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  • Sex and Sociability
  • Tavia Nyong'o (bio)
Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. By Jayna Brown. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 339 pages. $84.95 (cloth). $23.95 (paper).
James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile. By Magdalena J. Zaborowska. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009. 379 pages. $89.95 (cloth). $24.95 (paper).
The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. By Shane Vogel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 272 pages. $60.00 (cloth). $22.00 (paper).

Three exciting new books convincingly demonstrate—for any who require further demonstration—that feminist and queer approaches to the study of African American performance, theater, and music have arrived. More than simply recovering and illuminating the lives of complex and fierce individuals, which they do beautifully, these books model exciting methodologies and sensibilities, setting a high standard for the future work they are sure to provoke. Although the description of a field as "matured" might seem off-key to an ear attuned to the queer critique of reproductive futurity, the rich evidence, arguments, and interventions in these books make me almost want to chance it. Across the expansive time and terrain they cover—from fin-de-siècle St. Petersburg to Harlem in the 1920s to Istanbul in the 1960s to Los Angeles at the turn of the new millennium—these books illustrate the impact of their black, queer, and/or female subjects on what Jayna Brown calls "the shaping of the modern." That is to say, they remap, reperiodize, and reconceptualize how we think about black modernity and its quintessential tropes of progress, respectability, and citizenship. Without entirely dismissing these tropes, and the nation-centered framework they tend to reinforce, these books stay on their outskirts. They follow their subjects aboard steamships, through noisy market squares, down alleyways, and into hush-hush speakeasies. And then, like Ethel Waters striding in to take command of a noisy, drunken cabaret, they halt all chatter and demand their readers' full and undivided attention. [End Page 355]

The range in subject matter and method presented here is itself indicative of the complexity of the tasks of postnationalist American studies, to which these works contribute. Their scope underscores a basic gambit of interdisciplinary study: that no one approach can do it all. From literary biography (Zaborowska) to social history (Brown), transnationalism (Brown) to neighborhood study (Vogel), close reading (Vogel) to movement analysis (Brown), each book works toward a distinctive configuration of literature, history, and performance. In prismatic combination, the cumulative effect strikes me as a multifaceted refutation of the "social death" school of black studies, which casts the pall of original traumatic exclusion and domination over each instance of black creative expression. Whether discussing the variety stage as a site of "black female expressive resilience" (Brown, 56), exile as "a nurturing dwelling place" (Zaborowska, 8), or the cabaret as a "sphere of activity" transcending both its moralizing critics and its hypocritical profiteers (Vogel, 134), each author offers a rich account of how black bodies wriggle through and sometimes out of the "tight spaces" that are always seeking to confine them.

For an exhausted and bedraggled James Baldwin, who turned up unexpectedly at the door of an old friend in Istanbul, the tight space was the United States itself. In Istanbul, he overcame his writer's block, completed the manuscript for Another Country, directed a play, and drew sustenance from a convivial circle of friends and lovers. Magdalena Zaborowska persuasively argues that Baldwin's Turkish years—1961 and 1971—are key to understanding his career. That Another Country was actually written in another country matters, as does the specific cultural, political, and literary context of Turkey. In chapters on both that novel and the collection of essays No Name on the Street, Zaborowska deals with the relationship between their American and cosmopolitan themes and Baldwin's Turkish influences. I found her deceptively simple argument arresting: although the broad outlines of Baldwin's Turkish years are well known, to date, no scholar has set out to foreground place and atmosphere of composition so extensively. This approach replaces the well-known "biographical fallacy," wherein the known facts of an author's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 355-363
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-19
Open Access
No
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