Flappers shaming Miley Cyrus.
Oddly enough we could say that Miley Cyrus is following solidly in the appropriative footsteps of white flappers, who in the 1920s grabbed national attention and stirred alarmism concerning the end of civilization because they partied to Black music, wore their hair short like Josephine Baker (who fled US racism to become a superstar in Europe), and imitated dance moves from Baker and other Black dancers. The famously flapperesque Charleston was lifted from the African American dance called the Juba, which had West African roots and was danced in secret in the South and the Caribbean. The dance sped up when it reached Harlem, giving birth to both tap dancing and the Broadway hit called The Charleston, which spread like wildfire from there. White people didn’t sway their hips this scandalously prior to that era, making flappers roughly equivalent to white twerkers of the Jazz Age.
This is 100% true. The period from the jazz age to the beat generation, comparatively speaking was the height of cultural appropriation of black art. The beat generation used lingo popularized by Lester Young. They then appropriated the style, dress, and lingo of bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, down to the beret, glasses, and soul patch. Bebop musicians, Parker and Gillespie in particular, were the blueprint of their image. Norman Mailer wrote an essay titled “The White Negro" that tackles this phenomenon. I’m no fan of Norman Mailer, but at least he admitted that white people were stealing from blacks. He wrote it in 1957.
With regards to the flappers, apart from Josephine Baker, they also liberally borrowed from black vaudeville performers. They would copy dance moves from black performers, and then introduce it as their own. Many dances attributed to whites are from black vaudeville performers who were forced to perform on the chitlin’ circuit because of segregation and Jim Crow laws.
It really is astonishing how nothing has changed in this regard. For example, people to this day still call Benny Goodman “the king of swing”, when what he did was procure charts for arrangements from Fletcher Henderson, a black man. Goodman’s biggest hits were from Henderson. It’s amazing how much credit Goodman gets for another man’s work. Of course Goodman became “the king of swing”, while Fletcher Henderson remains a footnote in history. How a white man becomes the king of something innovated by blacks is astounding. Benny Goodman is called “the king of swing”. Paul Whiteman is called “the king of jazz”. Elvis Presley is called “the king of rock n roll”. Is Eminem the king of rap? What about Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke with r&b? Miley is soon on her way to become “the queen of twerking”.
Anyway, apart from getting his charts from Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman got his ass handed to him by Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom when they had a battle of the bands. Goodman is often noted as being one of the few white men in the segregation era to have black men in his band, and the narrative is typically presented as if he did it out of benevolence. He did it because there was no way to get around the fact that swing music was the domain of black folks, and he poached the best black players he could find to bolster his band, and black musicians went with him because as a white man, he was able to pay them more than black bandleaders, and they wouldn’t have to deal with indignity while traveling. Many hotels refused black bands, so they often had to sleep in cars, bus terminals, or crash at the homes of hospitable blacks. A big portion of Duke Ellington’s money went towards renting out train cars and making sure his orchestra had a place to sleep while on the road because hotels often turned them down because they were black. These were issues Goodman wasn’t going to face. Black musicians certainly didn’t go with him because he was the best. Goodman even later hired Henderson to arrange and play in his band. He wasn’t doing it because he loved black people. Black people were the ones creating and innovating. Where else would he get the best charts and arrangements? Now that the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled, Goodman gets all the credit. Funny how that works.
This stuff has been going on for a long time. Miley is the 2013 version. Twerking has been around for a long time, but Miley convulses on national tv and all of a sudden, dictionary definitions of twerking are made. Definitions complete with no mention of black people, like all this happened in a vacuum. It’s history repeating itself over and over again. I see the same thing happening with afrobeat music.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
Adelaide Crapsey, “November Night” (via bookoasis)
Is it dark outside for you yet? Cambridge darkens so early now. Reminds me of my years on pointe, when I would wait outside for my father to pick me up at 5:15 from dance class. I remember the night, and the cold, and the crisp air, and reading books in what faint light was emitted from the studio.