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

by Greg Harrison

A Thesis submitted in fulfilment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy

Department of Art History                University of Sydney
March 1999

Introduction by Ralph Dumain

1: Lordship and Bondage

7: Antebellum New Orleans (1803-1865)


2: Music as Praxis – African Traditions and the New World 8: Post-Bellum New Orleans (1865-1900)


3: The Peculiar Institution - Slavery and Thinghood 9: New Orleans and Jazz


4: Race, Recognition and Becoming Conclusion

Prefatory quote: Ralph Ellison on music

5: Sorrow Songs and The Great Awakening Bibliography


6: The Unhappy Consciousness  

Introduction by Ralph Dumain

When Greg Harrison contacted me on 8 October 1995 he had hitherto found no substantial support or scholarly assistance for his research on Hegel's master-slave dialectic and the development of black music. While the master-slave dialectic was not my specialty, I had nurtured for some time the notion that an untapped future lay in the application of Hegelian ideas to the history of black American culture, an idea not on the radar screen of the organized intellectual world. In recent years though, a literature had sprung up at last exploring the relationship between Du Bois and Hegel, reflective of the growing theoretical sophistication that blossomed in the '80s and bore new fruits in the '90s. I shared my nebulous thoughts on this area of investigation and began sending Greg whatever relevant references I could find on Du Bois, Hegelian dialectic and the enslavement of Africans, various forms of black music (jazz, spirituals, etc.), modernity, and related topics.

Greg embarked on a research tour of the United States in the first half of 1997. I met with him in Washington DC and New York City in March and April. Greg was given the characteristic royal treatment at the C.L.R. James Institute in New York administered by my colleague Jim Murray (the Director) and myself. We even secured a connection or two for him as well as providing sources, thoughts, and other supports. After leaving New York, Greg continued his journey to further his research.

When I received a copy of Greg's dissertation two years later, I noted how much diverse material he had assimilated, on the history of slavery, slave culture, music, and Hegel. Aside from his specific acknowledgement at the beginning, I could see the evidence of my own input in Greg's footnotes and bibliography, in references to Du Bois, Hegel and slavery, T.W. Adorno, George Lipsitz, et al. I was surprised, though, to see how much impact C.L.R. James had on Greg. Greg uses James's Notes on Dialectics in his exposition of Hegel, James's essay on the Mighty Sparrow, and James's A History of Pan-African Revolt by way of Robin Kelley, whose essay "Looking B(l)ackward" is cited. However, James's biggest contribution to this dissertation is in his view of black history itself, coupled with that of Jamesian historian George Rawick. There is also a significant analytical influence stemming from Paul Gilroy. Du Bois looms large here, both in conjunction with Hegel and in his own right. There are many other contributing influences as well, but these alone make it a project very close to the Institute's purview and mission.

Greg's dissertation ends with New Orleans and jazz, which for us is the moment of the 20th century in which black American music bursts upon the world scene. Greg and I had discussed the 20th century much more than the 19th, which was the subject of his writing, conducted without my input. The relation of the development of black music—jazz especially—to black self-assertion is especially striking. The question was raised, from the vantage point of the state of both music and politics in the 1990s: what has happened to black music and black consciousness since the revolution of the 1960s? Has something gone wrong? We agreed this was a troubling subject for future consideration.

While Greg was wrapped up in the finishing stages of his dissertation, I took up an interest in Hegel's aesthetics. I was captivated by the notion of art as a sensuous representation of the truth of the age, and the problem of the "end of art", wherein art loses its capacity to fulfill this function and strains violently and self-consciously against the limitations in which it is trapped. In Hegel's time, this was the problem of Romantic irony. I concluded that the parallels with our own time are breathtaking and that taking up this topic would be intellectually revolutionary. If the gap between representation (vorstellung) and Concept becomes unbridgeable, and popular culture can no longer properly embody the self-consciousness of our age, then what hope is there for culture and for popular consciousness? And finally, what is the relationship between the self-consciousness historically embodied within (black) music and the total spectrum of self-consciousness that needs to be realized (through religion or freethought, literature, social theory, philosophy, critical thinking on all fronts)? This is a frontier that has not even been glimpsed, let alone broached. Just as the intellectual environment becomes theoretically sophisticated at last, the emancipatory potential of theory is eviscerated in the form of ideological disintegration popularly known as postmodernism. Who has the imagination and daring to head out in a radically different direction?

In the 1990s, Greg could barely find anyone besides me to support his vision. This dissertation is the first work of its kind. The time now is ripe for book publication. I urge prospective supporters, writers, scholars, editors, and publishing houses to contact Greg Harrison to discuss publication prospects.

©2002 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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. Introduction by Ralph Dumain added for this web site only.

Note: Greg Harrison finally published his dissertation himself in 2018 with the title Strains of Freedom: A Philosophical History of African American Music and Slavery.

© 1999, 2002, 2014, 2018 Gregory Michael Harrison. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the author.

CONTACT Greg Harrison


Stanley Crouch & Me: Correspondence & Commentary
by Ralph Dumain

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe—Study Guide

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