Western democratic ideals, the most important thing Africans did for the world over the last 500 years was sell the black side of our ancestry into American slavery. Slavery was the harsh crucible of dues we paid to become Americans.

Over and over, often against ruthless resistance, Negroes have proved out the democratic ideal, which is that greatness can come from anywhere on the social scale.

That's what I'm talking about when I use that word, and it's good enough for me, no matter how far we still have to go.

Stanley Crouch is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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