Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who is this Jim Crow? It was Thomas D. Rice

We use the term Jim Crow to refer to a time when the laws of this land and its practices were designed to oppress Black members of society. But did you know it was actually a Black people’s song and dance? How did it come to have the meaning it does?

Jim Crow

Come, listen, all you gals and boys, I'm just from Tuckyhoe;
I'm gwine to sing a little song, My name's Jim Crow.
Chorus: Wheel about, an' turn about, an' do jis so;
Eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.
I went down to de river, I didn't mean to stay,
But there I see so many gals, I couldn't get away.
I'm rorer on de fiddle, an' down in ole Virginny,
Dey say I play de skientific, like massa Paganini.
I cut so many munky shines, I dance de galloppade;
An' w'en I done, I res' my head, on shubble, hoe or spade.
I met Miss Dina Scrub one day, I gib her sich a buss;
An' den she turn an' slap my face, an' make a mighty fuss.
De udder gals dey 'gin to fight, I tel'd dem wait a bit;
I'd hab dem all, jis one by one, as I tourt fit.
I wip de lion ob de west, I eat de alligator;
I put more water in my mouf, den boil ten load ob 'tator.
De way dey bake de hoe cake, Virginny nebber tire;
Dey put de doe upon de foot, an' stick 'em in de fire

In 1690 it was determined the slave way of dancing formed a cross with their feet something that was not acceptable. A law was passed forbidding slaves to dance in such a manner, and in order to evade the law slaves developed a shuffle dance where their feet didn’t cross the Jim Crow.

Chorus: Wheel about, an' turn about, an' do jis so;
Eb'ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

As a Black person danced and sang this song they were giving vent to what limited expression they were allowed one can say it was a precursor to James Brown saying I’m Black and I’m Proud, or Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, one of the original protest acts.

Cut to the year 1828 a barely working White actor by the name of Thomas D. Rice sees the Jim Crow performed by a runaway slave who was old, crippled and down on his luck as only a runaway slave in New York can be in 1828 (think Gangs of New York). Thomas D. Rice then becomes perhaps the first White performer to steal a Black mans act. He decides to copy his mannerisms and persona even taking his raggedy clothes, but he wildly exaggerates them. He calls himself an Ethiopian delineator; he paints himself black and becomes the father of the minstrel show. He names the character after the dance he stole Jim Crow.

The show is an instant sensation. He takes it all over the major cities and towns in America even overseas thereby beginning of the branding of the Black man in America. In towns that had never seen a Black person previously the image that was projected by Rice and his many imitators that sprang up to cash in on the gravy train was one of the stumbling black buffoon.

The tune became very well known not only in the United States but internationally; in 1841 the USA ambassador to Central America, John Lloyd Stephens, wrote that upon his arrival in Mérida, Yucatán, the local brass band played "Jump Jim Crow" under the mistaken impression that it was the USA's national anthem

As the show grew in popularity the term Jim Crow was actually used as a pejorative it was a kinder way of saying the “N” word. It then became associated with laws and practices of the dominant White power structure.

So Jim Crow, a dance that was done by black people in defiance, is stolen by a White actor, turned into a mockery, and sold like hotcakes.

1 comment:

  1. Hip hop was bastardized in the same manner when record companies plucked anyone with a bad attitude and misogynistic lyrics from obscurity. We have moved far beyond the social conscience hip hop was meant to be.

    I am enjoying your blog.