Black music, white bands: Racist discourse in lindy hop institutions

Eric Heveron-Smith
fb post 25 June at 05:47

A question was posed on a Facebook group called Swingopedia, and I have decided to finally voice my answer. Hey, it’s quarantine, I don’t have any gigs to lose right now…

“I’ve noticed that music trends in the global swing dance community have changed, since I started in 1995.
I’ve heard a mix of Big Band, RnB, Groove, Soul, Hip Hop, lounge/elevator jazz in early 2000s, Gypsy Swing, Ragtime etc. I’ve even heard Madonna!
What do you believe constitutes swing music and what style of music should we be swing dancing to?
Also should musicians only play recreations of original classics by Basie etc or should they be creating their own music?”

I got a lot of opinions about this. I’m a bass player, trombonist, and singer. I’ve been playing the Lindy Hop scene since 2004, with Solomon Douglas, Jonathan Stout, Michael Gamble, and basically anyone else you can think of. I co-founded Moonshine Rhythm Club. As much as I love playing with all the musicians in this scene, my opinion and my approach to music definitely diverges from a lot of them. And I think it also addresses the lack of a serious Black presence in lindy hop.

Here’s what I think:
The way we approach this music, AND this dance, is not at all in the spirit of those who created it.

Let me unpack that just a little bit. Back in the day, musicians were inventing new music that they dug, and that made people want to move their bodies. So they drew big crowds of people who invented new ways to move their bodies to it. That’s it. Does it feel good? Does it make you want to move your body? Then move your body. How? I dunno, let’s make something up together. Does it sound good? Is it fun? If not, whoops, nobody showed up to your gig.

Today, we have a historical dance taught with a preservationist mindset, and we play historic music with a preservationist mindset, or we almost reverse-engineer what music needs to be played so that we can dance this specific dance to it.

We are starting to see more new, original swing music, and I love that. But it still falls within pretty strict guidelines. We are also starting to see more swing audiences actually caring about the music itself, not just as a utilitarian function to dance to; I would definitely credit Michael and Jonathan and the Lindy Focus community for encouraging that, and I think the transcription projects have been a big part of that. It’s been really cool playing at Lindy Focus the past few years and seeing crowds of people standing by the stage just DIGGING the music.

But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?

So ok, what am I proposing instead? I don’t have all the answers, for sure. And yes, I am still a musician that loves playing vintage jazz, and loves playing for dancers. But I look at musicians like Kansas Smitty’s, Bria Skonberg, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gunhild Carling, and so many others that play amazing, badass, swinging, move-your-body music, and who aren’t even CLOSE to cutting-edge far-out modern jazz, and I hear crickets from the lindy hop community.

Here is my point. There is SO much music out there that swings. Modern stuff. Stuff that feels really good, deep in your body, and makes you want to move and groove. And because it doesn’t fit the specific historical constraints of the dance that this community commodifies and REPLICATES, lindy hoppers want nothing to do with it.

Like, how can you ask the question “what constitutes swing music” or “what style of music SHOULD we be dancing to,” and then turn around and act bewildered that you don’t have more BIPOC in the scene??

I envision a world where the historical preservation of swing music and dance can meet the modern world, where there are all kinds of dances being done to all kinds of killer music. You don’t have to drop the preservation stuff, you SHOULDN’T stop studying and presenting and talking about the history of jazz and swing and lindy hop. But what you have done is put walls around this whole situation, and it keeps you in, and it keeps a whole lot of other people out. It’s religion, in the restrictive sense of the word. And if you ever manage to notice how many badass vintage jazz musicians don’t bother with the swing dance scene anymore, it’s because they don’t fit. They got too big for the walls.

Personally, I would love to be able to continue playing swing music for lindy hoppers. But I can’t tell you how many frustrating gigs I’ve had where either the audience barely noticed there were real musicians on stage, or I was playing with really poor musicians, but nobody really cared because they fit the constraints of the dance. I think my favorite gigs are where some people are dancing (whether it is a dance or not, because they feel it in their bodies), and some people are listening (because they actually hear and enjoy the music), and I can stretch out with my fellow musicians beyond the artificial, misinformed, dance-centric constraints of “around 3 minutes song length, not too fast, not too slow.”

Oh yeah, I thought I was wrapping up, but that’s another thing I gotta address. Not every song has to be danceable for every person. That’s another aspect of the utilitarianism of music in the dance community. You think that because all we have are 3-minute songs from the swing era that that was what musicians did live. I can’t possibly believe that’s true. Not gonna go too deep down that rabbit hole, but here’s something to think about: as soon as the long-playing record was invented, Duke Ellington released a 12-minute version of Mood Indigo, and it is glorious. My favorite version of that song ever. SO swinging, so beautiful, makes me want to move, makes me want to play.

Jazz is a living art form. It’s an improvisational art form. The very best times I’ve had playing jazz with people, we’ve found our way to the special spark, the moments that make people look up and shout, the moments that inspire dance. If I’m hired to perform a utilitarian function for your specific dance style, and I’m fired when I go outside the specific constraints, you’re not gonna get my best. You’re not gonna get the magic, the spark. You are missing out. (I have a couple dancer friends in Rochester who figured this out years ago, and started going to the international jazz fest there and checking out all sorts of amazing music. They GET it.)

Music and dance have been co-created since humans have existed. In my opinion, the lindy hop community is creating neither one right now. I don’t think it has to stay that way; but you’ve gotta tear down the walls, if you want it to change.

