“The Soul of Black Folk”: Race, Work, and Talent

In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Neal deGrasse Tyson–astrophysicist, internet icon, heir to Carl Sagan as The Great Public Scientist– made an interesting point when asked to comment on his position as a scientist who happens to be black.  Any listener could tell that he was annoyed that race was even brought up; like any self-respecting scientist (and unlike so many humanities academics, ZING!), Tyson wanted to talk about the soundness of his work, not his racial or ethnic identity.  However, when pressed on the race issue, he opened up, speaking of when he was a teenager who was both obsessed with astronomy and a talented wrestler, and encountering many teachers encouraging him to pursue wrestling rather than science.

This sort of low-level racial stereotyping is both common, and unsurprising.  Our white-dominated society has long had fewer problems with successful black entertainers (musicians, actors, athletes, from Scott Joplin to Oprah Winfrey), than with black CEOs, doctors, intellectuals, scientists, attorneys general, or presidents.  I don’t need to go into the historical or cultural reasons for this here, it’s a complex, yet dreadfully obvious phenomenon.  What I do want to get into, however, are a few more comments that Tyson hurriedly made as he was trying to steer the interview away from the topic of race, and which touch on some very interesting cultural assumptions that we have regarding nurture, nature, talent, work, and race.

In yet another section of the “Fresh Air” segment, the interviewer noted to Tyson that he had a “gift” for interpreting science to the general public; Tyson cut him off, to say, basically, “I don’t think in terms of ‘gifts,’ I think in terms of, ‘wow, I worked hard for this!’”

Now, this comment was not overtly racialized by any means, but it certainly does point toward the dichotomy of natural talent versus work and practice that comes in any pursuit–sports, music, art, writing, whatever.  We’ve all seen examples of prodigies with “gifts” who become very good at what they do very quickly.  Mozart was a musical virtuoso by the time he was five, and Picasso was painting with the technical proficiency of the Dutch Masters by his early teens.  In my own little bubble world of rock climbing, we’ve heard stories of genetically gifted folks like Dave Graham reaching the 5.13 level in the first year of his climbing career.  All of these examples are awe-inspiring, and reflect levels of accomplishment that most artists, musicians, and climbers will never reach. Graham, Picasso, Mozart, all were born with some kind of “gift.”

On the other end of the spectrum, we have people who become very good at what they do by virtue of their own hard work.  They are masters of their craft, who nonetheless are not really in danger of being labeled virtuosos or child prodigies.  There are hundreds of musicians on the classical stage, in the Broadway pit, or the Nashville studio who have practiced their instruments for hours each day for decades and attended the best academies.  They were not necessarily virtuosos at age five, but they can still play, sight-reading, anything that is placed in front of them.  Similarly, my friend Mike Anderson was certainly not climbing 5.13 within the first year of his climbing career like Graham, but through thousands of hours of training and practice, he climbs at or near the level of many professional climbers.

Obviously, for each of these examples, a great degree of natural talent is a necessary (but not solely sufficient) foundation for thousands of hours of practice.  Not everyone is physically or mentally equipped to be an in-demand studio musician or a 5.14 climber even if they do put in thousands of hours of practice.  Similarly, natural prodigies still have to put in LOTS of work; Mozart was pushed ruthlessly by his father, and Dave Graham spent every spare minute he had in a climbing gym.


But, I think it is significant that Tyson was so quick to point out that he got to where he was through work rather than from some sort of innate gift.  I also think it is significant that most prodigies, no matter how obviously and naturally gifted they may be, tend to emphasize the amount of work that they put into their crafts, rather than saying, “yeah, I’m just naturally really good at music, climbing, or art.”  There is a very fuzzy boundary between natural talent and hard work, between people born capable and those who become capable, but it is clear that, for the most part, our national consciousness errs on the side of lauding work over talent.  There is a reason that Tyson dismissed his gifts and emphasized his labor.

There’s a very deep back story to this. Short historical digression:

The whole basis of our American culture of Democratic Capitalism, which was planted during the Revolutionary era but came to full fruition during the Jacksonian 1820s, emphasizes it is not who you are, but what you do.  In many ways, this was a reaction against both centuries-old, stratified feudal societies of Europe, but also from early-American republic era elitism exemplified by John Adams’s and others’ ideas about “natural aristocracy.”

