Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture
by Robert G. O'Meally
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Pub Date 01 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 28 Jun 2022
Ralph Ellison famously characterized ensemble jazz improvisation as “antagonistic cooperation.” Both collaborative and competitive, musicians play with and against one another to create art and community. In Antagonistic Cooperation, Robert G. O’Meally shows how this idea runs throughout twentieth-century African American culture to provide a new history of Black creativity and aesthetics.
From the collages of Romare Bearden and paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the fiction of Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison to the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, O’Meally explores how the worlds of African American jazz, art, and literature have informed one another. He argues that these artists drew on the improvisatory nature of jazz and the techniques of collage not as a way to depict a fractured or broken sense of Blackness but rather to see the Black self as beautifully layered and complex. They developed a shared set of methods and motives driven by the belief that art must involve a sense of community. O’Meally’s readings of these artists and their work emphasize how they have not only contributed to understanding of Black history and culture but also provided hope for fulfilling the broken promises of American democracy.
About the author: Robert G. O’Meally is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he is also founder and director of the Center for Jazz Studies. He is the author of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1989); editor of The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (Columbia, 1998); and coeditor of Uptown Conversations: The New Jazz Studies (Columbia, 2004), among many other books.
"Embrace disturbs. Accompaniment unsettles. Musically, Robert O’Meally tells us that black visual and literary art always tell us that black music always tells us this with love. O’Meally’s generously receptive perception is attuned to collage’s rich austerities. In showing that antagonistic cooperation is our program, Antagonistic Cooperation is a wonder!"
"Ever lively and cautiously optimistic, Antagonistic Cooperation is a moving revival of jazz-democracy discourse in downbeat times. O’Meally passes on a lifetime of tales and insights, vivid and learned, revealing rhymes among Black music, African American writing, and American political thought."
—William J. Maxwell, author of F. B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover's Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature
"Robert O'Meally's interdisciplinary brilliance shines throughout the pages of Antagonistic Cooperation. Here he brings a lifetime of reading, listening, looking, learning and leading to bear upon extraordinary works by America's most innovative artists, among them Romare Bearden, Louis Armstrong, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and others. His luminous prose and clear analysis is itself a contribution to the body of work under consideration. An extraordinary accomplishment.
—Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature
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Antagonistic Cooperation: Jazz, Collage, Fiction, and the Shaping of African American Culture by Robert O'Meally makes a convincing and very entertaining argument for this particular characteristic most often associated with jazz being a far more important factor in African American arts and letters.
It took me longer than I expected to finish this book for a couple of reasons. One was simply the fact that taking my time, pausing often to think about the examples (and reread other works, listen to some music, look up some art) made a slower read far more rewarding. The other main reason is that a couple of other books I read while reading this one led me back to this concept and made me reread parts of this book again. Reading a new anthology of Zora Neale Hurston's essays and reviews had me bouncing back and forth between books. To a lesser degree the same held true for a biography of Lorraine Hansberry I was also reading.
In establishing the idea of antagonistic cooperation as he uses it O'Meally doesn't just show the process in jazz jam sessions, or even similar examples from other areas of life, he also cites thinkers, writers, and artists from throughout history. This is not to imply that twentieth century African American cultural use of AC is no more than a continuation of what came before. He shows that the idea, broadly speaking, has been mentioned before or at least hinted at without forming a complete concept. In other words, at its core it is an important element in much art through time. What makes it different and so much more of an intentional and important aspect here has to do with the history of Blacks in America, how displaying this friendly (for the most part) aggressiveness helped not only the ones playing but the community as a whole. Creating a space for unfettered creativity and freedom, often in a space and form that whites didn't understand or appreciate, at least not at first.
The previous paragraph is part of my takeaway from this first reading and I hope I didn't misrepresent O'Meally's argument. But even if I am less than perfectly accurate in my understanding so far my comments should illustrate a far more important aspect of the work. This book made me think, made me want to understand better by putting it in my words so that I could use these ideas to gain better perspective on future works I will read, listen to, look at, and watch. I am also far more curious about process now. I have always been interested in what happens where art meets society, but I have often been focused on the reception of that art. This has me wanting to revisit old ideas I have had and approach them from a different perspective.
More than anything, I simply enjoyed reading this book. I can't even say that about many of my favorite nonfiction books. I enjoy what I learned, I enjoy applying ideas I learned, but I don't necessarily enjoy the actual reading of the book. I not only know that I will be reading this one again but I am looking forward to it. And I also know that I will be referring to it often when I am reading other books.
I highly recommend this to both academics and nonacademics who are interested in the arts in general, African American arts in particular, and especially the intersection of that art with society as a whole. This offers something for those in specific fields such as literature, music, and art but is ideal for someone in area studies.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.