This post includes a review of the book American Allegory by Black Hawk Hancock. I then discuss what the book shows, in my view, for how to write as a sociologist, in line with this blog's theme of how to do various academic tasks.
American Allegory is about Lindy Hop and Steppin', which are related dances—Steppin' grew out of dance traditions that the Lindy Hop started. The Lindy Hop, in particular, is an "American Allegory" because the story of the Lindy Hop (created in the 1920s and 1930s in Harlem) and its revival in the late 1990s is an example of black creativity and labour that was appropriated by white people who then erased the history of that black creativity and labour. This is allegorical to the American story in more general terms, the book argues, where black labour and creativity is hidden underneath the loudly proclaimed expression and successes of whites (or the general “American” assumed to be white).
In Hancock's words, "What was once an African American cultural practice [the Lindy Hop]—forged as an alternative expression of identity against the context of overt and explicit white racism, segregation, and exploitation that defined the American landscape at the time [the 1920s and 1930s]—has now become the tribal call of the privileged white middle class [in the late 1990s and early 2000s]" (p.3).
The book is an ethnography, and explicitly applies the method of carnal sociology (e.g., see p.28–29 for his description of carnal sociology). Using carnal sociology means that the body was both the topic of the study and a tool of inquiry. For Hancock, the "tool of inquiry" part is this: he hadn't danced much before starting to check out the Lindy Hop scene in the late 1990s in Chicago. It then became the topic of his dissertation research (which is the basis of this book), and he tried to become, and succeeded in becoming, a skilled Lindy Hop dancer. So much so that he became a Lindy Hop teacher. But he documents how difficult the process was, training his body to learn how to dance (e.g., Chapter 1 is the description of internalizing the embodied skills of the Lindy Hop). Since it was so difficult, he proposes that dancing in general is learned, not something inborn in any race of people. This is the main "tool of inquiry" finding. Since dancing was so hard to learn at the deep-seated level of his body's reflexes and other bodily knowledge, from this we can understand that dancing is not something that comes naturally to any group of people, specifically black people (and to similarly refute that it doesn’t come naturally to others, i.e., white people). Dancing is ingrained through socialization.
Hancock shows that it is problematic to say that black people are natural dancers because of the history of how black people have been portrayed. In this he connects his "body as tool of inquiry" finding to the idea of the "racial imagination". The "racial imagination" in the US, Hancock shows, has debased black people by emphasizing bodily prowess while otherwise being highly degrading, and even using the idea of inherent bodily skill to denigrate black people. Throughout the book, Hancock draws on Ralph Ellison to frame his own ideas about the racial imagination, and in this vein of natural dancers and the racial imagination, Hancock quotes Ellison as saying, "The Negro is idealized into a symbol of sensation, of unhampered social and sexual relationships" (p.80). Hancock continues, "In relation to what whites perceive as their own "coldness" and rigidity, African Americans are projected as the excess of sensuality and sexuality” (p.81) and "the black body has traditionally been mythologized as innately and essentially exotic, sexual, expressive, and naturally rhythmic; this sense of blackness has been constructed as exterior to whiteness, whereas the white body is marked by its rationality, restraint, and rigidity" (p.81). He doesn't, but Hancock could also cite Norbert Elias here, who traced the long historical process whereby restraint became socially constructed as a marker of "civilization" and the "civilized" person (Norbert Elias, in the book The Civilizing Process).
Hancock argues that minstrel shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show) were an example of the derogatory portrayal of blackness that was part of emphasizing natural bodily skill. Minstrel shows portrayed black people as stupid, lazy, superstitious, etc.—every horrible racist idea turned into entertainment. Basically, minstrel shows were an exaggeration of racist stereotypes. Minstrel shows connect with the idea that black people are thought to be natural dancers because these shows were part of constructing black people as primitive, which connects with them being seen as naturally rhythmic (p.81-82). Hancock goes on to show that often, white people who danced Lindy Hop in the late 1990s over-exaggerated the expressiveness of the dance, sometimes with explicit and awful racist stereotypes (p.92), which he describes as examples of minstrelsy. At one dance class exclusively for advanced dancers, a female black instructor castigated the (mostly white) women for holding their butts out too much, thus critiquing their caricature of many black women's physiology. To Hancock in an interview, she later said, "Look at the girls, they’re trying to dance with their asses way out, in what they think is the way black people dance! But look, I don’t stick it out. I’ve got a big bum, but I don’t stick it out; it does that on its own. But for some of these girls, it looks so outrageous, so I had to confront them on that." The way white women try to emphasize their physiology to approach their image of blackness too, Hancock argues, is an example of minstrelsy.
