Stereotype Reinforcement or Empowerment: Dancing Black Bodies in the Harlem Renaissance

From Josephine Baker, Bill Robinson, Florence Mills, Bill Bradley and Katherine Dunham to Alvin Ailey, Debbie Allen, Michael Jackson, Ciara and Beyonce—all of these legendary black artists are best known for their dancing and its influence on the world. Be it as it may, none of these artists’ legends are without controversy. From being labeled too sexy or too political, it is remarkable that their same dance routines could be viewed by so many people in a plethora of ways. Since slavery, black bodies have historically been dissected by the masses, being used as tools for the entertainment of other races, and constantly denied ownership by black individuals.

The Harlem Renaissance provided a means for oppressed black Americans to express themselves. The Harlem Renaissance sparked a black consciousness that had finally begun to break free of white oppression. Richard Powell best notes that it was a time when black people began to be optimistic in their views of the black experience.[1] Through this self-discovery, black people began to dominate the New York entertainment scene. Every club had a different black performer dancing or singing each night, and various groups had on-the-road shows that traveled to states across the country. An unfortunate caveat to this newfound fame for black performers was that the majority of black people were still treated as second class citizens. This caused me to question the true power of these black entertainers, especially dancers. These same dancers that were revered during their performances were not allowed to use certain restrooms or enter these same clubs if they were not performing. Black people were only allowed into clubs like the Cotton Club, a “Whites Only” establishment, if they were performing or waiting tables.[2]

What’s more, performers like Josephine Baker were entertaining white audiences with blackface comedy, portraying black people as too unintelligent to speak proper English or remember their dance moves.[3] Yes, this job paid the bills and provided a level of economic prosperity for black folks, but what about the racial stereotypes they reinforced? Even Josephine Baker’s mother criticized her involvement in blackface performing.[4]

This brings me to the crux of my argument, the scrutinization of black bodies during the Harlem Renaissance. Even popular flyers of places like the Cotton Club sexualized black women’s bodies, but refused to let them in as patrons.[5] We see here that the black woman is topless with a very short skirt, seemingly entranced by the power of the music the black instrumentalist playing with his trumpet. Her body language makes her look overcome with sensual pleasure, solely because of the music. And her dress is appropriately made of cotton.

Did dancing serve as a method of breaking down racial barriers between blacks and whites, or simply reinforce preconceived notions? While legendary performers like Josephine Baker demonstrated to the greater American public (and eventually the world) what black people were capable of, they were often criticized by the black community and accused of working against black liberation.

Black women’s bodies were especially scrutinized. Even as the world began to appreciate artists like Josephine Baker, she was criticized for her oversexualization of the black female body. In La Revue Nègre, Baker’s Partisan performance, she performed erotic dances almost in the nude.[6] Arguably Baker’s most famous performance, La Revue Negre thrust Josephine Baker into a newfound stardom, while also complicating the idea that black femininity is solely for the consumption of others. She performed the Banana Dance at the Folies Bergère, a dance in which she was topless and wore a skirt comprised of bananas, seductively swaying her hips, batting her eyelashes, flirting with the audience, perfectly captivating the white male gaze.[7] From that point on, white Europeans became obsessed with her. Was this a means of reclaiming power as a black woman, or was it feeding into white people’s assumptions of all black people to be primitive in nature? Especially because of the half-naked male dancers and drummers during Baker’s performances like Feral Banger, some may argue that this performance was not a subversion of stereotypes but instead an enhancement of these negative stereotypes. I, for one, support the notion of female empowerment through control of our bodies—whether naked or fully clothed.

In Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott explores the nuances of these performing acts and notes the intraracial tension they bring about.[8] He speaks on minstrelsy, blackface, and the push-pull tension that causes them to collide with many black people’s ideas of societal advancement. Some may see a picture of a black performer in blackface—face full of black paint, red lipstick, crazy hair, ridiculous outfits, and stupendous facial expressions and body contorting, and criticize them for going against their ‘own’ or selling out their race for a quick buck. However, minstrelsy performances by black people were acts of rebellion, a way of using the oppressor’s power against them. Minstrel performers were able to ascend to stardom and increase their economic status with the same tool meant to make fun of their entire existence. One can liken it to the use of English by prominent Nigerian scholars like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Almost all of their works have been written in English, the language of Nigeria’s colonial rulers, instead of their native tongues, Yoruba and Igbo, respectively. By mastering the language of their oppressors, they are utilizing a Trojan horse mechanism to pit the oppressor against his own self.

