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

Content warning: racist imagery.

One of your first two 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 and cultures. This post is a compendium of the 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:

Al Jolson:

Amos N’ Andy:

Eddie Cantor:

Mick Jagger:

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

In your journal, write answers to the following questions. Make sure you write in complete sentences, using your best prose!

1. On p. 27, Szwed talks about the first generation of practitioners of blackface minstrelsy to be recorded and filmed – Al Jolson, Amos and Andy, et al. He then mentions Mick Jagger as a practitioner of blackface minstrelsy — only “without blackface.” What do you think he means by this?

2. On p. 30, 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 does he mean?

Give a musical example of this process of conversion — of black American culture into national American culture — from your own lifetime.

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.

Due in class on February 4.