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More than any other dance company, Alvin Ailey takes the art form back to its sacred roots. Founded in 1958, the troupe has long been celebrated for its ability to weave dance with deep emotional and spiritual experiences. The company’s choreography draws up West and Central African, Afro-Caribbean, and Brazilian, as well as African American traditions of bodily movement and expression to evoke the numinous, the transcendent, and the holy.

Ailey’s “Revelations,” which premiered in 1960, is a suite of dances set to African American spirituals, blues, and gospel music. It is among the most widely attended modern dance performances. The piece captures a panoply of spiritual and emotional experiences, from deep sorrow to ecstatic joy, reflecting the African American journey from slavery to freedom.

The opening section, “Pilgrim of Sorrow,” reflects the deep sense of sorrow and yearning for deliverance of Blacks under slavery. The dancers’ movements are heavy and grounded, symbolizing the weight of bondage. The music for this section includes spirituals such as “I Been ’Buked,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Fix Me, Jesus,” which convey messages of resilience and faith despite hardship.

The second section “Take Me to the Water” depicts a baptism, symbolizing renewal, rebirth, spiritual awakening and divine presence. The movements are deliberate, filled with reverence, and echo the communal and spiritual aspects of religious ceremonies. The dancers’ sweeping arm gestures and fluid, undulating body movements reflect the qualities of water. The music in this section includes traditional spirituals such as “Wade in the Water,” which emphasizes the connection to water as a source of spiritual cleansing.

The concluding section, “Move, Members, Move,” is a celebration of faith, communal joy, the exuberance of worship and spiritual triumph. Dancers perform high-energy jumps, turns and lifts, expressing a sense of joy and spiritual elation. The dancers move in unison and in synchronized patterns, symbolizing the Black community’s collective spirit and unity. Hand clapping, foot stomping and rhythmic swaying are reminiscent of the spiritual exuberance that forms part of the African American religious experience. The accompanying music includes “Sinner Man,” depicting the flight from sin and the quest for redemption, and “Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham,” a spiritual that exudes joy and leaves the audience uplifted and inspired.

The use of traditional spirituals, blues, and gospel music in the Ailey company’s performances not only pays homage to Black Americans’ historical and cultural roots, but also underscores the role of dance as a form of resistance, resilience and communal expression.

Dance has a profound historical connection to sacred practices across various cultural traditions. It has been an integral part of religious ritual, worship, communion with the divine, sacred expression, and spirit possession. Dance was performed to honor gods and goddesses, and often involved intricate movements meant to convey reverence, veneration and supplication to the deities. The movements incorporated in dance allowed a dancer to connect with ancestors or seek guidance and blessings from the supernatural realm. Dances that involved ecstatic spinning might induce a trance-like state of consciousness, a sign of possession by the gods.

Across different cultures and religions, dance has served as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, embodying beliefs, expressing religious devotion, and connecting with the divine.

I’ve had the opportunity see many modern dance companies perform, and Ailey’s style and repertoire differ in a variety of important respects. The most obvious difference is that Ailey’s choreography often centers on the African American experience, drawing from African American culture, history, and struggles, and frequently tells stories rooted in African American history and folklore. This narrative approach contrasts with the more abstract or experimental themes often explored by white modern dance companies.

Ailey’s choreography is known for its rich musicality, often set to various Black musical traditions. Alongside West and Central African rhythms and movements, the choreography fuses dance techniques drawn from Black culture, including stepping, tap dancing, Lindy hop and swing dancing, jazz dancing, street dancing, break dancing and Afrobeat, creating a unique blend that celebrates both heritage and innovation. Also, Ailey’s works tend toward the theatrical, using dance to convey powerful narratives and evoke deep emotional responses, in contrast to the sometimes more minimalist or abstract nature of white-led modern dance.

I recently attended an Alvin Ailey performance in Brooklyn, and the audience looked a bit like Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition or former New York City mayor David Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic.” But this left me with a lingering question: Beyond popular culture, is the United States actually moving toward a transracial society?