(Disclaimers. 1. Even though I’m speaking somewhat harshly about the scene, I still love parts of it, and I love a lot of the people in it, and when I play at Lindy Focus and walk around those hallways, I’m proud and glad to be part of it. 2. I’m talking about some historical stuff in here, but I am far from a swing historian. Michael Gamble, Jonathan Stout, Jon Tigert, and a bunch of other musicians and dancers probably know quite a bit more than me about the specific history of the music and dance. The depth of my musicianship is what makes me feel like I have something to offer with this commentary.)

I have problems with the American-centredness of this post. He is generalising from what he sees in the US (at huge events) to the entire world. And it just doesn’t hold up. I’d argue that the ‘mega-event’ is a very different animal (and product) to smaller events that focus on a regional audience, or even hyper-local audience. The usual issues apply to a huge event: you need to entertain trillions of people, you have to appeal to the widest audience (rather than niche audiences), you have a lot of money at risk, you need to do quality control. You and and should (perhaps) use this big budget opportunity to do more big band gigs. The events he’s talking about are largely in the US, and these are unlike things you see in other countries (with the exception of Camp Swing It, which is MASSIVE). So you end up with a relatively homogenous, palatable menu of music and dance held in a boring big hotel, isolated from the local host community.

Because he’s generalising from big US events, he ignores all the smaller, more interesting events. There’s no Upside Down here. No Rhythm Korea. No Jazz BANG. He also conveniently ignores the work being done by Black event producers. Teena Morales, anyone? She’s been running the biggest events in the US for years. And she runs the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, which has all-Black musicians and teachers, and is firmly positioned within the modern Black community’s culture.
He says:

“But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?”

Well, they’re at Teena Morales’ event, doing dances that actually relate to them, with people who make them feel welcome. But let me address this issue: how to attract Black dancers to lindy hop. I’m guessing he means the US? This issue is a lot like the issue of attracting people of colour to other institutions. It won’t work if you don’t deconstruct or analyse whiteness itself:

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is” (source: Diversity Means Disruption ; I speak more about this here: A Lot of White People Will Be Uncomfortable).

And if we’re going to deconstruct whiteness, we also need to deconstruct patriarchy, because white supremacy is built on the dominance of heterosexual masculinity.

If I follow that thinking, to truly change the nature of jazz and music in the lindy hop world, do we need to kill off the mega-event?

Here’s the thing. Covid19 has already done this. This is another thing that I see missing from so much of the online talk about lindy hop culture: this moment of change/crisis is the result of a global pandemic. Push has come to shove. BUT, white people have the time and energy to dig into ‘racism’ because they are in iso, or because their usual lives have been disrupted. Black people and marginalised people are busy trying not to die, whether they’re killed by disease, an dangerous ‘healthcare’ system, or the police.

So why does this white male musician assume that things will go on as they did before? They’re not going to. The world has changed irrevocably. The mega-event is not coming back any time in the next few years. That means the the existing market/audience for the mega-event will have disappeared (we know the lindy hop ‘generation’ is only about 5 years long). We also know that all the necessary infrastructure for a mega-event will also have disappeared: international airlines have folded; the arts are in disarray, from sound engineers to restaurants; international guests will not be visiting the US with its unchecked covid. It would also be horrifically selfish for dancers to attend a mega-event… lindy hop = superspreader.

So I think the question has to be,
What will jazz music and jazz dance look like in a covid19 world?
At first I was all ‘no one wants jazz dance during a plague’ and then I remembered that people really want music and dance during hard times. Who gets to dance will be the issue.

My government has taken advantage of the virus to introduce frightening laws, and expand awful powers. The same company that runs our offshore-detention camps for refugees is in charge of the quarantine hotels. Poor, refugee, and migrant people have been detained in housing commission towers for fear of covid spread. The federal police have expanded search and detain powers. … and so on.
The people who are suffering most from this are the Black members of our community.
I haven’t quite gotten there in the thinking, but I think that it’s obscene to consider running a mega-event in this climate. I mean, I have huge, massive ethical problems with fundraising for white people to transcribe Black recordings so white people can play them for white audiences in THIS moment. It’s a great promotional gig, but how does it fight white supremacy?

So if we can’t do mega-events, what do we do?
The same thing marginalised events and dance communities have already been doing: smaller scale events that cater to the local community’s needs and interests. And by local community, I mean the musicians, sound engineers, DJs, dancers, teachers, performers of a particular city. There’s no budget to fly in the same old crew of white men. So we get local. And that, as with governments*, means we have a more diverse body.

We subsidise local dancers on lower incomes with volunteer spots. We see a more sustainable labour model generally. And we see greater diversity in event types and event staff and attendance. The thing about smaller events, is that they often don’t enforce those rules about what bands should play. For all sorts of reasons. But you’ll get the odd funk number, you’ll get 10 minute songs, and you’ll get a range of tempos. Because the organisers don’t have the ‘knowledge’ to control the music like that. And they don’t particularly prioritise that issue – they’re trying to find the light switch or get the key for the late night party.

I think that this ‘definition’ of ‘good music’ is a matter of power and privilege, not objective value or ‘truth’. As the OP says, insisting on ‘good songs for dancing’ gives us a boring menu, and promotes a conservative palate. This in turn gives us boring dancing. None of those sparks of real creativity and emotion.

I think that DJing plays a big part in this. The lack of diversity in the highest profile DJing ranks is a direct result of some serious gate keeping: DJs are selected for their social skills (do they network like a white man?), their availability (do they have the money and time to drop everything for a weekend gig? Or do they have kids and family to care for?), and then, finally, their music taste (how do they talk about songs – loudly in a crowd, or with a quietly brilliant set at 11pm?). This type of musician hierarchy and power structure marginalises anyone who’s not a straight white guy.

