Playlist and Journal Assignment for “Race and the Embodiment of Culture”

Content warning: racist imagery.

One of your first reading assignments, “Race and the Embodiment of Culture” by John Szwed, was published in the journal Ethnicity in 1975. Szwed makes reference to many music and dance forms, as well as visual imagery, across times, places, and cultures. This post is a compendium of the forms he mentions.

Szwed believes the folk dance forms of the following cultures demonstrate a high degree of “synchronization and organization.”

Sub-Saharan African:

Polynesian:

Eastern European:

On the other hand, the folk dance forms of the following cultures have a lesser degree of synchronization and organization.

Western European:

Euro-American:

Middle Eastern:

Videos of minstrelsy (both in and out of blackface) by the artists Szwed cites (we will be studying minstrelsy in depth in a couple of weeks):

Al Jolson:

Amos N’ Andy:

Eddie Cantor:

Mick Jagger:

Some nineteenth-century racist cartoons of Irish immigrants, which Szwed mentions in his article:

3. At the close of his essay, Szwed says:

We now find ourselves becoming famished and desperate students of the discredited and displaced in a pastoral of ludicrous dimensions.

What is a “pastoral,” and what does Szwed mean when he says that “we now find ourselves” in one? Give a musical example that reflects the ways that you believe mainstream America is “famished and desperate” for authenticity in culture.

Respond to the following questions in a comment on this blog post, using your first name only.

1. Amos and Andy were black comedy artists. Why do you think John Szwed includes them in his list of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy?

2. What does Szwed mean when he calls Mick Jagger a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface”?

3. On p. 30 of his article, Szwed says:

The irony of the situation is obvious: the low-status [racial/cultural] group, cut off from the sources of power and production in the larger society, is at the same time less alienated from its own cultural productions [than is the high-status group]. The twist is that the elite of society is free to draw on the lower group’s cultural pool. Were there ever more massive examples of the conversion of community life and culture into commodity than those in which black folk life has been turned into national culture in the US?

What he’s referring to here, in general, is the appropriation and consumption of black music — the “lower [socio-economic] group’s cultural pool” — by the “elite of society,” i.e. those who enjoy economic and cultural privilege. Szwed sees the irony of black music — a unique expression of a particular culture — going corporate/mainstream. The process of the commodification of black music has been going on ever since black music began to be recognized as a distinct style and genre in the nineteenth century, as we will see later.

Give an example of the process of conversion Szwed describes — of black American music or culture into national American music or culture — from your own lifetime. Name a specific song/artist/genre.

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