Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit

The true impact of the Motown sound on the civil rights movement was probably an unintended consequence of Berry Gordy’s (founder of Motown Records) drive for profits. While white folk artists of the 1960s, such as Pete Seeger, stressed their “otherness” from middle class norms and values to galvanize a progressive core constituency, Gordy stressed the “sameness” of his artists in an attempt to crossover into white markets. “Strong ideas of bourgeois respectability shaped (the Motown) image” (Smith, 120).

Gordy stressed the creation of music that was, “simple, direct and emotional” with cross over potential. He established a factory like operation, complete with a “finishing school” that polished ghetto kid performers, and produced a consistent string of star performers and hits. Gordy’s emphasis on creating non-threatening performers made blacks and by inference the civil rights movement more palatable to whites. The scenario would play out like this: “I like the music, I like the performer, he/she isn’t so bad. I now have a cultural bridge (however narrow) to relate to other blacks. They aren’t so bad.” Whites begin to relate to blacks in terms of common humanity rather than stereotypes using the cultural bridge provided by the Motown sound. Television impresario Ed Sullivan summed it up when he said, “(The Negro performer) has become a welcome visitor, not only to the white adult, but to the white children, who will finally lay Jim Crow to rest.” (Smith, 132).

The civil rights struggle of the 1960s in some ways mirrored the civil rights struggle in the Reconstruction South following the Civil War. In Mobile, for example, African-American leaders were divided between the privileged black elites who had lived in the city before the War, and recently freed blacks migrating to the city after the War. The black elites were socially and politically moderate and allied with moderate whites. Recently emancipated ex-slaves from the country were more radical. This group was willing to take its demands to the streets and felt they would only get their rights by “making a bold stand.” In the Reconstruction South, the triumph of black militancy often led to white backlash and race warfare. Dr. King’s ability to negotiate a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience in an environment of black militants, white hardliners, and white moderate “fence sitters” was his genius. Arguably, the cultural amalgamation created by rock ‘n roll, coupled with King’s message of non-violent change (given urgency by Malcom X’s message of the possibility of violence) permitted the triumph of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

As Smith suggests, the triumph was not complete. Although avenues were created for black upward social mobility (as envisioned by Booker T. Washington), and although a black President (who had numerically more white supporters than black supporters) has been elected, a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, indicates that the divide between black and white wealth is so wide that achieving parity would take more than six hundred years at the current rate of change. Is black capitalism the answer? The career of Berry Gordy suggests that a black capitalist is a capitalist first, and black second. The marketplace is color and gender blind, which is beneficial to all, but capitalism is also amoral, driven by its own imperatives of economy and efficiency rather than equity and humanity. The good that capitalism does, as in the case of the nexus between the Motown sound and the civil rights movement, may be largely unintentional.

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