If we want to see more diversity in the songs being played by musicians, we need more diversity in the cohort of musicians.
Which means WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP RAPING AND HARASSING EVERYONE ELSE.
And
WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP _EACH OTHER_ DOING THIS SHIT.

* Local governments have more women, poc, and other marginalised groups represented. As we move up tiers of government (state, federal, commonwealth, etc), we see diversity disappear and white patriarchy at work.

….RE sexual assault in the jazz music scene:
That’s my next job. I was starting work on it before covid, by deliberately setting up gigs and sessions that promote women musicians (ie sessions that are safe workplaces). But it’s been derailed. I figure we can use the methods we’ve developed in the dance world to tackle the music world.
One of the things we’ve found in Sydney, is that if we address sexual harassment and assault, we get a safer, more diverse scene generally. More people of colour, more queer folk, more trans folk, more kids.
This why this OP musician needs to address his own power as a white man in America. He is one of the obstacles we need to deconstruct.

Michael Gamble
fb comment on above post
25 June at 10:30

Hey friend, we have talked about this a bunch, and I know we have a lot of common ground, so i feel comfy talking about this “publicly” with you. I also wanna say I appreciate that going out on a limb can be stressful, and I respect you getting into it regardless.
That being said, I think you’re coming at this from a strange angle, one that on the surface looks extremely relatable (I see a “successful” post/video/blog/etc on this topic about once a month for, I dunno, the past 15 years or so) but to me totally falls apart when you zoom in. My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste. And I’m pretty sure you’re ok with it on the micro level, you just don’t like the overall effect, yeah?
Like, I play music in a style I like. To you it’s narrow, but for me it’s actually a wild experiment in combining elements of different swing era rhythm sections with elements of early new orleans & chicago looser collective improv, moving familiar riffs to new contexts, and yes, paying homage to inspiring classic (but never heard live by current audiences) recordings. There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look!-> someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!) And unless I read you wrong, you probably think that’s cool, you just wish that wasn’t ALL there is, or something?
Here’s where I point out that there are a million other places to play music, to dance, and to explore like, every iteration of every art under the sun. The WCS scene has much more modern taste. The Blues scene, and especially the Fusion scene know how to break the mold and push boundaries. (also, there was a generation of Bebop dancers at the Savoy, and there is a push within the modern lindy movement to explore that.. which I think is great. Just FYI!) Do you know about those? The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.
Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald & Chick Webb, Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing & Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!
I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —> do you realize how small the modern swing scene is? Like, compared to virtually any other hobby or “art scene”? It’s a niche within a niche within a niche. We are people who love what, in our evaluation, is actually a very broad range of dance and music forms that one could spend many lifetimes studying and never master. We’ve carved out a little space to do our thing. And still people feel the need to tell us to stop. All. The. Time.
Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus. Our scene alienates black folks in basically every way that appears on the racism bingo card. Don’t make vintage music the scapegoat for this. Our scene has historically welcomed and elevated racist individuals and ideas for as long as I can remember, to our shame. Also, though it is somewhat rarer (remember: niche within a niche within a niche), there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them. (yet) And yes, also the overall whiteness of our scene makes it a less attractive place to seek work, which makes sense. THAT is something we can change. I can’t even remotely pretend to speak for any black person in this, but I think at the very least you are making a ton of assumptions about what’s causing what, and there’s a lot more going on.
(and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing?? Regardless, I do love you, Eric Heveron-Smith!)

I’d add this as an example of Michael’s missing some of the political point:
“My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste.”

There’s a chunk of literature about how ‘individual taste’ isn’t about individual subjective choice, but about cultural forces. So while these aesthetics might seem ‘subjective choices’ from the inside, they’re clearly part of broader patterns and structures of patriarchy and white hegemony. As soon as we see patterns, we can look for the forces that are invisible to the dominant group because they are so ‘normalised’.
ie we have normalised the idea that a bunch of white people playing Black music at an event promoted as ‘preserving the past’ is a good thing. We haven’t engaged with the idea that white people are gaining cultural power from this work, that modern Black musicians are marginalised, and that only seeing white people on stage supports the myth that Black people don’t like jazz or do it well.

This is another difficult bit for me:
“There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look! someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!)”

My feminist brain is saying “Who is ‘those of us’? And ‘their friends?’?”
Who is running these large events?
Who is managing the music?
It’s mostly white people, and mostly white men.

My follow up question would be, “If white men are doing the music stuff, what jobs do women do on these events?” and “What jobs to people of colour do on these events?” Are they handling the low-profile stuff like catering or volunteer management or budgets? Events like Focus spend a lot of time convincing people that music is the most important part of an event. The jobs men do. When punters might say, “Actually, the person who met me at registration and made me feel welcome was the most important person I met this weekend.”
The dominant discourse of modern lindy hop prioritises and values the work that white men do most highly.

Here’s another issue:
“The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.”

This is a misleading premise.
This isn’t how ideology works. If it’s a fascist state, it might. But hegemony in the modern capitalist patriarchy works in a different way. We don’t have a scene spokesman standing at a mic declaiming, “We will only enjoy bands from 1935-1945. We will only dance to bands from the US.”
…wait. :D

But hegemony is more subtle. We get this message that ‘preservation is prime’ from a whole heap of sources and texts:

  • The only bands that get hired at mega-events are preservationist bands led and staffed by white men. Each of those independent messages tells me that big organisers don’t value the work of women or people of colour. It also suggests, implicitly, that the only _valuable_ or ‘good’ musicians are white men.
  • The only DJs who play those mega-events are white. And often white men (those the latter is changing, I’d argue that most of those white women DJs (myself included) are people who engage with dance in a particular way: assertive, relatively ambitiously, etc -> characteristics usually ascribed to hetero white men).

