Chad Heap

 

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

Cover Interview of August 04, 2009

A close-up

Although I hesitated to put a Harlem image on the cover of Slumming, precisely because I wanted to challenge the almost exclusive association of that neighborhood with my book’s topic, I eventually resolved that no other illustration so accurately captured the complex racial and sexual dynamics of the phenomenon.

A rare image of slummers apparently caught in the act, this 1929 Bettmann/Corbis photograph (which also appears in its original, uncropped form on page 202 of the book) depicts a full-bodied female entertainer “shaking her shimmy” among several tables of white and black patrons at the popular nightspot known as Small’s Paradise.  In the background, a black jazz band accompanies the sassy dancer and several likely members of the cabaret’s black waitstaff stand ready to deliver bootleg liquor to the tables.  But it is the foreground of the image that is most remarkable.

The picture ostensibly centers on the female entertainer, but in effect the photographer has framed his subject along much the same lines that I followed when writing my book.  That is, he has inverted the conventional focus of slumming, shifting the viewer’s gaze from the black nightlife the slummers have come to see onto the white pleasure seekers themselves.  The result is an astonishing depiction of the patrons’ wide-ranging responses to the camera’s presence—responses that raise nearly as many questions as they answer about the slummers’ activities.

Why, for instance, do none of the white patrons sitting closest to the entertainer actually watch her perform?  And why, as Lori Brooks asked in a recent Times Higher Education review, have the men at that table covered their faces or turned their backs to the camera, while the woman seated with them seems to chuckle with amusement?  What is one to make of the pair of women sitting to the right of the shimmying dancer (visible in the uncropped version of the photograph) who seem enraptured with her performance?  Or of the black man and the white man at one of the back tables (also visible in the original image) who sit quite close to one another and seem to stare down the camera?

Like the photographer, I seek to capture the full range of slummers’ reactions, exploring whether pleasure seekers were motivated by some momentary thrill of crossing racial and sexual boundaries or by a deeper sense of cross-racial or sexual alliance or attraction.  But unlike the photographer, I also document the full range of responses that slummers generated from the residents of the communities they visited—from complicity and profiteering to a sense of unbridled rage that affluent whites dared to treat their neighborhoods as an erotic playground.