Ring Shout, Wheel About

Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 256
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Ring Shout, Wheel About
    Book Description:

    In this ambitious project, historian Katrina Thompson examines the conceptualization and staging of race through the performance, sometimes coerced, of black dance from the slave ship to the minstrel stage. She shows how these performances informed white European and American understandings of race, influenced interactions between whites and blacks, and often held conflicting meanings in enslaved people's lives. Drawing on travel journals, slave narratives, popular literature, and historical sources, Thompson explicates how black dance was used by whites to justify enslavement, perpetuate the existing racial hierarchy, and mask the brutality of the domestic slave trade. Whether on slave ships, at the auction block, or on plantations, whites often used coerced performances to oppress and demean the enslaved. As Thompson explains, however, blacks' "backstage" dance often served quite a different purpose. Through creolization and other means, enslaved people preserved some native musical and dance traditions and invented or adopted new traditions that built community and even aided rebellion.Thompson shows how these traditions evolved into nineteenth-century minstrelsy and, ultimately, raises the question of whether today's mass media performances and depictions of African Americans are so very far removed from their troublesome roots.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09611-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    “They don’t sing as they used to,” a white Georgian in the early twentieth century lamented of Southern blacks. “You should have known the old darkeys of the plantation. Every year, it seems to me, they have been losing more and more of their carefree good humor . . . I don’t know them any more. . . . .and I’m free to say I’m scared of them!”¹ In the aftermath of the 1906 Atlanta race riot, journalist Ray Stannard Baker traveled throughout the South with the desire to “make a clear statement . . . of the Negro in...

  5. 1 The Script: “Africa was but a blank canvas for Europe’s imagination”
    (pp. 13-41)

    Eager to publish in one of the most popular media outlets of his time, Jean Barbot, in 1688, was busily preparing his writings on his experiences and adventurers in West Africa. The Frenchman was attempting to contribute an illustration of Africa and its inhabitants to an inquisitive European and North American audience. As a slaver and author, he well understood how to create a sellable product. He wanted to entertain, thrill, and educate his readers. In order to attract a publisher and potential readers, he added rich detail and vivid scenes to his travel narrative. Purposely attempting to entice an...

  6. 2 Casting: “They sang their home-songs, and danced, each with his free foot slapping the deck”
    (pp. 42-68)

    “The bitch is sully,” testified shipmate Stephen Devereux. These were the apparent words of Captain John Kimber to the shipmate concerning a young African girl who was, at the time of the conversation, hoisted by a leg and suspended above their ship’s deck.¹ “I am almost certain he gave her a slap on the face,” and then “Captain Kimber flogged her,” attested Devereux in the 1792 trial of slaver and accused murderer John Kimber. About two hundred leagues from the ship’s destination in Grenada, West Indies, this young African girl was reportedly murdered after weeks, maybe months, of torture aboard...

  7. 3 Onstage: “Dance you damned niggers, dance”
    (pp. 69-98)

    “Dance you damned niggers, dance,” Master Edwin Epps shouted to the miserable lot of slaves. With “a slash, and crack and flourish of the whip” he ordered his human property to dance “no matter how worn out or tired” they were after a long day in the cotton fields. He would tolerate “no halting or delay, or slow or languid movements; all must be brisk, and lively, and alert.” Slaves worked on the plantation fields from dusk to dawn under the hot sun and with inadequate food and rest; regardless, during the evening hours, they were expected to perform through...

  8. 4 Backstage: “White folks do as they please, and the darkies do as they can”
    (pp. 99-128)

    It was a typical Sunday on that September 9, 1739, in South Carolina. The enslaved communities throughout a burgeoning North America customarily gathered on this day for the upkeep of their homes, to enhance family solidarity, and to exchange the collective cultural expressions of music, song, and dance. These gatherings allowed for a “temporary relaxation, the brief deliverance from fear and from the lash, producing a metamorphosis in their appearance and demeanor.”¹ The black community relished the times they were able to come together for these music and dance gatherings, affectionately known among blacks as frolics, so when dozens of...

  9. 5 Advertisement: “Dancing through the Streets and act lively”
    (pp. 129-158)

    “A singular spectacle, the most striking one of the kind I have ever witnessed,” stated English traveler George William Featherston-haugh upon seeing the coffle in 1834.¹ There were “about three hundred slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night inchainsin the woods,” being marched by land and by boat for hundreds of miles from Virginia to the Louisiana auction block. “In double files, about two hundred males manacled and chained to each other,” while enslaved females and children were often unfettered. For this foreign traveler the scene was “revolting.” They were chained together to “prevent their escape;...

  10. 6 Same Script, Different Actors: “Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow”
    (pp. 159-191)

    “Then turn next to Africa, wild, To view the sun-burnt negro Child; Has music charms for him? Ah! Yes; His Song to him is happiness,” sang comedic British actor Charles Matthews on the theater stage.¹ On Thursday, March 25, 1824, the English Opera House introduced black characters who depicted the “American Negro” as inept, humorously entertaining, and musical.² Matthews performed those song lyrics to introduce the characters he encountered while visiting the United States During a nine-month trip to America from September 1822 to the following May, visiting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, Matthews collected material on the “peculiarities,...

  11. Epilogue: THE SHOW MUST GO ON
    (pp. 192-198)

    Onthe Oprah Winfrey Showon February 3, 2006, Dave Chappelle had his first national interview after walking away from a $50 million contract and his hit comedy series,The Chappelle Show. His show had debuted in 2003 on Comedy Central and was considered by audiences and critics alike to be one of the funniest shows on television. Chappelle, who created and wrote the show, is a professional comedian and African American actor whose trademark, politically incorrect humor, explored popular culture, race, sex, drugs, and fame.The Chappelle Showbecame one of the highest-rated programs on Comedy Central, earning three...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 199-234)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 235-242)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-244)