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Musical Influences on Black Writing

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Music serves as a backdrop for black writing and informs character interactions, novel settings, reader responses to novels, short stories, and poetry. For instance, consider James Weldon Johnson’s the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and how issues of black identity were related to ragtime.

In his novel, music takes center stage as the events unfold throughout the novel and the story’s protagonist comes to a greater awareness of his identity. The unnamed narrator is a child musical prodigy that excels in his piano playing abilities.

While he loves and identifies more readily with the musical form ragtime, he shuns the musical genre since it is viewed by many white people of high society as a low art form. In order to achieve higher levels of social status and freedom, the Ex-Colored man disavows his black racial identity and love of ragtime and assumes a white persona.

After shunning ragtime, he submerses himself in classical music. His actions also demonstrate how his decision to pass as a white man was influenced by the many hardships placed on African Americans and the low social respectability they received in society.

Gayl Jones’s novel Corregidora (1975) is told from the perspective of the blues-songstress Ursa; the influence of church sermons and gospel music resonate in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and traces of black music are apparent in Toni Morrison’s Jazz.

The aforementioned novels provide evidence concerning the importance of music for black writers and its significance to the larger field of African American literature. Over the next two weeks, the blog will feature posts on the presence of black music in African American literature and artistic culture in general.