The Perseverant Power of Black Music in “The Pretended”
Jill Evans, Mount Wachusett Community College
Abstract: This essay illustrates the heritage of Black music as a form of social activism as informed by Darryl A. Smith’s short story “The Pretended.” In this dystopian science fiction story, the Black race has been replaced by robots. In order to cope with the injustices they face, these robots turn to music. Though this story is fictional, “The Pretended” is undeniably relevant to 21st Century Black liberation movements like Black Lives Matter. From slave spirituals to Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar, Black music proves the voice is more powerful than the pen and the sword.
Music has been a critical component in Black resistance movements and activism since the era of slavery in America. From religious spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down, Moses” depicting escapes and liberation, to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” to Beyonce’s “Black Parade,” music has long been a source of hope and a platform for political and social critique. The importance of music in Black activism is underscored in Darryl A. Smith’s short story “The Pretended,” an allegory on the systemic oppression and dehumanization of Black people in America. In this science fiction piece, white people have abolished Black people as a race. However, needing someone to oppress, they built robots with the brains and bodies of Black people and treated them as subhuman. Or, in other words, they treated them the way white people have historically treated Black people. These robots are more caricatures of Black people than anything, programmed to speak exclusively in African American Vernacular English. This language was meant to keep the robots as unintelligible subordinates, but the robots in the story demonstrate that, so long as they have their voice, they cannot be stifled. This idea parallels to the era of American slavery wherein enslaved people were deprived of education in an effort to keep them from uniting and overthrowing their oppressors, and yet it was through music that enslaved people liberated themselves all the same. Across genres, Black music has historically been about unification, liberation, empowerment, and—especially within the last fifty years—Black pride. “The Pretended,” with its symbolic portrayal of the dehumanization of Black people in the form of robots and its illustration of how Black people use music in times of injustice, may be a dystopian science fiction story, but its relevance to 21st century needs for Black activism is undeniable.
In the story, the elimination of Black people and their replacement with Black robots is a clear representation of the way white people destroy the humanity of Black people and portray them as conspicuously non-human. The story centers on a seven-year-old robot named Mnemosyne and her friend, Diva Eve, as they sit aboard a train full of “malfunctioning” robots like themselves, on their way to be destroyed. The white people’s justification of the creation of the robots is best explained by Diva Eve:
[W]hen black people was all gone—before people builded us—people stopped pretendin. People started seein that they was jes pretendin all along before bout black not bein people. They start seein that black musta been people and they couldn't deal wit that. Funny thing bout pretendin is, if you stop, that's when you know you was jes makin stuff up the whole time (Smith 362).
In essence, when white people came to realize that Black people were not, in fact, the sub-human species that they had treated them as, it was unbearable for them. They couldn’t simply stop justifying their racism or they’d have to deal with the consequences of their actions; thus, they built Black robots that were quite literally not human so that they could be fully justified in their oppression. Likewise, real-world examples of stripping the humanity from Black people and replacing it with a racist, white perception of Black people are visible everywhere. The ongoing portrayals of the beatings and murders of Black people at the hands of police by media sources is a relevant real-world example; when a Black person can be seen as subhuman, when his humanity is stripped from him, he can be relabeled as a “thug,” “thief,” “drug addict,” or “gangster” and treated only as such. It is illegal to kill a person, but is it illegal to kill an animalistic criminal? It is through dehumanization that inhumane treatment is consequently justified.
This form of racism is easy to internalize, as we see in Mnemosyne, whose self-perception is that of a robot pretending to be a person, but not of an actual person. Diva Eve explains to her that if she’s not a real person, it’s not just because she has the physical body of a robot but because “you pretendin like you're people steda jes bein people” (Smith 362). Mnemosyne contests, “But they programmed me to pretend. People programmed all us robots to pretend like we're people,” to which Diva Eve replies, “No, they didn't. They programmed you so you could pretend like you was black—not people. But you don't see no difference between em” (Smith 361). Diva Eve reveals here the foundation on which this world rests: someone or something that is Black cannot be a real person. Mnemosyne thought that she was a robot who was programmed to pretend to be a person (and, in this world, the only people are white), but Diva Eve reminds her that she was programmed to be Black—a distinctly sub-human category. For Mnemosyne to start to pretend that she was a real person—not just Black—is to go against her programming, to malfunction; because of this, the (white) humans have decided that she must be destroyed. As Diva Eve explains, “That's why we on this train now” (Smith 361). The aforementioned parallels to the real world, especially in the United States, are chilling. Just as white Americans turn Black Americans into savages in their mind’s eye in order to see their lives as worth less than their own, the white people in the story turn Black people into robots.
