Friday, Feb. 21, 2014

Race and Entertainment

From Ring Shout to Bamboozled

By David Luhrssen
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I wasn’t alone in writing off Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled as an incomprehensible misstep; in the years since its unsuccessful theatrical release, Bamboozled has found an audience that understands—as I did not—the movie’s point.

As Katrina Dyonne Thompson mentions at the conclusion of her book, Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (published by University of Illinois Press), Bamboozled is “a satire about the history of black representations in television and film.” And those representations have a long prehistory, beginning on the slave ships where the captives were punished for not dancing. Slave society, she writes, “was the first American entertainment venue.” In other words, the first distinctly American form of entertainment consisted of white spectators gawking at black musicians and dancers with little understanding or sympathy for what they witnessed. Thus began the degrading depictions, the negative stereotyping, that has permeated American culture ever since.

The next step was the blackface minstrel shows, which licensed whites to imitate the stereotypes whites had already created; before long blacks began donning blackface and staging their own minstrel shows—leading to the message of Bamboozled with its African-American television producer who creates a popular series called the “New Millennium Minstrel Show.”

Ring Shout, Wheel About is a provocative attempt to unearth the sources of racism in American popular culture, but it can’t tell the whole story. Christopher J. Smith examines the subject from a different perspective in The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (University of Illinois Press). Working with notes, descriptions, sketches and paintings produced by a remarkable white artist of early 19th century New York, Smith shows that “the immigrant music traditions” of white and black Americans “share complex and tightly intertwined social histories.” William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) left behind a trove of material documenting how working class blacks and whites swapped songs and dance steps, exchanging vocabularies of music and movement that enriched America despite the country’s racial hierarchies. The Creolization of American Culture is a valuable study of how race played out on the ground level (rather than the theoretical level) in the early years of the republic.

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