…and so on.

I’m interested in how this works in places like Seoul. There we see white bands flown into the country for big gigs. And they’re the same bands we see at American mega-events. But we also see local gendered and ethnicised relationships of power at work. Interestingly, Sage Minn’s band, one of the very few in Seoul, has women members. I wonder if it’s because they’re playing western music, Korean mores and values don’t apply in the same way? I actually saw a fab conference paper about pop culture in Seoul a few years ago that discusses this.

“Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald; Chick Webb, Billie Holiday; Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing; Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!”
…so you can do all that other stuff, just not here?

“I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —”
This is where this post gets a bit defensive. The original post was actually really gentle (I thought). But you know that saying, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
If you’re used to adulation, a little light supposition feels like a take down.

“Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus.”
This is a deeply problematic comment. I’ve seen this quite a lot in white discussions about racism (I actually did a Masters on it). If we only define racism as white cops killing Black kids, or KKK lynching Black men, then anything ‘less’ can be positioned as ‘not-racism’.
But we know that racist discourse is far more complex. All those white DJs and white bands and white MCs? That’s racism.

Here’s an example:
“there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them.”
This is racism.
In this sentence he is literally saying that he/we** do not value Black musicians enough to pay them what they’re worth.

It’s racism because of what is not said, and because of the implicit valuing of ‘historic’ Black work, and devaluing of contemporary Black work. We’ll only raise a zillion dollars to fund the transcription of work by dead Black men; we won’t shell out some of that money to pay living Black men and women a living wage.

More importantly, this statement presented with no facts or evidence, will become a ‘truth’ repeated all over the scene. It will become what we describe in cultural studies as a ‘myth’: a valuative statement that is repeated so often it becomes a ‘fact’ with huge, powerful status.
The effect of this type of cultural myth is that other events and organisers won’t book Black bands or artists because ‘they’re too expensive’. And the myth will grow.

But why. Why is a Black musician more expensive? Does he mean that he’ll only hire a brilliant Black musician, but won’t hire a less awesome Black musician, and is quite ok hiring mediocre white men musicians?

I can’t continue down this reasoning: mediocre white men. Oh to have your confidence and power.
**The way he elides ‘we’ and ‘I’ is telling – he positions himself with an important ‘many’/majority, rather than taking responsibility for his own choices. This establishes his position as part of a powerful ‘many’.

“and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing??”
While I have sympathy for him, I’d like to remind the white world that Black Americans have been fighting like demons while their society rapes and murders them with official sanction. Women work on sexual harassment and assault issues while they are being harassed every day.
This is why we call it disruption: it disrupts the status quo. And if you’re a white man, it’s often the first time you’ve had to do this work while also managing your daily dramas.

As a final note, I’m gonna quote Audre Lorde:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (source: Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

In this context, I mean that accepting the premise of the original post is misleading. Following the instructions of a powerful white man will not help us deconstruct racism. We need to do something completely different.

I’m going to direct you to this post.
Diversity Means Disruption.

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
… diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives … are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change.

Covid19 provides an opportunity for this disruption. Or does it? In the US and here in Australia, people of colour are disproportionately affected by the virus and its effects. They’re too busy fighting racism to think about jazz. Here is a really clever twitter thread, where the writer Abu Owaisi connects up the Victorian government’s locking 9 housing commission towers, the SES removing donated goods, white journalists’ influential commentary, and the devaluing of work by migrant community groups.

So, allies, time to dismantle the master’s house. Let’s do something completely new.

What is Black?

A friend on fb mentioned that it’s tricky to get a handle on how words can be used in different ways in activist literature, and it’s even harder to negotiate this stuff when you’re trying to learn about a particular social justice topic with the goal of doing activist work. She made a really good point: if you want to be an ally you want to understand and use the definitions and language of the people you’re working with. You don’t want to impose your own beliefs.

This is the sort of thing I’ve taught undergraduates quite a few times, and it’s one of my favourite topics. How do you read and evaluate a source, when you have a political goal in mind? It’s a skill, and one we can learn. Anyhoo, here are some of my thoughts.

How To Read Stuff
When we do a literature review widely on a topic, we find lots of different opinions and ideas, and many of them clash. In fact, it’s also totally legit to change your ideas about words or topics over the years… or months or days… as you read more, and learn more. And the very best part is that new things are being written all the time. New ideas to stimulate your brain and get you excited about the world.

Asking Questions About The Text
Something that helps us evaluate each text (each book, article, post, etc), is to ask some questions about the text itself. This questions is also called ‘textual analysis’.

  • Who is the author?
    What is their gender? Their ethnicity? How do they identify themselves? Do they identify themselves? What else have they written? Are they associated with a particular institution (a university, a government department, a think tank)?
  • What is the context of this text?
    Where did you find it? Is it a magazine article? A journal article? A book? A tv series? A film? A speech? When was it produced?
  • What ideology does it express?
    What are the values it portrays? Does it respond to other ideologies? Is it feminist? Activist? Racist? Does the author say things like ‘I position myself within Black radical feminism?’
  • What other texts and authors does it reference?
    Does it say good things about Martin Luther King? Does it talk about Stuart Hall? Are its references all white? All male? All straight?
  • Does it drop any jargon?
    Does it use words that have particular meanings, eg ‘Black’; ‘gender’; patriarchy’; the ‘establishment’; ‘rational thought’?
    All these words are used in different ways by different discourses and ideologies.

Go In With A Goal
There is a lot of fun stuff to read and watch and listen to. But it helps to stay on track. Ask yourself:
What do you want to learn?
What are your goals?