The Lindy Hop also connects with this portrayal of black people as natural dancers because it is "often viewed as an innate African American knowledge or as some sort of racial essence rather than as an historical urban cultural formation" (p.82). Hancock also shows that many white people in the Lindy Hop world saw black Lindy Hoppers as natural dancers, and often complained about their own lack of natural dancing proficiency on account of their whiteness (e.g., p.97).
So in general, it is problematic to portray black people as natural dancers because of the history of racial stereotypes that denigrate black people and construct the superiority of white people. Portraying black people as natural dancers is itself a contribution to that tradition of creating and maintaining racial stereotypes that identify blackness with the unthinking, unrestrained, wild body.
So in terms of the "body as tool": it is hard to learn how to dance, it takes a lot of time and effort, so there are no natural dancers. It is problematic to say black people are natural dancers, because of the construction of blackness as unthinking, unrestrained, naturally expressive, etc.
The "body as tool" part of the book also has another aspect: since Hancock learned how to dance the Lindy Hop, he was also able to enter the world of Steppin'. This dance, unlike the Lindy Hop, was not appropriated by white people. Hancock entered into the all-black world of Steppin' in Chicago with his partner at the time, another highly skilled, and white, Lindy Hop dancer. They went to Steppin' clubs and people were at first very skeptical, but as soon as they saw them dance, the regular Steppers understood that these two white people just wanted to enjoy dancing. Like Loïc Wacquant and boxing (in his book, Body and Soul), Hancock says that he entered the Steppin' world without the intention of studying Steppin’ in these clubs, but just wanted to go to escape what was becoming a stifling world of Lindy Hop (for Wacquant, he similarly says he started boxing simply to have a location to study life in the South Side of Chicago, which later morphed into a study of boxing). Hancock kept bringing up race in the Lindy Hop world and the mostly white Lindy Hop dancers were constantly rejecting him for this—he found welcome respite in a world where the black history of the dance was not obscured. Steppin' came into his study as a way to show how having a skill that takes an extremely-long time to develop—proficiency in swing dancing—indicates that you belong to a social world, even if you don't fit the usual image of a member of that world. (Lindy Hop and Steppin are forms of swing dancing, Lindy Hop being the original form). People quickly could understand that Hancock and his partner were not cops because they could see that they knew how to and relished Steppin, something that can’t be faked. In this Steppin’ chapter (Chapter 4), Hancock shows that many of the black Steppers were surprised that white people could dance well, which Hancock argues demonstrates that the racial imagination where black people are natural dancers and white people are more restrained and can't dance also manifests here (e.g., p.184). One part I really liked about this chapter was this general observation of how embodied competency indicates membership:
"here the body is communicating something more important than a racially marked surface: a competence of cultural practice that cannot be faked. Because embodied knowledge cannot be explicitly articulated, they reveal more than can be controlled consciously" (p.188).
So the analysis of Steppin’ also contributes to the "body as tool" arguments, showing that these abilities that he had gained were understood by the Steppers as so hard to gain that he and his partner couldn't have been cops or people there to make fun of Steppin.
So overall the argument is that bodily skills are part of racial domination when they are inculcated without an understanding of the history they grew out of, when people learn how to dance without paying respect to and making sure to honour the racial history of the dance. The racial imagination can also impinge upon a situation, inserting stereotypes such as which race are natural dancers, among both white and black groups.
So that's it for the "body as tool" part of this review!
Many of the other arguments in the book were in a way based on the "body as tool" method, because it was by being a known and respected member of the Lindy Hop world that he was able to get such detailed and wide-ranging data, interviewing many of the most respected teachers and dancers. But other than that, the other points I will discuss here are mostly about interviews and what Hancock observed as a participant-observer.
