Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

Article excerpt

Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. By Shane White and Graham White. (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1998. Pp. xviii, 301. $30.00, ISBN 0-8014-3179-4.)

Shane White and Graham White have pushed an old argument to new and imaginative heights. Did slavery create black sambos because rebellions by slaves in English North America and then the United States were quite petty by Caribbean and Latin American standards? A consensus seems to be that slaves in North America conducted a day-to-day style of rebellion that persisted into the post-slavery era and continued into the twentieth century because white power was too vigilant and elaborate for serious revolt. Stylin' covers this everyday social and cultural resistance against the totalitarianism of American slavery and white racist dictatorship up to the 1940s.

Shane White and Graham White explore how African Americans during and after slavery sought to control, adorn, and move their bodies in distinctive ways as expressions of self-determination and ownership. How African Americans carried and used their bodies could literally determine whether they lived or died or suffered physical and mental torture--usually both--if whites felt threatened or outraged by the conduct of blacks who behaved, dressed, and adorned their bodies as if they were free citizens. African Americans were required to appear submissive and nonthreatening and to dress in rags appropriate for slaves or poor blacks. Yet, blacks used their bodies and eyes in a unique style to rebel against white supremacists and a distinctive rhythm of movements, adornments, and grooming patterns to assert their humanity and opposition to abuse.

On Sabbath mornings, slaves groomed and dressed themselves to such a degree that they literally, through their appearances, altered their images as slaves by dressing as if they were a free people with the right to choose adornments and act with self-determination. Whites often reacted in anger and attempted to suppress extravagant clothing, shoes, hairstyles, body movements, and expressions exhibited by slaves because such presentations appeared threatening and arrogant and were widely judged to be conduct unbecoming of slaves. Slave owners and their supporters immediately recognized the pretentious manner of an aspiring and rising social class--slaves--and suppressed it.

Slaves often danced but drew a strict distinction between secular and holy dancing (without the crossing of feet). …