The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom:
Hegel, Slavery and
19th Century African American Music

by Greg Harrison


This study examines the role of African American music in the development of American historical and social relations. Although incorporating elements from the fields of music, history, and philosophy, it does not fall strictly within any of these disciplines. The reader will not find within these pages a detailed musicological analysis of nineteenth century African American music nor a thorough history of American slavery. Rather, the focus will be upon the areas where these historical and cultural processes may have intersected. It is specifically concerned with the manifestations of this process in the nineteenth century but includes some discussion of the preceding periods, and, in examining early New Orleans jazz, briefly explores some developments in the early twentieth century.

The principal theme is Hegelís famous allegory of the master and the slave, concentrating primarily on the possibility that the music of the slaves can be viewed as an exemplary instance of Labour (Arbeit) in the Hegelian sense. This is not meant to imply that Hegelís allegory should be understood as a "grand narrative", or a framework into which American history can somehow be made to fit. Rather, Hegelís dialectic is employed because it provides a useful and, at times, particularly insightful method of engaging aspects of the historical process and the relations which helped to shape its course.

The United States has been chosen for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the history of chattel slavery and emancipation in the United States shares a number of distinct correspondences to the underlying structure of Hegelís dialectic. This in itself raises a number of questions in regard to Hegelís theories and what light they may shed on the historical relationship. Furthermore, by choosing to concentrate on the changing consciousness of the slave as the active force within the master-slave relationship, Hegelís allegory bears a comparison to the role of the African American slaves and their descendants within American history. Finally, the existence of slavery itself — a decidedly ancient institution — within a rapidly developing Ďmoderní nation raises issues which have a continued, though often submerged, relevance within the historical course of the twentieth century.

Obviously, the dialectical relationship between race, power and history did not occur only within the United States. As an Australian, I am only too well aware of the similarities between the history of my country and that of the United States in regard to historical relationships. Indeed, as my research has progressed, the similarities have become more and more evident. Perhaps the most striking of these discoveries came from a letter written to The Queenslander in 1880 which appears in Henry Reynoldís most recent work, The Whispering in Our Hearts. The letter, written by a correspondent calling himself "Never Never", presented the usual racist arguments. There was no room in Australia, he argued, for two races and thus: "The sooner we clear the weak, useless race away, the better." He continued, arguing that Europeans might be no less savage than Aborigines but they had within themselves, something the Aborigines lacked:

We, the invading race, have a principle hard to define, and harder to name; it is innate in us, and it is the restlessness of culture...We work for prosperity, we have a history. [1]

It was not the racist diatribe that made this letter extraordinary. Such bigoted views can be found in numerous letters of the period from either of the two countries. Rather, it was the implications of the statement: "We have a history." Now this is an extraordinary thing to say. How is it possible for a people, race or culture not to have a history? And furthermore, what does Ďhaving a historyí actually entail?

It is these questions and the fundamental conception of Ďhaving a historyí that are central to this work. They are also vividly present in Hegelís master-slave dialectic and the relationship exhibited and developed in the history of American slavery and the Aboriginal-European history of Australia. History is not only produced, it can be also be denied or removed. In Australia, the principle of terra nullius (empty land) alone attests to that. Accepting this, the essence of the master-slave dialectic then becomes a question of what happens to those people whose history has been denied and, just as crucially, what are the consequences for those who deny it.

Hegel argued that a people's historical consciousness is produced by their culture and social relations rather than being superimposed on them. Self-consciousness, like historical consciousness, can thus only exist through a relationship with external entities. Indeed, Hegel criticises the tendency of metaphysical thinking to interpret everything as an entity, a thing in isolation, according to which the soul is a thing, or culture is a thing. Rather Hegel viewed all concepts as process: "Nothing stands in isolation: everything involves mediation."[2] Within the process of history, the continued existence of historical consciousness is thus dependent upon a number of dynamic factors; the most important being the element of recognition within social relations. As Georg Lukács describes it, this was "Hegelís philosophical revolution":

...his discovery of and focussing on the reflection determinations, consists above all in the ontological removal of the chasm of absolute separation between appearance and essence. In so far as the essence is conceived neither as existing and transcendent, nor as the product of a process of mental abstraction, but rather as a moment of a dynamic complex, in which essence, appearance and illusion continuously pass into one another... [3]

This study endeavours to illustrate that the historical and social relationships which emerged within the history and practice of American slavery were often marked by appearances and illusions which were determined by reflection in social relations. Furthermore, it is these factors themselves which often served to transform and sustain the essence of the relationship beyond its institutional boundaries.

