Last night, while idly cruising through Facebook, I came across a video posted by a person I like and respect. The video claimed:
Square dancing has a secret, super-racist past.
Okay. You have my attention. I love secret histories. And it’s not hard to imagine square dancing as having a racist past, since so much of American history does have a racist past. And, again, it was posted by somebody whose opinion I respect. So what the hell, I watched the video.
Watch it for yourself, of course. But here is what I took away from it.
- Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank. Absolutely true. It’s pretty well-known that Henry Ford was a bigot of the ugliest kind.
- Henry Ford believed jazz music was morally destructive AND a Jewish creation. Also absolutely true. Well, it’s true that he believed that. Again, Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank.
- Henry Ford promoted square dancing. Again, absolutely true. Ford grew up with some form of call-and-response dancing. Probably not what we think of as square dancing now, but a form of it. Ford even belonged to a dancing club in the 1880s, when he was a teenager. He met his wife at a dance. And in the mid-1920s, he started a program to encourage ‘old style’ dancing among the public.
- Therefore, since Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank, square dancing has a secret racist history in which it’s actually “a powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy.”
That last bit? I don’t know…it seemed a bit of a leap to me. Is it possible? Sure. Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, after all. But I figured it was also possible the whole ‘secret racist history’ was just clickbait bullshit.
I would have ignored the whole thing except that this morning I came across two other people on Facebook — again, people I like and whose opinions I respect — posting that same ‘secret racist history’ video. So I thought I’d actually look into it.
Noted racist and anti-semitic crank Henry Ford square dancing in evening wear.
Eventually I found a 2010 article in The Journal of the Society for American Music entitled Henry Ford’s Dance Revival and Fiddle Contests: Myth and Reality, by Paul M. Gifford (who apparently also wrote a well-received book on the hammered dulcimer). The link will take you to the article, which is painfully long and detailed, so read it at your own risk. Gifford basically says that even though Henry Ford (who, this always bears repeating, was a racist and an anti-semitic crank) was an enthusiastic folk dancer as a teen and young man, he put all that aside for about 40 years while he was designing cars and inventing assembly lines and getting stupid rich. After he gave up control of his car company in 1918, Ford spent a few years being a racist and an anti-semitic crank in politics, which didn’t work out for him. Then in the mid-1920s, he returned to his interest in dancing, only to discover he couldn’t remember much about the dance moves and steps. He didn’t even remember much about the music.
So, since he was obscenely rich, he hired folks to go out, learn what they could about the music and the dancing, and teach it to him and his friends. One of these folks was a local dancing instructor named Benjamin B. Lovett. They sought out fiddlers and other folk musicians, picked their brains, made notes about the music and the dance steps. And they sort of re-invented call-and-response square dancing (which, as the video correctly points out, has its roots in slave communities). Lovett eventually published a book: Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-five Years, Old-fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford. (A quick aside: the video claims Ford and his wife wrote the book; they didn’t. The title just reflects Lovett’s krypton-grade sucking up. It does, though, include an intro by Ford, which includes a racist and anti-semitic crank comment about “a revival of that type of dancing which has survived longest amongst the northern peoples.”)
Ford promoted the hell out of square dancing. He got local Michigan schools to teach it, he held dances for his employees, he gave interviews to newspapers and magazines about square dancing. He included a record of square dancing music with copies of Lovett’s book on square dancing.
Ford employees square dancing
The question, though, remains. Was Henry Ford’s promotion of ‘Old-fashioned Dancing’ a “powerful weapon in a war against…a Jewish jazz dance conspiracy”? Gifford, after his laborious research, thinks not. Why? Because Henry Ford was a very vocal racist and anti-semitic crank. He wasn’t at all shy about declaring his racist and anti-semitic crank views with the public. He even started a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, as a venue for feeding his hateful shit to the public. And yet, when he was interviewed about square dancing, Henry Ford (a racist and anti-semitic crank) never associated it with his ugly nativism. According to Gifford, Ford saw square dancing “as part of a regimen that balanced work with leisure.” Ford, of course, could have been lying. But it doesn’t seem likely, given he was so open about being a racist and anti-semitic crank.
But here’s something that gets ignored. Henry Ford (have I mentioned that he was an avowed racist and anti-semitic crank?) basically stopped promoting square dancing in the late 1920s. But in the mid-1930s, a Colorado school principal named Lloyd Shaw introduced square dancing into his school as part of the physical education program. He later created a troupe of square dancers and toured the US promoting square dancing as healthy exercise. In 1949, the American Academy of Physical Education said square dancing was “a noteworthy contribution to physical education.”
Modern, western-style square dancing of the sort promoted by Shaw.
Shaw, it seems, got permission from Henry ‘Racist, Anti-semitic Crank’ Ford to include some of the dance moves from the Lovett book in his own book on square dancing. That seems to have sparked the claim that Ford ‘funded’ Shaw’s square dance movement. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence of funding from Ford, but it’s worth mentioning. Where Ford promoted an old-fashioned folk tradition form of square dancing, Shaw promoted a newer Western-based style. You didn’t see cowboy boots and kerchiefs at Ford square dances.
Shaw died in 1958. And here’s the kicker: the movement to make square dancing the national dance — the movement that resulted in so many states making square dancing official state dances — didn’t begin until 1965, with the National Folk Dance Committee. So the notion that Ford, even though he was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, was attempting to insert his racism and anti-semitism into the American bloodstream through square dancing seems (to me, at any rate) even less likely.
It comes down to this: Henry Ford was a racist and anti-semitic crank who promoted square dancing. But that doesn’t mean Henry Ford promoted square dancing because he was a racist and anti-semitic crank.
Why am I nattering on about this? I mean, who really cares about square dancing? Not me. What I DO care about is epistemic closure.
What the hell is epistemic closure? Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemic closure basically refers to the condition in which we limit what we learn/know based on what we already believe. If, for example, you believe the accordion is the most melodic musical instrument ever invented, and you join internet groups that celebrate the accordion and follow the twitter feeds of accordion lovers, then all the information you receive about accordions will reinforce your belief.
You’ll find that almost everybody agrees with you, with the exception of those rare accordion haters out there (and they can safely be ignored). You’ll get involved in vitriolic arguments about which accordions are better than others, and wonder why some people are unable to understand why your accordion of choice is the best. You’ll shy away from interacting with those folks who hold false beliefs about the best accordion, further limiting what you can learn. And those ignorant fuckers who celebrate bagpipes are barely human and should be either locked up or exterminated. I mean, c’mon…bagpipes?
Epistemic closure is why FoxNEWS viewers remain ignorant. Whether you call it epistemic closure, or the bubble, or the echo chamber, it’s dangerous for folks to accept information simply because it seems to conform to what they already believe. Most of us accept that the US was built on the backs of slaves. Most of us accept that modern culture has racism baked into it. So when somebody says square dancing is part of a white supremacy conspiracy and has a secret racist history, we’re likely to just nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Because let’s face it, it’s totally possible.
But in this case…I don’t think so. Despite the fact that Henry Ford was a racist and an anti-semitic crank, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support the notion that square dancing is a tool of white supremacy. You, of course, may arrive at an entirely different conclusion.