Sunday, October 9, 2016

Black Stereotypes In The 1937 Movie "A Day At The Races - Part II: Comments

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a two part series about stereotypical images in the 1937 "A Day At The Races" movie's Lindy Hop dance scene.

Part II provides an excerpt of a 2011 blog post entitled "Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes" as well as selected comments from that article's discussion thread. With the exception of two comments, the comments that are quoted in that post were written by me.

Click for Part I of this series. Part I presents information about the American movie "A Day At The Races" and showcases three film clips (videos) from that 1937 movie.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, sociological, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks also to the Lisa Wade, the editor/moderator of the socimages blog post that is quoted here, and thanks to all others (besides myself) who are quoted in this post.

As mentioned above, this post provides excerpts of a sociological blog post entitled "Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes". The post showcases the "All God's Chillum As Rhythm" film clip from the 1937 "A Day At The Races" movie. That post also showcases two 2011 Lindy Hop videos of White dancers from the European Swing Dance Championships (ESDC), as well as several other YouTube videos that are unrelated to Lindy Hop dancing. Unfortunately, (with the exception of the "A Day At The Races" film clip), the titles for those other videos aren't given in that blog post and those embedded videos can no longer be seen in that post.

The "A Day At The Races" movie and the two contemporary Lindy Hop videos are crucial to the blog post's discussion about race and about cultural appropriation. The "All God's Chillum As Rhythm" film clip is showcased in Part I of this series, but unfortunately, I've not been able to find those two Lindy Hop videos on YouTube.

The comments that are featured in this pancocojams blog post are given "as is" with no editorial changes or spelling corrections. All of these featured comments are from 2011.* These comments are given in chronological order with the oldest comment given first. However, these comments aren't in consecutive order.
I've assigned numbers to these selected comments for referencing purposes only.I limited quotes in this blog post to the comments that I wrote (under my no longer active facebook page name "Cocojams Jambalayah") and two other quotes- one from that blog editor and one from another commenter.

I encourage pancocojams readers who are interested in these topics to read this entire discussion. The link for that blog post is found immediately below.

*There are a total of 67 comments in that discussion. One comment from that discussion thread that isn't included in this compilation is from 2015. All of the other comments in that discussion are from 2011 and 2012.

From "Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes" by Lisa Wade, PhD on July 5, 2011
"Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.

So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people.


So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who (mostly) naively and (always) wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time. On the one hand, it’s neat that the dance is still alive; it’s wonderful to see it embodied, and with so much enthusiasm, so many years later. And certainly no ill will can be fairly attributed to today’s dancers. On the other hand, it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers). Then again, without those dancers, there would likely be no revival at all. And without those clips, however imperfect, the dance might have remained in obscurity, lost with the bodies of the original dancers....

I leave this as an open question for discussion, and one that extends far beyond lindy hop to jazz, blues, rap, and hip hop music; other forms of dance, like break dancing and pop and locking; and even the American obsession with spectating sports that are currently dominated by black athletes. It also extends far past the relationship between blacks and whites, as Adrienne Keene well illustrates in her blog, Native Appropriations.

How do white people, especially when they’re more or less on their racial own, honor art forms invented by oppressed racial groups without “stealing” them from those that invented them, misrepresenting them, or honoring them in ways that reproduce racism? You tell me… ’cause I’d like to know."

1. Cocojams Jambalayah (Azizi Powell)
"Firstly, as an African American whose maiden name is Manning, I've wish I could claim blood kinship with the great Frankie Manning. But no such kinship has been proven.

Lisa, I'm concerned that racism is so deeply rooted that even people like you who genuinely seem to love a Black cultural product, and genuinely admire those Black people associated with its creation/early years, end up using what I consider to be racist,stereotypical, offensive language to describe that creative product. I'm specifically referring to this quote:

Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.
And this quote from a commenter two years ago which you agreed to:

A couple commenters asked how, exactly, the dance was changed in order to appeal to white audiences. This is actually really difficult to say, since few films of social dancing (black dancers dancing only for other black dancers) exist. But we have some theories. Evan, in the comments, had this suggestion:

For white audiences of the time, Jazz was Hot Black jungle music – Black people were sex crazy hedonists, and you can see it in the moves, the exaggerated body undulation. the speed. the sweat. the rhythmical drum.

