Karisa Cleary – Why “The Negro” on the Spiral? (make-up blog)

George Antheil’s “The Negro on the Spiral” appears to be a melodramatic praising of, what he calls, “Negro music.” Yet, the not-so-subtly controversial language and rhetoric he choses to articulate this sways on the edge of dehumanizing and universalizing the African-American identity.

This can be observed in spurts of shocking comparisons to white identification where Antheil compares the rhythm of “Negro music” to the rhythm of white races. While the former “comes from the groins, the hips, and the sexual organs,” the latter is from “the breast,” which can be interpreted as the heart, “the brain,” the intellect, “the ears and the eyes,” the most vital senses and all being tools for intelligible communication. While Antheil makes several other references to the primitiveness of this music the sexual attribution to the rhythm, especially when compared with white rhythm, alludes to one of the human being’s most animalistic behaviors, often concealed at this time in the civilized nations (214).

Still, within these suggestions of a wild, sexual and unabsorbable music, there is a contradictory connection between this and the precision of machinery. He describes the “rhythms and counter-rhythms” of the black choir as having “machine-precision” and later asserts, “one can scarcely believe that one has not to do with a highly civilised race, masters of steel, mathematics, and engineering.” While Antheil, in one sense, might be making a statement about the uncontrollable musicality of industrialization, but in another sense he is bringing their music from the level of passions and expressions to that of a mechanical, inhumanness (214).

More than this, the in which Antheil tosses the various differential geographic origins of black identity into one category of color, and taken down to its literal sense. He contrasts this with “not white, nor yellow” and claims, “This note [of the Congo] has erroneously been called ‘American,’ but this note belongs no more specifically to the North American Negro than to those of the West Indies or South America.” It feels as though he’s mashing a variety of seriously distinct cultures and identifying the whole of them solely by color. When placed adjacent to an earlier statement about Europeans where he states, “the Latins became more Latin, and the Germans more German,” there is this diametrical opposition unveiled where Europeans are described in a much more clear and individualistic fashion. He then takes this to a literal function of the color that he attributes dangerously equally to the body through this idea of absorption when he claims that “Yankee hymn tunes, or the Habaneras of the Portuguese or Spanish, [etc.]… were always completely absorbed, and did not conceal or hinder the original pure Africanism underlying every measure of this music.” The question inevitable arises of what in the world this essential “Africanism” is and how the “Negro music” could possibly absorb all of these different influences and still remain essentially and as fully African as it always has been? (214, 215).

While first lowering down and universalizing the African/African-American identity as “black,” Antheil then uses this notion of absorption to, in a strange way, elevate their agency without actually displaying any of their agencies. In fact, this goes further by creating a universal, “black” platform of which white musicians jump off from. He cues in Strawinsky and Pushkin and calls them “mulatto,” then name drops Wagner, Modigliani, Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi, Chirico… all white artists of the time and, while influenced (or having absorbed) this “Negro music” concurrently kept the influencers behind the veil of their color. If “the roar of the lion” reminding Antheil and his fellow artists “that life had been going on a long while and would probably go on a while longer” is a reference to this music, then the “life-blood dripping down upon the white keys” from alligators captured by Brunuel inside of grand pianos is nothing less than a violent recapturing of the black, musical individual. Dripping “life-blood” suggests, if not a death, then a painful injury to that vicious southern animal that appears to be representational of the African (218).

This dismal contradiction of raising the African up artistically while simultaneously submerging them beneath the level of intellectual equality prompts this common, Imperial tendency of seizure in an endeavor to squeeze every last beneficial bit out of another group of people. Because art is obviously very different from industry, I can’t help but get the sense that Antheil wasn’t as serious when dehumanizing the black population as he was making an expository connection between the colonization for industry. When he quite honestly-seeming suggests, “A greater duty would be to trace, scientifically and carefully, the development of the Great Spiral,” that idea is being reinstated. If the spiral represents a progression of history, carefully examining that circular (ish) development would uncover the similarities within the slightly different repetitions of the same events, the same colonization and exclusivity of a Westernized culture.

