Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

The Fake Book of Negroes

Individualism, originality, and the collective identity.

Gerald Early

Moving On Up (detail), 1999, by Francks Deceus (b.1966); private collection/© Francks Deceus/Bridgeman Images.

It is really quite impossible to be affirmative about anything
which one refuses to question.

—James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity”11xJames Baldwin, “A Question of Identity” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), 131.

To begin at the true beginning of this essay, I should explain that its title is a play on the titles of two books. One is Langston Hughes’s famous 1952 children’s book, The First Book of Negroes, which told, in a fittingly scattered way, the story of blacks across the Diaspora, in a way intended to make them unified and distinct, tribal but transtribal, the same and not the same. The other is a musical fake book, a sort of cheat sheet that provides musicians with the chords for a tune, making it easier for those who don’t know the piece to improvise. Professional jazz musicians, in particular, would not want their audiences to see them carrying a fake book to a performance, virtuosic improvisation being the mark of genius and authenticity among such performers. My reason for conflating these two titles should become obvious as we enter the terrain of the essay proper: the field on which the question of black American authenticity is forever being proposed and contested but (at least to date) has never been fully or satisfactorily resolved.

Such a field necessarily involves myth. And black Americans have long mythologized their experience as one of exile and return, even though few have attempted to return to the ancestral continent—indeed, the one concerted effort to establish a homeland there, in Liberia, having proved to be a largely disappointing colonial venture. Yet perhaps because it sharpens their sense of destiny, black Americans still embrace the exodus story as the defining trope of their collective experience. Central to that narrative, of course, is the charismatic figure of Moses, the Great Prince who scorns the blandishments of his people’s oppressors, strikes down the slave master, and rejects assimilation, choosing instead to assert his authentic identity and lead his people from the land of oppression to the promised land of freedom. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was called Moses. So was black nationalist and Back-to-Africa champion Marcus Garvey. And so, as we all know, was Martin Luther King Jr. (his lieutenant, Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, having been called Aaron to reinforce the analogy), though King himself described the civil rights movement as a journey leading not just his own people but an entire nation to the promised land of a more perfect union. But there are other biblical myths for the oppressed. Suppose, instead of thinking of going home as a form of authentication, of rebirth, blacks fully accepted the idea that they have arrived, and where they are is home. They have had their rebirth.

Joseph the Insider

The novelist and essayist Albert Murray is one of relatively few African Americans who have questioned the overuse of the exile-and-return trope, writing that blacks “have been overemphasizing the role of Moses as Messiah and grossly oversimplifying what the Exodus was really about.” Murray argues that the biblical figure more truly reflective of the black American experience is Joseph: “Those who follow Moses are forever talking about going back home; but to Joseph, to whom being at home was as much a matter of the spirit as of real estate, anywhere he is can become the Land of Great Promise. No one can deny to Moses, great emancipator that he was, the position as epic hero of anti-slavery movements. But neither should anyone overlook what Joseph, the riff-style improviser, did to slavery. He transcended it” (emphasis added).22xAlbert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 52–53. First published 1973. While Moses stood up to Pharaoh, insisting that his people be let go, Joseph, the favored son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, became Pharaoh’s key adviser and interpreter of his dreams. Marrying an Egyptian woman, Joseph eventually forgave and aided his brothers, who had come to Egypt seeking relief from a famine, and who, thanks to their well-connected sibling, would be allowed to bring their father and other family to settle there. Joseph, the progenitor of Moses, emerges from the biblical account as a wily and calculating figure rather than a defiant one, a figure not of protest or resistance but of adaptation and survival.

For most black Americans, though, Joseph falls far short of Moses. Too much the assimilationist, he is seen as having accommodated himself to his oppressors. Yet this is precisely what Murray believed is so valuable about Joseph—indeed, so laudable, at least so long as one properly understands what “fitting in” means: “Joseph…not only uses his inner resources and the means at hand to take advantage of the most unlikely opportunities to succeed in the circumstances in which he finds himself; he also makes himself indispensable to the welfare of the nation as a whole.”33xIbid., 52.

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