Swing Time Themes
The main themes in Swing Time are race and identity, cultural appropriation, and mothers and daughters.
- Race and identity: The novel traces the narrator’s burgeoning awareness of how race influences society and one’s personal identity.
- Cultural appropriation: The narrator’s interactions with Aimee illustrate the dynamics of cultural appropriation, which often follows from privilege.
- Mothers and daughters: The novel presents two very different mother–daughter relationships, examining the tensions that arise therein.
Last Updated on February 3, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1308
Race and Identity
Swing Time is a nuanced exploration of the subtle and intersectional ways in which race operates in the real world. In Smith’s novel, it is clear that race is akin to the atmosphere people breathe. Some, like Aimee, can afford to be oblivious to this atmosphere, but for others like Tracey, the effects of race are obvious. Tracey and the narrator are acutely aware of being the only two brown-skinned girls in their ballet class. Yet so internalized is the dominant world order that Tracey’s heroines during pretend play are often blue-eyed and blonde. The stories Tracey writes sometimes contain descriptions of African men “lurking in the corners” to harm white women. The narrator, too, admires white performers such as Fred Astaire, often unaware of the cultural appropriation in which he indulges. It is telling that the narrator recognizes that one of her beloved Fred Astaire performances is in blackface only when Lamin points it out to her, by which point she is in her thirties. The narrator’s lapse is neither comical nor exaggerated; it is symptomatic of the all-pervasive effects of racial discrimination and bias.
Racism also creates pressure on people of color to perform better than white people in order to be considered half as good. The narrator’s mother, a Jamaican woman who has seen a great deal of prejudice, constantly reminds the narrator of this pressure. The mother is keen that her daughter does not serve the tragic fate of other Black women in the estate, “catching babies” in her teens and ceasing to matter. It is perhaps ironic that the narrator’s politically conscious mother is blind to her own prejudiced reading of Jamaican immigrants. The mother also disapproves of the narrator’s friendship with Tracey, looking down on Tracey’s single mother and absentee father. Thus, though the mother insists on solidarity among people of color in theory, in practice she herself falls short of her lofty ideals, unable as she is to recognize her own prejudices.
The narrator’s sense of identity evolves in response to all these crosscurrents. She struggles against her mother’s political and social ideas, which for a long time she cannot entirely adopt as her own. Complicating her self-image is her mixed-race status and her love for her white father. When Tracey describes seeing the narrator’s father with an inflatable doll that is a caricature of a Black woman, the narrator’s very sense of self is jeopardized. She begins to suspect her white father’s love for her Black mother has been motivated by a racially charged preference all along. In order to escape the pressure of forming a complete and authentic identity, the narrator develops a negative, self-effacing mode, losing herself in Aimee’s fast-paced life. It is only when the narrator spends time in Africa, where there is no dominant white gaze, that she begins to grow into her own and ponder the political questions she had once avoided. In the village in Africa, the narrator notes that there is no monolithic group of Black people but a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, including Wolof and Sere. Similarly, even the category of white people is complex: Fernando, a Brazilian, is surprised to hear the narrator consider him white. Thus, she finds a different, more nuanced way of looking at race, one which stands apart from the white gaze.
Swing Time examines the phenomenon of cultural appropriation, particularly as it is carried out by white individuals. Early in the text, the narrator recalls that her mother used to often tell her about the African symbol of Sankofa—a bird that “looks back...
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upon itself,” as if to retrieve the past. Her mother used the Sankofa as a sign that people of African heritage, like the narrator, need to stay rooted to their predecessors. Later in the novel, the word Sankofa crops up in the narrator’s life again. It is the name Aimee has given her new adopted African baby, a baby with whom the narrator, too, fell in love. Both the baby and the name seem to have been plucked out of their context and transplanted in a wealthy, famous white woman’s world. It is no longer clear what Sankofa will look back at, having been taken so far from her origins. The narrator is enraged by the way in which Aimee has appropriated a name, a child, an idea, a cultural symbol, and even a piece of the narrator’s own past. That such appropriation can occur so casually shakes up the narrator.
As the narrator indicates, Aimee’s ongoing engagement with the West African village involves cultural appropriation and is motivated by a white savior complex. The very idea that Aimee can reduce global poverty is suspect, as is her ignorance of her own part in the unequal distribution of global wealth. She rolls into the village in a “cavalcade” of SUVs, assuming a god-like stance. She covets and romances Lamin, arranging for him to come to New York with her. The poverty in Africa which dismays the narrator is for Aimee as natural in its context as daylight. Aimee’s tourist status enables her to look at the poverty dispassionately, as something discrete from her. Later, Aimee organizes a dance concert with a “West African theme” and dresses herself and her children as “Asante nobles.” It is a variation on the theme of blackface, which is introduced with the image of Fred Astaire appropriating the dance moves of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson while paying tribute to him. The narrator’s favorite childhood film, Swing Time, itself involves cultural appropriation, with its two white leads dancing to swing music that is African-American in origin. So powerful is this cultural hegemony that the narrator only realizes the cultural appropriation years later as an adult.
Mothers and Daughters
What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission.
Recounting her childhood, the narrator argues that young children first and foremost demand to be the centers of their mothers’ respective worlds. It is the schism between the desire of the child and the reality of the mother that sets up much of the tension between mother-daughter relations in Swing Time. The narrator’s own mother is a politically aware woman who considers it her duty to educate herself. For the young narrator, this amounts to an abdication of motherhood itself. As a child, she dislikes the fact that, unlike other mothers, her mother lacks the skill of time management and that Saturdays are her mother’s days away from the family. Her mother also seems to lack the maternal indulgence of Tracey’s mother, who showers Tracey with toys and dolls. The narrator in her most childlike mode wants her mother to “lay down arms” and come to her. It is only when the narrator is in her thirties that she recognizes both the irrationality of her demand as well as the struggle of her mother to create some space for herself in the world.
Social and cultural forces play their own role in exalting motherhood. Against such expectations, women, such as the narrator’s mother, often see motherhood as a mixed blessing. The narrator’s mother has witnessed early motherhood jeopardize many lives during her own South London girlhood and dreads such a fate for her daughter. The narrative does not offer any easy answers to women’s predicament of balancing being a mother with being one’s own self. The choice is simple only for women like Aimee, who outsource much of their domestic work to women like Estelle. However, the text also subtly suggests mothering can be equitably distributed, as in the case of the narrator’s family, where her father takes on the domestic role with ease and gladness.