Antheil, George. “The Negro on the Spiral or A Method of Negro Music.” Negro: An Anthology. ed. Nancy Cunard, Hugh D. Ford. Bloomsbury, 1996. 214-219. Print.


Blog 5 – Karisa Harris-Cleary

We have been and continue discussing the puzzling form of Negro: An Anthology, which contains not only the anticipated variety of writing, but photographs and historical documents as well, organized geographically. Winkiel first introduces the text as a scrapbook-like compilation “from a fringe area,” as Benjamin asserts, but later suggests that it be read more as an event (Winkiel 507). This performative text comes to life through a “juxtaposition between civilized and savage,” a collection of black history ranging from primitive Africa to the oppressions in America and Europe. The interwoven histories create a black transnational identity by opening the possibility of race as a historically and geographically determined conception (Winkiel 513, 514). With this anthropological motive of Cunard’s in mind, the observed romanticizing of the African-American culture throughout Negro remains indeterminately promising as much as it is pushes invasiveness.

There is a sort of disconnect between this black transnationalism and a retrieval of African diasporic life. While preserving African roots is imperative, there was a growing population of post-diaspora black identity that was rooted in America and Europe rather than Africa. Cunard does take this into account through the countless slavery art and archival writings, but she continues to convey this primitive essential notion of the culture. Take the entry, “Negro Sculpture and Ethnography,” which displays assortments of primal African artistic artifacts and even a few from Cunard’s own collection. This is followed by an excerpt from Ladislas Szecsi’s paper “The Term ‘Negro Art’: is essentially a non-African Concept,” where he claims that “The Negroes have been able to create works of art because of their innate purity and primitiveness,” but this was diffused at the intersection of the African and the European (Cunard 413).

This is exactly the type of romanticizing that Cunard and other modernists portrayed amidst this anthropological illustration of the African-American culture, which lead to the scrapbook reading of Negro. As Winkiel expounds, “…even as Cunard romanticizes the vanishing Africa- and African-diasporic ways of life, she… argues instead for an alternative modernity based on black transnationalism” (Winkiel 517). Still, there are moments within this romantic tone of various pieces within the text that construct an uncomfortable prickliness that almost contests those “alternative modernity” motives. Antheil’s “The Negro on the Spiral,” is a prime example of this phenomenon. He romantically declares, “…the Negro has a rhythmic sense second to none in the world… so intricate in rhythmic pattern, so delicately balanced in contra-rhythms and proportions, and so breath-taking in unisons and choral impact are these extraordinary performances” (Cunard 214-215). The uneasiness comes with phrases like “the special Negro throats” and his later notion of the mulatto child of the United States through African-American musical influence (Cunard 215). By elevating this culture so high above all others, Antheil is still othering the identity to an extent that becomes quite circular, just as he, in reference to the voice of African music, defines the throat as “Negro throats.”

Following, of course, is Cunard’s multiple representations of herself as an African-American. No matter how anthropological her perspective may be she will never be able to view the world from the underprivileged subject of the time. Winkiel’s included negative photograph of Cunard with ivory bracelets coiled around her neck does an excellent job of illustrating the borderline distaste of a possible fetishism. She include the caption, which reads: “With the older women these ivories are priceless treasures, and they will endure any hardships in preference to degrading themselves by selling them, however great the inducement may be.” Winkiel then states this noteworthy point that Cunard is referring to that suffering in which she may be partially responsible for in obtaining these artifacts, and then she poses for this photograph with a look of anguish and a symbolic notion of hanging, or potentially even lynching (Winkiel 515).

On the other hand, the geographical organization and historical representation of Negro presents this montage of disconnected pieces that poignantly embody significant and expansive pieces of the African-American identity (Winkiel 514). The gaps between each entry break the flow of a narrative and present an accurately fragmented history, with no room for a “single dominant perspective” (Winkiel 513). If Cunard’s romantic intrigue with this culture wasn’t embedded right into the pages of Negro, it could go without analyzing, but there’s something to be interpreted from this white romanticized perspective of the African-American.


