This article takes James Baldwin’s only children’s book, Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, as a starting point to explore his theorizations of music, affect, and childhood. Based loosely on the lives of his nephew and niece as well as his own memories of childhood, the book follows children protagonists and friends TJ, WT, and Blinky as they play in the streets of 1970s Harlem. They jump rope, play ball, interact with their adult neighbors, and witness the effects of police surveillance and drug abuse on their community. Baldwin argues that, through these experiences, Black children grow up with the myth of American innocence quickly dispelled and are thus not naïve to the past and present of the United States’ structural racism. Music is integral to Baldwin’s exploration of the affective contours of Black childhood. When community is threatened by white supremacy, music repeatedly enters the story to repair communal ties. To Baldwin, Black-identified musics (especially jazz and the blues) are essential to experiencing joy amid hardship and pain, and he uses the blues to communicate a metaphysics of blackness. Combining archival sources, literary analysis, affect theory, and Black studies, this article listens to the joys, fears, hopes, and pains of Black childhood that Baldwin renders audible. It complicates white notions of childhood innocence and shows music’s importance in experiencing joy and sustaining struggle.
Music All Up and Down the Street: Listening to Childhood in James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man†
Kyle DeCoste is a Ph.D. student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University. In his dissertation, he intends to explore the politics of childhood in black popular music in the U.S. In addition to JPMS, he has published in Ethnomusicology and SEM Student News. His first monograph, due in 2020 from the University Press of Mississippi, is co-authored by the Stooges Brass Band and is titled Can’t Be Faded: Twenty Years in the New Orleans Brass Band Game.
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Kyle DeCoste; Music All Up and Down the Street: Listening to Childhood in James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man. Journal of Popular Music Studies 3 September 2019; 31 (3): 57–72. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jpms.2019.313008
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