Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Wrote This Thing on Race and Rockabilly and People Got Upset

If you don't follow my blog's page on Facebook, you may have missed that the week before last, I posted a link to a piece I'd written originally for The Frisky about the experience of often being the only black person at rockabilly events here in New York. I didn't think anyone would ultimately care, really, but I felt I had a story to tell so I did. I was completely shocked by the outcome. My essay was picked up by xo Jane, a friend of a friend passed it on, several friends on Facebook shared it, and there it was.

I got a lot of really positive feedback, from friends, friends of friends on Facebook and in the comments. Generally, I do my best not to read the comments on things that I write outside this blog, but I broke my own rule. It was so nice to hear from others who shared a similar experience, like the commenter who she knew what I meant because she's almost always the only Asian woman in the mosh pit. People tweeted me about it; it all felt good. But, as with nearly everything on the Internet, some people found a way to be outraged.

My intention wasn't to play martyr, nor to bash the scene. I thought I went out of my way to make it clear that wasn't what I was doing:
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.” (You can read the whole thing here)

More than anything, I wanted to challenge the idea that rockabilly is for some people and not for others because of the color of their skin, to point out that the question I was asked is problematic. I've met so many wonderful people through the rockabilly scene here in New York in the two years I've been participating. I had the time of my life at Viva, I love going to shows. Still, there exists a strange chicken-or-the egg dynamic: black people may think they're not wanted (or, in my case, have their presence questioned outright) so they don't go to shows or events, and then the lack of black faces confirms that it's not someplace they should be. That's where the "it's not really a black thing" question comes from, and I don't think that's okay. Nor do I think it's good for a person of any race, sexuality, etc. to succumb to implicit or explicit pressure to stay away from a space they enjoy but where he doesn't feel welcome, though I understand the impulse. And, as I said in my piece, it's deeply ironic when DJs dust off 45s of lesser-known black artists. I don't think I would ever have discovered Bunker Hill if I hadn't started listening to rockabilly.

Lastly, I want to say that by no means am I an expert on rockabilly music or the scene, nor have I ever proposed to be one. I have so much to learn, and that's what I love about all of this. I'm constantly discovering new music, whether it was first performed 50 years ago or is a new release. The music is fun, and besides, it's situated in a culture where there's a partner dance. I've always said partner dancing is something sorely missing in the last two generations. I'm having fun and I'm learning. All I want is to have fun, to learn, to just be without silly questions. I thought, and still think, this is a discussion worth having.

I'm opening the floor to you guys. Have you had a similar feeling at events? Did I miss something in my essay?


  1. I applaud you for enjoying who you are and not letting other people's opinions falter your joy of life. I think sometimes the one or two bad apples can make it seem like the whole tree is bad when in fact there is a great many fantastic apples there:) Cheers to many more memorable events for you, where you can dance and smile:))

    1. Thanks! I'm definitely having fun. But like I said, I think there's still room to talk about it.

  2. Nah, you didn't miss anything. When you navigate mostly white spaces, you're bound to bump into "special negroes"--black folks who willingly bury their heads in the sand about race/racism/microaggressions in order to fit in. They get off on being that black friend who "isn't really black" in their white circles.

  3. When I started going to swing dancing lessons and events, I'd be asked by people why a person of colour like mw would attend such events. I would put them in their place by calmly telling them to go and research the history of swing dancing, especially how it originated and I would also mention that my grandparents used to dance swing in the in 1940's and 50's.

    Attending a rockabilly event, doesn't mean you're selling out BY ANY MEANS - you have having fun and letting your hair down. If anyone tells you that you're selling out, tell 'em where to go. You cannot be a slave to people's opinions. Enough said.

    Frankly, I won't have anyone telling me where I can and cannot go to enjoy myself - I won't be pigeonholed when it comes to entertainment.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. You are so right.

  4. you did right....your story was very interesting to read, and what i can say is, you know how to have fun and enjoy yourself.....some people will never be satisfied unless they can criticize. And, you were right in the statements about Elvis....the 40s and 50s will always live on for people like you who have read about that period in history, and carry on the memories...After all, sometimes that is all we have .....keep writing.


Thanks so much for your comments!