Discourse: The Relationships Between Texts, And Sharing Ideas
In my area (of cultural studies), the word ‘discourse’ means ‘all the words and articles and tv shows and songs and stories on a topic’. So when we talk about the discourse of ‘Blackness’, there are a trillion different texts involved. Some of them agree, a lot of them don’t. And we will argue a lot about what is relevant.

Academic discourse encourages disagreement or critical discussion. It’s common for a specific journal to have an author publish an article, then someone else publish a response article in the next issue. There are famous fights between authors that have led to screaming matches at conferences. But there have also been excellent discussions where authors have gone on to work together and do great work that changes the world.

Now, this friend was referring to two different texts, and was wondering how to read these two different ideas when they seemed to be very different. I think this is a brilliant question. It’s the core of critical thinking, I reckon. So I had a go at answering. The next section of this post uses some close textual analysis to see what each text is saying, and how we might read them together to develop our own ideas about this topic.

Ideology: The Ideas That Explain The Connections Between Texts
The next useful term is ‘ideology’. Ideology is, basically ‘ideas about the world’ and there are lots of competing and contrasting ideologies at work in any one discourse. So in this ‘Blackness’ discourse, we can see the queer Black American masculinity of DeFrantz’s ideology, but also the feminist Latina ideology at work. They have common elements (they both talk about gender, about ethnicity, and about race), but in different countries and cultures. If the two authors met at a party, they’d probably have a lot to talk about and agree on.

How can both these articles be ‘true’ at the same time?
Let’s do some textual analysis.
The articles we’re looking at are:

  • Who is the author?
    Tommy DeFrantz is an American man who identifies as black and gay.
    In the second piece you’ve referenced, the author is ‘Collaborator Sally’, and we can’t find out much more about them than that.
    If you do a search for DeFrantz’ work (in academic publishing, youtube videos, etc), you’ll find a bunch of articles, books, videos and so on. And you’ll discover he’s a university-based academic, working at a very prestigious American university.
    This doesn’t mean that DeFrantz is a ‘better’ source than Collaborator Sally, but it does mean that we know _more_ about him. And his position as a peer-reviewed author means that his work has been interrogated and discussed and thought about by a lot of people.
  • What is the context?
    The DeFrantz text is a section in a book, published by DeFrantz. The second is a post/article in a Spanish language magazine that has a range of articles discussing gender, politics, and ethnicity. One is written in English, the other in Spanish.
    Neither is more important or more valuable than the other, but they are writing for different audiences. While they’re both talking about the African diaspora, one is talking about being a Black man in America today (and during slavery), and the other about being a Black woman in Latin America today.
  • Which is ‘true’?
    It’s a trick question. Both definitions of ‘Black’ can be true at the same time. For a Latin-American woman the word ‘Black’ can be something she reclaims from negative use in her country/region. For DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a word he uses with other Black folk, often in a casual setting.
    The supercool thing about this, is that they both understand that words are tricky, and don’t have fixed meanings.
    This idea has its roots in cultural studies: the idea that words are just sounds or marks on a page, until someone reads them and interprets them. The _way_ we use them is informed by who we are. So as a white, middle class Australian woman, I don’t feel any ownership (or right to ownership) of the word ‘Black’. For authors like DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a powerful word for identity and culture, and when he uses it, he’s saying something about who he is, and the culture he belongs to.

So what do we do with this analysis?

Ideas or Practice?
Some academic discourse is all about theory. Some is more practical. For example, I tend to think of myself as a ‘pragmatic feminist’, a term I borrowed from Nancy Fraser. She argued in one of her books that ‘women’s studies’ as a discipline has no value if it doesn’t involve practical activism – feminism. So, for me, ‘doing feminism’ is about doing political activism. And in this case, doing what I can to improve the world for people who are marginalised. As Maya Angelou once famously told a bunch of graduates: now that you are empowered, you have a responsibility to empower others.

You can see in that last paragraph how I took the ideas of two different feminists (one Black and one white, both women, both American and writing in the 80s) to develop my own political ideas. My choosing these two tells you something about me – my age, my background, etc.

I found Tommy DeFrantz’ work very inspiring when I wrote my PhD on dance. Who he is as a person was important to this.
I met him at a conference, and speaking to him was extra inspiring: he’s a dancer. He wanted to go out to dance and to hang out and socialise. He didn’t mind that I was just a student and he a visiting scholar. He was a gentle, clever man with a great sense of humour. And the things he said in his paper about Afro-futurism and film and dance were exciting. I’m not a Black, gay, American man, but I can find his ideas and ways of thinking useful and exciting.

Back to the original point: how can I use the different definitions of ‘Black’ in my practice, as an activist, and an ally?

The word ‘praxis’ is a combination of this thinking and ideology and actual practical work.

What is Black?
The nice thing about all this is that the word ‘Black’ can be used in lots of different ways.
It can be a powerful political and ideological tool. eg in Australia, Black or Blak is a political and cultural way of talking about being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It can involve ethnicity (ie culture and identity – who you are, what you wear, the language you speak, the way you were raised, your beliefs, the food you eat, etc), politics (who you identify as and with as a citizen, whether you engage in activism or political action, etc), etc. Lots more than just skin colour.

I read a really nice article the other day where a Samoan woman was explaining to her son that he wasn’t ‘part Samoan’; he _was Samoan_. I’ve also heard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say the same thing: you’re not part Aboriginal, you _are_ Aboriginal. You _are_ Blac(k).
This is very powerful and important because white colonial powers spend a lot of time and energy dividing people of colour into groups, and then trying to ‘breed out’ the blackness. Racism is about believing one ‘race’ is better than another. White supremacy is about believing that whiteness and white culture is better.