The idea of the Natural Aristocrat basically came down to this: although the Revolution had killed the idea of the older, European-styled inherited aristocracy, with its titles of nobility and culture of deference toward lords and kings, the reality was that some people would always be smarter, wiser, stronger, and more capable leaders than others.  Shouldn’t there be some sort of mechanism in place, both in government and society in general, to make sure that the better sorts’ voices were heard a bit more? And wouldn’t the best indicator of WHO these “better sorts,” these “natural aristocrats” were be their wealth, their education, and (dare I say it), their pedigree?

This was dangerous intellectual ground to tread upon during the era of the American Revolution, which began with Thomas Paine declaring that hereditary leadership resulted in having “An Ass for a Lion,” and then wound up with Jefferson declaring that we did not need a king, because “All Men Are Created Equal” and government should derive from “The Consent of the Governed.”  This was democratic, populist stuff, and to suggest in the 1770s that some people were more gifted than others treaded dangerously on a slippery slope towards elistism, monarchy and despotism.

But by the formal end of the Revolutionary War in the 1783, it was clear that “pure democracy,” in which every man had an equal voice and was equally capable of serving in government, was not working.  State-level legislatures were issuing their own currencies, proclaiming their own boundaries, defaulting on wartime debts, and violating treaties, and there was no strong federal government to check these “Vices of the Political System,” as James Madison called this crisis.

The U.S. Constitution, obviously, was the prescribed remedy to the ills of pure democracy. Most of us today see it as a needed concentration of power into a federal government (this is why it is ironic that so many Tea Party types, who are vehemently anti-“big government,” hold the Constitution in such reverence).  However, the Constitution was also just as much a reaction against pure democracy; it injected a large dose of classism and elitism into the populist exuberance of the revolution.  Read into it: any branch of the government that was not subject to direct election– the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court, the Executive Branch– was intended to give Natural Aristocrats a springboard into power; a stronger voice.

However, through the first two or three decades of the 19th century, America began stepping slowly but surely away from the compromised elitism of Natural Aristocrats. There’s been plenty written on this “Rise of American Democracy,” and in my opinion, American history classes focus on it too much while ignoring the fact that this rise of “democracy” only applied to white males, and in many ways relied on decreasing the rights of all others.  Regardless, here’s what happened: the more elitist, moneyed Federalist Party collapsed; Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party continued to emphasize the inherent virtue of individual yeoman farmers; the Louisiana Purchase opened cheap land for individual trapping and farming; the Erie Canal and the Mississippi made it easier for farmers to get their goods to market.  Oh, and alcohol consumption skyrocketed, but that’s another story.

By the election of Andrew Jackson, we had a president who was not Ivy League-educated, did not speak Latin, was an evangelical Christian, and emphasized his frontier, backcountry roots.  From Jackson on, presidents still tended to be very wealthy, but they emphasized their “log cabin” roots over their money.  Patriotic histories and mythologies of “founding fathers” also de-emphasized the aristocratic elements of the Revolutionary generation. Schoolchildren were (and still are) taught of George Washington as a boy with an ax chopping down the cherry tree, or as a young man working hard as a surveyor, and never as the richest U.S. president in history, or his insistence at being bowed to by parishioners in his church.  Similarly, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin began its stint as a bible for American icons ranging from Davy Crockett to Jay Gatsby, all who preferred to focus on Franklin’s hard work as a youngster, rather than the fact that he was the wealthiest man in the U.S. by the end of his life.  Before Andrew Jackson and the rise of American Democracy, U.S. presidents were proud of being aristocrats who were either born or married into privilege.  After Jackson, regardless of wealth, it was pretty much required that presidents emphasize their hardworking, “log cabin” origins.


Wealthy Virginia Slaveholder

roosevelt trapper

Rich kid from New York City



Fast-forward into the post-Civil War era of robber barons, monopolies, and Horatio Alger mythology, and even further into the 1980s Reagan revolution, and we can see the deep historical roots of the whole “work hard and you’ll make it” mentality that respected wealth, as well as its more vitriolic counterpart, “the poor are only poor because they’re lazy.”  It is not going too far to say that everything that defined manhood and mastery during Jacksonian democracy came down to individual agency and hard work, much more than noble title or lineage.  Everyone (at least all white males) was theoretically on a level playing field to make it in America, they just had to work hard.

This attitude percolates throughout American pop culture. Every “underdog” movie, in which an inept sports team bands together and beats their more privileged, serious opponents essentially says, “hey, in America, ANYONE can make it! You don’t need elitism, or a classical education, or structured training!”  And of course its corollary: “Why are you poor?  Ben Franklin made it!  The Jamaican bobsled team made it!  The Mighty Ducks made it!”  Next step, cuts in welfare and Medicaid, and more tax breaks for the wealthy. But I digress.