 

[1] Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History

[2] Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (2013), Gotham Books. p. 73-75.

[3] Broughton, Sarah (2009). Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar.

[4] Broughton, Sarah (2009). Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar.

[5] Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (2013), Gotham Books. p. 73-75.

[6]Le Jazz-Hot: The Roaring Twenties”, in William Alfred Shack’s Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars, University of California Press, 2001, p. 35.

[7]Jerkins, Morgan. “90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt.”

[8] Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

 

Bibliography

Broughton, Sarah (2009). Josephine Baker: The First Black Superstar.

Jerkins, Morgan. “90 Years Later, the Radical Power of Josephine Baker’s Banana Skirt.” Vogue

Magazine, 2016.http://www.vogue.com/13442586/josephine-baker-90th-anniversary-banana-skirt/

Le Jazz-Hot: The Roaring Twenties”, in William Alfred Shack’s Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story

Between the Great Wars, University of California Press, 2001, p. 35.

Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press,

  1. Print.

The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, arranged by Th. Comer. Boston,

1843.

Visions of Haiti

 

During the U.S. occupation of Haiti beginning in 1915 and ending in 1934, African Americans sought pan-Africanist identification with Haitians. During this period in Haiti, African Americans saw that there were similarities between how white, US occupants treated Haitians, and how white Americans treated African Americans. Racial tensions in the United States made African Americans capable of empathizing with Haitians, while also rejecting what was a racially influenced occupancy. There are many differences in the depiction of Haiti from African American artists like Lois Mailou Jones or James Porter who travelled to the country, with for example, Jacob Lawrence who had never been to Haiti. One central difference is the emphasis on setting and the depiction of the figures.

In Jacob Lawrence’s (1917-2000) piece, General Toussaint L’Ouverture (Figure 1), he depicts a key figure in the Haitian Revolution dressed in the uniform of perhaps a general. The outfit in the portrait, with its intricate gold designs and white accents presents a well-respected leader. The confidence and alert stature of the general depicts a sort of reverence for Haitian leaders that African Americans had from at home in the United States. Another paining (Figure 2) in this same series shows a similar depiction of Haitian men and women running with weapons in hand as if they were in war.

When we move to artists like Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) especially in her painting Peasant Girl, Haiti (Figure 4) the same tropical gold is paired with the brown skin of the figure, however, the figure seems to have been captured in its natural state with no emphasis on her strength. Even for James A. Porter’s (1905-1970) Market Women, the viewer’s focus is drawn to the detail of the landscape as well as the activities of the women in the pictures. The strength and warrior-like depiction of Haiti we get from artists like Jacob Lawrence seems to contrast with the softness of a traveler’s perspective on Haiti.

Each of the three artists portrayed the setting of their figures using similar tropical blues and golds however the focus of Porter’s and Jones’ work is on the props near the women. In both paintings, the props draw in on the natural poses of the women as if the painting was done while they were engaging in daily routines. Different from Lawrence’s pieces, the figures are not portrayed as soldiers or people working in the revolution. In To Preserve Their Freedom for example, the pointed lines, the direction off their noses and chins, and, the solid color of the dark sky and terrain emphasize speed, and draw the viewer’s attention to where they were going as opposed to where they were in that moment.

 

Artists who had not traveled to Haiti based their perceptions of the country on the relationship it had with the militant US occupants, however artists who did travel to the country were able to experience aspects of the country that had little to do with race or the Haitian Revolution. For example, in Market Women, more emphasis was put on the trees, hills, and dirt in the landscape, as well as the props on the ground. Because they could view, taste, smell, and touch Haiti, they could represent the country with for example, the country’s landscape as opposed to its racial history. Their figures also exerted a more natural and relatable humanity by showing what everyday activities looked like through the baskets and food on the ground. African American artists who had not travelled to Haiti had seen the country more so through the perspective of the Negro identity that they shared. Emphasis is taken off Negro identity for artists like James Porter, because of the recognition of how different African Americans are from Haitians despite similar racial pasts and a shared Negro identity. They found a new sense of pride for being a Negro American through travelling to the country because of their artistic acknowledgement of how different each Afro-diasporic culture is around the world.

 

Bibliography

  • FINLEY, C. Lo’1’s Mailou Jones: Impressions of the South.
  • Laduke, B. (1987). Lois Mailou Jones: The Grande Dame of African-American Art. Woman’s Art Journal8(2), 28-32.
  • Thompson, K. A. (2007). Preoccupied with Haiti. American Art21(3), 74-97.

Song: A Piece of Ground by Miriam Makeba