Friday, April 25

Racism on stage

I never thought the class I would most explicitly deal with racism would be Beginning Tap Dance. I could very easily imagine it happening in English where so much of the theory seems interested in problematizing the Protestant, white male canon and drawing out marginalized voices, but gender has received greater play there than racism. Even in a hard science or philosophy class by means of mea culpas for granting legitimacy to theories of degeneracy and social Darwinism could I see racism cropping up before dance. Knowing what I do now, it should not surprise me that much. The origins of tap lie with the rhythmic dancing of African slaves in the Americas. Until suits and spats and class were integrated into the dance, clear references to clumsy, oafish slaves were a major component of performances and moves based on these slurs still remain in the canon.

The other thing is, within those other classes, we would have approached racism detachedly. We could have seen what these people in the past believed and wrote; said they were wrong, stupid, wrong, bigoted, wrong; and gone on with the lesson. In Beginning Tap, however, we created a piece which told the story of tap. You cannot just say then that racism and slavery are wrong but must show it too. Naturally, the question of how do we deal with this emerged, and we had to consciously deal with it.

Allow me to lay down the story from the beginning, to the end, in its entirety. The idea of a collaboration piece in which all of the dancers would perform in isolated segments according to a narrative was proposed early in the semester, and our instructor expressed her desire to integrate some sort of social statement on class or race issues or whatnot in it. That was the extent of it for a while since we got distracted by practicing for our '50's rock medley and Singing in the Rain. However, as the time of the recital grew closer and we still had not begun developing the piece, I grew nervous with how it might go down without time to re-evaluate or debate.

I am really uncomfortable with race issues. They are simply something that has not immediately appeared in my life. My hometown in northern Minnesota was homogeneous enough that not having a pure Scandinavian or Germanic heritage was enough to make you stand out, and diversity in ethnicity and race is a continuing problem at Gonzaga where roughly only 15% of the last few freshman classes have not been white. All I ever needed to learn about racism I learned from Sesame Street and believed it should be enough to simply accept that people are people, all bleed red and should be treated according to how they act and what they do, not the color of their skin. That is the solution, end of story, all that needs to be said regarding racism. Time to move on to ending poverty or some other problem. What good is it to keep harping on a past of injustices when we know better know?

I finally spoke with our instructor after class and expressed my concerns that we were not adequately prepared to deal sensitively and appropriately with this issue. Thankfully, she agreed with me. While not willing to scrap the idea, I gave her the name and contact information of one of the heads of Gonzaga's multi-cultural program. Eventually this turned up another multi-cultural director who agreed to help the class out. He originally came just to teach us the hambone but eventually became the reader of our story and accompanying drum player. I was content at this point. Accusations of insensitivity would be harder with him to vet our decisions.

The major problem emerged when the piece was finally assembled. Our instructor began the piece by describing how the masters took away the drums of the slaves to kill their culture. This was accomplished on stage by having a student whip the floor as the drum, played off-stage, faded out. Despite the class' discomfort with this, the strongest protests were not raised until the second-to-last rehearsal. Then our instructor added a white hood to the whipping student's outfit.

She gave two reasons. First, to shield him from any potential backlash for playing a disgusting part. Second, to draw the racism into the present, remind the audience that racism is not simply a vestige of the pre-Civil War era but was still present decades ago. This lead to near mutiny. I do not remember a single student in support of this in the least and the featured student tried to go over our instructor's head when she refused to bend. He was met with the same answer at all levels. Racism and a history of slavery are not something we should be comfortable with. Why should we present it in a less than uncomfortable way?

We ended up doing the piece as she wanted it, but that does not settle the question, unless your question was "Who would break first, instructor or students?" I still stand by my original conviction. People are people and should be treated according to who they are and should not be tainted by any stereotypes of any group they belong to. I think that is where the class was at. For us, "racism is bad" is redundant. We know that and have never been told differently. The challenge for us is to figure out exactly what is racism. Our instructors, however, remember when large segments of the American population and public officials were still fighting integration. A good number of people still had to be convinced then that blacks should share the front of the bus with whites, a far cry from affirmative action to be sure. Partially, I think their resistance to our protests was based on this experience of racism.

In general, I think our student understanding of racism is better. The debate whether racism is right is over. Racism is wrong, so let us treat one another equally. We do not need to keep every imperial colonial power, every act of oppression, every genocide in mind at all times. They were wrong, if not outright evil, and we must not repeat their mistakes. The past cannot be atoned for, but we can do better in the future because we realize we all deserve some measure of respect and kindness just for living and being human.

For the piece though, I have since come around to agreeing with our instructors. I am still wary of the hood since the Klan was formed after the Civil War, but cruel things are a part of tap's history. It did not begin with Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire but with slavery. I doubt anyone in the audience needed to be reminded that treating people as property was wrong, but to treat something so cruel in a way gentle to the audience and even us as performers would be disingenuous. If we are going to deal with evil, let us deal with it honestly and not as we would prefer to. Beware excess and hyperbole, but do not forget that whips were used.

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