Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery by Katrina Dyonne Thompson (review)
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Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. By Katrina Dyonne Thompson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. 256. $85.00 cloth; $28.00 paper)

Ring Shout, Wheel About starts with the premise that music and dance have served complex and conflicted roles in African American life, functioning as sources of subjugation and racial stereotyping while also providing liberating and affirming outlets for many culture producers. According to noted scholars Eric Lott and Dale Cockrell, the racial commodification, stereotyping, liberation, and affirmation emerged in the early nineteenth century with America’s most visible popular entertainment, blackface minstrelsy. However, for Katrina Dyonne Thompson the exploitation of singing and dancing black bodies began well before T. D. Rice “jumped Jim Crow,” with the nation’s original entertainment genre: slavery.

Drawing on an impressive range of firsthand documents, including travel journals, master accounts, and slave narratives, Thompson offers the first cultural history of how music and dance shaped Euro-American and African American identities and how these American culture producers manipulated the performing arts to mold public perception. Among white cultural architects, music and dance were about coercing and punishing black bodies, about promoting essentialist racial qualities like Negro contentment and inferiority, about sexualizing and prostituting black females, about displaying the wealth and paternalism of the master class, and about justifying and marketing human bondage. For black culture producers, performers and spectators, enslaved and free, music and dance were about maintaining connections to cultural practices, about forging unity among African ethnicities, about appeasing and perhaps fooling whites, about alleviating individual and communal pain, about spreading news or gossip across the plantation, and about planning and implementing insurrection.

On virtually every page of Ring Shout, Wheel About, Thompson perceptively deconstructs this complicated quartet of music, dance, [End Page 115] slavery, and American culture, and she brilliantly organizes her argument around a “page to stage” metaphor of theatrical production. The first chapter on “scripting” reveals how travel journals marketed “Dark Continent” explorations, fueled European fantasies, and used music and dance to propagate racial imagery. With these assumptions about black bodies and behavior fixed in the European and Euro-American imagination, the follow-up chapter explains how dispersed Africans were “cast” in their new roles as inferior, contented, and entertaining commodities in North America. The next two chapters examine the “onstage” performance of enslaved Africans, which were demanded and shaped by masters, and then the “backstage” version of these performances, pitched and expanded from the perspectives of Afro-Diasporic artists and audiences. Thompson then offers a section on “advertisement” in which she describes how the traveling slave coffles and pens of the domestic trade served as advanced preparation and marketing for enslaved entertainment. In the final full chapter, Thompson advances a transatlantic interpretation of the emergence of blackface minstrelsy from the accumulated cultural “script” of enslaved blacks, music, and dance.

My minor criticism of the work relates to Thompson’s inventive structure and the coverage of specific dances. The “advertisement” chapter, which reads more like a “rehearsal” phase of production, comes after the “onstage” and “backstage” performance chapters; therefore, this section seems misplaced in the grand “page to stage” design. Although the chapter provides illuminating material on coffles and slave pens, it could have been folded into the “casting” chapter, which also deals with the preparatory aspects of the domestic slave trade. In her analysis, Thompson includes many enslaved performances, North and South, but two dances warrant greater consideration: Pinkster’s sexual Totau dance in upstate New York and the Catherine Market dance competitions in nineteenth-century Manhattan. Both public performances commingled whites and black bodies, free and enslaved, and Thompson’s core argument could have benefitted from fuller explorations of these dances. Criticism aside, Ring Shout, Wheel About succeeds tremendously in historicizing racial stereotyping well [End Page 116] before blackface and in explicating the many uses Europeans, Africans, African Americans, Euro-Americans, southerners, and northerners found for music and dance.

Marvin Mcallister

MARVIN MCALLISTER is an associate professor of English and African American studies at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of “White People Do Not Know How To...


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