Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in
African-American Culture. Temple UP, 1990.
Summary of Work
In this critical work, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon traces the history of social dance spaces in African American culture from slavery to the 1980s. Starting with slavery, she discusses how African cultures had specific dances for many different cultural events and even daily events, linking their religious beliefs with dance and movement. As they were enslaved and placed on slave ships, they were often forced to dance for exercise, with or without chains, on the deck of the ship. If they didn’t dance they were beaten, and dancing often hurt them because it would leave large pieces of flesh and wounds on them as the chains ripped at their skin as they danced. Their were many strategies that slave ship captains used to make sure to keep slaves more healthy and alive and to stop insurrections.
When the slaves made it across the sea and were sold, they were mixed with other African cultures, and often the only communication or freedom they had was dance. Many slave masters allowed for weekly dances and several days of dancing on Christmas because they knew that it was a way to stop slave revolts. However, there was also a large risk of revolt because slaves would use these dances as ways to get together and communicate about starting slave rebellions across plantations. For this reason, many slave owners would not allow their slaves to go to other plantations, and drums were banned. Juba and other patting and noisemaking movements replaced drums. Slave owners would also host competitions and have slaves perform for groups of whites as entertainment, and many of the slave owners bought slave musicians to play for both slaves and whites.
After emancipation, dances continued in the form of jook joints: small country spaces where there was drinking, gambling, dancing, music, and barbecuing, among other quasi-legal activities. This is where dances such as the slow drag were created, as there was very little space in these jook joints for dances that took up a lot of space. Many of these jook joints were run by donations, with everyone pitching in. As black people migrated to the cities and began to have more money, they took their traditions with them, and Honky-Tonks and After Hours Joints started up. They were essentially like jook joints, but they were run for profit and often were considered classier or more reputable, at least the Honky Tonks. The After-Hours joints were run after the Honky Tonks closed, and they were places for gambling and bootleg liquor. Politicians bought votes by allowing certain spaces such as these to remain open. Another way around laws was to have private events through membership programs, and so they could have events past 1 AM and not get in trouble due to the private nature of the parties. Large ballrooms like the Savoy also offered spaces for dancing, although the Savoy was shut down because of fears of miscegenation. As disco became more popular, all of these spaces started to disappear.
Rent parties also started to become very big, as black people moved to the cities and struggled to pay the high rents. They would hire a musician and sometimes, if they had the ability, print up tickets for advertisement. They had plenty of liquor and would get a portion of sales, and they also got a portion of gambling money. It would stave off eviction. As rent parties died down, block parties became more popular. In order to buy votes, politicians would sponsor these block parties. Cutting contests would happen here, and it kept rival gangs from all-out warfare in the streets. Older people rarely participated in the cutting competitions, but they encouraged the best young people in their communities. The winners of these competitions would then go on to compete against each other in a larger competition.
However, for the black elite, the dancing was very different. They had more formal dances called cotillions, where debutantes were brought out and paraded. The dances were very much more like Western European dances than they were anything like the dances that were done by the lower economic class of black people. The prices of these cotillions were so high that there was no chance that anyone outside of the black elite would participate. Many of these cotillions were sponsored by businesses, who would get an advertisement in the program and a formal mention during the event. Elite clubs were formed that allowed for only the highest educated and the highest ranking community members to participate in the spaces, further eliminating the contact that the black elite had with the lower classes.
The focus in this book geographically is Columbus, Ohio, a little bit of Chicago, and the Southern plantations. However, places such as these existed across the country. Hazzard-Gordon also states that knowing how to dance and knowing these spaces was considered a litmus test.
Preliminary Notes on Specific Dissertation Use
Ralph Ellison, “responding to charges that black intellectuals have deserted core black culture, [stated], ‘Part of my pride in being what I am is that as a dancer, as a physical man . . . I bet you I can outdone, outran most of those intellectuals who’re supposed to have come back.’ Note that Ellison asserts that his dancing ability clears him of the charge—but he essentially confirms the guilt of others” (118). Malcolm X also found dancing ability to be divisive as Euro-American ideas dominated class division, and the culture used black dancing ability as a way to stereotype black people.
These abilities and spaces are not simply an embellishment in black culture and African American Literature, but such a part of black embodiment that it becomes a code or a rite of passage to be able to participate in the community and to know what’s going on or being said or done.