HIS 400 S01 "Dancing in the Streets": The Political Uses of American Streets
Fall 2021 Junior Seminar
Instructor: Prof. Rhae Lynn Barnes
After the 2020 election in the United States, Motown’s smash hit “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas blared, “It’s an invitation across the nation/ A chance for folks to meet” in major cities in America. After months of lockdown due to Covid-19, millions of Americans spontaneously took to the streets, got ‘in formation,’ and started dancing. The nation’s impromptu party revived street culture emblematic of the summer 2020 uprisings against racism and police brutality. In Harlem, hundreds of protestors peacefully performed the Electric Slide on Malcolm X Boulevard (the activist himself was an avid Lindy Hopper) before silently kneeling to reflect on the violent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Community marching bands backed the Cupid Shuffle. Black ballerinas danced on the graves of Confederate generals. Drum circles in Brooklyn blended Caribbean and West African festival traditions—symbols of cultural resilience that survived slavery and colonization. Ballroom vogueing backlit by strobing cop cars spread on Tik Tok and Instagram along with Danza Azteca, Jingle Dress dancing by Ojibwe tribal members, and the warring uses of Y.M.C.A. at Trump reelection rallies. All these movements took to the streets using mass culture—dancing, donning costumes, making music, engaging in pageantry—and participated in an American tradition of using city streets for political uses, cultural resistance, and protest.
The contested and political uses of American streets (especially by marginalized groups) has a centuries-long history. From colonial America to present, authorities like slave patrols, temperance organizers, religious leaders, corporations, Progressive-era social reformers, lynch mobs, immigration officers, military, and city police regulated Americans’ bodies in public spaces due to competing ideals of freedom, moral order, and the good life. More visible instances of this history include Pinkster, Congo Square, the Boston Tea Party, Bowery B’hoys, the Farren Riot, the Astor Place Riot, Decoration Days, Juneteenth, Mardi Gras, Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, Ghost Dance, suffrage demonstrations, Zoot Suit Riots, the American Indian Movement, the Stonewall Riots, Pride parades, hip-hop culture, or even Occupy Wall Street.
Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argued that the “performative commons,” were a place where The People materialized not in public, but as a public. Mary P. Ryan argues urban streets served as the center for commercial, social, and political life in “civic wars;” antebellum streets became the stage for dramatic representations of power that played out along class, gender, racial, sexual, and political lines. Christine Stansell argued that by the 1850s there was a crisis over the “politics and uses of the street” spurred on by the white middle-class ideology of domesticity valuing bodily restraint and self-control over spectacle. Together, we will closely read modern scholarship about the relationship between street culture, movement, space, representation, and politics by Kathy Peiss, Daphne Brooks, Tera Hunter, David Waldstreicher, Sean Wilentz, Joseph R. Roach, Philip J. Deloria, Mary Ryan, Susan G. Davis, Susan Johnson, Lawrence W. Levine, David Blight, David Roediger, Linda Gordon, Shane White, George Chauncey, Elizabeth Hinton, and Saidiya Hartman. You will write a 25-30 page junior paper based on original research that will ask an historical question, make an argument using primary sources, and be in conversation with scholarly literature.