Review: “Black Gal Swing”: Color, Class, and Category in Globalized Culture [Review of works by Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, Arthur K. Spears, and Rainier Spencer]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2010-01-29 04:30Z by Steven

Review: “Black Gal Swing”: Color, Class, and Category in Globalized Culture [Review of works by Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, Arthur K. Spears, and Rainier Spencer]

American Anthropologist
Volume 103, Issue 1 (March 2001)
pages 208-211
DOI: 10.1525/aa.2001.103.1.208

Fred J. Hay, Professor and Librarian of the W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection Library
Appalachian State University

(Son Bonds) Now a yellow gal will kiss you. she will kiss you awful sweet—brownskin gal kiss the same.
(John Estes) What do a black gal do?
(Son Bonds:) But a black gal spit ‘bacco juice, spew snuff all on your lips—oh, loving you just the same.

“Black Gal Swing” Delta Boys, 1941

This lyric speaks to the multiple concerns and issues addressed in these three books. In a few short lines, it depicts and satirizes social distinctions based on phenotype. it mocks the dominant economic class’s insistence on the value of whiteness, it rejects these constructs and in addition flaunts (sociologists Odum and Johnson referred to the blues as “the superlative of the repulsive [Odum and Johnson 1925:166]) its defiance of while American capitalist cultural hegemony. It is a multivocalic, nuanced, and subversive manifesto of cultural affirmation by and for those most reviled, oppressed, and economically deprived. Also, it is brutally honest and humorous. Unfortunately, it is rare for scholarly writing to achieve this level of sophistication or this degree of conciseness.

Ifekwunigwe’s Scattered Belongings (“mixed race” people in England) and Spencer’s Spurious Issues (“mixed race” people in the United States) are revised dissertations (Berkeley and Emory, respectively). Spears’s edited volume Race and Ideology is a collection of essays, by nine scholars, each examining an aspect of how racism is “interconnected and maintained” through “language, symbolism and popular culture” (back chut blurb). Ifekwunigwe, Spencer, and Spears agree on one thing: “race” is not a scientifically valid concept and should be discarded. But on how to achieve the goal of a deracialized social order, and on what intermediate steps should be taken to facilitate progress to that goal, there is little agreement among the three.

Spencer, of white German maternity and black American paternity, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Queens. Ifekwunigwe, of British and Caribbean maternity and Nigerian paternity, was born in Nigeria moved to England when quite young, and then, at the age of ten, moved to “upper middle-class Jewish West Los Angeles” (p. 35). Both authors include family pictures emphasizing the wide range of color and other “racial” traits manifested in their families.

A self-proclaimed “antiracialist” and “antiracial advocate.” Spencer attacks multiracialism on the grounds that biological race does not exist and “social” race—based as it is on outdated concepts of scientific racism and popular readings of phenotype—is also spurious. Spencer argues that without race there would be no racism and that multiracialism is based on the false race concept supporting the hegemonic system of white supremacy. Furthermore, as Spencer notes, if race really existed, most, if not all, Americans would be multiracial.

Spencer’s is a straightforward presentation in which he reconstructs the history of federal racial classification and examines its purpose. He analyzes the ideology and goals of the multiracial movement in the United States, especially of the groups Project Race and the Association of Multiethnic Americans. (Spencer has been a prominent figure in multiracial circles through his column “Spurious Issues” regularly featured in InterRace magazine.) The bottom line is that Spencer is opposed to classifying people by race and adamantly against adding a new category of mixed or multi-race to the federal census. With regret, he acknowledges that for purposes of monitoring the enforcement of civil rights legislation—we must continue to use. for the present, the federal government’s existing racial categories.

Spencer’s argument against muluracialism is sound and well-articulated but, perhaps because of his commitment to antiracialist ideology, Spencer downplays issues of class: he does not acknowledge that the majority of the people in the multirace movement are middle class and committed to upward social mobility. He also downplays Project Race’s denial of and desire to escape from, blackness; ignores recent revitalization movements among what were once disdainfully referred to as “little races” and “tri-racial isolates” (especially the new Melungeon pride crusade); and fails to address issues related to individuals who share a “racial” culture different from their “race” (e.g., R&B legend Johnny Otis, culturally black son of Greek immigrants)…

Read or purchase the article here.

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