The classic jook, though it might have been found in a small town or even a city, catered to the rural work force that began emerging after emancipation. Jooks were often "shoddy confines," smelly and rarely immaculate. The term itself connotes a place where lower-class African-Americans drink, dance, eat, and gamble. Its constituency imposed a character and psychology, derived from their labor experience, on the first dance arena to emerge after emancipation. (Hazzard-Gordon 80)
In the passage above, cultural historian Katrina Hazzard-Gordon argues that the "character and psychology" of jook joints, their atmosphere, was defined by the black post-emancipation labor experience. It's important to recognize that as blacks entered the market as free agents, their leisure as well as their labor was suddenly commodified. There was a need to recreate a private space of autonomy in a segregated society where very little public space was devoted to black needs. For "'jooks' were the product of segregation, a place where black people felt free to let their hair down, at a time when they were not welcome in many taverns or restaurants...most descriptions of jooks place them on the outskirts of town, in the suburbs or at rural crossroads" (Juke Joints and Jubilee5). If black people were unwelcome in most public leisure spaces, they had to create their own public or common institutions. Jook joints, often black-owned, were different than churches or private homes in the sense that they were commercial. In the black community, they were public; set as they were on the outskirts of mainstream space, however, they became a "private," threateningly autonomous and different space in the white perspective. If the jook atmosphere was defined by this state of affairs, perhaps we can imagine it was in the isolated and unrestrained atmosphere. Many of the rules of normal life did not apply- the jooks were far, both physically and operationally, from the public space of downtown.
Hazzard-Gordon is also talking about the way that the free system of agricultural labor affected how black cultural life flourished. The key concept here is migrancy; "early jooks saw the first large-scale cross-fertilization of dances, as thousands of freedmen sharecroppers as well as travelling entertainers migrated from towns and faraway regions searching for employment" (80). She argues that the evolution of musical and dance styles relied on this condition of migrancy. There was a jook joint circuit spread across most areas of the South where there were black agricultural laborers to be found. By the 1930s, the shift towards modernization and large scale agribusiness was ushering a new cast of characters into the American farm; the seasonal, low-paid, migrant worker was becoming the bedrock of the system. Belle Glade itself was a truck-farming area, where vegetables were produced for northern winter markets. Life in Belle Glade was defined by the cycle of migratory labor.
I promise this relates to Marion Post Wolcott's time in Belle Glade and how she translated her impressions into photographic compositions...
Juliet Gorman, May 2001
Links that will take you outside this discussion:
If what I am saying about the agribusiness in the 30s is unfamiliar to you, there is more information in my introduction to the history of the FSA.