Race, Art, and Essentialism

George Packer in The New Yorker:

Packer-Race-Art-and-Essentialism-1189“You know what?” the novelist Rick Moody began hisSunday Times review of the novelist James McBride’s new book about James Brown, “Kill ’Em and Leave.” What thought compelled Moody to snag his reader’s attention with the print equivalent of a blind-side shove? This: “It’s an undeniable truth that when African-American writers write about African-American musicians, there are penetrating insights and varieties of context that are otherwise lost to the nonblack music aficionados of the world, no matter how broad the appeal of the musician under scrutiny.” By virtue of being black, Moody goes on, Stanley Crouch could plumb the depths of jazz and Nelson George could limn the contours of funk and soul more completely and knowledgeably than the most sensitive, music-literate, passionately enthusiastic white critic. Not only is this “undeniable,” it’s also, as Moody sees it, a really good thing: “This contemporary tendency in which black writers lay claim to the discourse of black music—this increasing tendency—is a much needed development for anyone who cares about modern music.” I read the rest of the review, because I’m interested in James McBride and his work, but I never got over that lede. Moody’s point—there’s no other way to read it—is that race endows writers and critics with an extra dose of perceptual acumen. We hear James Brown with our ears, our heart, our imagination, our muscles, but also with the color of our skin, and there are essential qualities in James Brown’s music (Moody never says what they are) that a listener who is not black like Brown simply can’t pick up.

In Moody’s defense, one might say—this is the best one can say—that we respond to music, as to all art, out of our own experience, and that, in America, racial identity is experience.

More here.