As Hegel proposed, the initial basis for appearances and illusions in the master-slave relationship is the denial of recognition and it is a concept which resonates loudly within the history of slavery and colonialism. Comments such as those of "Never Never" further suggest that in these relationships, denial of recognition is not confined to the realm of the individual. Not only is it the slave (or Aborigine) who is denied recognition by the master but it is a form of denial which encompasses culture and history. The denial of recognition negates the possibility that the subjugated has an independent history, and equally, it denies the fact that, once within the relationship, their history and culture can become an integral and interdependent part of the mastersí own historical and cultural processes. By denying this recognition, the master attempts to remove the slave consciousness from the historical process and to supplant that, instead, in an Ďaddendumí to his own history and consciousness. In doing so, the master endeavours to reinforce the authority of his own history and self-consciousness within the relationship.

Nevertheless, as Hegel suggested, the masterís actions also present the slave with an apparent choice. He can submit entirely to the dominance of the masterís historical consciousness, in which case his own self-consciousness becomes completely dependent upon that of the master. The slaveís historical consciousness will therefore continue to exist subsumed within this dependent relationship. For the slave, the culmination of this total submission is (as Orlando Patterson demonstrates) akin to social death. In this state, he will remain a slave forever and thus it is really no option at all. Likewise, for the master, Hegel suggested that his dependence upon the slave for a deferential form of recognition would bring his self-consciousness to a point of stalemate — the existential impasse. Though believing he is independent, the master will remain equally dependent. Consequently, neither the consciousness of the master nor the slave develops beyond the relationship. Hegel did, however, offer an alternative; one which provided a means for the slave and master to extract themselves from the dependent relationship within the historical process and attain what he refers to as "true self-consciousness." [4]

To do so, however, the slave consciousness must effectively place itself back into the historical process and be recognised as such by the master. The slave must (re)create an independent self-consciousness so that it will be recognised as not merely an adjunct to the masterís history but as a true and in(ter)dependent historical consciousness. In order to survive, the slave must therefore undertake a process of formation in the production of this historical consciousness, so that the slave too, will have (or be) a part of history.

Naturally, within a dependent relationship marked by the denial of recognition, this dialectical process involves a continual separation and engagement with the culture and history of the master. By relegating slave history to an adjunctive position, the masterís historical dominance necessitates that slave consciousness undertake a process of historical transformation in order to survive. This is the struggle for recognition.

The original question which gave rise to this study was: What did the American slaves produce or form through their labour that may have assisted their struggle for recognition? This question emerged from a brief comparison between Hegelís dialectic and the history of American slavery undertaken by myself some years ago. The role of music in the lives of the slaves appeared highly significant. Although this deliberation necessitated a broad definition of labour (Arbeit) in the Hegelian sense, as we shall see, this was not dissimilar to Hegelís own concept, particularly when seen in combination with his notion of Bildung (the effects of this work upon the workers themselves).

By focusing on the music of the slaves as an exemplary instance of Labour in the Hegelian sense, African American musical praxis, as developed in the period of slavery and immediately afterward, can thus be considered a crucial part of the struggle for recognition. Notwithstanding its other numerous and invaluable functions, seen in this way, the music of the African American slaves was both a means to an end and also served to shape the potential for a new beginning.

Ralph Ellison put this eloquently when he stated: "For the art — the blues, the spirituals, the jazz, the dance — was what we had in place of freedom."[5] In many ways though, the music didnít just exist "in place of freedom" but was, as I hope to show, an integral factor in its realisation. Of course, Ellison himself realised this only too well:

Any people who could endure all that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself, and endure until it could take the initiative in achieving its own freedom is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization. Seen in this perspective, theirs has been one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in modern times, in fact, in the history of the world. [6]


1 (quoted in) Reynolds, Henry, This Whispering in our Hearts, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1998, 117. [-> main text]

2 (quoted in) Williams, R., Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other, Newbury Park, State University of New York Press, 1992, 111. [-> main text]

3 Lukács, G., The Ontology of Social Being — Hegelís False and His Genuine Ontology, (trans. Fernbach, D.), London, Merlin Press, 1978, 82. [-> main text]

4 Throughout this study, I will refer to the figures of the master and slave as they appear in Hegelís dialectic as male because this is how Hegel configured them. In the historical process this should not be seen to imply that the slave is being envisaged only as male. Within this study, when the American slaves are being discussed in regard to Hegelís formulation, Ďslaveí refers equally to both female and male slaves. I have tried to reflect this as much as possible in my choice of phrasing. This is also the case when using the term Ďmasterí, though historically, we know that most Southern Ďmastersí were in fact male. [-> main text]

5 Ellison, Ralph, Shadow and Act, New York, Signet, 1964, 247. [-> main text]

6 Ellison, Ralph, ĎA Very Stern Disciplineí in Harpers, March 1967, 84. [-> main text]

SOURCE: Harrison, Greg. The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery, and African American Music. PhD dissertation. Dept. of Art History, University of Sydney, March 1999, iv + 463 pp. This is the introduction, pp. 1-6. Introduction by Ralph Dumain added for this web site only.

© 1999, 2002, 2014 Gregory Michael Harrison. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the author.

CONTACT Greg Harrison

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