One day, she spots a dancer in the 1937 musical Ali Baba Goes to Town who looks just like Tracey—Jeni LeGon, one of the first black women to have a solo career in tap—and races to show her friend the scene. Only on replaying the tape does she notice what she overlooked in her excitement: the blackface performance of the lead, Eddie Cantor, right before Tracey’s look-alike appears.
Years later, in college, she has a parallel experience with her boyfriend, Rakim, an ardent black radical:
Too stoned in company once, I made the mistake of trying to explain what I found beautiful about the origins of tap dancing—the Irish crew and the African slaves, beating out time with their feet on the wooden decks of those ships, exchanging steps, creating a hybrid form—but Rakim, also stoned and in a cruel mood, stood up, rolled his eyes, stuck his lips out, shook his hands like a minstrel, and said: Oh massa, I’s so happy on this here slave ship I be dancing for joy. Cut his eyes at me, sat back down. Our friends looked at the floor. The mortification was intense: for months afterwards just the thought of it could bring the heat back to my cheeks.
The narrator wants to recover black art—and “kinetic joy,” a phrase she uses often—even as it appears in compromised or perverted forms; without Ali Baba, there is no Jeni LeGon. But these moments are chastening, and history belies dance’s supposed ability to cut across barriers. Cantor in blackface, Fred Astaire in blackface—how had the narrator failed to register them before?
Still, she clings to the possibility that dance is a universal language, one that can transcend race, sex, class, and even time. She is fond of a story of Fred Astaire begging Michael Jackson to teach him to moonwalk, musing that “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him.” But if dance is so transcendent, why did Michael bleach his skin? The narrator catches him on Oprah, confronted with the question. He looks down. “So I’m a slave to the rhythm,” he says, and the narrator takes this as a kind of answer. Dance lives outside of time, but the dancer, tragically, does not.
Into this ideological quagmire struts Aimee, the white woman who belongs to a tribe of one (her name itself is a Nabokovian pun: not Amy but Aimee, as in aim = me). With the blinkered view of the ultraprivileged, Aimee perceives differences as “never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” Like many pop stars, she is a casual and repeat appropriator. Other people’s ideas “end up, in a flattened and vulgar form, in one video or song or another.” Proclamations about universal experience sound dubious—pernicious, even—in her mouth. Her naive philanthropy is one thing, her crass appropriation of West African dance another. When she adopts a black child from the village, however—naming her, perversely, Sankofa—Aimee crosses a line. The narrator, in turn, crosses her.