Vernacular Culture and Belonging

April 29, 2019 John Drabinski

Neil Roberts hosted a fantastic symposium on April 13th, putting together an eclectic group of political theory oriented folks to discuss the theme “Democracy Between Past and Future.” It was a great meeting and I gave this short talk titled “Vernacular Culture and the Problem of Belonging.”

It’s a short work, but draws on some of the key ideas in my current research – especially this book on James Baldwin and the black Atlantic. But while that book project places Baldwin’s inquiry into American blackness in the context of the Atlantic world, this talk is just about the United States. In particular, I’m interested here in how vernacular cultural formation might be understood not just in terms of resistance and what Paul Gilroy calls counter-modernity, but, more deeply and broadly, in terms of world-making. 

I link this notion of world-making to what Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison describe as the blues aesthetic. With the blues aesthetic, Murray and Ellison name a total vocabulary and capacity for life, world, and collectivity. This in turn creates (i.e., has created, will create) a sense of belonging outside the struggles initiated in resistance to the white gaze and the gaze’s institution-building sense of racism and abjection of blackness. Belonging in the frame of the blues aesthetic is thus de-linked from reactivity; rather than belonging as survival or resistance, vernacular culture as a space of belonging operates as an entire world on the model of what Baldwin calls “the relation Negroes bear to one another.” A larger democratic belonging – the inter- rather than intra-racial world – risks this deeper and older sense of belonging, which is not so much a crisis of democratic thinking, but instead the sacrifice asked of subaltern worlds when we think politics in the broad sense. Cultural politics sustains the blues aesthetics and keeps a historical-memorial sense of belonging alive, not as remnant, but as source, grounds, and space of world-making, re-making, and reproduction.

In the end, then, I would argue that conviviality, for all of its rich insight and profound moral aspirations, is in very real tension with the implications of the world-making work of counter-modernity. Counter-modernity is in many ways the refusal of the center-margin dyad and the sorts of political imperatives – conservative and radical both – that derive from it. The reinscription of that dyad in theorizing a wider sense of democracy and democratic belonging makes sense; the marginal always move in the world of the center, as it were, whereas the marginal are abandoned at best, subject to violence and terror at worst. My question in these moments, in these contrasting and at times crossing spaces, comes back to the meaning of belonging and vernacular culture. If vernacular culture is not only a belonging of black life to itself, but also a world sufficient to the task of sustaining and growing that life, – the blues aesthetic becomes the jazz aesthetic becomes soul babies and hip-hop culture – then what is lost in the movement to conviviality? What is the fate of the counter-modern in another, convivial modernity and its aftermath? This has been the hesitation of Washington, Cooper, and others in the tradition, manifest then as the question of civil rights and Black independence. Their hesitation returns here and asks us, simply, to contemplate the risks to vernacular culture and belonging when we think race into democracy’s promise of a common place of friendship, conviviality, and the widest sense of belonging. 

What does it mean to lose a world in search of another future?

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