Katrina Dyonne Thompson. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014. 256 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03825-9; $28.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07983-2.
Reviewed by Christine Rizzi (University of Mississippi)
Published on H-Florida (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)
The release of the 2015 Oscar nominations surprised many who expected to see Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014) present in almost every category. The snub of the film’s actors and acclaimed director prompted an overdue conversation concerning racism in American popular entertainment. The Academy’s omission raised the questions of how and why did Hollywood become uncomfortable with authentic black representation. Historian Katrina Dyonne Thompson’s recent monograph provides a convincing and well-presented answer. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery probes the development of racism in entertainment, and argues that the sites of slavery “fostered the first American entertainment venue” (p. 5). Thompson responds to such authors as Donald Bogle, Robin Means Coleman, and Mel Watkins who view blackface minstrel shows as the birth of not only American entertainment but also negative stereotypes of African Americans. She instead offers a narrative grounded in the spaces of racial slavery, where the coerced “scenes of enslaved blacks performing music, song, and dance for the amusement of white spectators” made ideas about race, power, and American culture (p. 5). Ring Shout, Wheel About also illuminates the importance of the performing arts in the lives of the enslaved. Indeed, Africans and African Americans often reclaimed the power of music and dance for their own purposes. This multilayered and detailed work makes a significant contribution to the fields of African American studies, the history of race and slavery, and the development of American popular culture.
Thompson positions her chapters as steps in the crafting of a performance. She begins with the script of blackness that developed through European and North American encounters with Africa during the Atlantic slave trade. She uses the publications of travel writers, such as Abraham Duquesne, Paul du Chaillu, and Jean Barbot, to explore how Westerners used descriptions of African culture to justify the exploitation of African people. Thompson illuminates the varied purposes of dance and music in West African cultures, and then illustrates how Europeans decontextualized these traditions, and viewed them as “evidence of heathenism,” which “supported [Africans’] enslavement” (p. 23). For instance, West African women’s display of autonomy in dancing signified to Europeans “the corruption of West African societies” and the sexual availability of black women (p. 29). Most important, Thompson’s first chapter establishes that Europeans and North Americans viewed West African men and women as “physical rather than intellectual beings” who had a “natural inclination to music and dance” (p. 23).
As Thompson shows in her second chapter, “Casting,” the crews of the slave ships on the Middle Passage readily absorbed these assumptions about black performance. Ship captains argued that dancing on deck was a useful form of exercise for their human cargo, but Thompson lays bare the inherent power dynamics in these coerced performances. The crew positioned “Africans as entertainers while simultaneously situating whites as the audience,” and thereby continually reinforced the racialized power relationships of slavery (p. 52). In addition, despite the constant use of force to command the enslaved to dance and sing, captains and crews reasoned that their West African captives were naturally inclined to make merry. Thompson then flips the narrative to show how the enslaved turned to music for cultural survival and resistance. Her meditation on the uses of music in the Middle Passage shows that ideas about the musical malleability of Africans structured white and black experiences of racial bondage.
Thompson devotes her next two chapters to the juxtaposition of the onstage and backstage experience of slavery. Slaveholders and enslaved people wielded music as a tool to negotiate their places in the slave system. On farms and plantations throughout North America, especially in the South, white slaveowners touted the natural merriment and musicality of their slaves. Thompson references sources from both white and black perspectives to demonstrate that coerced performances persisted throughout American slavery (p. 73). The public or private display of black music and dance signaled the status and benevolence of a slaveowner. In addition, such performances functioned as “propaganda” to validate black inferiority and justify the very institution of slavery (p. 79). Once again, the author clearly tracks the perpetuation of the prevalent stereotype that Africans and African Americans were “carefree, infantile, hedonistic, and indifferent to their suffering” (p. 82).
