Chad Heap


On his book Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Cover Interview of August 04, 2009

In a nutshell

The word slumming, with all its problematic connotations, likely calls to mind the late-night excursions of white pleasure seekers to the cabarets of Prohibition-era Harlem.  But the practice of slumming encompassed a much wider range of urban sexual and racial encounters than this image suggests and also extended well beyond Prohibition.

By the mid-1880s, this once-popular pastime prompted thousands of well-to-do whites to explore a range of urban spaces associated with working-class southern and eastern European immigrants, Chinese immigrants, and blacks.  Successive generations of white slummers soon followed in their wake, setting their sights, first, on the tearooms of “free-loving” bohemian artists and radicals, before turning their attention to the jazz cabarets of urban blacks and, finally, to the speakeasies and nightclubs associated with lesbians and gay men.  In each case, the aim was simple: to combine amusement with the firsthand investigation of American cities’ changing populations and neighborhoods.

Charting the progression of these nightlife vogues, Slumming examines how this distinctive cultural practice recast the sexual and racial landscape of American urban culture and space.  As white middle-class women joined their male counterparts for the first time to partake of commercial leisure, slumming provided a relatively comfortable means of negotiating the shifting contours of public gender relations and the spatial and demographic changes that restructured turn-of-the-century U.S. cities.

Yet slumming accomplished much more than simply creating places where affluent whites could cross preconceived racial and sexual boundaries.  By opening spaces where women and men could explore their sexual fantasies outside the social constraints of their own neighborhoods, and where those who engaged in same-sex and cross-racial relationships could publicly express their desires, this popular phenomenon played an extensive role in the proliferation of new sexual and racial identities.

Moreover, I argue that slumming contributed significantly to the emergence and codification of a new twentieth-century hegemonic social order—one that was structured primarily around an increasingly polarized white/black racial axis and a hetero/homo sexual binary that were defined in reciprocal relationship to one another.