NEARLY A DECADE AGO, in the turbulent academic climate of the late 1960s, a band of bold and young historians led by Jessie Lemisch, Sterling Stuckey, John Blassingame and others urged the historical profession to shift attention in its research and writings away from top-level affairs - the political, economic and social leaders - to those powerless people throughout history who left little, if any, accessible material about their lives in print. In essence, they called for a vigorous examination of the thoughts, ideas, actions and lives of ordinary people; a history written methodologically from the "inside-out" or "bottom up." Lawrence Levine, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, responds to that request in his well-conceived and groundbreaking study Black Culture and Black Consciousness .
With varying degrees of success, this book attempts to grasp the meaning and significance of the role of culture in the shaping of the world view of average, ordinary, rank and file, and historically overlooked and misunderstood black people. Covering the Afro-American experience from slavery to the 20th century through an exhaustive investigation of black songs, folk tales, proverbs, aphorisms, jokes, verbal games and the long narrative oral poems known as "toasts," Levine presents a tightly woven and cogently argued thesis that says the value system of Afro-Americans can only be understood through an analysis of black culture, and that black culture has been and continues to be a survival mechanism responding to the condition of black people in this country.
Levine begins with a discussion of the religious aspects of slave life as demonstrated and expressed through slave songs, and then moves into interpretations of slave tales. Slave songs have long been seen as clear and polished mirrors for reflecting insights into the slave community and, as the author shows, an analysis of their lyrics "offers an insight into the kinds of barriers the slaves had available to them against the internalization of the stereotyped images their masters held and attempted consciously and unconsciously to foist upon them." In other words, slave songs indicate the extent to which slaves were able to envision and express alternatives to their miserable plight. Much the same, slave tales give insight into the slaves' value system, consistently placing virtue on the skills of trickery and deception as survival tactics among the "chattel property." Weaker animals always managed to conoct ingenious schemes which resulted in the outwitting and humiliation of the stronger animals. Survival tactics or schemes of resistance as evidenced repeatedly in the themes of the songs and tales therefore must have ranked high in the ethos of the slave. Other scholars have made this point, but few as convictingly as Levine.
With the ending of slavery subtle but important changes took place in black culture. The Afro-American population became increasingly heterogeneous, but not enough, Levine argues, to alter radically the basic value system which possessed roots running deep into the African past. Acculturation with the larger society as symbolized by developments in languages, religion and secular song marked not only the emergence of something new but the revitalization of something old. The rapid rise and popularity of the secular song in the post-emancipation period, for instance, and an analysis of its content shows that this vernacular served as a vehicle for Afro-Americans - stills hostages of a restrictive and hostile environment - to express their innermost feelings, customs, beliefs, and traditions in much the same way the spiritual and work song provided release for the slave. Blues, for example, a brand of secular music, owed much of its phenomenal success among the downtrodden and the depressed in the early 20th century to the clever manner in which its lyrics discussed the male-female relationship, financial hardship, disaster, and the life of the oppressed with a realism, candor, freedom, and flesh and blood dimension absent and forbidden in larger society.
Perhaps the most original and innovative secions of the books are those that deal with the essence and significance of black laugher and humor, and with hero images among the masses of Afro-Americans. Relying heavily on Freud, Levine reasons that the extraordinary proclivity to humor of black people, often in the most trying of circumsatnces, is actually disguised aggression, "liberating feelings which normally had to be contained."
Quite often the humor dealt with by Levine says a lot about the harsh realization of being black in a hostile white environment. One story offered by Levine to drive this point home is about a black man who asked the Lord why He had given the Negro such dark skin, nappy hair and long legs. The Lord answered each question saying that black skin was to protect against the African sun, nappy hair to cushion the skull against things falling from the trees, and long legs to make jumping over the African bush easier. "O.K. Lord, I dig all that, but answer me one more thing," the black man responds. "What in the (expletive deleted) am I doing in Baltimore?"
Black heroes among the masses were those blacks both real and fictious who challenged the outer perimeters of expected behavior, and the cast runs from John Henry and Nat Turner to Jack Johnson to Staggerlee. These were hard heroes, men of importantly, men whose reputations and popularity in the black community far exceeded those of white-recognized black leaders. The exploits and meanings of these heroes are fully explored in this study.
Black Culture and Black Consciousness , is a thoughtfully organized, smooth reading, well researched study that ranks among the best books written on the Afro-American experience in recent years.