It was like watching a tribe around a fire.

I’m with Evan.
However, in that post from two years ago whose link you provided above*, you did write that "I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision. It’s fantastic. (By the way, Frankie explained that, by the time they got to the take you see in the Hellzapoppin’ clip, they’d performed that routine more
than 20 times in a row… they were amazing athletes.)". But this observation seems to be minimized by your other comments that I quoted and by your theory about Black dancers in those movies "wild-ing" their dancing.I'm particularly bothered by the use of the adjective "animalistic". There's a difference between performing dances that are imitative of animals, reptiles, and birds and being animalistic. The adjective "animalistic" feeds into racist images of Black people. Yet you used it two years ago and quote it now seemingly without any concern for its negative connotations.

Furthermore, instead of calling White people who produced, reviewed, or watched these movies out on their racism, you soft-pedaled that racism by writing that those movies "portrayed Black people in ways that white people were comfortable with".

For 5 1/2 years I blogged on another forum where some White bloggers were very knowledgable about Black Spirituals and other old-time music, and also were very knowledgeable about Blues, and Jazz music. There was no question that they knew and loved these genres of music. But after numerous comments posted by them, I concluded that they very much cared about that art for that arts sake, but cared very little for the people who created that art and even less for the descendants of those people.

I'm not saying that you fall into that category, Lisa. But this is what disturbs me so much about some non-Black people who are "in to" Black creative products."
Comment added: Here's the link to that socimages post that I referred to in my comment: Race, Entertainment, And Historical Borrowing: The Case Of Lindy Hop, Lisa Wade, PhD on April 27, 2009

2. Lisa_Wade Moderator to Cocojams Jambalayah
"Hi Cocojams,

I hear you, I do. Racism runs so deeply in the culture I am a part of, talking about race is so fraught, and our audiences so diverse in their knowledges and experiences... I am not sure that there's any statement I can make about race that is 100% good, only because of the many layers of ideas that must all be talked about simultaneously and the fact that different people will hear different things. So I try to make statements that are mostly good, and I accept that I will make mistakes, and I try to be humble when those mistakes are pointed out to me."
This comment is given in full. The ellipsis (...) are part of that original comment.

3. Cocojams Jambalayah
"Some observations about the Day of The Races video provided above:* It seems to me that the only racist depictions in that particular dance scene were the wide eyed wide smiling look that the "heavy set" man makes at .046 and the same wide eyed wide smiling expression at 1:05 and 1.06 made by the showcased young woman and young man. The woman and man also make a "hidey hidey ho" movement which I consider to be stereotypical and offensive in combination with the fake wide eyed, widely smiley look.

Looking at that video again, I'd also add the crowd's "ho ho hey hey" refrain with arms swung up and down (.045).

I think those are the types of facial expressions and gestures that were added to the movie to fit White folks stereotypes of Black people. I doubt that they were part of the repertoire of dance moves in all Black venues, and hope that they are not replicated by contemporary White swing dancers. Also, I think that the heavy set man is featured in the dance scene for comic relief but he's an excellent, skillfull dancer notwithstanding his weight.
*Comment added: The time stamps given above are probably incorrect as I'm referring to a video that is no longer available on YouTube. I believe that the video given as Example #1 and the video given as Example #3 in Part I of this pancocojams series comprise that complete dance scene.

4. Cocojams Jambalayah
"For the sake of those who may happen upon this discussion, here's a link to a longer version of this Day At The Races dance scene:

[video embedded but in 2011 no longer available on YouTube due to copyright infringement]

The scene begins with a White pied piper figure [one of the Marx brothers who were stars of the movie] playing his flute for a White couple who ignore him. He then moves on to the barnyard where he interrupts Black girls jumping rope, and Black children otherwise at play-the longest focus is of boys engaged in the lower class pastime of shooting dice. The children ask "Who dat man?" and answer "It's Gabriel!' (as in the Biblical archangel) singing a Gospel tinged song and following behind the pied piper.

