Henry Ford’s Racist Square Dancing Conspiracy

The term “system racism” refers to the way that racism and bigotry are embedded into the laws and societal norms that form our everyday life. And if you ever doubt the existence of systemic racism, consider that 28 states have square dancing listed as their official state dance, spurred on largely because of Henry Ford’s hatred of Jews.

Ford’s War on Jazz

Following the end of World War I, jazz musicians moved out of New Orleans and visited major cities in the north like Chicago and New York. This popularized the style of music throughout the United States, and the Jazz Age would proceed to last through the 1920s. This met with much consternation from one Henry Ford.

Ford was essentially one of those old people who lamented that times were changing, except that he had millions of dollars to push an agenda instead of letting his racist rants die at the Thanksgiving dinner table. In his four-volume collection The International Jew, Ford decried popular music as a “musical slush” and “a Jewish creation.” While placing most of the blame on Jews (because that was kind of his thing), he also drew a clear connection to African Americans, calling jazz, “monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps suggestive of calf love.”

Ford was quite afraid that the popularity of jazz would eliminate the style of music that he preferred. Moreover, he saw his crusade against jazz as a way to “save” Americans from the sinister Jewish cabal (that didn’t really exist). With the popularity of jazz skyrocketing through the 1920s, Ford opted to put a significant amount of time and money into promoting the traditional, old-fashioned country-style music he loved.

The Irony of Ford’s Racist Logic

In 1926, Ford published a manual promoting square dancing, and he spent millions of dollars in the 20s trying to establish that style of music as a national mainstay. Ford and those allied with him managed to get square dancing declared the official dance in numerous states. They published numerous instructions on how to do proper square dancing and basically did everything they could to make this music synonymous with America.

In some ways, Ford succeeded. Modern square dancing is uniquely American. Ironically, it reflects many American values that Ford himself rejected, such as a mix of diverse ideas and traditions borrowed from black and indigenous people.

The caller, who shouts out steps during the dance, is one of the most firmly-rooted traditions of modern square dancing. This role did not exist in classic European square dancing, and was only popularized when African American slaves made the dance their own in the 19th century. Furthermore, cultural mixing between European colonists and Native Americans meant that ceremonial Native American dance steps became linked with the popular conception of the square dance.

Henry Ford spearheaded the popularization of square dancing in the 20th century as a reaction against his unfounded fears that Jews were using people of color to take over the world. He, like most others, failed to recognize that square dancing is very much influenced by African American culture, as is just about every form of music that ever became popular in the United States. None of his fears or actions stand up to logical scrutiny, but sadly racism never pauses to make way for logic in the first place.

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