by Giles Fraser
Friday, 25
October 2019
Debate
11:49

Woke students should think again about jazz hands

Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’, 1927

In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn describes a party conference in which the audience stands to applause their glorious leader, Stalin. The applause lasted for ten minutes, with no one prepared to be the first to stop clapping. “Palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching… however, who would dare be the first to stop?” Finally, the director of a paper factory sat down and others followed suit. Later, he was arrested. Stalin loved applause.

Recent reports that the University of Oxford has banned clapping have been over-written. The University Student’s Union has encouraged its members to default to “silent jazz hands” as opposed to clapping, thus to include those who are made anxious by excessive auditory stimulus. Queue much ire and hilarity from the usual suspects, Piers Morgan et al. “Snowflakes!” concluded The Sun. But strictly speaking, Oxford Student’s Union hasn’t banned it, just passed a motion to encourage its use.

And they are hardly the first. Applause is widely disapproved of in church – at least in the western tradition, though this hostility to applause in holy spaces was actually a nineteenth century innovation. And there is a long established convention that MPs do not clap each other in the House of Commons, though the unwritten rules on this are unevenly applied by the Speaker. As Erskine May has it: “Members must not disturb a Member who is speaking by hissing, chanting, clapping, booing, exclamations or other interruption.”

But the problem that woke students of Oxford should have with “jazz hands” as a PC alternative to clapping is that jazz hands are really not very PC at all. In fact, quite the opposite. For, as the name suggests, the popularity of jazz hands had its origins in the minstrel tradition as expressed in films like The Jazz Singer (1927) that also did so much to promote the use of blackface. The main actor of The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson, is often dubbed “the king of blackface”. As well as black face paint, Jolson also made famous that white gloved, open fingered wave that looks very much like “jazz hands

Jazz hands and blackface are part of a tradition in which black people are sent up for the entertainment of white people, a tradition that has done much to reinforce racist stereotypes. Why the Rhodes-must-fall students of the University of Oxford would prefer this to regular clapping is totally beyond me.