- Civil Rights Strategies in the United States:Franziska Boas’s Activist Use of Dance, 1933–1965
At the first National Dance Congress and Festival, which was held in New York in May 1936, Edna Ocko, the dance editor of New Theatre Magazine, told the assembled delegates, “One cannot minimize the importance of an artist’s social point of view, for it is he who, bringing his ideas before vast audiences, can organize and direct social thought” (25). Noting that young, politically aware choreographers had already embraced the political potential of dance, Ocko listed several topical social themes recently explored in choreography, including the need for “Negro and white unity”—an assertion championed by other speakers and formally adopted in the final session of the gathering when the delegates passed the following resolution: “Whereas the Negro People in America have been subject to segregation and suppression which has limited their development in the field of creative dance, be it resolved that the Dance Congress encourage and sponsor the work of the Negro People in the creative fields” (Ocko 1936, 27 and “Resolutions” 1936, 94).
One of the dance artists who performed at the National Dance Congress and Festival and who had been involved in organizing the event was Franziska Boas.1 Energetic and committed to using dance as a form of grassroots social activism, Boas was exactly the kind of dancer Ocko urged to take a leadership role in making dance socially relevant. Indeed, Boas’s long and productive career can be read as an impassioned response to the pledge to encourage and sponsor African Americans in dance as well as in society more generally. Notably, her New York studio, the Boas School of Dance, which opened in 1933, was interracial. Her short-lived student company, the Boas Dance Group, and her annual summer school at Lake George in upstate New York were also open to dancers from all racial and ethnic heritages. In 1950, no longer able to afford to live in New York, Boas moved to Rome, Georgia, where she became the head of the Dance and Physical Education Department at Shorter College as well as the founding Chair of the Rome (Georgia) Council on Human Rights, an interracial organization dedicated to desegregating the town.2
Boas was not well-known during her lifetime and has been largely forgotten by dance historians, but when placed within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, her career functions as a useful case study about the politicized implications of white antiracism activism.3 One the one hand, Boas’s career can be viewed as an attempt to redefine whiteness as a cultural practice committed [End Page 25] to antiracism activism, as her actions were unequivocally motivated by the conviction that racial equality must prevail. Yet, even someone as steadfast in her belief in progressive social change as Boas invites a consideration of the pervasiveness and persistence of white privilege. Essentially, Boas’s whiteness provided her with options, agency, and authority not available to African Americans.4
Accessing archival documents located in the Franziska Boas Collection (FBC) at the Library of Congress as well as Boas’s private papers in Massachusetts, this article argues that Boas’s career, while shaped by a genuine desire to facilitate nonthreatening, nonovertly political, opportunities for interracial interaction, nonetheless discloses contradictory racialized assumptions and actions that demonstrate how the campaign for equality and the fortification of existing disparities could—and often did—coexist. In recovering the history of Boas’s activist use of dance, the purpose here is neither to venerate nor to vilify. Instead, this article seeks to understand the ways in which Boas’s career shows how dance and the Civil Rights Movement intersected and, in so doing, constructs a definition of whiteness that is complex in its simultaneity of antiracist activism and the revivification of racialized privilege.
Definitions of Privilege/Contexts of Influence
In order to examine the implications of Boas’s civil rights strategies, it is first helpful to understand the political ramifications of whiteness and to contextualize her activism. The definitional parameters of whiteness have changed throughout the twentieth century and thus point to the constructed and unstable nature...