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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

All that Jazz

What Gets Left Out

We’ve all heard the history of Jazz — from the drums played by slaves in Congo Square in New Orleans to Louis Armstrong in that city’s red-light district, Storyville, and then on to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and beyond. Every time we tell that story, the author or voice-over narrator is sure to make some sage and sorrowful bow to the abuse, the tragedy, of slavery. But I’ve just been reading about the history of sugar in Louisiana, and I realized how bland is that ceremonial bow to conscience. And that leads me back to my constant theme — the importance of knowing, and teaching young people, real history.

Working on sugar plantations was deadly — much worse than any other form of New World slavery. That was true on the sugar islands of the Caribbean, in Brazil, and in Louisiana. In fact Louisiana was the single and only slave state in which the enslaved population did not reproduce itself, but, instead decreased over time. Sugar was deadly. The slave masters knew this, so, overwhelmingly, they purchased only two kinds of slaves: strong males in their late teens (on average male slaves sold in Louisiana were an inch taller than other enslaved males), and, in smaller numbers, girls in their middle teens — at the very beginning of their childbrearing age.

In other words, Louisiana in the first half of the nineteenth century was a vast experiment in having a controlled population teenagers and young adults — who died out in their thirties, and were replaced with new teenagers. Boys were bought to work, girls to breed. It is that particular world of slavery — that teenage world of early death, with far more males than females, with the constant pressure on girls to have children — that produced jazz.

We need to teach this not to make whites feel guilty but simply because it is true. History takes the blurry, the broad brush stroke, and supplies the concrete details which matter. Jazz, we might say, was the voice generations of teenagers reared in a world in which they were "born to die." That is something our teenagers need to know.