Amiri Baraka, formerly known as Leroy Jones, has put together one of the most revealing explorations through the history of American culture ever compiled in book form. On the surface, Blues People is an analysis of Black music. But if you are willing to dig deeper into the mind of Baraka’s Blues People, you will begin to understand how a people’s culture closely mimics the mood of their music.
Music was the African’s first method of establishing an identity in America and blues is the genre of music Africans created to forge an identity as free men and women. Baraka describes the African’s development of blues by associating the music lyrics of the blues songs of the time to the social atmosphere caused by race relations at the turn of the 20 century.
Blues People cleverly compares the transformation from blues to jazz and bebop to the African’s transformation from African to American Negro. Baraka does this by exploring the division in the Black community that was exploited through the “field nigga”, “house nigga” relationship and the “dark skin”, “light skin” mentality that developed as a result.
This relationship is reflected in music by the idea of blues and its offspring bebop being perceived as authentically Black, while the various other bastard offspring of blues such as jazz and swing being perceived as cross over. This is the result of bebop’s development from elements of Black culture that embraced their Blackness, while jazz and swing evolved from elements of Black culture that moved mainstream, attracting White Americans who soon adopted and performed the music for themselves.
Subsequently, Baraka feels that when Black people allow their music to be co-opted by mainstream culture, their music becomes shallow and uncreative.
Furthermore, he argues that those Blacks who shun their Blackness in order to assimilate into mainstream society live a life without purpose just as the music produced by such people has provided little value to Black culture.
Through each stage of social change for Blacks in America; African to American slave, American slave to American Negro, American Negro to citizen, Baraka not only takes the reader on a journey through the history of Black music, but details the “knowledge of self” that defines the African in America.
In short, this book is yet another book I will have to add to my must read list. Blues People is remarkably insightful, as well as mentally engaging. This book is jam packed with the history that defines the Black experience in America. Amiri Baraka is absolutely profound, and I will end with one of the most profound statements he makes in Blues People:
To understand that you are Black in a society where Black is an extreme liability is one thing, but to understand that it is the society that is lacking and is impossibly deformed because of this lack, and not yourself, isolates you even more from that society.