How Music Helped James Baldwin Make Sense of Inequality

From the collections Race and Economics From INET, Economics of Race


What can music offer to economists? Ed Pavlić, Distinguished Research Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Georgia, explains how music offered a powerful lyrical companion to the social scientific tools used by the great midcentury critic of American society, James Baldwin.

Referring to his book, Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, Pavlić discusses Baldwin’s immersion in the performative tradition in African American music, which could communicate harsh social and economic realities into a relatable and transportable form. Baldwin was not the only prominent black thinker who engaged with music: Frederick Douglass studied slave work songs that, in Pavlić’s words, captured “tactical survival, tactical rebellion.”

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