Conceptually, the rest of the book is still based in the idea of the “racial imagination.” The book is also explicitly a study of whiteness. This book was researched and written from about 1998 to 2013, a period when explicit white supremacy in the US was not as present as it is as I write this review in 2022. So at the time, Hancock wanted to study racism in its more invisible forms, such as in the cultural appropriation of the Lindy Hop, the minstrelsy in the ways white people danced it, the refusal of white people to talk about race and the Lindy Hop (even to link it to the history of black creativity), etc. He says, “a paradigm shift from whiteness conceptualized as white supremacy (agents acting in conscious coalition toward maintaining racial supremacy and racial hierarchy) to whiteness as the invisible, underlying, unspoken, normalized operation of the racial organization of society” (p.17) was needed. Indeed, even in the context of the increased explicit white supremacy since about 2014 in the US, there are still many forms of this more invisible kind—it is just that in 2022 we must say that studying both the explicit and less conscious and less visible forms of white supremacy are needed (and even in 2013, I am sure many activists and scholars, particularly Indigenous activists and scholars, but also others, would likely have still critiqued explicit white supremacy). In any case, the book is helpful as a way to make the invisible forms of racism engrained in the Lindy Hop world, and by extension, other forms of cultural appropriation, visible. I appreciated reflecting, as I read the book ,about my own engagement with cultural forms produced by people from historically marginalized groups, and how I could engage in ways that allowed for better understanding of the histories of these cultural forms and use them only if also critically thinking about my engagement in activism in line with that by these groups. For example, I have increasingly engaged with Indigenous writing, music, and other cultural forms, and have felt somewhat uncomfortable doing that, even when encouraged by some Indigenous peoples in activist spaces to do so. The book helped me clarify my feeling of unease about this and helped me understand cultural appropriation in my case, even while I have also consistently listened to the podcast MediaINDIGENA, and talking about it in an Indigenous studies class, and so already have thought about this to some degree.
The conclusion of Hancock’s book does not merely summarize the book. It is based on another journal article Hancock wrote, which had the purpose of responding to critics and widening the scope of the arguments he developed in the Lindy Hop and Steppin’ articles/chapters (most of the chapters of this book were published as journal articles in the 2000s). Hancock takes on a lot in this conclusion. For example, he takes on “structural accounts of cultural appropriation,” where, “the structural model guarantees the qualities and characteristics of a particular group by their very structural position, in that culture becomes what is assigned to an already pre-existing identity” (p.207) like whiteness. So structural takes on cultural appropriation would define any participation in Lindy Hop by white people as cultural appropriation, by the mere fact of “structural position in society” (p.207). This argument against the structural understanding of cultural appropriation could take up probably a book by itself, or maybe a career. Hancock dismisses these structural accounts as being essentialist (p.207), and moves on.
He similarly dismisses the “commodification account” of cultural appropriation, a position he summarizes by saying it is the idea that culture is reduced to consumer goods, and then we can “know who we are” by knowing “what race we are” so that then “we can tell which culture is ours” (p.209). The problem with this, Hancock says, is that it doesn’t show in detail the “social processes” that work to define racial domination and racial categories. Rather than only using the culture (defined as consumable practices and objects) from our own racial and ancestral groups, he sees it as possible to engage with culture from groups other than one’s own as long as attention is paid to how one’s use of culture may contribute to racial (or other forms of) domination. With proper guidance and historical education, people (even white people) can, Hancock argues, engage with culture from other groups in respectful ways that help in creating cross-cultural appreciation, camaraderie, and understanding.
Hancock also goes into a few other definitions of cultural appropriation, such as the “autonomous” definition, and the colonial definition, and the arguments are similar: people should strive to avoid essentialism and look to the precise processes whereby racial domination is produced in order to critique and avoid them.
In the conclusion he also discusses the idea that white people are dominated by their racism. The idea is that white people often do have a great deal of bodily shame for awkward movement, such as in dancing, and not realizing how hard dance is for everyone to learn might make some white people not participate in dance classes, or, in other ways going through the labour to learn to dance, thinking themselves genetically incapable. It seems true to me that this is a way that lack of awareness of the racial imagination, and lack of understanding of the kind of bodily sociology Hancock shows in this book, may indeed be part of white people’s own self-domination.
Hancock then goes on, in the conclusion, to critique the ideas of “race traitor” and “neo-abolitionist”, showing that “In both cases, identification [with either term] ends up being a white fantasy” and that “there is no clear way to separate the race traitor or neo-abolitionist from the cultural appropriator” (p.218). In general, Hancock is constantly looking to ways to define white identity in non-essentialist and non-performative ways, and here he finds the terms lacking.
To finally conclude the book, Hancock returns to Ralph Ellison. As I discussed above, Ellison’s ideas are included throughout the book, bringing a dimension of polyvocality to the narrative, to decenter Hancock’s whiteness a bit (or, so seems to be the purpose, from what I can tell).
