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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Shane White and Graham White consider the deeper significance of the ways in which African Americans have dressed, walked, danced, arranged their hair, and communicated in silent gestures. They ask what elaborate hair styles, bright colors, bandanas, long watch chains, and zoot suits, for example, have really meant, and discuss style itself as an expression of deep-seated cultural imperatives. Their wide-ranging exploration of black style from its African origins to the 1940s reveals a culture that differed from that of the dominant racial group in ways that were often subtle and elusive. White and White argue that the politics of black style is, in fact, the politics of metaphor, always ambiguous because it is always indirect. To tease out these ambiguities, they examine extensive sources, including advertisements for runaway slaves, interviews recorded with surviving ex-slaves in the 1930s, autobiographies, travelers' accounts, photographs, paintings, prints, newspapers, and images drawn from popular culture, such as the stereotypes of Jim Crow and Zip Coon.

Excerpt

A few years ago, when one of the authors of this book (the younger one and, cruelly, the one with less hair) was flying from Australia to a conference somewhere on the east coast of America, he had his usual trouble getting past the ever-vigilant immigration officials guarding LAX at a ridiculously early hour of the morning. "What is it that you do for a living, Mr. White?" The reply--"I'm a historian"--elicited a raised eyebrow. "What sort of history?" "I write about black Americans." The eyebrow got raised several notches higher and there was a long, ruminative pause. "Why are you coming to America?" "To give a paper at a conference." By this time the official was getting a little bit agitated and fired back another question: "How long is this paper?" The answer--"Oh, about thirty minutes"--was just too much. A look of absolute incredulity passed across his face: "Why on earth didn't you just mail it?" If you think about it for a moment, even at the best of times that is an almost unanswerable question, and all a jet-lagged Mr. White could manage was to stand there in stunned silence. Shaking his head sadly, the official stamped the passport and wearily waved the middle-aged Australian academic through.

Several things seemed to be troubling the immigration official, but looming largest among them was the self-evident preposterousness of the proposition that a foreigner could have anything to say to Americans about their history. It is not that difficult to find American historians with similar beliefs, usually, but not always, articulated in a more sophisticated fashion. For self-protection or at least to avoid being bored to death, foreign historians of America usually develop a series of one-liners such as "American history is too important a matter to be left to Americans," a glib retort to be sure, but one containing more than a kernel of truth. In fact, to turn on their heads many of the usual nostrums about who can or should write . . .

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