This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to support this crucial work of unlearning racial bias.
And we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time.
When the curtain opens on the musical Dreamgirls, we meet three hopeful, gushing young women. Deena, Lorell, and Effie are dressed alike in slightly homemade-looking dresses, and fluttering about a 1960s backstage area of an auditorium as they prepare to go on stage for a talent show. Within a few moments, they will take to the stage and absolutely dazzle their audience. Effie is a vocal powerhouse, and when she takes center stage, neither the singing group’s audience nor the movie’s audience can turn their eyes away. We dance and sing with them, allowing the infectious beat of “Move Right Out of My Life” to express its groove through our bodies’ response.
And we keep dancing with the Dreamettes as they luck into becoming background singers for an already established James Thunder Early. We continue twirling and singing with the trio as they fake their way to the top with Jimmy, watching as young, innocent Lorell at first resists and then gives in to Jimmy’s advances. We are swept up in a whirlwind of R&B music that pauses briefly, only to illuminate that the band’s struggles to maintain success are due to white artists stealing and re-recording their music.
Eventually, the band’s struggles grow too large, and under the guidance of Curtis, their manager and Effie’s beau, the Dreamettes re-structure and emerge as a group all their own: the Dreamgirls, with Deena, who is soft-spoken and thinner than Effie, as lead singer. In Curtis’s professional opinion, Deena’s replacement of Effie as the face of the group is necessary for the group to be able to reach white kids and thereby expand the demographics of their audience. Curtis sees in the Dreamgirls what he never could see in Jimmy Early: the possibility of a racially integrated, incredibly lucrative revenue stream.
We the audience laugh and sing and cry and dance our way through the eventual dissolution of the group, the demise of Jimmy Early, the revelation of Curtis’s underhanded methods of ensuring his success, and the liberation of Deena from his stifling control. Finally, we cry with Magic, Effie’s daughter, as the movie ends with a briefly reunited quartet of Dreamgirls serenading us with the song that launched their success story at the beginning of their career.
The title track of the musical Dreamgirls croons that “every man has his own special dream, and that dream’s just about to come true.”
What is unfortunately true is that in many cases, as in the case of popular white singers of the 50s and 60s, dreams that black singers had for the success of their careers were cut short due to white artists’ covering their songs without giving black artists credit or royalties. In other words, while Dreamgirls is a fictionalized story based loosely on the real-life story of the Supremes, the musical nonetheless highlights an indelible truth: during the 60s, white recording artists frequently took credit for black art.
In fact, girl groups just like our fictional Dreamgirls, played an important role in integrating pop culture. They were able to reach across and unite previously divided audiences.
There’s another truth revealed here, too. For black Americans, we are often told in explicit and implicit ways when our acknowledgement and celebration of our blackness is welcome, and when it is not. We are sought out and lauded for athletic prowess and for entertainment, but when we access a facet of our identity that leads us into activism and advocacy, we are smacked down by the dominant culture – told to shut up and dribble.
I see this tension at play in the musical history that Dreamgirls brings to light. I suspect that white culture resisted black music and black artists for as long as it did because the culture itself knew that accepting black artists as valid would mean extending the same acceptance to black people as a whole. This, too, is why at times black celebrities are told to stick to what they know: it’s a defensive measure designed to uphold white supremacy and withhold acceptance of black agency.
Too often, the product black people create – be it music, cinema, clothing, poetry, or something else entirely – is embraced by our country’s dominant culture. But we – the three-dimensional human beings creating the product – are left out in the cold.
This, the cold shoulder of our country’s dominant culture, illuminates why black Americans sometimes seem ultra-sensitive regarding cultural appropriation and cancel culture. Black Americans have labored decades and centuries to create and sustain an identity that celebrates and nourishes us – persisting throughout repeated, sustained racist policies like Jim Crow laws and voter suppression. Yet if we excel at performing in a way the dominant culture views as entertaining or valuable, the dominant culture demands we suppress our celebration of our people’s identity. On the other hand, if white people celebrate an aspect of black cultural identity, or if they speak out on our behalf, we are often expected to be appreciative only and never hurt or critical.
It’s enough to make a person want to holler, and throw up both their hands.
This week, I hope you will watch Dreamgirls and be drawn in by its special, glittery magic. I hope you’ll see the beauty and richness of our cultural identity woven into the story. I hope that you’ll take time afterward to briefly research the actors on the cast list. Several actors from the original Broadway musical’s cast appear in the film, which is a treasure for those of us who grew up knowing this story and its songs because they provided a meaningful portion of the soundtrack to our childhood. I hope that as you learn about the cast, you’ll dig a bit into the real life person whom Effie was modeled after. In real life, that “Effie” didn’t get to have a triumphant comeback.
I hope, too, that as you take in Dreamgirls in all its glory, that you’ll take a moment to reflect on the aspects of identity that are lost when people groups are ripped from their homes and countries of origin. Let rest in your mind the idea that cultural identity is so important to many black Americans because we understand the struggle inherent in constructing that identity.
I earnestly, truly hope that you’ll gain a new or renewed appreciation for the identity black Americans have hewn out of a fraught history in this country: working, building, loving, and celebrating our way to a joyous and rich shared identity.
And I hope you’ll consider these questions:
- What parts of your cultural identity do you feel a strong emotional attachment to?
- How would you feel if someone who doesn’t share your culture gleefully displayed a part of it for themselves while simultaneously discouraging your own expression of your culture?
- How about if they profited financially from this display of your culture without crediting your culture as its origin?
- Is it necessary to physically put on a physical representation of another culture in order to celebrate it?
Join me back again here next week, and we’ll brush off the shimmery, dreamy stardust from Dreamgirls as we continue building peace in our homes and communities and selves, one piece at a time.