- American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination by Black Hawk Hancock
As a graduate student in Chicago, the sociologist Black Hawk Hancock thought he was simply pursuing a hobby but ended up finding a long-term research project. In American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination, Hancock interrogates issues of appropriation, whiteness, and racialized nostalgia within the predominantly white subculture of American swing dance revivalists. Fusing his training as a sociologist and professional dancer, Hancock approaches this task through a paradigm he terms “carnal sociology” which involves not only reflexivity and corporeal participation but also an investment in the rigor of embodied engagement with a particular movement practice. As such, his approach echoes the ethnomusicological principle of “bi-musicality,” which encourages dedicated applied practice as a musician within the musical culture one seeks to investigate. In the book’s first chapter, “Finding the Pocket,” Hancock uses Lindy Hop aesthetics and pedagogy to outline his carnal sociology approach. In chapters two and three, he discusses his own experience as a Lindy Hop instructor as well as the dialectic of de-racialization and racial fetishization driving the appropriation-as-kitsch consumer dynamic within contemporary Lindy Hop subculture. In the book’s final chapter, Hancock juxtaposes this predominantly white space with the contemporary African American practice of “Steppin’,” another form of dance descended from the lindy hop.
The theoretical framework Hancock explicates in chapter one—tying together corporeal labor, embodied knowledge, and mastery through a heavy use of Wacquant—is the book’s most problematic section. In his laudable effort to build his “carnal sociology” paradigm and push other scholars to value embodied knowledge, Hancock implies, and at times outright suggests, that there exists a Platonic ideal of perfect dancing that constitutes the “real” Lindy Hop that only a privileged few “elite” dancers ever access. Even more troublesome is his implication that the pathway to this privileged embodied knowledge is through the sorts of systematically codified dance courses he was teaching during his research. As such, this element of Hancock’s thinking undercuts his subsequent analysis, where he so astutely critiques white dance teachers and dance studio owners’ to encourage appropriation precisely by de-racializing access to Lindy Hop participation.
To be fair, Hancock’s lionization of labor and mastery does reappear in the book’s final, and in my opinion strongest, chapter where Hancock details his experience becoming [End Page 148] accepted within Chicago nearly exclusively black subculture of “Steppin’” dancers. Here, Hancock shows how his skill as a dancer demonstrated a genuine commitment that pushed through any skepticism about his intentions. Thus, while Hancock effectively demonstrates that in African American dance traditions talent often does matter in traversing racial boundaries, I wish he had done more to explicitly and reflexively apply the same highly sensitive analysis of racialized power and cultural specificity to this ethic of mastery among black dancers as he does to dynamics of entitlement and appropriation among white dancers. Ultimately, despite my reservations about the chapter “Finding the Pocket,” this book is well-written, thoroughly researched, and a timely contribution to current conversations about appropriation within critical whiteness studies and embodied practice-as-research within dance studies.
In addition, Hancock’s ability to engage major figures in the Lindy Hop revival in explicit, at times uncomfortable, conversations about race demonstrates his strength as a sensitively dialogic ethnographer. Hancock’s choice to use ample text from these interviews in the book both foregrounds his subjects’ voices and creates a unique and valuable archive for future researchers.