Angela Bassett, photographed by Michel Conte for Vogue Italia August 1993 [x]
Rockabilly is thought of as being a white thing. With Elvis as its biggest star, it’s already ripe with issues for some black people. I know I and other people of color I’ve talked to, were raised with the myth that Elvis publicly said black people were only good for buying his records and shining his shoes. Research showed me he never actually said that but in a way it doesn’t really matter. The damage is done. He’s a reminder of the way whites have long appropriated black culture. Add to that the fact that many fans of the music and the scene use the Confederate flag in their outfits and it’s easy to come away with the message “you don’t belong here.” By no means is rockabilly music or the scene inherently racist, and from what I’ve seen, on the West Coast the scene is heavily Latino. Still, it bears noting a white person once asked me, “But why do you like rockabilly? It’s not really a black thing.”
I disagree. For every Elvis, there are dozens of black artists whose skin color meant they never got off the chitlin circuit to get the recognition (and money) they deserved. Because for all the black people who have said Elvis and others stole rock ‘n’ roll from black people, so few have actually taken the time to really revel in the artists that inspired him. That saddens me. Going to these parties and listening to this music, I’ve learned so much about pre-Motown black artists who’ve had a big, loud influence even if they don’t have biopics. In dusting off forgotten 45s, the rockabilly community pays homage to the black artists who packed so much into a two minute, 30 second recording.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter who’s making the music or running the parties. The point is, I’m there to enjoy myself with everyone else and that should be enough. Instead of being noticed as one of a handful of black people at a show I would rather just be the girl you can’t stop looking at because her dress is perfect. It happens anyway. I feel myself being noticed and it’s hard to shake the habit of counting the other black people in the room.
It takes courage and the fighting of a lot of small fights to be a person of color somewhere it seems you don’t belong. Our communities sometimes tell us not to embrace our perceived weirdness. And as much as rockabilly has a rebellious spirit, there’s a decidedly not rebellious status quo that agrees it’s only for people who look a certain way. My ’50s skirts and cat-eyed liner end up being a small political statement for better or for worse. [Read More]
A Film by Tessa Boerman
Unfolding like a detective novel, Painted Black examines the representation of people of African origin in the paintings of Dutch and Flemish masters from the late Middle Ages to the present, with a particular focus on the seventeenth century.
You can watch Echoes of Blaxploitation in the Netherlands, a lecture by Tessa Boerman, here. My search for a copy of Zwarte Belicht continues…
The painting shown in the poster above is Moses and His Wife by Jacob Jordaens.