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Bryan Wagner. Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power After Slavery.

Bryan Wagner. Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. 307 pp. $35.00.

Bryan Wagner's desire to trouble received ideas surfaces in the "the" of his subtitle. Does police power need an article? Isn't that an excess, a mistake? Wagner, who teaches African American literature and critical legal studies at Berkeley, offers concise narrative histories of police departments in several postbellum Southern cities such as New Orleans and Atlanta as a way of contextualizing The Grandissimes and Uncle Remus, but his study is animated by a broader interest in the legal theory and customary understandings that distinguish the police power--the constabulary's discretionary license to patrol, suspect, detain, arrest, and protect--from the juridical power to try and imprison, a power codified by law, assigned to the criminal justice system, and (at least nominally) bounded by constitutional guarantees. The police power, Wagner demonstrates, is of necessity unbounded. It acts, often proactively, to contain, immobilize, and remove real and imagined threats to public safety. Students and scholars of the early modern South will understand immediately why the figure of the black male vagrant--the rounder, the drifter, the traveling musicianer, the man "bound" for the prison farm or the chain gang--looms large in Wagner's study. The black vagrant was the caricatured, omnipresent, fear-inducing phantasm in the face of which the police power consolidated itself, as well as a misrecognized human subject struggling for survival. But this vagrant was also transformed, during the same harsh decades and by a wide range of black and white folklorists, anthropologists, novelists, and other cultural mediators, into a startlingly charismatic origin-figure--a living emblem of "black culture" in its folk-aspect, yet one shorn of a political valence that Wagner's study seeks to reclaim.

To the extent that it focuses its critical gaze on both African American cultural production, musical and literarry, and the (white) Africanist discourse that helps frame that work for public consumption, Wagner's study sits uneasily at the intersection of recent work by musicologists Ronald Radano (Lying Up a Nation) and Richard Middleton ("Through a Mask Darkly" in Voicing the Popular), literary scholar Keith Cartwright (Reading Africa into American Literature), and blues scholar Elijah Wald (Escaping the Delta). His work is for the most part careful, subtle, original, driven by a clear desire to communicate rather than preach or mystify, with enough dialectical zip to tease persuasive, sometimes brilliant readings out of the autobiographies, newspaper columns, jazz histories, song lyrics, and other texts it assembles. Yet several of his key lyrical readings strike me as badly in error inventions rather than interpretations--and the introduction, exemplified by his claim that "blackness indicates ... existence without standing in the modern world," is an unwisely reductive framing of what follows, placing Wagner at odds not just with a body of aesthetic and social commentary that understands blackness in a more positive light, but with the full range of individual and collective agencies asserted by black subjects during the period in question and explored trenchantly in the studies I've invoked above.

Wagner's foundational analytic gesture, which defines blackness "not as a common culture but instead as a species of statelessness," leads him to focus each of his four chapters on one or two representative engagements in which an avatar of Hurston's "man furthest down," his mobility and self-possession heavily conditioned by the police power of the segregated South, comes into productive contact with a freely-ranging interlocutor who gets hold of his story, his song--but also, inevitably, gets it wrong. Mis-tells it. Occludes the political economy conditioning the aesthetic statement. Makes a fetish of "purity" in an effort to preserve "folk culture" in the face of mass culture's depredations and the fading of a slave era while failing to recognize that slavery lived on, as the title of Douglas A. Blackmon's superb recent study of the convict-lease system in postbellum Alabama suggests, by another name. W. C. Handy's celebrated autobiographical report in Father of the Blues of having first heard the blues one night in Tutwiler, Mississippi from the guitar-playing hands of a "lean, loose-jointed Negro" whose "clothes were rags" and whose "feet peeped out of his shoes" thus becomes, for Wagner, a crucially important moment of sociocultural erasure, even as it helps foster an enduring association of black vagrancy with cultural authenticity. "[T]he one thing we can know for sure about Handy's songster," he argues, "is that he was legally vulnerable.... The vagrancy laws that were resuscitated in states like Mississippi after emancipation were expressly designed to target people like [him].... Fit] is precisely this background that is wished away when Handy has the songster emerge from a dream, as if he had no history relevant to the scene."

