Black Culture and Black Consciousness is a study of black folk culture from slavery to emancipation. In it, Lawrence Levine attacks the idea that blacks in 19th century America were devoid of culture. He argues that despite the lack of a common language or a common place of origin, blacks were able to create a culture of their own, even while suffering under the oppressive hand of slavery. Levine shows the ways in which this black culture was created and sustained, not only during the period when blacks were enslaved, but also after they were freed and began to face different challenges.
In 1977, Levine was writing about blacks in a way that few other historians were. Historians had long written about what whites thought of blacks. And, while some historians had given voice to the educated or elite members of black society, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, none had attempted to write about blacks from a lower-class, black perspective. There are reasons for this beyond the deleterious effects of racism. The blacks of the 19th century simply did not leave behind many written records. While there are very few sources written by blacks, there is no shortage of sources written by whites about blacks. Plantation owners often wrote about their slaves, although often nothing more than a general description in a list of their property.
In early 20th century, folklorists who had been documenting white folktales turned their attention to black folktales. Their intent was to show the “otherness” of blacks, to highlight the difference between whites and blacks. Levine describes how these folklorists would unnecessarily accentuate the differences between white and black vernacular. For instance, they would use wite instead of “white,” or wuz would be used for “was.” According to Levine, these misspellings were not necessarily a conscious effort to portray blacks as illiterate. They simply reflected the way that these observers felt about blacks.
The study of folk culture demands the use of certain types of sources. In order to discuss trickster tales, call-and-response songs, gospel music, jokes, proverbs, and the oral tradition that allowed these forms of communication to survive, Levine had to use sources that were complex and difficult to work with. They cannot necessarily be taken at face value, but must be mined for hidden meaning.
While showing that blacks had a culture of their own despite their being enslaved, Levine’s book describes two other significant aspects of black culture: its dependence on an oral tradition and its adaptability. Levine correctly places importance on the oral tradition in black culture, finding that most elements of black culture of the 19th century relied heavily on this tradition. Since the majority of blacks during this time were illiterate, most could only communicate verbally. For this reason, call-and-response songs, jokes, and trickster tales took on added meaning. While 19th century whites sang songs and told jokes and stories, they did not occupy the same level of importance as they did in black culture. Elements that were merely peripheral in white culture were essential to the emergence of a unified black culture during the 19th century, and the subsequent survival of that culture.
Levine under represents an essential part of black culture that followed it from the 19th century through the present: black religious sermons. Although he does discuss the role of black preachers, it is very limited. Levine misses the opportunity to place these preachers and their sermons into the overarching theme of Black Culture and Black Consciousness. These sermons are not only an example of black culture’s reliance on an oral tradition, but also are an example of the adaptability of the culture. Levine could have shown how black sermons changed with the times, in the same way that he detailed the changes that black songs underwent. Black preachers and their sermons played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement that took place in the decade prior to the publication of this book.
With Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Levine dispels the idea that blacks were deprived of their culture, that they emerged from slavery without any sort of group identity.