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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
One could easily argue that all historical research, writing, and even reading constitute a form of slumming. Each invites the historically curious individual to venture into unknown territory or to encounter new groups of people in an effort to better understand both the unfamiliar and oneself.
But Slumming is less a meditation on the way that history is written or consumed than an exploration of the pervasive but changing power of race and sexuality in American culture, the inextricability of these two concepts in the popular imagination, and the ability of urban amusements to make such abstract notions seem more stable and “real” by grounding them in particular urban spaces.
Yet even as Slumming endeavors to unravel the cultural dynamics of this voyeuristic, oft-demeaning but always revealing practice, it clearly runs the risk of promoting some version of “armchair slumming” among readers. No doubt some will find parts of the book titillating and sensationalistic. But in critically analyzing and historically contextualizing even the most salacious accounts of past social and sexual interactions, I seek to make productive use of the voyeuristic aspects of such research in order to reveal the complex, sometimes exploitative and often erotic processes through which racial and sexual ideologies were constructed more than a century ago and through which they continue to find their power today. If the result of my endeavors proves as pleasurable and stimulating as it is informative, so much the better.
Chad Heap is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, where he teaches courses on gender and sexuality in American culture. He has held fellowships from the Social Science Research Council’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program and from the Newberry Library in Chicago. In addition to Slumming, he is the author of Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago, the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that he curated for the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library. Currently he is working on a reconstructed ethnography of Chicago’s Depression-era gay community, based on roughly forty life histories and other unpublished field notes gathered by a University of Chicago sociology graduate student during the latter half of the 1930s.