Cunard, Nancy. Negro. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Winkiel, Laura A. “Nancy Cunard’s Negro and the Transnational Politics of Race.” Modernism/modernity 13.3 (2006): 507-530. Web.

Karisa Harris-Cleary

James Joyce possesses an avant-garde focus on form that allows his work to hold up today. On the surface, his style is jagged, complex, and makes absolutely zero sense, but beyond face-value, his form itself speaks louder than its content.

In interpreting this excerpt from “Sirens” as a fragment of a narrative, the counterpart of the time that comes to mind is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both construct a window into the twentieth century entertainment experience, immersed in spirits and symphony, and fogged by neoclassicism. While Fitzgerald’s novel is generally received as a realist novel, the abstracted style of Joyce’s Ulysses embodies a far more realistic experience of these aspects of social, human life. As Albright mentions, Joyce crafts an auditory presence within his writing (Albright 47). It is a sense that brings the reader into the work, rather than projecting the work onto the reader.

On the inside of “Sirens,” we hear the musical introduction of “steelyringing” followed by “A jumping rose… Trilling, trilling” (Albright 45). Next, in the middle, is “a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call” which is tailed by “Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack” (Albright 45). The climax ensues, “War! War! The tympanum,” and falls with a “Black. Deepsounding. Do, Ben, do” (Albright 46). The sounds end in a “tschink with tschunk. Fff! OO!” of a cheers shadowed by the bodily noises, “Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl” and the fusion of these sounds with the Robert Emmet quote, “My eppripfftaph. Be pfrwritt,” signifying a digestion of the prior events along with an outright jest of Emmet’s work, reforming it into a sound similar to flatulence (Albright 47).

This is only my own attempt to decipher what exactly Joyce might be doing, which is constructing a typical musical score of any type in the banality that neoclassicism strove for. Still, as he sets up this representation he mocks the world of traditional music with pummeling satire. From The Rose of Castille to “Big Benben” and an unfinished “the” from “When the Bloom Is on the Rye,” his mockery is almost heard. For example, the moment he articulates, “a satiny breast of satin,” plays with an overused formula deprived of originality (Albright 45). Later Joyce brings Thomas Moore’s “Last Rose of Summer” down to the level of adolescent poetry when he delivers (drearily), “I feel so sad. P.S. So lonely blooming” (Albright 46).

The uncompleted, “Have you the?” taken from “When the Bloom is on the Rye” reappears from the first encounter of “Blue bloom is on the” (Albright 45). “Blue,” here, is an echo of “blew,” which is an echo of the previous line, “A husky fifenote blew,” turning sound into established melody, with a twist. This plays into the idea that “form is content, content is form,” as stated by Samuel Beckett in reference to Joyce’s work, because the form of these previously popular productions held such a standard form that there was nothing to be found beyond “the” (Albright 45, 47).

Finally, Joyce’s ending grounds his alternative form in a refusal to provide a resolution. As soon as he exclaims, “Done,” he follows with, “Begin!” (Albright 47). A foundation in the form of traditional music and narrative is the conclusion, a place to rest. Joyce, as a modernist, is tearing down the audience’s neoclassicist expectations of form and leaving with an enormous sense of distress. Right when digestion hits, the reader is accustomed to a sweet, consoling resolution, but instead we are told to “begin” from the end.
By hurling the reader into a space of abstract sound through writing, the outcome is not only something unique and intellectually stimulating, but also concrete in opposition to the overplayed fantasy of form. While Fitzgerald’s novel held a promising meaning in the end, it held up to traditional form. When realism is attempted through fiction, sincerity is difficult to withhold, yet the opposite happens when reality is distorted. In “real life” there are no happy endings, warm conclusions or ultimate resolutions of any sort. On the other hand, there is a sense of mayhem in the sounds we hear as Joyce depicts through music, clanking of glasses, bits and pieces of conversation, and an array of ambient noise. Immersed in all of the sound, he begs of us, “Listen!” (Albright 46).