Book Reviews

 On Rhetoric and Black Music– A New Book by UMBC Scholar Earl Brooks, PhD.

Earl H. Brooks, a musician (saxophone) and assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has contributed to a growing literature on the cultural significance of popular music with his forthcoming book from the Wayne State University Press: On Rhetoric and Black Music (2024). The lengthy tome, according to its introduction, “is like a bebop solo, one that plays through the changes of disciplinary discourses in rhetorical studies, African American history, and music while serving as a response to the call of leading scholarship on African American sociolinguistics and rhetorical tradition.”

However, the book explores such themes in a way that will also resonate with a general audience. In a series of case studies—Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, James Weldon Johnson, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane and Mahalia Jackson—the book riffs on the details of a race-obsessed and media-driven public opinion that both shaped and was shaped by these notable black artists. While art imitates life, Oscar Wilde’s bohemian insight may be more to the reformist point: “Life imitates art.”    

A brief sampling will show that the case studies tell a connected story about how black music relates to public rhetoric involving books, newspapers, and the movies. Even before “separate but equal,” the perverse legal doctrine whereby the Supreme Court relegated emancipated blacks to the status of second-class citizens (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896), a uniquely black artistic aesthetic had already manifested itself in the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk was the pioneering black college in Nashville, TN which spawned W.E.B. Du Bois, author of a seminal book in the nascent field of sociology– The Souls of Black Folk (1903) — that prophetically declared: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

With a polished a cappella rendering of spirituals and blues songs that grew out of the slavery experience, the Fisk Jubilee Singers developed a race-bridging strategy for cultural engagement. Music Director George L. White, the book tells us, “recognized the novelty of the spirituals for white audiences and bet on the choir’s ability to present authentic spirituals as a step above minstrel acts […], arranging the songs in ways that would be more palatable to white audiences by modifying certain stylistic elements and instructing the group to avoid harsh tones.”

Pianist/composer Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) demonstrated the innovative variations on syncopated rhythms that came to be known as “ragtime,” or early “jazz.” However, popular acceptance of the evolving black aesthetic was contingent upon white validation. That was supplied by Alfred Ernst, conductor of the St. Louis Choral Symphony, who proclaimed Joplin “an extraordinary genius as a composer of ragtime music.” According to the book, “A meeting between Joplin and Ernst was deemed so important that it was covered elaborately in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on February 28, 1901, with a large photograph of Joplin.”     

James Weldon Johnson is the well-known author of the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely regarded as the Negro National Anthem. But Johnson’s lesser-known novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), considered the racial curiosity called “passing.” That involved a light-skinned black person pretending to be white. This fictional theme– black “personhood” — anticipated Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel, Invisible Man (1952). Moreover, Hollywood treated the “passing” phenomenon in a popular movie– “Imitation of Life” (1959) — with a powerful gospel singing cameo by Mahalia Jackson.

Similarly, the remaining case studies offer proof of the book’s thesis: Patterns of racial bargaining established in the 19th century have continued to shape American popular culture. John Coltrane’s enigmatic display of avante-garde saxophone virtuosity (“A Love Supreme”), the sophistication of Duke Ellington’s high-tone jazz orchestras (“It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”) and gospel diva Mahalia Jackson’s abiding Christian piety (“Move On Up A Little Higher”) were all personalized departures on a dissonant response to the tune that “Jim Crow” called. 

Recollecting that the author analogized this book to a jazz performance, you could say that pianist Mary Lou Williams stole the show. She was the ever-present woman in those legendary 1930s Kansas City jam sessions, like the night when Lester Young “cut” Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax. Critics routinely characterized Williams’s forceful and intricate piano style as “playing like a man.” 

But she also had a spiritual side that this book revealed: “Williams left [Abyssinian Baptist Church] to work with tap dancer Baby Laurence and perform on street corners in Harlem. She played a spinet piano while Laurence danced, and they both preached the gospel while using music to connect with lost souls.” That sounds remarkably like the mission of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. 

Gregory L. Lewis is a longtime Baltimore attorney whose jazz reflections are archived at

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