“THE GENTLE INVASION
African American Cultural Influences in Sydney”
On 9th June 2011, COSHA members were able to hear author and historian Dr Clem Gorman describe his research into the influences that African American servicemen, stationed in Sydney during the Second World War, had on the culture of the youth of the day and consequently on modern Australia. The following article is an extract from an essay that forms part of a current Doctoral thesis that Dr Gorman is working on. This is an extract from his talk that was reported in our July and August Newsletters.
"During the 1940s something approaching a sensual revolution occurred among a small cohort of young people in Sydney, mostly living within the inner suburbs. They began to sport big, loose-fitting jackets, pants tight at the ankles, key-chains dangling from their belts, brightly coloured shirts, and shoes made of suede, often with crepe-soled shoes. Hairstyles looking a lot like those of American film stars, long at the back and sides and with large cultured curls dangling over their foreheads, adorned their heads. All of this was in sharp contrast to the clothing that had been worn by young inner-city Sydneysiders prior to World War Two. This would mostly consist of bell-bottom trousers, elastic-sides boots or shoes, short back-and-sides haircuts, plain shirts, and tight jackets"
Few people have written about the African American influence on Australian culture in the period in question. Those few who have discussed it have concerned themselves mostly with media influences from film, records and radio. No one has seriously considered the role of face to face interactions between Sydneysiders and black American soldiers in clubs and elsewhere as a formative influence in the creation of a cultural style known as “bodgie”. My work is intended to explore this neglected area and to argue that African American embodied styles of movement, dress, speech and music were much more significant than has hitherto been realised. Of course, it is difficult to quantify exactly how much such influence has changed ways of being Australian in Sydney and elsewhere, and it is impossible to discount the effects media has had on such styles of Australian embodiment. Above all, the bodgie movement, influenced deeply by African American culture experienced in live encounters in clubs, private homes, dance halls and on the street, was a movement away from the dry, blokey, anti-emotional male culture of inherited British culture, and toward sensuality, expressed performatively through the body.
I contend that African-American individuals, mostly soldiers or musicians, culturally influenced young white Australians of mostly lower-middle-class or working-class backgrounds, by means of what I have called a gentle invasion of spectacular African American culture, borne by individual black visitors, in Sydney during the period from 1943 to the late 50s.