Louis Armstrong explores his identification with the African American race through his unique characterization of jazz. Ultimately, however, he remains uncomfortable with the lack of any satisfactory definition regarding his place in the world, choosing instead to ruminate on the viability of the status quo of race relations in America.
Armstrong’s rendition of the 1929 song (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue laments the musician’s status in society as a black man. The song itself follows a progression similar to the plot of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, growing in volume and intensity as its references to racial discrimination convey the artist’s deepening pain. Throughout the piece there seems to be little other reason for Armstrong’s alienation other than the color of his skin, which he describes as a sin and tries to find ways to absolve his depressed state. He never comes to accept and embrace his identity, but instead blindly questions his condition and believes that he is “white…inside.” This confession truly illustrates the intensity of the discrimination Armstrong faced as a jazz artist catering to white audiences as well as how literal his state of denial remains.
As with many other oral traditions, the blues aesthetic shed light on the evolving meaning of what it meant to be African American in the twentieth century. Ellison identifies many of these practices in his novel, yet returns to music in several instances. The author traces African American musical history through slave songs, moving to continuous references to its modern re-interpretations in jazz and blues music, specifically (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue. When he first tells readers of his love for the song, the protagonist speculates that “[p]erhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s make poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible” (Ellison 8). Thus, he also recognizes the musician’s inability to come to terms with himself.
The protagonist attempts to deny his identity in much the same way as Armstrong through much of the novel. He makes a number of similar comments, explaining in the prologue that he lives in a dark hole that is “warm and full of light” (Ellison 6), alluding to his past attempts to assimilate into white society by first becoming white on the inside. His transition to becoming fully aware of his black identity is book-ended only in the prologue and epilogue and as a result, the lighted hole “confirms my reality, gives birth to my form […] exactly because I am invisible” (Ellison 6). In this way, the narrator does not embrace his African American identity any more than Armstrong does, but rather rejects it as a useless construct in an ignorant society.
Jazz music as a modern exegesis of African American oral traditions has been used by many artists to reflect on their personal and collective journeys, as well as to make public political appeals. While a powerful tool, the profound and lasting impact of racial discrimination is clearly a complex experience that remains a difficult hurdle for many within the black artistic community.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1947. Print.
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