In Australian history, ‘integration’ policies were about ‘breeding out’ blackness. Children with lighter skin were taken from their Black parents and fostered with white people, while their darker skin siblings were not (there is a great film called Sapphires which has the most touching, wonderful scene at the end where a girl is reminded of this by her grandmother). This ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia is an example of how white governments tried to break Black culture by removing Black children from Black parents and ‘making them white’.

The phrase “I’m Black and I’m proud!” in 1960s civil rights discourse is a good example of how identifying as Black can be empowering. This reclaiming of a word is a bit like saying ‘queer’ in the queer community in the 80s. A term of insult becomes a shout of pride:
“Yes I am Gay! And it’s beautiful!”
“YES, I am BLACK, and I am PROUD of that, not ashamed!”

Slavery in Australia

CW: slavery, race, violence. This article contains disturbing images. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article contains the names and images of people who have died.

The Australian PM Scott Morrison said on Thursday morning (on 2GB) that “It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.”

This is a big fat lie. It’s such a bald faced lie, it’s beyond laughable. It’s… shocking.

Slavery in Australia:

  • ‘Blackbirding’, where people from Pacific Islands were kidnapped, transported to Queensland, and forced to work on cane farms. With the introduction of the White Australia policy, any of the survivors (many died) were deported.
  • Indentured labour on properties.
    Black men were forced to work for rations on rural properties. The most famous example of this is the Gurindji people (Northern Territory) who were forced to work for white pastoralists on Wave Hill Station with no pay, unable to leave. In 1967 Vincent Lingiari led a walk off, where Black workers started protesting. This eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976.
  • Indentured domestic labour.
    Black women and girls were forced to work for rations in white people’s homes. They were unable to leave, and were frequently the target of sexual assault.
  • The Stolen Generations.
    Black children were taken from their parents and institutionalised (placed in ‘care’) or with white families. In both cases they were physically restricted from leaving.
  • Stolen Wages.
    Black adults and children were forced to work for whites, and told their pay had been taken into care by their ’employers’. To quote the attached article,

    …the Queensland “Protection Acts” in force between 1939 and 1972 required the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers be paid to the protector or superintendent of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander district, reserve, settlement or mission.

    This money has never been received by black workers or their descendants.

  • Protectorates, Reserves, and Missions.
    Aboriginal people were forcibly restricted to white-run institutions, where they worked for nothing, were not able to marry who they choose, were separated from family, and brutalised by white staff. These institutions continued until the 1970s.

Do some teacher training!

Ok, dancers, another thing you can do, while you’re not allowed to lindy hop because you might kill someone.

Do some teacher training, on your own or with your teaching team:

  • Learn about the history(s) of dances, and how you will integrate that into your classes so it’s fun and useful, and not just a bunch of lecturing at students;

Do an online lecture/tutorial with a dance historian, to get all your ducks in a row and learn about a particular moment in history, or a particular dance.

  • eg I once did a private with Loggins to learn the difference between two-step and other dances.
  • You could do a session with Teena Morales-Armstrong about black dances from the 50s onward (Hand dancing? Fast Dancing?) so you can stop saying shit like ‘black dance stopped after lindy hop in the 50s.’
  • How about a session with Marie N’diaye about chorus lines and what they actually _did_ in their working days?
  • Do a session with a teacher like Anders Sihlberg about how to structure a class, how to move from a particular move or technical thing to a whole class that’s actually fun;
  • Do a session with someone like Sylwia Bielec about how to train your staff and structure a syllabus
  • It’s usually really hard to get these people to stay in one city for an hour so you can drain their brains. Take advantage!

    There are other fun topics you could work on:

    • Developing a solid OH&S policy that actually addresses sexual harassment in a sensible way (oh, and germ safety :D );
    • Putting some affirmative action policies in place, so that you can actually get some diversity on your teaching team: people of different ethnicities, different body shapes, genders, etc;
    • Sketching out a funding plan for the next few years to take advantage of any funding that’s coming up (think arts, sport, health, economic development, small business, etc)

    And so on.

    they are not shocked

    They are no ‘outraged’ because they are not ‘shocked’. There is nothing shocking about racist violence perpetrated by police because it is normalised. It is seen as legitimate violence. It is this legitimate violence that was not only used to steal the country and assert white dominance but also maintain it through the oppression of Aboriginal people.
    source

    Bunya pines and murri knowledge

    There are a bunch of bunya pines in Ashfield park, and a huge one up on Charlotte Street. The pine cones are epic huge. HUGE. And edible.

    They only grow wild in Gubbi Gubbi, Waka Waka, and Yuggera country, places which have been called South East Queensland since invasion.
    A story about Bunya Dreaming festival.

    Queensland is a huge state, and the land it covers now is the country of a whole host of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
    The Bunya Pine grows in only a small part of this territory, in country cared for by three people (Gubbi Gubbi (aka Kabi Kabi), Waka Waka, and Yuggera.
    I used the AIATSIS map and the The Australasian Virtual Herbarium map to figure this out.

    There are other stands of Bunya Pines in other parts of Australia, but they are much smaller.
    Bunya pines fit into the ‘bush tucker’ family of noms, and I know my local Sydney foody friends have been experimenting with using their nuts to make pesto.

    This website is a useful tool for learning about agreements treaties and negotiated settlements in Australia.

    Landrights in Western Australia and the Yindjibarndi people

    Some very good news.
    The High Court has upheld the Yindjibarndi people’s native title rights to their land.
    Fortescue Metals Group applied to appeal these rights, and got a big ‘nope’ from the High Court.

    The Yindjibarndi people live in what has been called Western Australia since invasion, but has been black country for 40 000 years. If you look it up on this great map, you’ll find them in blue on the far left of the continent, above the most eastern most bit.

