Ralph Ellison famously characterized ensemble jazz improvisation as “antagonistic cooperation.” Both collaborative and competitive, musicians play with and against one another to create art and community. In Antagonistic Cooperation, Robert G. O’Meally shows how this idea runs throughout twentieth-century African American culture to provide a new history of Black creativity and aesthetics.
From the collages of Romare Bearden and paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat to the fiction of Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison to the music of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, O’Meally explores how the worlds of African American jazz, art, and literature have informed one another. He argues that these artists drew on the improvisatory nature of jazz and the techniques of collage not as a way to depict a fractured or broken sense of Blackness but rather to see the Black self as beautifully layered and complex. They developed a shared set of methods and motives driven by the belief that art must involve a sense of community. O’Meally’s readings of these artists and their work emphasize how they have not only contributed to understanding of Black history and culture but also provided hope for fulfilling the broken promises of American democracy.