Unlike the White couple who brush the pied piper off, the Black children and adults quickly drop what they are doing, form a circle and dance for the pied piper, and supposedly for themselves.

This clip further displays and reinforces a prevailing White view at that time of Black people as coons-immature, happy, non-threatening, superstitous people who have rhythm."

5. Cocojams Jambalayah
"I revisited this discussion because of this journal article about Lindy hop that Lisa wrote which she cited in her blog post for August 1, 2011:

[Comment added: The link that is given in that blog post is no longer active. The journal article is entitled "The emancipatory promise of the habitus: Lindy hop, the body, and social change". This may be the same article:]

Noëlle Gray, I appreciate all of your comments. I particularly appreciate your comments about how all musicians/artists build on art/music that came before them or was/is around them. Given that the United States is supposedly post-racial (ha!), I think it's telling that your Black co-worker was reluctant to attend a lindy hop class with you because she "couldn't believe that she could be in a room full of white people without feeling uncomfortable." However, I think that it's possible that rather than your Black co-worker realizing "that she wasn't black and the other students weren't white. "We were all just dancers", she may have realized that race wasn't all that important in the context of that particular experience.

I believe that it's almost impossible for Black people (and other People of Color) to turn off and on being Black (or another race/ethnicity). But sometimes race/ethnicity matters more than other times.

Furthermore, Noëlle, I believe that if there were more Black people who were lindy hoppers now, it's likely that the Lindy Hop dance would sometimes be performed differently than it's now performed by non-Black people.

I also believe that a person's race, and beliefs-such as being a feminist- can and often does influence her or his interpretation of the history, meaning, and performance of social dances such as the lindy hop.

One example of how I think a White, feminist template can color the description and interpretation of the Lindy hop is this quote from Lisa Wade's journal article:

"Lindy hop is directly derived from the Charleston (Malone,1996). Emerging during the first wave of modern feminism, the Charleston challenged the notion that women must be fragile or immobile and was characterized by angular and awkward movements (all knees and elbows), high-tempo movements, short hair, and boyish fashions.

Lindy hop retains elements of the Charleston and also its liberatory aesthetic.”


Another comment from that same article that I believe reflects a White, feminist belief is

[Beginning female lindy hoppers] “come to dance with a feminine habitus that emphasizes grace and fragility instead of power and strength”.


Perhaps that statement is true for most young Anglo-American females. After all, the overwhelming majority of Lindy hoppers in the United States are White. But given that demographical fact, I believe that it's very problematic when researchers such as Lisa Wade focus on gender and give barely a nod to how race, class, and age influence and inform the contemporary performances of the Lindy hop.

6. Cocojams Jambalayah
"I understand that Lisa was describing the views of White people who made or watched these movies when she wrote "These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky". However, I don't have a clear sense if Lisa agrees with those descriptors as she didn't clearly decry those descriptors nor did she cite alternative descriptors except in the statement in her post two years ago (which she didn't include in this year's post) in which she writes "I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision.It’s fantastic"..

Also, Lisa indicated that she agreed with Evan's statement that I quoted above. So, yes. I would have liked more clarification of Lisa's perceptions of those talented, skillful,creative jazz dancers and their talented. skillful, creative choreographers. I also would have liked a clearer statement from Lisa which acknowledged the racism of those White people who "portrayed Black people in ways that they were comfortable with".

7. Cocojams Jambalayah
"The wide eyed wide smiling facial expression is one characteristic of the "coon caricature". Click for more information about this stereotype.

Here's one excerpt from that article:

"The coon caricature is one of the most insulting of all anti-Black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. As with Sambo, the coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon. The coon differed from the Sambo in subtle but important ways. Sambo was depicted as a perpetual child, not capable of living as an independent adult. The coon acted childish, but he was an adult; albeit a good-for-little adult."

[end of quote from]
"One way this coon caricature was expressed was the wide eyed "seen a ghost" scared look that was popularized by Mantan Moreland, though that form of that facial expression isn't found in that Day At The Races scene. But I think it's important to note that the comedic focus on the fat Black man in the Day Of The Races scene alludes to more than a "jolly fat man", as he is meant to be an expression of the coon character."

