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Blues People
Blues People (Negro Music in White America) is a seminal study of Afro-American music (and culture generally) by Amiri Baraka, who published it as LeRoi Jones
in 1963.[1] In Blues People Baraka explores the possibility that the history of black Americans can be traced
through the evolution of their music. It is considered a
classic work on jazz and blues music in American culture. This book documents the effects jazz and blues
had on America on an economic, musical, and social
level. It chronicles the types of music dating back to the
slaves up until the 1960s. Blues People argues that “negro
music”—as Amiri Baraka calls it—appealed to and influenced new America. According to Baraka, music and
melody is not the only way the gap between American
culture and African-American culture was bridged. Music also helped spread values and customs through its media exposure. Blues People demonstrates the influence of
African Americans and their culture on American culture
and history. The book examines blues music as performance, as cultural expression, even in the face of its commodification. To Baraka, Blues People represented “everything [he] had carried for years, what [he] had to say,
and [himself] extquotedbl. The book is deeply personal
and chronicles what brought him to believe that blues was
a personal history of his people in the United States. The
resonance and desperation within this type of music is
what compelled Baraka to learn about the history of blues
music. He learned through his studies that the “Africanisms” is directly related to American culture, rather than
being solely related to Black people. Baraka dedicates
the book to my parents ... the first Negroes I ever met.
1
The original text is divided into twelve sections, thus:
1.1 The Negro as Non-American: Some
Backgrounds
Baraka opens his book by arguing that the Africans suffered in America not only because they were slaves, but
because American customs were completely foreign to
them. Baraka argues that slavery itself was not unnatural
or alien to the African people as slavery had long before
existed in the tribes of West Africa. Some forms of West
African slavery even resembled the plantation system that
was to be found in America. Baraka then discusses a brief
history of slavery, inside and outside of the United States.
He argues that unlike the slaves of Babylon, Israel, Assyria, Rome, and Greece, American slaves were not even
considered human.
Baraka then further addresses his previous assertion that
African slaves suffered in the New World because of
the alien environment around them. For example, the
language and dialect of colonial English had no resemblance to the African dialects. However the biggest difference, that set the African people aside, was the difference in skin color. Even if the African slaves were freed,
they would always remain apart, and be seen as ex-slaves
rather than as freed individuals. Colonial America was in
essence, an alien land in which the African people could
not assimilate due to the difference in culture and because
they were seen as less than human.
The horrors of slavery can be broken down into the different ways in which violence was done against African people. In this section Baraka contends that one of the reasons the Negro people had, and continue to have, a sorrowful experience in America is because of the violently
different ideologies held by them and their captors. He
transitions from highlighting the economic intentions of
western religion and war to pointing out how the very opposite life views of the West African can be construed as
primitive because of the high contrast. He addresses the
violence done against the cultural attitudes of Africans
Content
The 1999 reprint begins with a reminiscence by the author, then aged 65, titled extquotedblBlues People: Looking Both Ways”, in which he credits poet and English
teacher Sterling Brown with having inspired both him and
his contemporary A. B. Spellman. Baraka does not here
discuss the impact his book has had.
1
2
brought to this country to be enslaved. He references the
rationale used by western society to justify its position
of intellectual supremacy. Western ideologies are often
formed around a heightened concept of self; it is based
on a belief that the ultimate happiness of mankind is the
sole purpose of the universe. These beliefs are in direct
opposition to those of the Africans originally brought to
this country, for whom the purpose of life was to appease
the Gods and live out a predetermined fate.
Baraka stresses a point made by Melville Herskovits, the
anthropologist responsible for establishing African and
African-American studies in academia, which suggests
that value is relative or that “reference determines value”.
Although Baraka is not justifying the white supremacist
views of the West, he does create a space to better understand the belief that one can be more evolved than a
people from whom one differs very much. Likewise the
author does not name the African system of belief in supernatural predetermination as better but speaks of how
an awful violence is done against these people ideologically, by forcing them into a world that believes itself to
be the sole judge of the ways in which proper existence
must occur.
1.2 The Negro as Property
In chapter 2, “The Negro as Property”, Baraka focuses
on the journey from the African to the African American. He breaks down the process of the African’s acculturation to show its complex form. Baraka begins with
the initial introduction to life in America. He compares
the African’s immigrant experience to that of the Italian and Irish. He says the Italian and Irish came “from
their ghetto existences into the promise and respectability of this brave New World” (12). Africans on the other
hand, came to this new world against their will. There
was no promise or respectability in America for them,
only force and abrupt change, and this defines the evolution of African-American culture.
After emancipation in 1863, the former slaves are being included in society. Baraka explains, these former
slaves are no longer Africans. They are people of African
descent who have, for generations, adapted to American
culture. Their arrival and assimilation are most importantly not by choice. After being forcefully brought to
America, the following generations are raised in a system
that ostracizes any trace of African culture. Children are
immediately separated from their slave mothers at birth.
1
CONTENT
They only learn stories and songs about Africa but lack
the experience. Baraka states, “the only way of life these
children knew was the accursed thing they had been born
into” (13). He shows that slavery is the most influential factor in African-American culture. He goes on to
include the living conditions of slavery as an additional