    You can read about the Yindjibarndi languages here, on this epic good map.

    Languages are important, because you can trace who lived where by the languages they speak. A people will share some linguistic elements (and languages) with neighbouring people.
    Language is culture, and the number of people speaking a language can tell you about that people’s history.
    The Stolen Generations interrupted the transfer of language and culture between generations in many areas. Reconciliation Week is supposed to be (in part) about making amends for the Stolen Generation.
    You cannot understand Australian history without reading the Bringing Them Home (1997) report.
    Please note: this Report warrants a Content Warning for sexual violence, neglect, persons who are deceased, and so on. If you are an Australian, particularly if you are not a Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander Australian, you should try to read this Report.

    What is Native Title?

    Useful things to think about in regards to native title today:

    • water rights (who owns them, who can buy or sell them);
    • mining (who has access to land to mine);
    • continuous occupation of land (and proof thereof, including rock paintings and burial grounds).

      Note: native title is determined by the High Court. There are 7 High Court judges, 3 are women, none are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It’s worth noting that one of them, Justice Virginia Bell was a volunteer at the Redfern Legal Centre in the 70s, a centre that provided legal support for the 1978 Mardi Gras protesters (the first mardi gras march), for local Aboriginal community members, and other civil rights activists.
      Read more about the Redfern Legal Centre here.

    Queer black men

    I really like the way this story is reframed to focus on a queer black man as hero by this queer black jewish man*.

    *Michael Twitty is a cook and scholar who focusses on the black jewish food traditions of America and the African diaspora. He has a book, goves good twitter, and could tell you exactly what ingredients were in a cake walk prize.


    I want to keep sharing photos of black men like this, rather than bad white people, because they are an antidote to the bad news. ❤️✊🏽

    And this is why we need queer histories of jazz dance. Without them, it’s too easy for white people to position themselves as saviours ‘reviving’ the black dance of a doomed or negligent people. “Black gay men have incomparable strength and courage.” White people, it is not ok to position ourselves as ‘preserving’ black culture. Just get out of the goddamm way.

    If you’re interested, queer black men’s experience in dance under slavery is one of Tommy DeFrantz’ research interests. His book ‘Dancing Many Drums’ has some good bits on this tooic.

    Cook: crap

    So, after Kate asked for an actual source for James Cook raping people, I’ve been doing some ‘light’ research trying to find the original twitter thread where I read about this.
    This thread was between a few first nations women (Australia, Hawai’i, NZ, etc), and they dropped some sweet links.

    Anyway, I can’t find the original twitter thread (😭) but I have read a lot of interesting things.

    Key was that Cook and his crews knowingly carried disease (TB, syphilis, gonorrhea, and lots of other lovely things) to the people of the pacific region (NZ, Hawai’i, Australia, Tahiti, etc). They knew they were sick, but they still had sex with local people. They also stole stuff, beat people, raped people, and were generally shitty guests. Eventually the people of Hawai’i had jack of Cook and his bullshit, and killed his arse.
    There are lots of primary sources (journals, stories, drawings, paintings, etc) about this. It wasn’t a secret.

    – Cook was a bad person. He did three major voyages, getting progressively more violent and aggressive, and eventually getting killed on the final voyage (12 Feb 1779, Hawai’i).

    – His violence was expressed through increasingly violent (and quite horrific) ‘punishments’ for indigenous people who broke his ‘rules’, and for his own crew.

    – His crews were allowed to interact with various villages as they travelled, including sexual relationships.

    – Cook declared Australia ‘terra nullis’. He knew that people were living here, but because he didn’t count anyone who wasn’t European as a human, he decided that no ‘people’ lived in Australia.

    – The people of Hawai’i (and other places) got increasingly shitty with Cook and his crew. They’d pass through their harbours to restock water and food, and to do some R&R. At first the Hawai’ian people were ‘yeah, ok’ and because women were considered sexually and socially autonomous people, they would have a root with the visitors. For fun. And also for economic gain. Sex work (giving sex in return for things like european goods) was culturally ok at the time. But after a while Cook and his mates became less fun. And they were riddled with disease.

    – Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa (a scholar from Hawai’i) explains that Cook and his men brought TB and STIs like syphilis to the people of Hawai’i. Who were NOT impressed by these dirty europeans. Cook also had sex with local women.

    – Eventually Cook got got by the Hawai’ian people for trying to kidnap the aliʻi nui (king/god/leader) Kalaniʻōpuʻu. He and his marines laid hands on Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and tried to drag him away, in punishment for the theft of a jolly boat.
    The especially bad bit of this was that Cook disrespected the aliʻi nui body and spiritual/god status of Kalaniʻōpuʻu by laying hands on him.

    In sum, Cook did not consider people of colour ‘human’, and if you don’t consider someone human, you don’t believe they have bodily autonomy, and therefore cannot give consent to sex. By this logic, if they can’t give or not give consent, they can’t be raped.
    This sort of logic isn’t new, and I’m not the first person to draw these connections; there’s other (better) research about this stuff. But we can see these sorts of patterns of behaviour today in sexual offenders: men who regard women, girls, and children as less human and less important than their own desires, and do not respect their bodily autonomy*.

    But I haven’t yet found specific primary sources detailing Cook’s sexual assaults. Mostly because I couldn’t read any more about him without feeling sick.

