In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James asks why slave masters routinely tortured and injured their slaves, that is, why did they deliberately harm their own property? James reminds us that slave masters did so because no matter how much they degraded their possessions, the black people bearing the torture nonetheless retained the full measure of their humanity, with all of the dignity and resistance that went along with it. Slave masters beat and maimed their slaves in order to protect themselves. They sought through their daily violence to subdue the rebellious spirit of people in chains. Slave masters regularly whipped slaves for minor infractions and poured salt, alcohol, and hot ashes in the bleeding wounds. They poured burning wax over their bodies, poured boiling sugar cane on them, set them on fire, and roasted them over slow fires. They filled them with gunpowder and blew them up. They buried them in the ground and covered their heads with sugar or honey so that ants and flies would eat the flesh off their faces. They made them eat excrement or drink urine. Many of these tortures were common enough to have names: blowing up a slave was called “to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger.” And of course they forced them to work for the benefit of the master, forced them to have children to increase the master’s property, and forced them to try to accept their inferiority.
After the long history of torture and degradation that accompanied slavery and after emancipation, black people were kept in the margins of society through the continuation of racial terror. White mobs routinely tortured and killed black people for questioning white supremacy. Black people were denied their basic rights—the right to educate their children, the right to choose where they should live, the right to be paid fairly for their work, the right to move freely within society without fear of being abused, the right to be treated with human decency. The continuing disinvestment in black communities, the continuing criminalization of blackness, the continuing devaluing of black life are all part of a systemic problem that continues to push African-Americans to the periphery of American society.
Something that we may recognize as black culture emerged out of and to make sense of these social realities. By black culture I mean more than the literature, art, or music made by black artists that has played such a key role in the development of American culture in the last four centuries. I mean more than the styles, postures, and sensibilities created in black milieus that have transformed American popular culture. I mean everything, including the distinctive vernaculars associated with African-American people. Everything, including how black people talk, is related to their coping with and sometimes even flourishing under the burden of white racial terror. White racial terror.
And so when I hear a wonderfully catchy song like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” I feel conflicted. The song is bubbly and happy, harmonic and rhythmic, playful and positive. Only a snob or a monster wouldn't like that song. But the song not only depends on the musical genres developed in the Black Atlantic, Trainor’s voice itself is inflected by black patterns of speech. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s a free country, as they say. But it does gall more than a little that the people that benefit today from the history of racial terror get to mimic the voices of the victims of that terror. White people can sound “black” if they want, no one can tell them otherwise. But they do so fully aware that they don’t have to bear the burden or the consequences of black history.
Cross-posted with Pop Erratic.