by Katrina Dyonne Thompson
University of Illinois Press
In this ambitious project, historian Katrina Thompson examines the conceptualization and staging of race through the performance, sometimes coerced, of black dance from the slave ship to the minstrel stage. Drawing on a rich variety of sources, Thompson explicates how black musical performance was used by white Europeans and Americans to justify enslavement, perpetuate the existing racial hierarchy, and mask the brutality of the domestic slave trade. Whether on slave ships, at the auction block, or on plantations, whites often used coerced performances to oppress and demean the enslaved.
As Thompson shows, however, blacks' backstage use of musical performance often served quite a different purpose. Through creolization and other means, enslaved people preserved some native musical and dance traditions and invented or adopted new traditions that built community and even aided rebellion.
Thompson shows how these traditions evolved into nineteenth-century minstrelsy and, ultimately, raises the question of whether today's mass media performances and depictions of African Americans are so very far removed from their troublesome roots.
"Thompson offers the first cultural history of how music and dance shaped Euro-American and African American identities and how these American culture producers manipulated the performing arts to mold public perception. . . . On virtually every page of Ring Shout, Wheel About, Thompson perceptively deconstructs this complicated quartet of music, dance, slavery, and American culture, and she brilliantly organizes her argument around a 'page to stage' metaphor of theatrical production. . . . Ring Shout, Wheel About succeeds tremendously in historicizing racial stereotyping well before blackface and in explicating the many uses Europeans, Africans, African Americans, Euro-Americans, southerners, and northerners found for music and dance." -- Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
"A compelling and important contribution to the study of slavery, race, and American entertainment. . . . Thompson's argument is clear and convincing: the performances demanded of slaves were central to white 'attempts to define blackness and slavery."-- Ohio Valley History
About the Author:
Katrina Dyonne Thompson is an assistant professor of history and African American studies at St. Louis University.