Chad Heap


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

Cover Interview of August 04, 2009

The wide angle

Over the past couple of decades, scholars have begun to investigate the social construction of race and sexuality in the United States.  Noting the absence of any fixed biological or cultural definitions of these categories, they have examined the various historical means by which changing notions of racial and sexual difference have been naturalized or “marked” into the material culture and physical spaces of U.S. cities.  As significant and insightful as many of these studies have been, surprisingly few have attempted to examine the ways in which popular conceptions of racial and sexual difference took shape in relation to each other.

In Slumming, I seek to address this oversight by demonstrating how race and sexuality became intertwined in this unusual urban pastime.  I show how slummers used their pleasure-seeking excursions not only to ground changing notions of race and sexuality in particular urban spaces but also to shore up their own superior standing in shifting racial and sexual hierarchies by juxtaposing themselves with the women and men they encountered while slumming.

As recent historical studies by Matthew Frye Jacobson, Robert Orsi, David R. Roediger, and others have demonstrated, residents of late-nineteenth-century U.S. cities had a very different perception of race and racial difference from that which would become hegemonic by the middle of the twentieth century.  Rather than viewing all individuals as either white or black, they operated within a racial framework that cast recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—especially Italians and Jews—as a sort of nonwhite “in-between” group of peoples, situated above blacks in the racial hierarchy of the United States but beneath so-called old-stock whites.

They likewise possessed a different understanding of sexual normalcy and difference than that defined by the hetero/homo sexual dyad that also consolidated its cultural hegemony in the mid-twentieth century.

As scholars such as George Chauncey, Lisa Duggan, and Jonathan Ned Katz have shown, in the late nineteenth century, sexual abnormality was defined not by the expression of one’s sexual desire for a person of the same sex but by one’s adoption of the mannerisms, public comportment, and even sexual roles commonly associated with members of the so-called opposite sex.  That is, “mannish women” and feminine male “fairies” were considered to be sexually abnormal, but their more normatively gendered sexual partners were not.  Feminine women and masculine men who abided by the sexual and other cultural roles conventionally ascribed to their sex could engage in same-sex sexual encounters without risking stigmatization or the loss of their status as purportedly normal women and men.

Mapping the complex relationship between racial formation and sexual classification in the United States over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, my book details the crucial role that slumming played both in making visible and in facilitating the transition from one inextricably linked racial and sexual regime to the next.

As successive slumming vogues encouraged affluent white women and men to position themselves in relation to a shifting series of racial and sexual “others,” slumming provided a mechanism through which its participants could use both race and sexual encounters to mediate their transition from one system of sexual classification to another.

In addition, by creating spaces where Jewish and Italian immigrants could begin to consolidate their claim to whiteness by simultaneously emulating and differentiating themselves from the sexual permissiveness and “primitivism” they had come to associate with black urban culture, slumming ensured that shifting notions of sexual propriety and respectability became integral to the definition of race.  That is, despite its occasional egalitarian impulses, slumming proved to be largely complicit both in the efforts of previously nonwhite or “in-between” racial groups to secure whiteness at the expense of black subjugation and in the refashioning of sexual normalcy and difference from a gendered system of marginalized fairies and mannish women to a cultural dyad that privileged heterosexual object choice.

Slumming also transformed Americans’ understanding of urban space.  Not only did this popular pastime give lie to the commonly held notion that turn-of-the-century U.S. cities were little more than urban congeries of highly segregated racial and sexual communities, but it also spurred the development of new commercialized leisure spaces that intentionally promoted social mixing.

In its earliest incarnation, as the term suggests, slumming encouraged well-to-do pleasure seekers to venture into the cities’ more dilapidated environs in order to interact with local slum-dwellers.  But with each successive craze, the practice of slumming focused less on the geographic space of the slum itself and more on the amusement of slumming.  This activity continued to suggest a sense of social and physical boundary crossing in urban America.  But instead of the place defining the activity, slumming came more and more to define the urban districts and populations upon which it converged, recasting significantly less dilapidated and impoverished neighborhoods in terms of the slum.