For over two centuries, in the North as well as the South, both within their own community and in the public arena, African Americans have presented their bodies in culturally distinctive ways. 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. A wealth of black-and-white illustrations show the range of African American experience in America, emanating from all parts of the country, from cities and farms, from slave plantations, and Chicago beauty contests. 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.
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(235mm x 156mm x 23mm)
Cornell University Press
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Country of Publication:
US Kirkus Review »
Two Australian historians (brothers, incidentally) from the University of Sydney examine the ways in which black style has been interpreted and the political and social implications it has carried from slavery to WW II. African-American history has been written on the black body in a variety of ways, many of them cruel and inhuman. Slaves were branded, had their ears cropped, were whipped mercilessly. A slave's body was not his/her own property in the most literal sense, but as the Whites observe in this engrossing volume, there were many ways in which they could assert some small measure of independence. Focusing on such variegated indicators of black style as dress, hair, body language, and dance, the authors reveal an evolving semiotics of black self-creation that has been designed from its very outset to impose a degree of individuality on the numbing uniformity bred of slavery, poverty, Jim Crow laws, and white racism. In the first half of the book, which is concerned with the period before emancipation, the authors draw creatively on a multitude of sources - ranging from the memoirs and diaries of travelers in the South to handbills advertising rewards for the capture of runaway slaves - to recreate a largely forgotten aspect of black daily life. This volume represents an excellent example of how to use the most unlikely materials, such as newspaper-sponsored beauty pageants from the '20s, to examine how a people's culture defines its values in the face of oppression. Although the book is occasionally a bit repetitive in the early going, as its authors seek to build a case with somewhat slender evidence, it is well written and intelligently argued. It even has that rarity of rarities in a university press book: a preface that is delightfully funny. A highly useful contribution to black history from an unexpected direction, in every sense of that phrase. (Kirkus Reviews)
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