So it’s me and a few of my friends down in Mississippi in this shack of a juke on a Sunday evening and we’re here to listen and watch the Negroes dance a little while and drink some moonshine and feel the real thing, y’all. Yes: the real thang. The folks I’ve come with are all certified white, A-1 white: Pat, a long-hair from Jackson; Peter, a paleface Rasta from somewhere in South Africa; and a silent peaceful-looking guy with a beard who blends into the scene like a melting ice cube, chilling softly. I don’t know his name, and he’s melting out my mind in the heat of this happy place.
I check the scene and then myself in my own black mirror wondering, “What you doing here with these whiteboys?” when a well-hipped well-spoken sister scheming for that surplus fitty moves past me at the bar and eyes my longhair friend in the face and says, “You here to observe black culture?” Which could have been directed at me and was, really, because my authenticity was on the line and You are only a guide, nigger, she was saying, like a renegade scout pointing the cavalry towards the secret camp where black culture is true. So the question put me outside gazing in, and suddenly I was just serving these boys like a salesman and I wasn’t real no more and hadn’t been for a long time. And yes, I had come to see the real black thang.
See, this was a blues juke and the people in it were blues people of the sort idealized in LeRoi Jones jazz history and in all kinds of quasi-Marxist quasi-nationalist pro-lumpen texts I’d read and felt. And guess what? The guide who’d brought us here wasn’t me — Peter from South Africa had told me about this place, and driven me here, and so I couldn’t even claim any special knowledge. This juke was not my secret black secret, or even the black secret of the black community — most African Americans I knew in town hadn’t ever heard of it. Most wouldn’t have come even if they had, I think. The evidence: older folks and especially older women spent Sundays at church, while people my age or younger listened to hip-hop, not blues, and danced and imitated the “real niggaz” from Compton at small, dangerous clubs nearby. In the juke’s dark corners there were no youth, and for a moment I thought that the black culture this woman was selling maybe wasn’t the “real” thing anymore.
I’ve got a friend named David who works in the local record store and he’s been telling me that N.W.A and the gangsta rappers have cornered this town’s young African market. Down here, traditional blues has lost Stagger Lee’s spirit to hip-hop’s real niggaz. The “real” niggaz, the new Bigger Thomases. David explains that folks do listen to other musics, but the essential music — the “real” thing — is the nihilist capitalist hardcore hip-hop rap shit. Forget those Native Tongue suburbanites or those PE-type righteous brothers, nah man, we want the real niggaz even when they’re fronting all that bitch shit because of this: in America, violence and making dollars make for respect and those motherfuckers are getting it. Plus, on the subtext tip, N.W.A and the rest fly impotence like a flag. For truth. Can you relate? We can. And if y’all middle-class Negroes find the niggaz embarrassing just because they’re dirty blackface caricatures from the fields encouraging the worst in us and making whitefolks think worse, y’all better peep this: the empty shelves in David’s store speak big volumes, and they say Bigger Thomas has come back from the big city and he’s real now and hard like an African man should be. It’s a case of competitive authenticities, and among the youth down here, Bigger’s beating the blues.
Which put me and my elusive blues essence in a seriously strange position. Because the folks in that juke were definitely Field and they were definitely not playing N.W.A on their stereos and they were definitely still the real thing. Certainly as real as the children at the dangerous clubs nearby. One brother must have checked the confusion on my face because he comes up to me with his eyes half-shut and his hand cupped around a beer and he starts asking me why I’m here, kind of nastylike. With his pale self. My friends are leaning against the walls. He cranes his face further into mine. I’m talking to him in my white English and he begins to wear his Ole Miss degree on his chest. I say I’m a writer and I came to see This. He says, What’s this? I say This. He says, What’s your name? and I tell. “Joe,” he says, “My mother always said to me ‘If you want to eat rice, don’t put sugar in it.’ so be careful how you write this place up, Joe.” And I promised I would and I looked him in the eye and he walked off jigging and saying, “These are just people here trying to have a good time. No sugar, Joe.” And no Stagger Lee.
But the blues was here, and so was the authentic culture the oldtime cult nats had celebrated, that soul of blackness thang and whatnot. I thought. I mean, there I was watching it, and feeling outside the thing, but seeing it, and knowing it was mine, and knowing it wasn’t, too. Like, I knew it was “real” — at least as real as the very real “real” beneath N.W.A.’s obscenities. But damn! I could not claim this blues juke as my “realness” because I was outside: I live outside it now. I live outside this subculture. Yes, y’all — this blues culture may be “real,” and even may be my subculture’s parent — but it’s not me anymore, and that’s all right. I’m still black. As those middle-class Jesus-loving King-following Negroes in town had proven long ago, cultural “authenticity” is too slippery to be the basis of anyone”s political identity.
The bottom line, then, got real plain: we need a clearly articulated theory of coalition — political, economic, and cultural coalition across biological, and class, and cultural lines — towards the liberation of African and other marginal peoples. Such a theory would be a new “black” objectivism, a grand theory that would include an expansive and progressive definition of “blackness,” one to describe African folk who choose “blackness,” as well as any fellow travelers. And so: while Coltrane and Professor Griff and Marian Anderson and N.W.A and Jean Toomer and BDP and Sojourner Truth and George Schuyler and Angela Davis and Michael Jackson, Bigger Thomas and Clarence Thomas and Uncle Thomas are all African American, they may not all be “‘black.” Brothers and sisters, if “Afrocentricity” is our new cultural hermeneutic, we also need (as Cornel West and others have been arguing) a broad (black) objectivism for political and material matters. To get past this “realness” thing, and into the real thing. Next go-round we’ll drop Clarence Thomas quickly, and with theoretical confidence. And we won’t confuse questions about Michael Jackson’s African authenticity with the nuts and bolts concern — his political loyalty, his “blackness.” And if MC Ren says, “I’m not with that black shit, so I ain’t gonna yell that,” we’ll take him at his word, and cut him loose. If “black” the term is to be of any use, it ought to mean something, and not any old African thing.
So there I was in that juke with my big city ambivalent middle-class butt and I had drunk a bit and my white friends were against the walls and I was romancing the blues essence that was and was not there and suddenly I stopped watching and I stopped drinking and I caught the colorless and melted ice cube guy with the beard dancing and I started dancing too.
Next: “What Price Unity” by Julius Lester
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2020