Two Australian historians (brothers, incidentally) from the University of Sydney examine the ways in which black style has...


STYLIN': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

Two Australian historians (brothers, incidentally) from the University of Sydney examine the ways in which black style has been interpreted and the political and social implications it has carried from slavery to WW II. African-American history has been written on the black body in a variety of ways, many of them cruel and inhuman. Slaves were branded, had their ears cropped, were whipped mercilessly. A slave's body was not his/her own property in the most literal sense, but as the Whites observe in this engrossing volume, there were many ways in which they could assert some small measure of independence. Focusing on such variegated indicators of black style as dress, hair, body language, and dance, the authors reveal an evolving semiotics of black self-creation that has been designed from its very outset to impose a degree of individuality on the numbing uniformity bred of slavery, poverty, Jim Crow laws, and white racism. In the first half of the book, which is concerned with the period before emancipation, the authors draw creatively on a multitude of sources--ranging from the memoirs and diaries of travelers in the South to handbills advertising rewards for the capture of runaway slaves--to recreate a largely forgotten aspect of black daily life. This volume represents an excellent example of how to use the most unlikely materials, such as newspaper-sponsored beauty pageants from the '20s, to examine how a people's culture defines its values in the face of oppression. Although the book is occasionally a bit repetitive in the early going, as its authors seek to build a case with somewhat slender evidence, it is well written and intelligently argued. It even has that rarity of rarities in a university press book: a preface that is delightfully funny. A highly useful contribution to black history from an unexpected direction, in every sense of that phrase.

Pub Date: March 1, 1998


Page Count: 304

Publisher: Cornell Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1998

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