May 2, 2005
Equality remains elusive, says cultural critic
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.
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 cant 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 doesnt
mean weve achieved our goals of justice and equality.
Among the cultural moves Gray explores in the book
How Wynton Marsalis and his creation of a jazz canon
at Lincoln Center increased the cultural visibility and legitimacy
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 nations cultural imagination.
Weve 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
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 whats left out.
For every cultural move, theres 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,
The programs are incapable of emulating some of the rhythmic
and spatial requirements that define African American music,
said Gray. Lewiss 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 doesnt 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 theyre still dropping bombs on people.
Email this story
Return to Front Page