blackfaces and performing identity. again.

EDIT: Sorry there are so many typos/bung urls, etc. I just wrote and posted this without editing, and now I can’t be arsed – Zac Efron is calling.

Dancing the cakewalk was very popular just before the turn of the century and afterwards. It had evolved from slavery, when blacks mimicked the formal dances of the whites, sometimes, evidently, to the delight of the slave owners. Clearly, the blacks were doing some subtle things unseen by the whites, who doubtless were amused by these ‘inferior’ blacks attempting their dances. The cakewalk had resilience, however, and toward the end of the century fashionable whites were doing it. So here was a black dance parodying white dance danced by trendy whites. Finally, black dancers, responding to the new popularity of the dance, displayed it, improvised on it, and ended up dancing a black dance parodying white dance danced by whites now danced by blacks. Singing a song in black skin in blackface is part of the same structure; the black dancers are doing something else in their cakewalk, and so is the singer (Gayle Pemberton (from The Jazz Cadence of American Life, p 279))

I am endlessly fascinated by the idea of performing identity – slipping on a mask, stepping into a costume, painting on skin. I’m particularly interested in the scope for performance offered by dance and song – singing black, singing white, singing gentile, singing jew; dancing black, dancing white, dancing class, dancing gender. There’s quite a bit written on it, including by me in regards to gender performance (with specific reference to swivels in a swingout, women leading and women solo dancing in a lindy-dominated scene). There’s stuff written about white bands ‘playing black’ in recordings and on radio, and about jewish musicians playing gentile or black or… this is where it gets complicated. I think I like this idea because we are all performing identity at any time (and I always think of Judith Butler here), but we are only occasionally explicitly engaged in performing a specific identity or persona.
Imitation and impersonation in dance fascinate me (and I dedicated chunks of chapters to the issue in my PhD), in part because the line between imitation-as-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery and impersonation-as-ridicule-or-derision is so thin if there at all. Sometimes the perfect imitation intended as compliment is read as derision. Sometimes a performance gains its very value through the delicate tipping point – is this derision? Is it flattery? Are we laughing at this dancer, with them? I’ve taken great pleasure (and satisfaction) myself in imitating dancers who’ve irritated me, and then integrating that imitation into a dance so that it only reads as derision if you read on the slant. Safety in subterfuge and all.
I think that issues of power are indelibly inked in performances of identity, particularly in regards to race and class. Its particularly true of cakewalk, and disturbingly true of blackface and minstrelsy. Minstrelsy is a topic which has attracted great scholarly attention, and there is material written about black artists performing in blackface. I am interested in the way this putting-on of identity (and race and class) begins to blur and confuse when we drill down, as Pemberton’s paragraph implies. I like it that we can’t quite be sure of what is going on. I like this element of confusion and of deceit and of slippery meaning. It is a type of power in itself, particularly when the performer is disenfranchised by the setting, the society, the culture. It reminds me of the great pleasure of a lie well told.
The only thing better than a good story well told is a bold lie well embroidered. And not found out. I like the tension of deceit, I like the boldness of a pile of bullshit presented in conversation or public assembly. I like its creative edge, I like the way it breaks the rules and tips over our ideas of what is ‘true’ and what is ‘good’. We all know that a story is better told with a little embellishment, and a good part of the bettering lies in the knowledge that there is some untruth here. Something made up. Something sneaky.
I think this is why I am particularly fond of the story about Marshall Stearns and cats corner. The story goes: Stearns, in the course of his research into African American dance in the 1950s, was told a series of stories about the Savoy ballroom and of ballroom culture in Harlem in the 20s and 30s. He was told that if an untried novice dared take to the floor in ‘cats corner’ (where all the very best dancers danced), they would be taken outside and beaten. He was also told a number of other stories of dubious veracity. Some years later ageing dancers told another version of the story, with the important aside: oh, they was having a game with Stearns; it was exaggerated, it wasn’t like that.
Now, my favourite part of this whole story is that we aren’t quite sure where the deceit begins. Or where the untruth leaves off. Was the original story exaggerated, a lie? Was the later amendment another lie? I also like it that the researcher (whose book Jazz Dance is the authoritative text on the subject) is the butt of the joke, whichever way it lies. He has no way of knowing what was true and what was not. His research – his data – is ‘corrupted’ by the subjects. The power of the researcher in-the-field is neatly undone by a few layers of maybe and perhaps-not.
This of course reminds me of a brief discussion on twitter a little while ago, where a friend asked ‘does the subject have a duty to participate in research which is of benefit to the whole community’ (I paraphrase here, because I’ve forgotten the wording). I thought immediately of this story of cats corner, and of my own wrestling with the ‘power’ of the researcher and the ‘might’ of the research. I eventually decided that to suggest that researchers have a ‘right’ to data, or that subjects have a ‘responsibility’ to participate is to enshrine the power of researcher (white, middle class, male… or otherwise empowered) and the disempowerment of the subject. And, above all, this thinking values particular types of knowledge and discourse above all others – the written word, the published page, the institutionalised speaker and voice. A large part of my thesis was spent discussing the importance of dance as public discourse for the utterly disenfranchised African slaves who had absolutely no access to public discourse. ‘Meaning went underground’. Meaning became slippery and dependent upon particular knowledge and experience for its ‘proper’ deconstruction/construction.
I think that I like the idea of a research subject lying to a researcher. I like the way its purpose was no doubt (but then, entirely questionably) for humour’s sake – for a joke, a laugh at the expense of the naive. A joke eventually to be found out, and then (hopefully) to be shared again. Because it is the finding out of the joke, of the deceit, of the lie, that makes it work. If a joke, a deceit, goes unnoticed, it isn’t a lie; it’s a truth. And I suppose this is where it is most powerful. And dangerous.
I came across that Pemberton quote today and was reminded of the issue. There was a brief question about blacks in blackface on twitter, and that set me thinking about it again…
Of course, I need to just add that all this is interesting when you think about jazz. Jazz is about improvisation (making stuff up) within a broader, shared structure. In the case of jazz, this shared structure is the score or melody or riff (or whatever). In terms of social interaction, it is culture and social norm. In dance, it is the partner structure (lindy hop) or the sounds of steel heels on wood (tap) or… I am most interested in jazz music and dance because improvisation – innovation, making things up, creativity – is an essential part of the formal system. Without it, we are just listening to dull old lists of rules. With improvisation (which includes impersonation and performances of other people) there is light and laughter and excitement. And interest. Lots of interest.
I talked about performance and gender here in reference to Beyonce and all the single ladies, Armstrong and performing blackness/masculinity and the power of satire and humour. More Armstrong and gender/class/ethnicity stuff here, here and here.
I wrote about hot and cool and cakewalk (and contrasting layers of meaning) here.
There’s also some talk about gender and performance in dance here and here.

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