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HISTORIC ESSAYS

From Slave Ships to Center Stage
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Everywhere throughout the hemisphere, though, Europeans had very mixed reactions to African dances, judging from 18th-century descriptions by numerous witnesses who saw them as "wild and grotesque antics," "ludicrous contortions and gyrations," "frantic leaps," "frenzy," "lascivious," and "odd and peculiar." For many others, the dances were entertaining. But the most important reaction of all was imitation, the sincerest form of flattery, that would spark a cultural explosion.

At the end of a hard day's work, African slaves in the New World shook the plantation soil off their shoes and kicked up their heels to dance the "Jig," the "Cakewalk," the "Calenda," the "Bamboula," the "Pigeon Wing," the "Ring Dance" "Buzzard Lope," and "Corn Shucking" "Quilting" dances, and many more. They hunched low to the ground, obeying the musical dictates of a battery of drums, and danced the "Yanvalou," the "Zepaule," "Shango," the "Petro," and other sacred dances of the Vodoun religion in Haiti, a close relative to numerous other New World variations of religions rooted in the West Coast of Africa, where music and dance were critical elements of sacred rituals. Some of these dances and the ceremonies to which they belonged were so frightening that laws were passed prohibiting both dancing and drumming.

Hinton notes too that "In 1793, a slave uprising in Haiti, known then as Saint-Domingue, led many French planters to move, with those slaves they still controlled, to Louisiana, the French colony in North America. After the success of the Haitian slave uprising, led by Toussaint Louverture, President Thomas Jefferson convinced Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1807, to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

"One of the many factors leading to the Haitian Revolution was [that] the majority of the slaves there were Africans who remembered a life before slavery. Those Haitian slaves unfortunate enough to be brought to Louisiana brought with them the Afro-Haitian culture they had synthesized from their various African origins, and consequently they 're-Africanized' the Afro-American culture of the Gulf Coast and lower South."

"With the smells of the Haitian Revolution still fresh in their nostrils, the planters of Louisiana feared that any large gathering of blacks was potentially revolutionary, and in 1817 the City Council of New Orleans passed a law limiting slave gatherings to Sundays and designated Place Congo (Congo Square) as the site where blacks could dance under strict surveillance." (Of course, it is no secret that European fears of slave rebellions were not needless paranoia. Organized revolts, rebellions, and random attempts to escape began, according to official records, from the moment of captivity in Africa. Indeed, some tribes, namely West African Ibos, were considered highly undesirable captives, because they often threw themselves overboard, preferring suicide to slavery.)

The significance of Place Congo did not end with emancipation. In fact, it was a center for dances until well into the 1880s, when thousands of blacks began to pick up stakes and move to the North and West in the waves known as migrations. Secular dances of celebration were now performed in the legendary Storyville Distict of New Orleans and the juke joints of the rural South. (The word "juke" or "jook" appears to derive from the Bambara word "dzugu," meaning "wicked.")

Entertainment, more than surveillance, was the main reason whites watched Africans dancing. In fact, one of the de facto duties of slaves on southern plantations was to entertain. Countless histories paint pictures of slaves summoned to the big house to sing, dance, and play every musical instrument, including the banjo, fiddle, quills, tambourine, and drums, for the delight of whites assembled after dinner.

With African dances a source of both amazement and amusement, it was inevitable that even as some were being outlawed, others would be imitated by white performers. In fact, "Negro" characters, played by whites wearing burnt cork on their faces, appeared on the London and New York stages even when blacks were barred from most theaters. The most famous white Negro impersonator was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, the father of blackface minstrelsy, whose singing and dancing caricature, Jim Crow, appeared on stage in 1828 and created a distorted representation that critics actually validated by labeling it "a Negro art form." Consequently, blacks wishing to gain access to center stage and achieve acceptance and some semblance of success were forced to follow Rice's lead and blacken their faces; wear ragged, ill-fitting, shabby clothing; and affect all of the stereotypical mannerisms. The mold had been set. It would take a revolution to break it.

Copyright © 2001 by Zita Allen.

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