Thompson relies on the voices of enslaved men and women to show that in their backstage lives African Americans used song and dance for leisure, spiritual nourishment, and resistance. Clandestine meetings, also known as “frolics,” often featured music and dancing (p. 99). The author reveals that these spaces fleetingly tipped the balance of power in American slavery. They allowed those in bondage to develop communities away from the white gaze, “gain authority over their own bodies,” and decide when and how they would sing and dance (p. 120). While under the white gaze, songs and spirituals that whites encouraged during group labor tasks hid important lessons about freedom and cunning in the face of cruelty. Even insurrections, such as the Stono Rebellion and Nat Turner’s Revolt, featured singing and chanting. This chapter, coupled with the preceding onstage exposition, represents Thompson’s most persuasive argument for the powerful implications of music and dance in North American racial slavery.
Thompson turns next to the rise of the domestic slave trade, skillfully examining the role it played in advertising the institution of slavery. Although her explanation for the rise of the domestic slave trade is somewhat rushed, her arguments concerning its implications are sound.The export of slaves from the Eastern seaboard to the Old Southwest gave a wide swath of Americans a view of slavery via the slave coffle, a chained procession of slaves from one location to another. Slave traders, generally despised by American society, coerced music and frivolity from their charges in order to “disguise the manacled bondage, the heavily armed guards, and [the trader’s] degraded status” (p. 139). During sale or auction, traders and buyers expected performances from those in bondage, thus maintaining the “fantasy” that African Americans willingly made merry, “without the coercion of whites” (p. 152).
The final chapter of Ring Shout, Wheel About details the culmination of the fantasy through blackface minstrelsy. According to Thompson, the myth of innate black musicality and the power of the white gaze converged in the North to forge a new style of theater, the blackface minstrel show. In the midst of emerging social crises in urban centers, northern blackface theater used romanticized images of southern slavery to criticize the “dire conditions” of the white working class (p. 174). White actors recapitulated the stereotype of the contented slave and his absurd propensity for song and dance in order to display the supposed benevolence of slavery. Overall, Thompson’s closing chapter on blackface minstrelsy persuasively demonstrates that minstrelsy was not the progenitor of stereotypes about blackness but rather the culmination of centuries of misconceptions about African Americans.
Thompson is to be commended for flipping the narrative concerning race and entertainment in American history. Indeed, after decades of important research on the centrality of slavery to the construction of race in North America, Thompson’s reinterpretation feels long overdue. The staging of her chapters further evidences her inventiveness. The theater metaphor gives the reader a familiar guide for understanding the process of racialization in American entertainment. The meticulousness of her primary source research matches her originality. She renders vivid descriptions of the performing arts in New World slavery, highlighting the varied uses of music and dance by both white and black historical actors. In doing so, Thompson presents a convincing history of the development of a uniquely American culture that was rooted in slavery.
Thompson executes complex interpretations concerning the intersection of the performing arts and slavery, but she sometimes simplifies other historical developments. For instance, her use of the phrase “industrial society” to characterize the North in the early to mid-nineteenth century flattens the variation of the region, which was still predominately rural, agricultural, and rooted in island communities (p. 164). She later switches to “urban North,” which is more precise for the history she presents on blackface minstrelsy (p. 172). The occasional generality of a few historical developments, however, does not detract from the precision with which Thompson describes the experience of North American slavery. Finally, Thompson omits a few important historiographical interventions, including the work of Jennifer Morgan (Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery ) and Stephanie M. H. Camp (Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South ). The inclusion of these works would have helped flesh out her most stimulating analyses concerning the exploitation of black bodies and the efforts of enslaved people to reappropriate their bodies.
Thompson ends her work with a brief reflection on the lasting impact of racism in American entertainment and the responsibility of black artists to combat stereotypical depictions of race. This switch to contemporary issues of entertainment and race highlights the significance of Thompson’s research in Ring Shout, Wheel About. The book is a worthy addition to the recent flood of scholarship that evidences the long shadow of slavery in American discourse and society, including Robin Blackburn’s The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation, and Human Rights (2013), Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013), and Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014). It is a vital read for those seeking to understand the complicated legacy of race and bondage in popular culture.
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Christine Rizzi. Review of Thompson, Katrina Dyonne, Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery.
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