A few of my past blog posts have briefly mentioned what America was like when Louis Armstrong was born in the southern state of Louisiana. To elaborate further I would like to paint a picture for you, it was 1901, the turn of the twentieth century, and Louisiana was still battling the effects of being one of the frontier states of slavery. New Orleans, specifically, was one of the biggest cities in the slave south only three decades prior. At this time Jim Crow laws, previously known as the Black Code, were in full effect, providing the South with a legal way to assimilate blacks into a life of indentured servitude and separation. This image may not be beautiful, but nevertheless, it is a representation of “little Louie’s” reality as a child. In an Ebony Magazine article Louis reminisces on words his grandmother would tell him, “Them that kicks over the traces too quick, forgets that I seen the days when we was sold on the hoof like dumb cattle. Them that goes too fast gets nowhere. Them that shines and makes a lot of fuss is goners.“1
I propose this perspective in relation to the world that makes up our temporary existence. The recent 2020 presidential election results have given me time to consider what it means to be a representation of blackness in America. I contemplate the life path that Armstrong journeyed upon as an ambassador of a segregated world, and how his representation influenced today’s moment. Was Louis’ talent and pure genius a call for recognition of the black body or was his black body the scrutiny of humanity?
In a 1974 New York Times Magazine article written by Toni Morrison, she speaks of rediscovering black history throughout her collaboration with collectors forming what was published as the Black Book2 It was while indulging in this writing that I further considered the trajectory of Louis’ life, as he crossed boundaries that had been previously designed in opposition to the one characteristic he could not control of himself: his color. The book compiled “the elements that distinguished black life (its peculiar brand of irony, oppression, versatility, madness, joy, strength, shame, honor, triumph, grace and stillness” with the “qualities that identified it with all of mankind (compassion, anger, foolishness, courage, self-deception and vision).”3
As a musician, amongst various other facets, Louis took on the role of entertaining his audiences; he was responsible for bringing fans of all walks of life together to hear jazz. Featured on the cover of a 1929 published sheet music titled “After You’ve Gone”, Louis is pictured alongside 44 other musicians. He is the only one of color. This powerful depiction of excellence is still the epitome of America’s views on race and comparison between the White and Black body. Though it invokes inspiration to visually see Louis as a representation of the Black body, this power can seemingly be negated as ultimately being a reflection of the country’s ideals towards distinct differences amongst humans of color. An excerpt from Morrison’s article shows a fragment from the Black Book, in which a 1905 letter written to W.E.B. DuBios from a white professor blatantly inquired about a comparison between the black and white person. “We are pursuing an investigation here on the subject of crying as an expression of the emotions, and should like very much to learn about it’s peculiarities among the colored people.” 4
Now, almost 120 years after Louis’ birth, the conditions of the world which he inhabited provides too close a comparison with today. The needs of the collective can prevail and offer the opportunity for the introduction of a world that includes rather than separates and is a reflection of all its inhabitants. Our society is a cohabitant and our leaders should be a mirrored image.
1Reluctant Millionaire, Charles L. Sanders, 1964, Ebony Magazine
2The Black Book, Middleton Harrs, 1974, Random House New York
3Rediscovering Black History, Toni Morrison, 1974, New York Times Magazine
4Rediscovering Black History, Toni Morrison, 1974, New York Times Magazine