Anyway, we’ve resolved that work trumped aristocracy, but does this really fit into my earlier dichotomy of natural talent versus hard work?  Not cleanly. Boosters of upward mobility in America have long used the term “ingenuity” rather than “gifted” or “prodigy” in reference for the natural talent that has to accompany hard work in climbing up the ladder toward the American dream.  Bill Gates, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Ben Franklin, they all worked very hard to rise up to their wealth, but they were also very smart; though they would have bristled at the label, they most definitely were “natural aristocrats.”  None of these guys were as bumbling as a lovable Hollywood underdog.

Here’s the interesting thing about Tyson’s bristling at the suggestion that he had gotten where he was by some sort of “gift,” rather than his own hard work.  In one sense, he was just following the familiar American impulse of lauding upward mobility, work, and an “if I can do it, you can too” attitude.  But, like so many undercurrents of American culture, we simply can’t get away from race in this mess; Tyson may have been unusually uncomfortable at the interviewer bringing up his “natural gift” as a black man.

Here’s why: as the interview progressed, Tyson made a very good point about the 1990s, when Michael Jordan and Larry Bird dominated professional basketball. When comparing the two men, sportscasters frequently dwelled upon Jordan’s natural athletic ability, his talent, while at the same time emphasizing that Bird was a “student of basketball,” a cerebral intellectual.  Obviously, this dichotomy is overly simplified, and given the colors of the two players, there are definitely some racial stereotypes at work here. And just like the Mozart/broadway pit musician comparison, it ignores the fact that Jordan worked his ass off, and Bird had plenty of natural talent.

I’m not really familiar with team sports beyond what I’ve just said, but in the world of music, particularly jazz and blues, we see some similar stereotyping going on that equates black musicality with a natural, “from-the-heart” approach, and white musicality with studious, meticulous, “from-the-brain” work.  It’s a firmly rooted cliché– black musicians have “soul”– some intangible, indefinable “feel” to music that just knows how to incorporate blue notes, bends, syncopation, and swing into just the right parts of any song. If any white person not born in New Orleans ever tries to copy this, they will fall flat, as flat as a white guy clapping off rhythm to a gospel song!

There’s truth to this cliché. Compare Nina Simone’s version of “Feelin’ Good” with Michael Buble’s.  And it’s not even a matter or black-and-white, or even jazz, if you listen to classical piano virtuoso Daniel Barenboim’s version of “Tico Tico” against that of Mexican trumpet virtuoso Rafael Méndez.  Classical training, the type that Buble and Barenboim are coming out of, can be so clean, so sanitized, that it takes away the “soul” of musical interpretation.

Indeed, it’s even arguable that a lot of what makes up “soul” is a little sloppiness.  If you listen to the breakneck tempos of soloists like Fats Waller or Joe Pass, you can hear quite a few little flubs; they are taking risks, not always landing on their feet, but always recovering. In his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer actually makes the point that our brains LIKE to hear slight mistakes, or unexpected twists to familiar song patterns. Not too great of mistakes or flubs, but just enough to keep our brains on edge, not quite knowing what will come next in a song.  Especially in the case of the Barenboim piece, “Tico Tico” just sounds too perfect; not quite human enough.

Ok, so we’ve seen that there is this thing called soul, and our culture seems fixated on this idea that whites don’t have it, and blacks do.  There’s a long history of privileged whites dwelling on this, perhaps more than blacks even have.  In an ugly rumination upon the biology of race in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson (himself a violinist) went on and on about the musical abilities of blacks.


In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved… Nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head, [but] I believe that in those of the heart she will be found to have done them justice

Later, Jefferson would observe that, although blacks were great at imitating others in music, they were not particularly original.  He was not incorrect on the imitation bit.  African American musical culture does tend to borrow and self-reference a LOT of musical themes– certain lyrical phrases and memes pop up over and over in gospel, soul, and blues; 1940s beboppers would take chord progressions of Broadway showtunes and add their own melodies to them; hiphop DJs base their whole art form around sampling previous work. But as far as not being original… I like to imagine that, if there is an afterlife, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington are both giving Jefferson a massive wedgie right now. To the tune of “Giant Steps.”