When white people created Black robots, they used the template that they associated with Blackness to maintain the inferior status of Blackness—a template that included dark skin, kinky curls, and, as is shown in the dialogue between our two protagonists, speech consisting almost entirely of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. Diva Eve explains that, to build the Black robots, white people took the brains of Black people, wiped parts of their memory, put it into a machine, and “[made] our talk the way they think it should sound” (Smith 362). Of course, it’s a complete fallacy that all Black people use AAVE, especially exclusively (“Black”). Regardless, it is only through the lens of white supremacy that AAVE is differentiated at all; most references to AAVE are in comparison against the idealized, yet essentially nonexistent, Standard English (“Standard”). If Standard English is spoken at all, it is spoken by a select few, namely “trained elocutionists and some radio and TV commentators” (“Standard”). And yet, Standard English is touted as the superior dialect to AAVE, despite there being no “evidence whatsoever that suggest[s] that Black English is in any way deficient in communicative or expressive function” (“Black”). The white people in this story have programmed the robots to speak in AAVE for two reasons: the first being that their perception of Black speech exclusively includes AAVE. The second was an attempt to limit the potential for humans to view them as intelligent beings with the capacity for real conversation. The irony is, though, that Mnemosyne articulates incredibly sophisticated ideas, even within the limits of her programmed speech. For instance, in a moment of internalized racism, Mnemosyne imagines a world where Black people created white robots:
Think of it! White machines! As light as you please. Like them Greek statues in the museums. Only they move. They soft. They so beautiful, you wouldn't even mind if they control you a little bit….And they'd forget you builded em. Cause you'd forget you builded em. And why would you forget you'd brought the statues to life? Cause you'd want to. Cause you'd die to—jes like the chiseler-king who got the most handsomest goddess of beauty and love to activate his ivory darling, cause he prayed so strong over it. He loved it so much (Smith 368).
There are several layers to this quote, but the one I find most interesting is how a seven-year-old girl so vividly formulates a hypothetical world with supreme white robots and even describes the Greek mythological story of Pygmalion, who fell in love with the statue he created and prayed to Venus until she brought the statue to life, all using the purportedly “inferior” dialect of AAVE (“Pygmalion”). Indeed, she reveals the depth of her intellect despite the constraints of her programming. This programming was designed to contain the robots to their box of subordinate “Blackness,” as it’s defined by white people, to limit their expressions to unintelligible babble, and yet this quote plainly demonstrates that Mnemosyne is well beyond her years in her capacity for knowledge and critical thinking.
While AAVE is viewed by racist elitists as an inferior dialect lacking in substance (particularly in comparison to so-called “Standard English”), this dialect has a long history of conveying powerful and complex messages in Black liberation movements, starting with the spirituals sung by enslaved people before and during the abolition of slavery. The oral traditions of African Americans certainly have roots in the African cultures from which they derived, but they were likely made newly powerful by legislation that banned enslaved people from education in any form, especially reading and writing, for fear that it would empower their resistance (Brown 58). Still, this lack of written language did not inhibit them enough; the lack of a pen does not account for the lack of a voice, and spirituals prove the Black voice to be a powerful agent for change. Frederick Douglas, a formerly enslaved abolitionist, wrote on the moving spirituals that slaves would sing while they worked:
They would sing words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. […] I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those songs. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains (Brown 54).
While these spirituals were perceived by outsiders as gibberish, they usually contained hidden messages of resistance—and often they even gave advice on escaping slavery (Brown 54). Slave spirituals “permitted [slaves] to speak…openly of the afflictions of bondage and their longings for freedom. In this sense, there was always an element of protest in the slaves’ religious songs” (qtd. in Dennis 38). Many of the songs written and/or sung by enslaved Africans (such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down, Moses”) are foundational church hymns across the nation, still sung with freedom in mind. We see the continued power of this heritage in “The Pretended” when, as Mnemosyne is sitting aboard the train, she witnesses “a group of very old robots huddled together, swaying and humming a song Mnemosyne had often heard in church” (Smith 358). In this brief window between their life outside the train and their impending death, these older robots revert to a coping skill as old as African American suffering itself: singing freedom songs.
Liberation music didn’t stop with slave spirituals; the Civil Rights Era and Black Power Movement, particularly between the 1940s and 1980s, generated its own generation of protest music. Black musicians such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, James Brown, and Sam Cooke all produced music that directly criticized racism in America and empowered Black people nationally to recognize their worth. During the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, for instance, composer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon noted, “Songs supplied a steady spiritual nourishment through activities of that march; the verses that people fashioned expressed their intentions and reasons for being there” (qtd. in Mingo 96). As marchers went on, they composed their own songs in the moment to fuel their efforts. This tradition of composing on the spot in response to injustice is historical, as well. Some historical records report:
Slaves improvising and singing laments and dirges to console themselves in times of despair—e.g., at funerals, while chained in coffles en route to the slave market, imprisoned in dungeons at slave markets, or at traumatic farewells before transport to unknown places further South (Wright 9-10).
