Saturday, February 20, 2010

The "Segregated Musical"

By 1940, both America and the rest of the world recognized swing music as America’s “most distinctive contribution” to world musical culture (David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America 142). After Pearl Harbor, or around the beginning of 1942, perhaps not surprisingly, Stowe observes, “swing found itself transformed into a galvanizing symbol of national purpose” (142). In the years preceding the war, beginning around 1935, swing had accrued a distinctive and highly functional ideology, representing the values of “American exceptionalism . . . ethnic pluralism and democratic equality,” and therefore was seen as an ideal weapon with which to fight fascism (Swing Changes 143). Hence, like jazz, swing functioned as an agent of ideology. “It repeated,” as Michael Jarrett has observed, “on an aesthetic level, myths of identity-through-integration. It naturalized and helped shape a social regime, state apparatus, or, more kindly, values we hold dear.” (Drifting on a Read: Jazz As a Model For Writing 31). In short, swing embodied the utopian impulses of pluralism, ethnic inclusiveness, and racial tolerance.

Strange, then, that a wartime film such as Cabin in the Sky (completed late October 1942, released April 1943), would be, as Thomas Cripps observes in Slow Fade to Black, a “segregated musical.” It is true, as Krin Gabbard observes, that as part of the war effort “Hollywood was trying to pay more attention to African Americans, largely because they were fighting and dying in World War II” (Jammin’ at the Margins 178), but as an “all-black film,” despite its rather obvious purpose—to call attention to the lives of African Americans and to fight long-established attitudes toward the participation of blacks in the work force—it nonetheless was evidence of the state apparatus supporting segregation, as was, at the time, the Jim Crow military. Therefore, the fact that the musical was made, but made with an all-black cast, reveals one of the ideological stresses of the war, the great divide between the symbolic content of swing and the actual social realities of the time: it was made, but rather than having been made with an integrated cast, it was made with an all-black cast—Cripps’ “segregated musical.” Hence Cabin in the Sky duplicated, but within the culture industry and therefore on an aesthetic level, the ideology that supported a segregated military. For instance: Kenneth Spencer, who plays the Reverend Greene character in Cabin in the Sky, also plays in the film the role of the heavenly emissary addressed as “The General.” He would also play the role of the token black soldier in Bataan, also released in 1943, appearing just a couple of months after Cabin in the Sky. While Krin Gabbard argues that the sequence in Cabin in the Sky featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra performing “Goin’ Up” serves “to gently sabotage the film industry’s racial stereotyping” (184)—hence revealing the existence of an ideological crack or fissure—the film nevertheless suggests the way that war, and wartime behavior, serves to naturalize other cultural behaviors and practices.

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