Dancin’, Singin’, and Travelin’ Bodies: The Public Movement of Black Womanhood
Jayna Brown. Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
In Babylon Girls, Brown explores black women singers, musicians, vaudevillians, actresses, and comediennes and how they as performers helped to reshape not only African American but also American culture. She examines the considerable successes of lesser known performers such as chorus line dancers, Belle Davis, and Ida Forsyne as well as well-known performers like Florence Mills, Ada Overton Walker, and Josephine Baker. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s, these black women using various stages and spaces, resisted racism and oppression. These public spaces also created many opportunities for black female performers. Brown argues, “That black movement is always multiply signifying. This means that the same dance phrase can be read differently by different people, depending on the place and time” (15). They found that dance gave them a release from domestic servitude as well as provided new financial gains, especially those like Walker and Baker who became critic darlings. Brown cites Ida Forsyne who stated that the cakewalk “was good because colored people got a job all those years and didn’t have to scrub anything. Just prance around and smile” (142). As performers, black women became possessive over their own bodies, using them to mesmerize audiences with sensual, rhythmic motions (Walker’s Salome dance and Baker’s burlesque) while at the same time subverting sexual stereotypes such as Mammy and Jezebel.
Brown goes back and forth on the spelling of Ada/Aida. During the course of her career, Ada Overton Walker changed the spelling of her name. Brown’s assumption is that her audience already knows that, she does not explain this change. Babylon Girls is an important work of trailblazing black women who contributed so much to not only performance and cultural traditions here and abroad but also to civil rights.
While reading Babylon Girls, the works of Kimberly Wallace-Sanders and Susan Thomas came to mind. These scholars’ works demonstrate how images of black women as mammies and international performers have helped to create highly sought after forms of entertainment worldwide. Wallace-Sanders’ Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory, is an explorations of the provocative mammy figure and how this image through history, film, television, fiction, and culture has penetrated and shaped America’s racial consciousness. Susan Thomas’ Cuban Zarzuela: Performing Race and Gender on Havana’s Lyric Stage is similar to Brown’s work in that it examines how black performance traditions through women’s bodies transcend borders. Cuban Zarzuela explores how this Spanish language opera flourished in Havana in the early twentieth century. Zarzuela was performed mostly by white women in blackface, in which Thomas compares this opera and the music in it to the popular minstrel shows performed in America.
The topic of black women’s performance tradition especially in the 1800s brings up questions about West African dance traditions as well as those of Gullah women. The dance Gullah women perform, the ring shout, has been traced back to their homelands in parts of West Africa. Scholars have insisted that the ring shout was performed by both men and women; however, this religious ritual is physically performed by women only. I question how has transnational migratory patterns affected the ring shout? There are also transatlantic influences of this dance in places such as Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, and Trinidad. Compared to the Sea Islands, are women the only ones performing these dances?