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Ring Shout, Wheel About

The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery

Katrina D. Thompson

Publication Year: 2014

In this ambitious project, historian Katrina Thompson examines the conceptualization and staging of race through the performance, sometimes coerced, of black dance from the slave ship to the minstrel stage. Drawing on a rich variety of sources, Thompson explicates how black musical performance was used by white Europeans and Americans to justify enslavement, perpetuate the existing racial hierarchy, and mask the brutality of the domestic slave trade. Whether on slave ships, at the auction block, or on plantations, whites often used coerced performances to oppress and demean the enslaved.As Thompson shows, however, blacks' "backstage" use of musical performance often served quite a different purpose. Through creolization and other means, enslaved people preserved some native musical and dance traditions and invented or adopted new traditions that built community and even aided rebellion.Thompson shows how these traditions evolved into nineteenth-century minstrelsy and, ultimately, raises the question of whether today's mass media performances and depictions of African Americans are so very far removed from their troublesome roots.

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

“They brought her down here and sold her you see they have them on a big block . . . and make them stand up and act a certain way . . . if they think you good they buy you . . . you didn’t act right they wouldn’t buy you.” These were the words of my great aunt Ruth Galmon...

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pp. 1-12

“They don’t sing as they used to,” a white Georgian in the early twentieth century lamented of Southern blacks. “You should have known the old darkeys of the plantation. Every year, it seems to me, they have been losing more and more of their carefree good humor . . . I...

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1. The Script: "Africa was but a blank canvas for Europe's imagination"

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pp. 13-41

Eager to publish in one of the most popular media outlets of his time, Jean Barbot, in 1688, was busily preparing his writings on his experiences and adventurers in West Africa. The Frenchman was attempting to contribute an illustration of Africa and its inhabitants to an...

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2. Casting: "They sang their home-songs, and danced, each with his free foot slapping the deck"

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pp. 42-68

“The bitch is sully,” testified shipmate Stephen Devereux. These were the apparent words of Captain John Kimber to the shipmate concerning a young African girl who was, at the time of the conversation, hoisted by a leg and suspended above their ship’s deck.1 “I am almost...

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3. Onstage: "Dance you damned niggers, dance"

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pp. 69-98

“Dance you damned niggers, dance,” Master Edwin Epps shouted to the miserable lot of slaves. With “a slash, and crack and flourish of the whip” he ordered his human property to dance “no matter how worn out or tired” they were after a long day in the cotton fields...

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4. Backstage: "White folks do as they please, and the darkies do as they can"

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pp. 99-128

It was a typical Sunday on that September 9, 1739, in South Carolina. The enslaved communities throughout a burgeoning North America customarily gathered on this day for the upkeep of their homes, to enhance family solidarity, and to exchange the collective cultural...

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5. Advertisement: "Dancing through the Streets and act lively"

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pp. 129-158

“A singular spectacle, the most striking one of the kind I have ever witnessed,” stated English traveler George William Featherstonhaugh upon seeing the coffle in 1834.1 There were “about three hundred slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in...

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6. Same Script, Different Actors: "Eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow"

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pp. 159-191

“Then turn next to Africa, wild, To view the sun-burnt negro Child; Has music charms for him? Ah! Yes; His Song to him is happiness,” sang comedic British actor Charles Matthews on the theater stage.1 On Thursday, March 25, 1824, the English Opera House introduced black...

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Epilogue: The Show Must Go On

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pp. 192-198

On the Oprah Winfrey Show on February 3, 2006, Dave Chappelle had his first national interview after walking away from a $50 million contract and his hit comedy series, The Chappelle Show. His show had debuted in 2003 on Comedy Central and was considered by audiences...


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pp. 199-234


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pp. 235-242

About the Author, Publisher Note

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252096112
E-ISBN-10: 0252096118
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252038259

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 884725834
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ring Shout, Wheel About

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slaves -- Southern States -- Songs and music.
  • Slaves -- United States -- Social life and customs.
  • Race in the theater -- United States -- History.
  • Theater and society -- United States -- History.
  • African American dance -- History.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Justification.
  • Plantation life -- United States.
  • Racism in popular culture -- United States -- History.
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