On Accidental Racists: A Few Thoughts on Race, Music and Southern History

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Charles Hughes writes:

On April 8th, the internet exploded with discussion over Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist,” recorded with LL Cool J and included on Paisley’s new album Wheelhouse. The song features a white Southerner and a black Northerner discussing the historical legacies and contemporary realities of American racism and ultimately achieving a friendly, though tentative, understanding. Although some have defended it and others contextualized it , “Accidental Racist” has been widely criticized and lampooned as a failure that misrepresents American history and suggests that white supremacy can be eliminated simply by everyone letting bygones be bygones and trying to understand each other as individuals. The song deserves much of the criticism – it seems well-intentioned, but it’s oversimplified, inaccurate and sometimes patently absurd. Others have spelled out the specifics (see above), but “Accidental Racist” surely presents a view of U.S. history and contemporary life that is deeply flawed.

Still, the laughter and derision that has marked the reception of “Accidental Racist” has obscured a key fact: the song’s message of racial transcendence isn’t really all that different from one of the key narratives that structures broader understandings of Southern musical history. Particularly in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, the South’s music and musicians have become well-known symbols for colorblindness and interracial cooperation in the United States. Writers, filmmakers, curators, anthologists, educators, tourism officials, politicians and many of the musicians themselves continue to assert that – in the deeply-divided South – music is a space where the races have come together as equals. The collaborations between Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong, or Hank Williams’ musical education from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, are offered as counter-examples to the nadir of Jim Crow segregation. The interracial intermingling in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll is heralded as a precursor to the imminent Civil Rights Movement. Most obviously, perhaps, southern soul is a go-to symbol for 1960s integration. In studios like Stax or Fame, black and white musicians played together in the heat of racial turmoil and supposedly either didn’t see race or didn’t care about it. In the pantheon of southern musical heroes, no quality is more revered than cross-racial collaboration, and the theme of racial crossover frames the promotion of contemporary artists from Darius Rucker to Yelawolf to the Alabama Shakes.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s significant importance in the accurate assertion that, even in the worst days, musicians in the South worked together to produce something that defied both the ideology and practice of white supremacy. But those who promote this discourse – and there are lots of them – have a disquieting tendency to imply that the music existed outside of Southern and American racial history. Statements like “racism didn’t exist in this studio” or “on the bandstand, everyone was the same” or “we saw no difference between black and white” are commonplace in these discussions, and you’re likely to spot at least five people (almost always white, of course) wearing “No Black, No White, Just Blues” T-shirts at any blues festival. Even some scholars have uncritically reiterated this rhetoric, although many of the best haven’t.

This dismissal of racial politics in Southern music is problematic as an overarching theory of history, but it’s also significantly inaccurate. Interracial collaborations usually were limited to making music, with few friendships continuing offstage or out of the studio. Additionally, significant conflicts erupted over racial slights and disparities. Many musicians – even in supposed utopias like Stax or Fame – resisted these racist practices, which ultimately led to major changes in the hierarchies and economics of southern studios. Even when the musicians did get along, they knew that their activities were still determined and often limited by the racial politics of their era. This could include everything from the restrictions produced by legal and extralegal segregation to nagging beliefs in the essential difference between black and white music. These dynamics were only amplified by the fact that the genres themselves were and are thoroughly racialized. In fact, from the “race” and “hillbilly” days through to country and hip-hop, the South’s music has been one of the most powerful symbols of racial division in American culture. On both a daily basis and over the course of their careers, southern musicians – black, white and otherwise – acknowledged and negotiated the racial contexts in which they lived and worked. In a very real way, nothing mattered more to them than race.

Additionally, this privileging of interracial friendship – currently exemplified by the image of Brad Paisley locked in a bro-hug with LL Cool J – has had the ancillary effect of disproportionately crediting whites as racial liberators in southern musical history. From Elvis Presley to Steve Cropper to Joe South to Willie Nelson and beyond, white musicians are credited with using their musical blends to demonstrate their racial open-mindedness and thus ultimately help liberate the South and nation. Additionally, white executives like Sam Phillips, Rick Hall or Phil Walden are hailed as colorblind champions of the interracial South, even though they all abandoned African-Americans to work with whites and have been roundly criticized by some of their black employees. On the flipside, black southerners have been repeatedly mischaracterized as the “authentic” voices of the past who help whites to become better people through their musical influence and then conveniently fade into the background. Sometimes, as in the case of southern soul in the Black Power years, African-Americans even become the implicit villains because they brought racial politics into the supposedly-harmonious studio, thus alienating their sympathetic white counterparts and destroying the interracial magic. (This continuing popularity of this narrative is particularly outrageous, both in terms of accuracy and implication.) Even when black musicians are simply pushed to the margins, though, the primary beneficiaries and heroes of this supposed colorblindness are white folks. And that is neither exceptional nor a cause for celebration.

So when we criticize “Accidental Racist,” as we undoubtedly should, I hope we also take a moment to more broadly reconsider in the way we think about race, music and the South. The attention galvanized by this furor makes it a perfect occasion to interrogate the conventional wisdom about what has been racially progressive and reactionary in southern musical history. It offers us a chance to ponder how these tenacious narratives correspond to other, uglier discourses: the idea that everything was fine in the South until blacks got unreasonable, for example, or the suggestion that African-Americans exist primarily to help and redeem white folks. Most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to acknowledge that the South’s musicians – through their skillful negotiation of racial politics, not to mention their remarkable music – have provided us with one of the best ways to understand how race has worked, and continues to work, in the South and the rest of the United States.

If nothing else, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J have tried to contribute to that process. In that respect, and maybe only in that respect, “Accidental Racist” might be far more progressive than it initially seems.

2 Responses to “On Accidental Racists: A Few Thoughts on Race, Music and Southern History”

  1. Ellen janikowski Says:

    Wonderfully written and thoughtful discourse.

  2. Charles Vergados Says:

    Please Mr. Hughes,
    I was lucky enough to grow up in a non-racist home with a father who was a union leader and a mother who was a devout Catholic. My parents wanted ALL Americans
    to have the best life possible.I lived through the 60’s and supported the Civil Rights movements.But clinging to the outdated rhetoric in your article is not going to help.Despite the election of President Obama,I believe the issue is in some ways as divisive, if not more . President Obama ,Eric Holder,and Al Sharpton are not Martin Luther KIng, MalcolmX,or Barbara Jordan. In fact,it was only when Malcolm started to change that he was killed.I’m sure that satisfied both white AND black racists. Don’t criticize sincere,if puerile attempts,to establish a brotherhood
    between men .After all were all in this together.

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