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May 2, 2005

Equality remains elusive, says cultural critic Herman Gray


By Jennifer McNulty

Over the past decade, African Americans have become more visible on the cultural landscape of the United States: Jazz trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; African Americans are widely seen on network television; and African Americans represent the nation at the highest levels of power.

Book cover

In the new book Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), author Herman Gray explores the impact of such inroads on U.S. culture, examining these achievements in relation to persistent gaps in the struggle for greater social justice and equality.

“I want my multiracial 6-year-old grandson to be able to turn on the television and see other people of color, but we can’t stop there,” said Gray, a professor of sociology and chair of the department at UCSC. “Just because television does a better job now of representing our diversity doesn’t mean we’ve achieved our goals of justice and equality.”

Among the “cultural moves” Gray explores in the book are:

• How Wynton Marsalis and his creation of a jazz canon at Lincoln Center increased the cultural visibility and legitimacy of jazz.

• How shifting ground undermines the struggle for racial equality: years of activism increased the representation of African Americans on network television, only to have conservatives use the milestone to claim that racism and inequality are problems of the past.

• How black musicians Steve Coleman, George Lewis, and Pamela Z use new technology to shape and extend black musical traditions and cultural identities.

In Cultural Moves, Gray examines the impact of culture on political change and explores how black popular culture has shaped the nation’s cultural imagination.

“We’ve witnessed cultural moves used by African Americans to consolidate a sense of power, of belonging and representation. Wynton Marsalis embodies African American accomplishment in jazz,” said Gray. “But Marsalis also has a powerful sense of himself as an African American person. His visibility has helped place African Americans at the center of national identity.”

At the same time, notes Gray, other jazz musicians remain invisible, including those in the ”jazz left,” such as saxophonist Steve Coleman, who brings what Gray called a “diasporic approach” to his music, blending hip-hop and be-bop, and traveling to Africa and Cuba to incorporate those musical influences.

“The price to pay for arrival is what’s left out. For every cultural move, there’s a countermove,” Gray added wryly. “Marsalis is at the center of publicity and promotion. Coleman, too, wants to get African American music ensconced in the American national imagination, but he went a different route. He travels, and he goes to community centers, where he teaches and creates community connections.”

Gray also trains his critical eye on information technology, going beyond issues of competence and access to document how African American creative artists are using technology in their work and to explore the “racial logic” inherent in new information technologies.

Lewis, a trombonist who also composes on computers, found that some of the programming software he used in composing was unable to mimic in real time some fundamental elements of the African American musical form, including syncopation, collective improvisation, and call-and-response.

“The programs are incapable of emulating some of the rhythmic and spatial requirements that define African American music,” said Gray. “Lewis’s work reveals how the logic of computer programming is already structured in a ‘racial logic,’ in turn challenging the idea that new information technologies are neutral.”

Gray points out the limits of a civil-rights strategy based on inclusion and representation. “In a global logic that celebrates rather than represses differences of all kinds, what does it mean to petition for greater visibility when the racial landscape has shifted?” asks Gray.

“Network television is like Lincoln Center: It is useful as an aspiration--to a point. More doesn’t guarantee you justice, it just guarantees you more. It is not necessarily a gain to have African Americans as secretary of state or national security adviser if they’re still dropping bombs on people.”

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