Wagner's reading of this scene is revelatory and the broader inferences he draws are compelling. Yet his claims about Handy's role vis-a-vis the police power, and the importance of this vagrant to an emergent and formally acknowledged black folk culture, are less convincing when one considers what Wagner has erased from his own critical fable: Handy's repeated confrontations with vigilante justice during his years as a black minstrel, including several involving officers of the law, and a crucially important second scene of discovery set in Cleveland, Mississippi, in which Handy and his high-class dance band are upstaged by a local black string band whose ability to extract "[a] rain of silver dollars" from the crowd opens Handy's eyes to the potential profit latent in "primitive music," if only it were given a suitable "polishing." Black culture is emergent here, too--not, as with John and Alan Lomax and other white folklorists discussed by Wagner, in the form of unadulterated vernacular utterance fetishized as authentic, but in the form of crossover dreams embraced by black songwriters such as Handy, Perry Bradford, and Ernest Hogan, and pursued with something like full consciousness--or double consciousness--of both the severe impingements wrought by the police power on black selfhood and the popular triumphs a determined black show-business professional might nevertheless achieve.

Disturbing the Peace accomplishes a great deal more than I've thus far managed to convey. Although Wagner calls the archive he investigates "remarkable for its limitations," his determination to reinterpret black folk culture and its pioneering amanuenses through the prism of shifting patterns of Southern urban policing gives his project an expansive feel; unexpected juxtapositions combine to produce a revisionist wallop. He counterpoises Handy's discovery of the Tutwiler bluesman, for example, with a moment in Alan Lomax's 1938 Library of Congress interview of jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton when Morton refuses to sing a song about Robert Charles, the New Orleans cop killer celebrated in black memory and reviled in the white press. Reconstructing Charles's political investments in the Back-to-Africa movement and, by way of Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Mob Rule in New Orleans, his later demonization as a "desperado" and worse, Wagner shrewdly frames Morton's demurral as a rare moment when Lomax-as-collector was unable to "penetrate" the "zone of silence" that surrounded black folk culture. Chapter two focuses on an earlier New Orleans outlaw, a fugitive slave named Bras-Coupe who was the focus of an intense manhunt by the city's recently organized police department during the 1830s, losing an arm and his life before being enlarged into a local folk-hero. George Washington Cable's novel The Grandissimes (1880) gave Bras-Coupe enduring life; jazzman Sidney Bechet's autobiography, Treat It Gentle (1960), reclaimed the martyred slave as an aesthetic forefather and presiding spirit of Congo Square. Wagner works his way through both texts with bracing precision, showing how they rewrite and evade history in order to cultivate myth, and how certain kinds of myth-making--Bechet's--can touch deeper truths unavailable to the linear narratives of history. Chapter three recuperates Joel Chandler Harris as arguably the central figure in the legitimation of black folk culture by resituating him, and especially his often dismissed early urban sketches of Uncle Remus, within a charged editorial dialogue about black vagrancy and the police power taking place in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution, where Harris's dialect columns ran. "Uncle Remus was not merely contiguous to the newspaper's campaign for the police," argues Wagner, "--he was part of it."

All this is convincing, compelling, provocative, and needed. In chapter four, unfortunately, Wagner pushes his interpretations to the breaking point. He argues, with no trace of textual evidence, that George W. Johnson's very early hit recording, "The Laughing Song" (1894), conveys a "lynching scenario," and he insists that Ozella Jones's "I Been a Bad, Bad Girl," recorded by John Lomax at a prison farm in 1936, offers a performance in which "[c]riminality ... is prior to individuation." "Not doing wrong but being born in the wrong--bearing the Mark of Cain as original sin--motivates her confession," Wagner claims. But the first line of the song is, in fact: "I been a bad, bad girl, wouldn't treat nobody right," which certainly seems like confession to wrongdoing. Blues singers sometimes sing about such things, sadly but pridefully. Wagner works too hard here to configure the evidence in a way that fits his thesis. Thankfully, such moments are few. Disturbing the Peace remains a singularly provocative work of scholarship--the sort of landmark study with which one argues, and to which one returns.

Reviewed by

Adam Gussow

University of Mississippi

A frican A merican R eview, Volume 43, Number 4 [c] 2009 Adam Gussow
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Author:Gussow, Adam
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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