    Here are some sources:

    – Catherine ‘Imaikalani Ulep, ‘Women’s Exchanges: The Sex Trade and Cloth In Early Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i’
    (https://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10125/62478/2017-05-ma-ulep.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3YmGPe8ZC7YZ7Rm6h6oFw5BLO4WgmhHnVWjfD_wiRck7-3x02FaNo2pZE)

    – Kerri A. Inglis, ‘Kōkua, Mana, and Mālama ‘Āina: Exploring concepts of health, disease, and medicine in 19th Century Hawai’i’
    (http://ulukau.org/elib/cgi-bin/library?e=d-0hulili05-000Sec–11en-50-20-header-book–1-010escapewin&a=d&d=D0.18&toc=0)

    – Accounts of disease in Cook’s crew, and on the population of Hawai’i before and after his visits are plentiful. You can find zillions with a google search, from his crew’s journals to oral histories from Hawai’i people and so on. It’s not a contested idea; it’s a fact.

    *’bodily autonomy’ is the right to make choices about your own body, what it does, how it looks, how it works, and who gets to touch it. It’s a useful phrase and concept for talking about sex, reproduction, imprisonment, and health. It’s also a powerful phrase for talking about children and their rights.

    Grey recently asked on fb ‘Ok, Feelings on bell hooks?’
    And I got caught up in my response.

    bell hooks was really important for me as a young feminist in the early 90s. At that stage, most of published women’s studies literature was by white women, and the women of colour who were getting published (primarily in journals, then in books), really shook up my thinking about class and identity. At the time, it really made me understand the intersection of class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, though at the time it wasn’t called ‘intersectionality’. I was a young, white woman in a working class suburb of a politically corrupt state. People like hooks just blew my brain. It was thrilling.

    I remember reading her work, and the work of Ruby Langford Gibni (Aboriginal Australian woman), Audre Lorde (black american feminist), Rita Mae Brown (American lesbian), and then Stuart Hall (queer black British cultural studies king). They were essential to my understanding of identity politics. Because I was a cultural studies person, I was also really influenced by film makers like Laura Mulvey (white British feminist), Lizzie Borden (black American radical), Tracey Moffatt (Aboriginal Australian artist), and by a bunch of authors.

    I was lucky enough to be doing my BA in a huge english department (before media studies and cultural studies existed as disciplines), and that department included a lot of politically active feminists, poc, queer peeps, etc etc. So I was able to do subjects across a range of thinking within my BA. Goddess bless Gough Whitlam and the 1980s Australian university arts degree. I remember doing a lot of multiculturalism reading (in a postcolonial context), queer reading (a library full of books about sex!), and getting access to first nations activism. We had brilliant lecturers who were also activists in a lot of cases, and were culturally diverse. Nothing gets you fired up like a koori woman pointing at you and asking you what you’re bloody doing sitting there when there’s a rally to get to?!

    All these people in the 80s and early 90, and their critiques of university-based white women’s studies (which was distinct from a lot of the feminist activism of the day), helped me understand that feminism can’t just be about gender. It has to address class, race, sexuality, etc, and it has to engage with institutional patriarchy. I was also influenced by Nancy Fraser (white American feminist) and her concept of ‘pragmatic feminism’. She argued that women’s studies had to have a practical, activist component (feminism) or it was just shoring up the academy.

    But that was 20 years ago, and feminism has moved on. The lack of trans voices in the ‘feminist canon’ of that second wave is particularly telling. Even queer voices were marginalised at that moment. I personally think that the rise of trans politics within feminism has been the most radical change of this wave. And that’s no doubt why TERFs have so much trouble with it.
    I think that these writers are important for understanding the history of feminism and gender studies, and for understanding women and activists of that generation (who are in their 60s an 70s now). But there are problems with them as well. And the nice thing about modern feminism is that it has moved on, adding new voices and thoughts to the discussion.

    As a side note, I’m getting quite interested in Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib at the moment. Old school feminists, but powerful thinkers.

    Black activist men:
    Straight up, my most favourite thinker is Stuart Hall (queer, black, British man). His work on class, race, gender, and sexuality in culture was the most influential work I read when I was doing my MA and PhD. I love the way he wrote, and his ideas really resonated with me.
    I was also influenced by Paul Gilroy (another black British thinker) for his radical black politics.

    And I’m a big fan of Tommy DeFrantz (queer black American dance history scholar), who I met while I was doing my PhD. He’s a dancer and scholar, and the way he talked about black dance and media culture, as well as being a dancer himself, part of a dance community, shook me. Plus he is a kind man, and just the right influence I needed at that stage in my own work on race and dance.

    I came across Raúl H. Villa and his work on the latina public sphere in LA in the late 19th and early 20th century and was fascinated (partly because it overlaps with the zoot suit riots stuff). I also got into Michael Warner (white American queer)’s work on the queer public sphere.

    This then led me to another thought…

    Academic journals and magazines were really important in that 70s/80s/90s moment, because they were often published by collectives, or by groups of scholars who had shared interests (and politics). They’d publish special issues, or articles with the latest thinking, and then in following issues authors would respond to those articles or issues. That meant you could see the thinking happening at the time in a particular journal.

    So, for example, ‘Screen’ published Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (Autumn 1975) in vol 16, issue 3 (pg 6–18), but people got so worked up about it (it was influential) that the next issue was themed, and all in response to her article.

    There were also some really great magazines and journals published outside universities that gave marginalised writers a voice. eg On Our Backs (a sex positive lesbian erotica magazine) was a response to Off Our Backs (a feminist mag that was often anti-porn). For more.

    When I first got to uni, I remember being kind of crazed by access to so many huge libraries. I would just sit in there reading everything. So. Many. Journals. I’d never even heard of things like feminist magazines or journals.
    I know there are special collections of these things here in Australia eg Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
    The language was exciting: very RISE UP! and radical activist.

    And of course, at this point, it’s important to point out that Grey’s research and thinking can be read in Obsidian Tea, one of the most important publications in the modern lindy hop and blues dance world.