That there are within the African American community modes of activities like dressing, walking, and dancing clearly dissimilar to the dominant styles of the white majority is evident to any observer. Commenting on these differences, whites have often satisfied themselves that what is observed is a failed effort on the part of the black minority to imitate the ways of white folks. Black people, of course, have always known better. Now two white scholars from, of all places, Australia have accumulated an abundance of evidence that what is distinctive in African American ways of presenting the body constitutes an authentic expressive style, at times a parody and subversion of white style, but rarely if ever a passive imitation of it. In STYLIN’: AFRICAN AMERICAN EXPRESSIVE CULTURE FROM ITS BEGINNINGS TO THE ZOOT SUIT, Shane White and Graham White present their case in a book as accessible and readable as it is informative and provocative.
The authors locate the beginnings of African American expressive culture in the period of slavery, within which details of clothing and other aspects of appearance mark the slaves’ evasion of the condition of absolute dependence their masters strove to create. They trace the evolution of this culture to the 1940’s, the era of the zoot suit. As they examine the varied spheres of clothing and quilting, dancing and dance music, the down look and rolling the eyes, walking and strolling, parades and beauty contests, they argue for an overall aesthetic coherence that suggests a mature and vital culture. They find as well that this culture is deeply rooted in African origins.
The authors record the condescension of whites toward this culture and acknowledge the consternation of many African Americans at what they perceived as undignified conduct that could only lower black people in the esteem of whites. While not designed as polemic, this book will go far in challenging such attitudes. The authors avoid extravagant claims for what they have accomplished. They describe the book as a series of linked essays, rather than an encyclopedic treatment, and express the hope that it may suggest the importance of the subject. In fact, they have produced an eloquent account of ways in which ordinary black men and women have affirmed their lives.