Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Resisting White Supremacy: The Dance(s) of Democracy

Here is an essay I wrote earlier this semester for my Freedom Stories class. Feel free to ignore it, but I thought I would share it just in case anyone was interested. I highly recommend Tim Tyson's work. The piece below deals with his book Radio Free Dixie in conversation with Robin Kelley's article “Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South.”

“The dancers swayed and grinded, belly to belly, turning the tired black bodies that white employers regarded as agricultural machinery into fountains of beauty, sensuality, pleasure, and community (Radio Free Dixie, 24).” Such dancing provided a glimpse into “paradise” for African Americans whose bodies were often manipulated through means beyond their control. Here, on the dance floor, they controlled their bodies. Here, in the dance hall, their bodies communed with other bodies. Here, away from the white supremacy that conscripted their body as “instrument(s) of labor,” they were free to be something other than workers – they were free to be people (Kelley, 85-6). And, this experience as people provided the impetus for fighting the system that treated them as less than such.

Robin Kelley, in his essay “Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” argues that in order to understand the impact of black political activity, one must look at the “infrapolitics,” or daily acts, in which they participated. He thus expands the definition of what constitutes the political, noting that many blacks sought to create space within “the institutions and social relationships that dominated their lives (Kelley, 78).” He depicts the wartime black political activity as one in which individuals opposed their oppressors by exploiting racial stereotypes and transgressing small boundaries. Places such as dance halls, churches and barbershops thus provided space for the formation of a black identity that carried over into public life. In the workplace, buses, and city streets blacks sought reform through small acts of daily resistance.

Timothy Tyson offers another account of the wartime black political activity, one of violent revolution. For Tyson, the period surrounding World War II signaled a break from the silent, passive resistance previously demonstrated by African Americans (Wars for Democracy, 271). During this time, blacks refused to “dance for Jim Crow any longer (WFD, 270).” They started choreographing their own dances, dances that reinstated worth, fought for change, and took matters into their own hands. Tyson argues that the life of Robert Williams enacted these dances. Williams, and other revolutionaries, brought hope to black life in America, urging blacks to stand up for themselves.

The above views are not mutually exclusive, however. “Infrapolitics” and politics coexisted. As Kelley states, “the historical relationships between the hidden transcript and organized political movements during the age of Jim Crow suggest that some trade unions and political organizations succeeded in mobilizing segments of the black working class because they at least partially articulated the grievances, aspirations, and dreams that remained hidden from public view (Kelley, 111).” Reform and revolution worked hand in hand. Or, as Tyson notes, “’the civil rights movement’ and ‘the Black Power movement’ emerged from the same soil (RFD, 3).” They were partners in the dance. Indeed, the “small” daily acts of resistance gave African Americans the courage to take “big” risks.

World War II transformed United States racial politics. African American participation in the war provided blacks power they never possessed before. Blacks knew firsthand the contradictions in the democracy touted by the United States. Even black veterans were treated as second-class citizens with limited freedom. Blacks used this paradox as leverage to gain rights and privileges long overdue. They threatened, and did, try to discredit the United States to the rest of the world. They held power (RFD, 51).

During the time of Jim Crow, blacks learned to dance many dances in the public sphere. They danced the dance of nonviolent resistance, alternative culture, workplace theft, sabotage, and, at times, the dance of violent struggle and retaliation. Each dance played an important role in the wartime black political activity and the all-consuming gala of defeating white supremacy. The dance in which blacks participated differed depending on the time, place, and circumstances, but they all moved blacks toward their goal of freedom.

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