By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Corn: Black culture has enriched America
Placeholder Image

In the confused age we live in, culture often goes unappreciated, or worse, unrecognized. Even what is meant by the word culture is not clear when anthropologists have hijacked it to describe even the most primitive behaviors.

Is it culture when one uses a stick to remove termites from their nest? Does a business corporation have its own culture, distinct from all other norms of society? Despite faddish thinking, the answer to both questions is clearly "no." To truly understand what culture is, one must examine the root of the word.

Its Latin root is "colere," which means "to cultivate," and this translation is the heart of the word's meaning. High civilization is built upon culture, the cultivation of manners, etiquette, language, government, the arts, music and intellect by dedicated groups of people. These groups center their efforts on a shared tradition. A cultural group judges achievement based on either the mastery of past efforts or the improvement of the tradition through innovations or refinements.

Given such a definition, one is hard-pressed to find a group more culturally influential over the last century than blacks in America, and it is fitting that our public schools now spend a month highlighting examples.

For those who doubt the importance of black's contributions to America, I would ask them to imagine life in this country without musicians like Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone or Winton Marsalis. What would American sport be like without Jackie Robinson or Michael Jordan? And what would American political life be like without the impact of an entire generation of black leaders who engaged the nation in the civil rights movement in the South?

The naysayers will point out that scandal has brought low many such figures, but often such scandals are of a purely private nature and have no business in public. It seems that whenever culture is popularized for consumption by the vulgar mass of society, as has recently occurred with music and sport, celebrity haunts the successful.

Celebrity in our time means the obliteration of one's privacy, making dignity then untenable. There is no doubt that what is criminal must be punished. However, when public figures have broken no laws and are still forced to expose their private lives by stalking extortionists, who is the more criminal? More extreme, when a public figure's basic movements and human necessities are restricted until he submits to public humiliation and ridicule, it recalls the nasty days of lynch mobs in the town square.

Leaving private scandal to living room voyeurs, what is more enriching to the cultured citizen is the appreciation of an individual's public work or performance, for it has been designed and prepared for the viewing of all. And it is through such public work that the cultural achievements of blacks in America are most obvious. Despite recent stereotypes, their accomplishments have been not only stylistic, though style also enhances enjoyment, but substantive improvements.

In a famous example of accomplishment, a generation of classically trained musicians in New Orleans changed music in America, and indeed the world, by creating jazz. As Stanley Crouch puts it, genius is when a person or a group changes the logic of a particular human endeavor and produces something new, which is equal to or more powerful than its original form. The result is not merely a novelty, but a deeper and richer form than existed before its evolution.

The jazz music that emerged from New Orleans almost a century ago changed the logic of music from one of linear progression embellished with flourishes to a form that only loosely follows melody and instead is driven by individual improvisation and style. The improvisation and the central focus on individual expression is the cultural gift of American blacks to this country and the world.

In sport, where physical grace takes primacy, black players have made their mark felt most in sports that allow individuals to showcase their talents and make things up on the go. Basketball, as a wonderful example, puts minimal constraints on individual movement and has been cultivated by blacks for generations. Stylistic improvements over the decades made the game more enjoyable to watch, but when Jordan rose above the crowd and began to improvise offensive moves with his hands 11 feet above the floor, then the world wondered at the new logic created for a game that was nearly a century old.

The achievements of the nation's most prominent minority community are countless, and though examples of sport and music are the most accessible, it is arguable that no field of American life has gone without its benefit. All cultural improvements regardless of their origins are quickly taken up by the whole of society to be enjoyed, for culture has never been racially exclusive. It can be learned and mastered by anyone so inclined, and endlessly appreciated by all.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears Fridays and on