The robots aboard the train perhaps more closely resemble this latter group. They weren’t protesting in action—in fact, they are largely resigned in their resistant efforts, as is illustrated by the decision of many to self-destruct aboard the train—but their spirits were still defiant. Theologian James Cone notes, “Black music is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people; and it moves the people toward the direction of total liberation” (qtd. in Mingo 98).
Nowhere is this “unity music” more overt and expressive than in hip hop, and “The Pretended” illustrates its influential power for Black youth. In their book Black Lives Matter & Music: Protest, Intervention, Reflection, Fernando Orejuela and Stephanie Shonekan assert that “[h]ip hop is one of the most significant contributions to Black Lives Matter’s soundscapes and pretending that hip hop studies is not about Black political culture is itself a loud, political statement” (Orejuela and Shonekan 53). Slave spirituals are to 19th century abolitionist movements as hip hop is to 21st century Black liberation movements. Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University AnneMarie Mingo states that:
As a result of its silence on many socio-political issues since the Civil Rights Movement and its physical disconnection with the communities where they were once central, many young people no longer consider the Black Church to be relevant, and therefore, they do not typically adopt the Church’s music. Instead, young people draw inspiration from rap artists and entertainers, who take on the role of the preacher and prophet by speaking truth to power from the stage or via social media” (Mingo 111).
The hymns of their ancestors became obsolete and irrelevant, no longer relatable to the tribulations faced by the current generation. Thus, hip hop became foundational in contemporary Black resistant music. Just as the older robots in “The Pretended” cope with their circumstances by singing church hymns, Mnemosyne taps into the power of hip hop aboard the train with Diva Eve. As they engage in a pretend tea party, Diva Eve requests some music—“Something civilized,” she says (Smith 365). In response, Mnemosyne produces a boom box and plays a song written by fictional rap artists Golgotha and Phinal Phaze, called “Wreckquiem for a Nation.” The lyrics are as follows:
History!, Dis!story, Fist!ory;
We got da missed story, da list gory—
See? I'm pissed, tired a dis shit;
We endin it, offendin it, sendin it
Down like a bad dream, a mad skeme;
And gettin ALL us muthafuckas out clean
Like 501's outda washmachine! (Smith 366)
Where spirituals contained coded messages, hip hop is at once both blunt and veiled. On the surface, the song could be written off by some (white) audiences—as hip hop often is—as angry Black noise, but upon closer look, the reader/listener sees that these lyrics criticize and reject “da missed story” lost from American whitewashing of slavery and Black history, its “gory list” of those murdered by white hands, and they call for unity to radically change the nation. The song’s title itself, “Wreckquiem for a Nation” takes the peace out of traditional Catholic requiems and instead calls for “wrecking” the nation, with violent implications for remembering and empowering the people who lost their lives in the fight for Black liberation.
And yet, the power of this message is lost on Mnemosyne:
Because of the speed and age of the vernacular, she could not really understand just what the individuals singing it were saying. Her linguistic programming was limited, and it could barely keep up with the nuances of the original creators of the music (Smith 366).
In what was perhaps a strategic decision, Mnemosyne’s programmers omitted code that would help her understand the content of the song; she literally could not decode it. It could be that the white robot creators and programmers didn’t consider the language used in the rap to be important enough to program for, or it could be that they considered this language to be too important. Evidence for this latter theory exists when Mnemosyne remembers her now deceased brother Demal, who frequently listened to this so-called “underground music,” when he was:
Found in an alley attached to an electrical transformer—his head burst from the overload to his hopeless circuits and pieces of him lying all over Robindale Street […]Demal used to say that, in a way, it made him feel good to know that nothing had really changed since the music was made (Smith 366).
