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“As Usual, I'll Have to Take an IOU”: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Gift of Black Music and the Cultural Politics of Obligation

Heffernan, Nick



In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) W. E. B. Du Bois described African American music as a “gift” to America, contesting the tendency to regard white interest in black culture as appropriation or theft. Yet this metaphor invoked the complex circuits of indebtedness and obligation that are intrinsic to gift exchange in anthropological accounts of the practice, challenging white recipients of the gift to make adequate response. This challenge is most systematically addressed in a sequence of films that tell stories about white enthusiasm for the blues. The Blues Brothers (1980), Crossroads (1986), Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) and Black Snake Moan (2006) depict the blues as a gift and explore how whites might appropriately acknowledge and reciprocate for receiving it in a culture distorted by racial inequalities. The films develop a distinct set of narrative conventions for handling the politics of racial obligation, vacillating between seeing black music as a transracial cultural resource on the one hand and as a racially defined, inalienable possession of African Americans on the other. Using these same conventions, Honeydripper (2007) invites us to see the process of cultural exchange from a different perspective in which the problematic status of the blues as racialized property is diminished.


Heffernan, N. (2018). “As Usual, I'll Have to Take an IOU”: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Gift of Black Music and the Cultural Politics of Obligation. Journal of American Studies, 52(4), 1095-1121.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Mar 9, 2017
Online Publication Date Jun 1, 2017
Publication Date 2018-11
Deposit Date Jul 12, 2018
Publicly Available Date Jul 12, 2018
Journal Journal of American Studies
Print ISSN 0021-8758
Electronic ISSN 1469-5154
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 52
Issue 4
Pages 1095-1121
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information © Cambridge University Press 2018


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