Nov. 11th, 2010

Who, me, reading a book left behind in the study carrel by another graduate student, diverting myself from number crunching and writing my diss? Nope, not me. It's called taking a mental break.

From Tap Roots: the early history of tap dancing by Mark Knowles, quoting an 1840s passage about William Henry Lane, AKA "Master Juba", the best dancer of "negro dances" of the time, and arguably one of the best dance soloists in the world at that time, who was a free-born black man of the New York/New Jersey area:

[P. T.] Barnum... found a boy who could dance a better break-down....but he was a genuine negro; and there was not an audience in American that would not have resented, in very energetic fashion, the insult of being asked to look at the dancing of a real negro.

Barnum was equal to the occasion.... He greased the little "nigger's" face and rubbed it over with new blacking of burnt cork... put on a wooly wig over his tight curled locks and brought him out as the "champion nigger-dancer of the world." Had it been suspected that the seeming counterfeit was the [genuine] article, the New York Vauxhall would have blazed with indignation.

I'm simply astounded that even in the 1840s, people (in the 'egalitarian' North) would fail to recognize the monumental hypocrisy inherent in watching white men perform "negro dances" on stage and then getting upset about watching a black man dance the exact same steps. The sheer mental acrobatics needed to rationalize that state... wow.


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