In a 1970 essay in Time magazine, entitled “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” Ralph Ellison explored the profound impact of African Americans on the cultural, social and political fabric of the United States. The author of The Invisible Man argues that every facet of American culture owes a profound debt to Black Americans. Apart from Blacks’ backbreaking contributions to the American economy, development, and prosperity, this nation’s cuisine, folklore, language, music, speech, storytelling traditions and ideal of freedom have deep roots in Black culture.

Without the presence of African Americans, the United States would lack much of its richness and depth and the dynamism that diversity brings. In virtually every generation, the Black struggle for equality has forced American society to confront its values and principles, to grapple with issues of inclusion and exclusion, and has pushed the country toward greater justice and democracy, advancing civil liberties and human rights for all citizens.

Yet while no one should doubt Black culture’s impact on American society, it is also the case that for most of this country’s history—and in many ways still, including criminal justice, education, health care, housing, income and wealth—Black-white divides remain largely intact.

Cultural representations have certainly become more multicultural, but is this creating a fantasy version of American life that contrasts profoundly with on-the-ground realities?

In an unfortunately neglected 2002 book entitled American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America, Leon E. Wynter, a cultural critic for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the author of The Wall Street Journal’s “Business and Race” columns, described “the browning of mainstream commercial culture in America” that accelerated in the 1980s. Wynter, who was himself Black and who died very prematurely at the age of 57 in 2011, argued, in the words of The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, “The mainstream, heretofore synonymous with what is considered average for whites, is now equally defined by the preferences, presence and perspectives of people of color.”

In Wynter’s words:

Whiteness is in steep decline as the primary measure of Americanness. The new, true American identity rising in its place is transracial, defined by shared cultural and consumer habits, not skin color or ethnicity.

And this unprecedented redefinition of what ‘American’ sounds, looks, and feels like is not being driven by the politics of protest or liberal multiculturalism but by a more basic American instinct: the profit motive.”

As Wynter explains, as early as the mid-1950s a new idea had begun to take root: “That the Black experience was the most authentically existentially vital” expression of the American experience. But with few exceptions—largely confined to popular music—prior to the late 1970s, Black cultural forms were almost invariably “co-opted, diluted or homogenized by more marketable white imitators.” During the 1980s, however, the culture fundamentally changed, as major companies began “browning their corporate images in order to sell themselves to the broad public, to potential investors, employees and voters.” “Smart marketers discovered,” Wynter contends, “that the inherently subversive appeal of transracial American culture was the perfect boombox for breaking through the noise of a crowded marketplace.”

Companies’ newfound appreciation for the profitability of marketing black culture, in turn, could be seen in advertising, sports (with the rise of the NBA to national prominence), fashion, film, and other cultural outlets. When Bo Derek wore cornrows, Britney Spears covered Billie Holiday in her high school talent show, and some young white males started wearing dreadlocks and became a primary audience for “rap,” then clearly the times were a-changin’. Blackness was now associated with a hip, outlaw, defiant aesthetic.

Whereas earlier in time, white America had absorbed, appropriated, digested, exploited and profited from Black cultural expression in minstrelsy, vaudeville, ragtime and jazz and transformed this into white entertainment, Blacks, in growing numbers, were able to benefit from their own creations. Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy and a Coca-Cola commercial staring football star “Mean” Joe Greene symbolized this shift.

What makes Wynter’s argument distinctive is his stress on the role of mass music, mass advertising, mass marketing and mass consumption, in driving, not just reflecting, cultural change. Remember that as recently as 1956 no major company was willing to advertise on The Nat King Cole Show. If you’re as old as me, you may well recall how slowly representation of Blacks on television occurred. Broadway star Diahann Carroll became the first Black woman showcased on a television show, Julia, in 1968. The dance show Soul Train appeared in 1971, and was followed by Norman Lear’s Good Times in 1974 and The Jeffersons in 1975. Next came The Cosby Show in 1984, A Different World in 1987, and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color in 1990.

Today, ask an artificial intelligence tool to depict a typical American and the image will be transracial.