To listen to and understand the content of the music, Demal acquired an “electrical transformer” that eventually inundated his circuits and lead to his death. Here in Demal’s death lies a central point of the story: for a Black person—in this case, a robot—to fully understand the pain and injustices their ancestors have endured and that they currently endure is to spark resistance and empower them. Thus, it is necessary to extinguish any information that may lead to such resistance—or to any kind of disruption of white supremacy—and to label those that do resist as “malfunctioning” so that they can be annihilated. Yes, the power of Black music must be tamed. Even in 2022, contemporary hip hop shares the same themes as it did over forty years ago. With its origins in the South Bronx during the late 1970s, hip hop has always been used to amplify resistant Black voices. The 1980s saw the Black community endure the war on drugs, increased racial profiling (particularly by police), and mass incarceration (with subsequent disenfranchisement), with critics calling it a “return to Jim Crow” (Peretti 166). This rage brought a new energy to hip hop and gave birth to groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A., both known for their outspoken opposition against racism (and against those that uphold it). Though attempts to criminalize hip hop remain unsuccessful, efforts to monitor and surveil hip hop continue (Dennis 48). In fact, in the early 2000s, shortly after “The Pretended” was written, the New York City Police Department went so far as to establish a hip hop taskforce, with other major cities across the nation following suit (Dennis 48). Perhaps Smith wrote Demal’s demise with this context in mind.
Regardless of genre, we see that, for both young and old, music is a uniting force in our world as well as the fictional world of “The Pretended.” Aboard the train, Mnemosyne witnesses a group of robots huddling together around “a grotesquely strung monstrosity—a tremendous, ghoulish harp, and they were all playing it! But they couldn't see it!” (Smith 361). With music being such a central theme woven through the story, this metaphorical harp may be a reference to William Wells Brown’s 1848 The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. The Aeolian harp Brown named his collection after was a notable figure in 19th-century Romanticism (McClendon 91). Author Aaron D. McClendon describes the significance of the harp for this time period: “The fascination with the instrument resulted from its workings. A box with sound holes and strings tuned in harmony, an Aeolian harp would be placed on a window sill and would emit sounds as its strings vibrated in the wind. Given Romanticism’s belief in the connectedness of all things, the sublimity of nature, and the valuation of feeling as a way to apprehend the world… the harp’s music conveyed what Romanticists interpreted to be the Platonic harmony of nature and the sublimity of being” (91). In essence, the harp was a symbol of harmony and unity with nature and all beings. It was an equalizer. The abolitionist movement’s roots are in these same principles—that we are all one, all equally human, meant to live in peace and harmony with one another. Brown’s motivation for compiling The Anti-Slavery Harp was to invoke sympathy from those who were indifferent to the suffering of the enslaved (McClendon 84). The songs in The Anti-Slavery Harp were meant to be sung in conjunction with abolitionist lectures to stir the hearts of people who did not have experiences in slavery and thus couldn’t understand the depth of suffering enslaved people endured (McClendon 84). The collection’s epigraph is a poem from Thomas Campbell with the following verses:
United States, your banner wears
Two emblems,—one of fame;
Alas, the other that it bears,
Reminds us of your shame.
The white man’s liberty entype,
Stands blazoned by your stars;
But the meaning of your stripes?
They mean your Negro-scars. (qtd. in McClendon 91)
These verses are an open criticism of what America symbolizes. Campbell takes each element of the American flag and uses them to point to the cruelty inflicted upon Black and enslaved people. A similar structure is used later in “The Pretended” with another fictional song of the same sentiment as Campbell’s poem:
Ulogy: Son of Abituary!
R.I.P.: Races In Pieces, G.
Don't tread on me;
Cuz flowers aint necessary;.
Leave me be: Sammy and Nephew Dandy;
Hypocrisy: Drive-by thug of Democracy
Da Scars and Hypes, Forever: Me?
Suicide's m'sole/soul Apology…
Suicide's m'sole/soul Apology…
Suicide's m'sole/soul Apology… (366-367)
The opening line’s rewrite of the acronyms USA and RIP points to the violent consequences of American racism with the following verses indicating how long-standing and historical this oppression is. The references to the Gadsden Flag of the American Revolution, Uncle Sam, and the stars and stripes—all significant historical symbols of America—are woven into violent language depicting death and destruction. Both Campbell and this artist make the same message clear: this is America, and it’s a country built by Black blood.
If it seems like we’ve been struggling with the same problems for centuries—the dehumanization of Black people, the devaluation of their culture and art, the devaluation of their lives—it’s because we have been. The central message of Black music, from slave spirituals to gansta rap, is still liberation from chains of white supremacy. This much has not changed. Darryl A. Smith’s story, “The Pretended,” is just as relevant in 2022 as it was in 2000. And yet, the power of Black music for Black liberation has remained just as relevant. With present-day liberation movements like Black Lives Matter receiving international attention, the power of Black music is more prevalent than ever. A new generation of Black artists is creating their own inter-genre liberation music that continues to artfully criticize systemic and systematic racism as it exists in every facet of American life. Artists like H.E.R., Janelle Monae, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar are the contemporary voices of this generation. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but Black liberation music proves that the voice is more powerful than them both.
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