On October 29th, I went to the UNCG Auditorium to see the screening of “Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance,” which was part of the Greensboro Dance Film Festival. This was a documentary on just what it says in the title, the journey, or history, of jazz dance. It was a fascinating film that went from the very beginnings of not just jazz dance, but the foundations of what made jazz music and its close relatives such as hip-hop. In the documentary they went all the way back to American slavery and stated how when slaves were brought over on ships they brought also along with them parts of their culture, including their forms of art. One of their primary instruments was the drum, which they used to create dance amongst themselves, until it was banned from plantations. But in the documentary, they emphasize how important jazz dance was and still is to the African American community and how the power and voice of jazz dance came out of the long and complex history of Africans in America.
Although this was all very important to the overall documentary, and a vital part of understanding a lot of forms of art (go check out my other article “‘Respect’ as Rolling Stone’s New #1 Song Ever,” as it goes into the history of African American music), one idea from the film particularly struck me: The idea that in the history of the world, especially European and American history, much of what we are told today is washed away into a pot of certain things floating on top, when there are still other things deep down that nobody ever talks about. In other words, most of the time from a historical perspective, one is only told a single story and not about everything that shared in the story. For example, in the documentary they mention a lot of big names from dance history, like Bob Fosse, and his importance to the development of Broadway and jazz dance. However, the filmmakers then ask about artists that most people might not have heard of. These dancers include: JoJo Smith, Frank Hatchet, Fred Benjamin, and Pepsi Bethel. Smith, according to the film, was one of the main causes of the modern training in Broadway dance, and that they were all superb dancers who helped pave the way for future dancers, just like Bob Fosse, if not more.
However, these characters that are forgotten in time are not limited to dance. In music, Bob Dylan has become one of the most praised musicians of the 20th century, leading revolutions in rock, folk, blues and much more. But many do not know that he was influenced by folk singers such as an African American woman named Odetta. She was known for the way that she sang, with a powerful voice that seemed to explode in the room and give a bellowing sound. Many do not know who Odetta is now, but instead remember Dylan, who was heavily influenced by her. Odetta’s voice was not the only great thing about her. She was a folk singer with lyrics that impacted the world around her. In one of her songs, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” she sings, “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish’d rows of steel/ As ye deal with my condemners so with you my grace shall deal/ Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel/ His truth is marching on.” These lyrics give a hint of the blooming Civil Rights Movement that would soon take precedence all over the United States, and in the song she hints towards feminism by saying “Let the hero, born of woman” carefully and specifically identifying that the hero is from a woman.
Unsung characters of history are not confined to only race, but also to sex. In the film industry, for many years, women were mainly only seen as actors in films. Many were created as sex appeals to men, and many were treated as objects. But one woman, Mary Pickford, rose above the expectations of women in the film industry at that time. She was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, then went on to win one of the first Best Actress Oscars in 1927, co-founded the United Artists Company. And yet, despite all of these accomplishments, she is rarely ever discussed. She co-founded United Artists with a man named D.W. Griffith, who is remembered widely for his incredibly racist film titled The Birth of a Nation (1915). This is who we remember, one of Pickford’s colleagues who literally helped give rise to the KKK in the 20th century, instead of Mary Pickford who left a much more admirable legacy.
These examples express the single story that we see in life: the one that we are told. In the documentary they say that in America and Europe, there is a common trope to make a list of individuals who have developed society, use them as pinpoints, and keep those individuals as canon. This makes one move on and then forget the rest, making history too easy. Someone once told me that if one does not see conflict or oppression in studying history, they’re not studying history. We go about our everyday lives having preconceived notions of how our world has come to be, that certain people in history made it this way. But these stories are limited and do not show everyone who helped contribute to who we are. This mindset in turn gives rise to discrimination and undercoverage of certain groups of people, and most of the time these stories are limited specifically in order to create discrimination. Before believing what history has to say, research the world for yourself and see all the stories that make up humanity, not just the narrow story that society has created to make things easier. Peer into your own history, in your life as well. Ask yourself, “Who have you not included in your story?” Perhaps a change in mindset can change not only our past but our future as well.