Later, around the turn of the century and the rise of industrialism, upper class Americans worried about their (white) culture becoming too civilized and sanitized, and began to pine for some sort of romanticized primitive existence that never was.  Some, like Theodore Roosevelt, believed that in order to go back to our “barbarian virtues” we needed to hunt, fight, and camp.  I think that the fixation with jazz that followed a few decades later, in which whites would go “slumming” in Harlem to listen to “jungle music” was part of this same impulse. From a position of power and privilege, whites could patronizingly say, “Yup! We’ll never be as good at singing and dancing as those colored folk!”  Slumming was a top-down response to concerns about modernity, but it was every bit as weak and temporary as those urbanites who pull off of a rural highway, inhale while saying, “Ahhh, I love the smell of the country,” and then hop right back into their air conditioned cars.

So, we see that, although there is certainly truth to the fact that there is a thing called “soul” in many forms of popular music, and that it is disproportionately represented amongst musicians of color, to laud this “soul” can easily lead one into a world of condescending patronization.

Even more important, when we say a musician has “soul,” or emphasize natural musical ability, it is often accompanied by a dismissive ignorance of the very hard work and intellectual rigor that the musician has put into his or her craft. Especially in the case of jazz, musicians certainly do not just play what they “feel,” with some magical sense of “soul” determining their every choice of note and phrase. Most of the first and second generations of jazz musicians from the 1920s to 1950s had some sort of formalized, rigorous training in their instruments.  Progressive-era and later New Deal programs funding community bands introducing youngsters to music were commonplace. Art Tatum managed to get a fine classical musical education to complement his natural talent at the Columbus School for the Blind.  Charlie Parker would occasionally quote Stravinsky in his improvised solos (including one occasion in which Stravinsky was in the audience). Though most jazz icons were obviously gifted prodigies, they also had formal, structured training; they were not relying on soul alone.  Miles Davis even went to Juilliard, with the help of his affluent dentist father!

But still, we cling to the myth that jazz, and particularly improvisation, arise from some sort of tabula rasa blank slate with only innate “soul” to shape it. I recall a story that my father, a talented musician, used to tell, in which he returned to his undergraduate institution in Utah after completing his graduate studies in Texas.  He excitedly explained to his former jazz professor the complex new world of scales, modes, and chord forms that he had learned in studying jazz improvisation at grad school.  His undergraduate jazz professor simply dismissed all of this, saying, “I don’t think that Charlie Parker was really thinking about scales.”  If you spend any amount of time really listening to Parker’s incredible solos, you will be able to tell, that, yes, he WAS thinking of scales.  However, this fact does not fit well with our widespread assumption that jazz comes only from the soul. We don’t want to think about jazz icons intricately working through scales and other cerebral, technical aspects of their crafts; we would rather think of them simply blowing from the soul, the heart– possibly with the help of booze, pot, or heroin– and producing pure brilliance.

Now, I may be oversimplifying here briefly, but let’s recap a few of the cultural assumptions that I’ve gone over: Charlie Parker was good because he had soul, classical musicians are good because they practice a lot.  Michael Jordan was good because he was a “natural,” Larry Bird was good because he thought a lot.  We can see, then, why Tyson winced a bit at the suggestion that he has a “gift” for science, and immediately jumped into emphasizing his good American work ethic. For a long time, whenever we’ve assigned a talent to African Americans, it’s probably been some sort of abstract, non-cerebral, “from-the-heart” talent that they’re just born with.

We can take this even further, though. As I said much earlier, part of the myth of American identity, specifically American masculine identity, was the opportunity to work your way above your station.  It didn’t matter who you were, it was what you did that defined your manhood. It is pretty well established in the sociology of race and slavery that part of maintaining hierarchies in a slaveholding society is to strip slave males of their masculinity.  We took away black males’ rights to protect their families, to pass their names on to their offspring, to hold property, to keep weapons, to fight other men of higher social status, ALL of these restrictions were saying not just “you are a slave,” but “you are not a man.”

Though certainly nobody thinks it when they say, “he got SOUL!” about this or that musician or athlete, this is just another minor echo of the ways in which we diminished the masculinity of black males through slavery and Jim Crow– by making patronizing statements that imply that not only do they not have a work ethic, they don’t need one.  We are essentially saying, you are good NOT because of what you do, but because of who you are. It is removing blacks from the American dream, from one of the foundational definitions of individualism, manhood and agency.


2 thoughts on ““The Soul of Black Folk”: Race, Work, and Talent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s