Head wraps and zoot suits

African-American style has always gone much deeper than fashion

Sometimes it takes a couple of Aussies to see black and white American culture as it really is and speak truth to power. That's what Shane and Graham White, two University of Sydney scholars who are neither brothers nor black, have accomplished with their historical study, Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit.

Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

by Shane White and Graham J. White

(Cornell University Press, $30)

Stylin' deals with black kinetics—the way African Americans have moved, talked, walked, dressed, and presented themselves to each other and to whites from slavery to the zoot-suited 1940s. And although the book doesn't consider the postwar era, the Whites' surprisingly strong-selling book has had immediate applications in the contemporary culture wars. Last spring, for example, a Baltimore middle-school girl was expelled for wearing an African-style head wrap that school officials saw as a hat. As the Whites recount, black women in antebellum New Orleans were forbidden from wearing hats; as a substitute, they adapted and donned the head wrap like those Erykah Badu recently popularized. When Baltimore black community members cried foul, they cited the Whites' historical documentation.

Stylin' includes advertisements for runaway slaves, interviews with surviving ex-slaves in the 1930s, autobiographies, travelers' accounts, photographs, paintings, prints, newspapers, and images drawn from popular culture—all to document a truth black folk have witnessed and intuited for centuries: Black style has been despised, emulated, mainstreamed, and finally transformed by African Americans themselves throughout the history of Africans in the Americas and the world.

The book offers fascinating reading for black dancers, athletes, and just plain folks of both races who marvel at the differences and similarities between black and white cultural expression. In their chapter on dance, for instance, the Whites quote from runaway-slave handbills and travelogues of white observers to get at the differences and similarities between black and white dance. Their tone is concise, specific, and absent the traditional historical jargon:

One difference white observers sometimes noted related to the angular movements of major joints—elbows, knees, ankles. Peter Wood links this phenomenon to West African dance forms, particularly those associated with the Bakongo culture of the Congo River. . . . One slave song called on dancers to "Gimme the knee bone bent," an instruction which whites probably associated with the Christian requirement to bend the knee in prayer, but which probably related to the West African belief that "straightened knees, hips, and elbows epitomized death and rigidity, while flexed joints embodied energy and life."

Although any body can be trained to do anything, there's an unmistakable difference in the movement of novice black and white dancers. Whites tend to flail their arms wildly and undulate the torso uncontrollably, as if they've just discovered it. After many an aerobic class filled with white men, I've marveled that the hips are the only thing we haven't exercised. As one longtime Beale Street "jooker" puts it in Stylin', "African Americans could easily execute the 'polite movements' characteristic of white dancing styles" early in the evening, but once they relaxed among themselves, "You did what the spirit told you. If it said, 'Jump up and kick,' you jumped up and kicked. If it said, 'Turn around,' you'd turn around."

What whites found alienating about black dance was its emphasis on the pelvis as the axis and originator of movement. Black dance de-emphasized the arms and legs, the very aspects of the body that Europeans took as communicative. Classical ballet, for example, thinks of movement in terms of the arrangement of the limbs around an unchanging torso. Black modes of dancing emphasized aspects of the body that Europeans preferred to repress or deny. Even today, mainstream culture looks on with disgust at the "lascivious" hip movements of black street artists. And still the mainstream rushes out to buy rap albums and emulate black street style.

Stylin' also explores African Americans' flamboyant dress and facial expression. In a memorable passage on black facial expressions and the ways they have been read by whites in the North and South, the Whites hit the mark:

The difficulties slaveowners had in interpreting blacks' intentions must have been increased by the existence among slaves of gestural codes of which they (the owners) were largely ignorant. In his discussion of Kongo influences on African American artistic culture, Robert Farris Thompson states that nunsa, "a standing or seated pose with head averted . . . is present in black America," and that the turning of the head to one side "signals denial and negation. . . . an indication of total rejection is shown by turning one's head away from the speaker with eyes closed."

Black attire, the Whites contend, may be the best subterfuge of all. Historically, whites have rarely understood why Africans insist upon arraying themselves in finery and bright, often "clashing" colors that whites often considered "garish." Stylin's authors quote Lura Beam, who reminds readers that blacks "put red and pink and orange together before Matisse did. . . . Women who could wear only gray and blue in slavery came out in yellow, orange, cerise, green, scarlet, magenta, and purple. . . . They had a characteristic style."

Black churchgoing finery was a response to poverty, joblessness, and all the other ills visited upon African Americans: "By abandoning shabby work clothes," the Whites write, "black churchgoers were repudiating white society's evaluation of the black body as an instrument of menial labor. They were declaring in effect that there was more to life than work, and that a sense of dignity and self-worth could survive the depredations of an avowedly racist society."

Stylin's concluding chapter centers on the zoot suit, a black-innovated suit with long tails, baggy pants, and an angular, almost cubist cut, which was first worn by hipsters and musicians. The zoot suit was literally outlawed by the war bureaucracy as a wasteful use of domestic resources. It became a garment of black male defiance, a way to refuse to acquiesce to powers that sent blacks to die in war but denied them a living at home. The infamous zoot suit riots erupted in the summer of 1943 in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Harlem. While the police looked the other way, mobs of armed military servicemen beat and stripped young African Americans and Mexican Americans caught wearing zoot suits. The mobs took the rationing regulations as their legal mandate, but the real issue at hand was the large number of black and Latino men who seemed to care so little for the country's war-defined patriotism. Like so many African-American cultural expressions before it, the zoot suit was ultimately co-opted; European artists, musicians, and dancers in Germany wore them, refusing to bow to Nazi conservation orders.

A few weeks ago I called Shane White in Sydney to ask how two Australians could produce such an insightful work of American history. "American historians in America are always going to have better access to primary material," he said. "We needed an interpretative edge, to think imaginatively about the sources we had and use them in different ways. Our concentration on the presentation of the black body comes in part from being outsiders in America, from watching people on the street and the way they interact. It's also partly from the sources: Whites have always been fascinated with black movement, black clothing, often grappling with trying to describe what they see, then often ripping off what they see as well.

"Still," he said, "as an outsider, you always have a bit of an inferiority complex—did we get it right? Will the 'experts' hate it? And so far the reaction has been mostly silence."

Sometimes silence from the African-American community is just a quiet way of saying, "You got it right."

Rosalind Alexander is a frequent contributor to Seattle Weekly.

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