Now, it’s all too easy to conflate cultural acceptance with other forms of racial interchange. In 2010, just 1.5 percent of young married couples consisted of Black-white partners. Patronage of Black-owned restaurants by whites contrasts starkly with patronage of those owned by Latinos or Asians. Black storeowners and professionals still must rely extremely heavily on a Black clientele. Black students are still grossly underrepresented at most flagship university campuses.

So, what should we conclude over two decades after Wynter’s book was published? Does the “browning” of American popular culture signify a deeper transracial transformation or merely a superficial change while fundamental inequalities persist?

It is undeniable that Black Americans have historically played a crucial role in shaping American culture. From jazz and blues to hip-hop, Black artists have been at the forefront of cultural innovation. However, their contributions were often appropriated without due credit or economic benefit​. Today, there is greater visibility and recognition of Black talent in various fields, but structural inequalities persist, whether we’re speaking of racial disparities in incarceration rates, educational inequalities or gaps in healthcare access and outcomes, housing quality, rates of home ownership, or income and wealth.

You perhaps recall the hullabaloo that erupted after the sociologist William Julius Wilson published his 1978 book The Diminishing Significance of Race. His argument—that class divisions were becoming more important than racial divisions in determining the life chances of Black Americans—provoked vocal criticism that the author had downplayed the ongoing and pervasive effects of structural and systemic racism and their significant role in housing, education, employment and the criminal justice system​.

In his 2009 book, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, and the revised 2012 edition of The Diminishing Significance of Race, Professor Wilson addressed the interplay between race and class more explicitly. He said that he had not intended to suggest that racism had disappeared, or that more affluent Blacks were insulated from its effects, but rather that the economic and class dimensions of inequality were gaining increased relevance. He also emphasized the interaction between economic, cultural, political and social factors in contributing to racial inequalities and disparities.

While representation in media and popular culture is important, it does not automatically translate to structural changes. Prominent cultural roles may coexist with ongoing systemic inequalities. Real progress involves not just cultural representation but also equal opportunities for economic and social mobility—this requires addressing the underlying causes of racial disparities.

A truly transracial society requires the dismantling of structural barriers and ensuring equal opportunities for all, regardless of race. If changes are limited to popular culture without addressing systemic issues, they risk being merely superficial. Cultural diversity in media and entertainment might provide symbolic representation but falls short of substantive equality.

To understand whether the United States is becoming a transracial society or merely experiencing a superficial diversification of popular culture, it is essential to look beyond media representation and examine the broader socio-economic landscape. Here, the picture is not reassuring.

Although schools are less segregated than they were 70 years ago, at the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, they are more segregated today than they were in the 1990s. About 83 percent of Black public school students and 82 percent of Latino students attend a majority nonwhite school, often in areas of concentrated poverty. Meanwhile, a 2021 study found that more than 80 percent of major metropolitan areas in the United States were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990.

Nor has the racial income and wealth gap significantly narrowed in recent years, even though Black wealth has increased. While graduation rates and test scores have improved for Black and Latino students since the early 1970s, disparities in test scores and college completion rates have not budged much. Although Obamacare and Medicaid expansion narrowed disparities in access to health care, the Black and Hispanic populations continue to experience higher rates of chronic diseases and shorter life expectancy.

Addressing these gaps will require committing to substantive policy changes that tackle the structures, policies, and practices and, above all, housing policies, that contribute to racial inequalities.

Still, as the linguist and eminent commentator on race John McWhorter has written, “culture matters.” The increasing acknowledgment of the profound contributions Black Americans have made to American artistic, intellectual, literary, media and musical culture are crucial because culture shapes identities, fosters community, influences societal values, affects norms—and, we can hope, ultimately drives behavior and public policy.

Over the course of my lifetime, a revolution in identity has taken in the United States. Is it the end of white America? No. Has this change produced a backlash within some significant segments of the population? Absolutely. And yet, I think Leon E. Wynter was prescient. He refused to claim that the trends he described guaranteed racial equality, and he worries that whiteness might well be redefined in such a way to incorporate Latinos and Asians and only a very small portion of non-Hispanic Blacks. But a fundamental shift in this nation’s self-image was underway and I agree with him: This constitutes a genuine sign of progress.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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