Stuart Hall and vernacular modernity

February 14, 2014

The passing of Stuart Hall makes me go back to his seminal essay, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” where he talks about “vernacular modernity” as the “modernity of the blues, of gospel music, of hybrid black music in its enormous variety throughout the New World.”

For Hall, Miles Davis embodies that definition.

I wonder,  though, whether vernacular modernity couldn’t also be taken more literally, as the multiplicity of spoken tongues, some indigenous to the Americas, others brought from Africa, making New World “modern” beginning in the seventeenth century.

Music indirectly bears witness to those tongues, so too does literature, especially in its invocation of names that it’s still a shock to recall.   I’m thinking of the Abendakis in Thoreau’s Maine woods: “It was a purely wild and primitive American sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it; but Paugus, had he been there, would have understood it.  These Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language in which Eliot’s Indian Bible is written, the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long?  These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born.”   I’m also thinking of Ibos arriving in South Carolina in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.   And, most of all, in tribute to Stuart Hall, the Jamaica maroons in Maryse Condé’s I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.

Vernacular modernity could be precolonial as well as postcolonial, no?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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