8. Kayle to Cocojams Jambalayah
"I disagree. The jolly fat man is not evenly applied in cross-racial contexts. fat and jolly tends to e applied specifically in response to removing the stereotypical violent threat of the black male when read across cultures. White men can br fat and jolly and still have other white men represented as simply human in the same sphere. I'd say Black men in a racialized context tend to be presented in diametric contrast or alone (implied contrast), much like effeminate blackness is presented."

9. Reply
Cocojams Jambalayah to Kayle
"Kayle, if I understand you correctly, I agree with your comment. I believe that in the United States and in other "Western" nations , the fat man trope is an emasculating trope. A fat man is viewed as non-threatening, non-masculine, non-virile. However, another layer is added to this fat man trope by having that man dance-because the overall cultural assumption in the USA and in other Western nations is that fat people can't dance. Regrettable, having a fat person dance (whether male or female) was and still is usually automatically considered to be funny. That the fat man in that Day At The Races movie scene could dance so well -including doing a split-adds a surprise wow! factor to this scene. However, that surprise factor doesn't remove the cultural mesages that "a fat man dancing is funny" and a fat man dancing is non-threatening in a masculine way".

The laughter heard in the ESDC video shown above (presumably when the male dancer appears on stage in his fat suit) reinforces/recreates the meme that seeing a fat person dance is funny.

Adding in the race factor to this meme, the fat man dancing in that Day At The Races scene may also reinforce the meme that all (any) Black person can dance-a meme that is of course not true.*

My earlier comment about the coon aspect of the heavy set ("fat man") and other characters in the Day At The Races scene referred specifically to their wide eyed, wide grinning facial expressions. That coon expression and the coon trope further serve to present these Black people as child-like and non-threatening.

*All Black individuals aren't good dancers, and some non-Black individuals can dance better than some Black individuals. But, in general, many Black people are good dancers (according to my aesthetic definition of what "dancing good" means) because dancing, and in particular percussive rhythmic movement is highly valued and rewarded (by attention, and approval if nothing else) within Black cultures from an early age and throughout life."
The asterisk and its comment are part of the 2011 discussion.

10. Cocojams Jambalayah
"I want to be clear that I definitely don't agree that the sight of fat people should automatically be considered funny (or seeing fat people doing certain things like dancing should automatically be considered funny). Nor do I agree that all men who are overweight aren't masculine (or all women who are overweight aren't feminine.)"

This concludes Part II of this two part series.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Does anybody know the name of the fat Lindy Hopper in the "all God's chilun" scene? The white pied piper is Harpo Marx; the white couple is Allan Jones (who often got cast as the fourth, handsome, Marx Brother) and Maureen O'Sullivan (who played Jane in the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies). There is a story that the studio didn't want the scene, because they didn't think American audiences would like to see the white woman on screen with the black dancers. Groucho went to the wall with the studio and threatened to pull the Marx Brothers out of any future films with Metro if the scene was cut. The Marx Brothers had done six films with Metro and were a big draw -- still, the fact is that Groucho threw down and put the Brothers at some risk to keep the scene. The singer is the great Ivy Anderson, and this is one of only two film records we have of one of the greatest singers of her generation. The Marx brothers seem perfectly aware of this: notice the respect with which Harpo hands the number off to her. Dorothy Dandrige is also present in this scene, and that's the whole Ellington orchestra on horns. (You can hear the bejeweled horn arrangements Ellington was so famous for in his late 30's bands.) The couple doesn't seem to me to brush off Harpo at all, but they're all caught up in the "Tomorrow is Another Day" number, which is supposed to solace the young woman. I love this movie and this little scene, which demonstrates for me the many shifting complexities of race and cultural appropriation. I'm very happy to have found your blog.

    1. Michael, thanks for sharing that information about that movie and some of its actors.

      I'm sorry I don't know the name of the heavy set dancer in that scene.

      I didn't know that Dorothy Dandrige was in that "all the God's chilun" scene.

      I'm glad to learn that about the Marx Brothers. Learning that helps me feel better about this movie and about the Marx Brothers.

      Also, thanks for your compliment about this pancocojams blog. I'm glad you found it.