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  • Andrew Field

Art and Ethnocentrism


Louis Armstrong


What is the relationship between art and ethnocentrism? I was thinking about this question today after listening to Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," from We Have All the Time in the World. And as I was listening to Armstrong's solo, it almost felt as if each note he played was a word, and that, as he played them, he was thinking outloud through notes, and therefore, through feeling, though his feeling was so strong that each note was a poem, a world, and a kind of country onto itself. Armstrong sometimes seems, like a Robert Frost or Walt Whitman, a kind of avuncular figure in the popular American imagination, and this inevitably covers up the enormous amounts of anger and resistance Armstrong, like Frost or Whitman, had to overcome in order to learn how to play, and become, and write and play a song like "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," as well as sing it.


I don't think we often realize this - the unimaginable amount of pressure on a Louis Armstrong, a Sam Cooke, from the white world and, it should be said, also from the Black world as well. Philip Roth was a self-hating Jew; Jay Wright, to some, is probably not Black enough; and I'm sure Louis Armstrong and Sam Cooke faced similar criticisms from various angles, just as Bob Dylan did. I have never been able to stand prescriptive people, people who want to fit others into the box of their own selves, rather than appreciating who a person is as a separate person, and I tend to think the same people accusing Louis Armstrong of being too white, or Jay Wright of being too white, or Philip Roth of being a self-hating Jew (a version of being too waspish or too white, in a sense), or Dylan of not being "folk enough," or "crazy" during his Christian phase - these are all projections of people that say more about them than the artists "in question," as if these artists have any obligation to their audience other than being true to their vision. You write for an audience, but the audience comes second to the needs of the artist. The other is in the self, so it's kind of the same thing, but sometimes the other has not grown up (think of racists, or misogynists, or just tepid banal people), and that's when people start to get prescriptive and actually crazy.


As I listened to and thought about the Armstrong song, I started to realize that music, like visual art, because both are sensuous artforms, are in some sense more direct experiences than the verbal arts like novels, poems, plays, and short stories. Language is feeling that travels upwards, say, into concepts or categories, something like that, and then into abstract forms like words and their meanings, but color, shape, sound, music, those are more elemental things, primordial, and they appeal to aspects of our lives, our morphologies, that seem to push past some of our evolutionary baggage and go straight to the centers of our hearts and minds with a visceral assault. If you stand in front of a Kerry James Marshall, you learn more about Black life, Black community, Black traditions, than you do from reading another think-piece about Will Smith and Chris Rock. If you listen to Charlie Parker, or Bud Powell, and learn how to listen to jazz, to appreciate it, to recognize what it has contributed to American culture, and how every single genre of American music, it seems, comes from Black culture, than we might grow a more sophisticated take, not just on culture, but on people, and therefore on the narrowness of our views about race, or whiteness, or Blackness, or even, dare I say it, "America."


America is not one thing. It is not an abstraction. It is something like a relationship, and it needs tending and mending in order for it to go on living as something we all believe in. To tend, to mend, means going out of our comfort zones, and imagining how others see us. We say things like "our country," but who does that "our" compose?


I don't think we can say "our" in an expansive way if we don't have a sense of where we come from. When we have no sense of history or culture, we do not have a solid center, and then we flail about more, and make judgments, because of insecurity. And oftentimes those judged are Black people, because white people refuse to take the time to visit Black businesses, or read books by Black authors, or listen to Black musicians or artists or music. And this refusal to go out of one's comfort zone leads to actual harm, to kids like Tamir Rice being murdered - murdered - because a white cop couldn't pause and look at his own unconscious assumptions. It seems preposterous to me that, to this day, people do not seem to want to acknowledge the actual reality of racism in this country. Talking heads like Ben Shapiro natter on and on about these things, but nothing is actually said, and no healing takes place, and people live more angry. It is one thing to be provocative in a helpful way, it is another to be in a not helpful way. The point is to help others feel seen. A Ben Shapiro does not do this; or, he helps his cadre of Conservatives feel seen, but this only exacerbates the problem. We should be ethnocentric in order to reach across the aisle, like Louis Armstrong, rather than ethnocentric in order to hide behind the aisle.



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