Sunday, October 28, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Ring Shout, Wheel About

This past week Megyn Kelly was in the headlines about comments she made regarding blackface as possible choice for a Halloween costume. She ultimately lost her job for those comments, and later apologized, apparently after she was informed/educated on what historically blackface/minstrel comedy entailed. Perhaps if she had read Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery by Katrina Dyonne Thompson she could have saved herself a multitude of grief.

This excellent study on how Africans during the Middle Passage, and African Americans during U.S. slavery and the rise in the popularity of minstrel shows, were commodified through the performing arts of music and dance is a true eye opener. Thorough research and persuasive writing by the author allows the reader to better understand the white and black perspectives of music and dance.

To many whites during slavery's lifetime, who viewed the enslaved as contented, submissive, and lazy, saw them through the lens of music and dance. Blacks, often being in a powerless position were forced to sing and dance for whites' entertainment enjoyment. This created a white idea that contentedness was the primary emotional state of blacks, instead of realizing that people of African descent, like all humans, have a multitude of dispositions. African Americans on the other hand viewed music and dance as two of only a few areas in their lives where they were allowed moments of self expression.

Thompson shows how whites justified enslaving Africans, defended the internal slave trade, maintained a race-based social order, and hid the brutal reality of the "peculiar institution" by focusing on blacks' artistic expression in these art forms. On the other hand, music and dance were ways for African Americans to retain some of their ancestral traditions and develop new community bonds.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is that on minstrelsy. Thompson's discussion on minstrelsy shows clearly how blackface performances set most whites' (especially northerners with limited exposure to blacks), perceptions of blackness. Minstrelsy literally took individuality away from blacks and encouraged a stereotypical image of lazy, submissive, and hedonistic personalities.

This book should be read by every U.S. citizen. I think doing so would help people to see how we have developed our images of race in America, starting with our earliest history. I highly recommend it.

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