So what to do about all the problems raised in the book? Hancock answers dispositionally, in terms of sociology that takes the body seriously. That is, people must not merely think differently. They must engage in different practices: “Since the racial order is inscribed in our bodily dispositions, we must also [in addition to consciousness raising] undertake a countertraining of the schemata of perception and appreciation of the social world in order to break with the dominant racial order” (p.223). Which basically means that we must not only think differently, but act differently, build new types of practices that develop different bodily skills that allow for better cross-racial understanding and respectful cultural engagement. If people only engage with culture from their own ancestral groups, Hancock argues that they will only have a stereotyped view of the cultural practices of other groups, and will probably not have as positive of an experience with that culture than with one’s own well-known and appreciated culture. He says yes, people, especially white people, have to be careful not to appropriate, engaging with the culture of black, Indigenous, or people of colour in respectful ways, conscious of the history of the cultural forms and taking explicit political actions in support of these groups’ political objectives. He emphasizes that there is value in deeply engaging with culture from groups other than one’s own for cross-cultural appreciation and understanding (p.224–225).
He concludes emphasizing the importance of studying the processes that form identities and racial categories, such as those processes he studied in the Lindy Hop and Steppin’ worlds.
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In terms of what this book demonstrates for how to do a carnal sociology, first of all, the book includes a discussion of Wacquant's work on carnal sociology, to define the field and demonstrate what the aim of carnal sociology is. Citing with, and describing the concepts, from Wacquant's work, is thus one of the important tasks for someone doing this kind of sociology (at least, when using the term "carnal sociology"—many scholars and activists do talk about "embodiment" without citing Wacquant, such as adrienne maree brown). The general idea of habitus or embodiment as both "topic and tool" is probably required in such studies.
Second, the book "extends" (p.30) carnal sociology into the area of "ethnoracial domination" (p.30). So to contribute to sociology with carnal sociology, it is not necessary to change the theory of carnal sociology. As is the case with many sociological contributions, and "extension" is often enough. Nobody had talked about carnal sociology in the context of embodying this kind of skill, and bringing this way of thinking to racial domination changes how we think about it. This is the same kind of contribution that Matthew Desmond made in On the Fireline, although in his case he extends the idea of habitus formation into the theory of risk, and in so doing changes how sociologists think about risk.
Third, the book demonstrates that a series of journal articles can later be published as a book. This is also the case with books such as Kimberley Kay Hoang's book Dealing in Desire and Loïc Wacquant's book Body and Soul. Hancock's main chapters of this book, including the conclusion, were first published as journal articles. It can be a successful strategy: one gains a name for themselves, as an early-career sociologist, through a series of journal articles, and solidifies this name by writing a book that extends and waves together these articles.
This book is also an example of a case where the researcher comes into a conflictual relationship with most of their respondents. Many of the white Lindy Hoppers discussed in the book were critiqued, even if Hancock does take pains to keep emphasizing that he wants to get away from the "logic of the trial" and simply talk about how racial imagination and other structures of race flow and are reproduced via various processes. The stubborn insistence of white erasure, white stereotyping of black people, and the neglect of a critical approach to race among many of the white respondents/participants in the study still did lead Hancock to sometimes critique them. I'm sure many would be interested to take his critiques into account, but others might not. It brings up this important issue of how one relates to their research participants, but in any case, often sociologists will end up critiquing them to some degree. This is also the case in Desmond's On the Fireline, where he very deeply critiques how the US Forest Service sets up a set of safety rules for wildland firefighting that are necessarily broken in every fire, so that they can blame anyone who dies for not following the rules. Sometimes ethnographers, and other sociologists, enter into conflictual relationships with those they research. It is a lesson of this book, and an important part of understanding ethnographic methods.
The use of Ellison's work throughout the book was an interesting decision, from this general strandpoint of thinking about academic methods. When reading, it did seem like one way of bringing a powerful black intellectual voice into what could otherwise be a monologic white narrative. I think it is one approach to creating more polyvocality, especially in books written by white people about black, Indigenous, or people of colour. Choosing one author of course opens one to the critique that the particular author chosen wasn't necessarily the best single representative—with Hancock and Ellison, we still have a discussion centered around the voices of two men, for example. I know that sometimes Ellison has been critiqued, for example by Toni Morrison, on the grounds of often orienting his thoughts toward a white audience (e.g., "invisible man" to whom? White people. I saw that critique in "The Pieces that I Am", a documentary about Toni Morrison and her work). So it is an interesting approach to decenter one's own positionality a bit by interweaving a powerful intellectual voice from the group one is studying. It is certainly a methodological point worthy of discussion.
I'll end my discussion there! In any case, the book gives one much to think about.
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This book review, minus the part about academic methods, was posted on Goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4228286-tyler).