Shaping Words to Fit the Soul

The Southern Ritual Grounds of Afro-Modernism

Jürgen E. Grandt


Nov 2009
Literary Criticism/American/African-American; Music/Blues; Music/Jazz; Music/Rap & Hip Hop
192 pp. 6x9

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“Jürgen Grandt demonstrated impressive expertise in blues/jazz and African American musical/oral traditions in general in Kinds of Blue, and now shows us how to read hip-hop as an extension of the texts and forms that preceded it. This excellent study will surely appeal to scholars of African American literature, to blues, jazz, and rock aficionados and scholars. In addition, it will be of interest to those who are eager for new, interdisciplinary approaches to the humanities.” —John Lowe, professor of English, Louisiana State University

“Jürgen Grandt boldly enters the ongoing debates over the nature and history of African American modernism. What Grandt does is to stake out a middle course between two extant schools of thought, describing an ‘Afro-Modernism,’ with its roots in the fertile ground of Southern ritual, that operates differently, but not entirely apart from, modernism figured more broadly. This holds great promise to advance the debates beyond the point at which they might seem stalled.” —Aldon Nielsen, George and Barbara Kelly Professor in American Literature, Pennsylvania State University

Taking up where he left off with Kinds of Blue (The Ohio State University Press, 2004), Jürgen E. Grandt seeks to explore in depth some of the implications of the modernist jazz aesthetic resonating in the African American literary tradition. Grandt’s new book, Shaping Words to Fit the Soul: The Southern Ritual Grounds of Afro-Modernism, probes the ways in which modernism’s key themes of fragmentation, alienation, and epistemology complicate the mapping of the American South as an “authenticating” locus of African American narrative. Rather than being a site of authentication, the South constitutes a symbolic territory that actually resists the very narrative strategies deployed to capture it.

The figurative ritual grounds traversed in texts by Frederick Douglass, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Tayari Jones reveal Afro-modernism as modernism with a historical conscience. Since literary Afro-modernism recurrently points to music as a symbolic territory of liberatory potential, this study also visits a variety of soundscapes, from the sorrow songs of the slaves to the hip-hop of the Dirty South, and from the blues of W. C. Handy to the southern rock of the Allman Brothers Band.

Afro-modernism as modernism with a historical conscience thus suggests a reconfiguration of southern ritual grounds as situated in time and mind rather than time and place, and the ramifications of this process extend far above and beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Jürgen E. Grandt is Marion L. Brittain Fellow in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.