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  • Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern
  • Jennifer-Scott Mobley
Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. By Jayna Brown. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008; pp. 360. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Babylon Girls is a cultural history and performance study of the many African American women who performed in variety shows between 1890 and 1945, as well as the vast cultural influence that black dance had on shaping modernity. Jayna Brown explores many forms of variety performance, from "Tom Shows" and traveling Picaninny Choruses to Creole shows, plantation recreations, burlesque revues, cabaret acts, and chorus lines, to demonstrate how black women in particular helped shape the movement and style of the emerging popular culture of modernism. This groundbreaking work investigates traditions of black female performance and examines how they intersected with, and ran parallel to, white blackface minstrelsy and the diversity of vaudeville performances that developed between the turn of the century and 1945. Her study is interdisciplinary, building on theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz (Volatile Bodies), Joseph Roach (Cities of the Dead), and Eric Lott (Love and Theft). Brown critiques Lott along with W. T. Lhamon (Raising Cain) as writers who have theorized minstrelsy within a masculinist framework that excludes the histories of women working in blackface; she points out that Topsy, for example, was a female blackface role rendered by women, first white and then black. Brown views urban variety stages and the black women who performed on them as crucial sites and figures in the development of modern identities and postindustrial pleasures. [End Page 701]

The book is structured around the concept of mobility and rethinks how movements and migrations of blacks structured both African American cultural expression and historical narratives of modernity. Brown emphasizes how, during this era of British and US imperialism, female black performers moved geographically around the world, as well as through space on the stage, playing with constructions of race and gender as they pioneered dance gestures that were absorbed into the culture of modernity. Chapter 1, "'Little Black Me': The Touring Picaninny Choruses," uses travel memoirs to explore claims of subjecthood by the large numbers of black women and child performers who toured Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. She discusses the multilayered language of the black performing body, arguing that in England, the dancing bodies of children were at once symbols of resilience, evoking from the audience an imperialist, paternalist response to the picanniny dancers as rearticulated colonial subjects, and a point of identification with child labor in the factories of industrial England.

The next chapter, "Letting the Flesh Fly: Topsy, Time, Torture, and Transfiguration," examines the Tom Show phenomenon both in the United States and throughout Europe in order to consider the choreography or racial delineation in the figure of Topsy on the urban stage, as well as how Topsy might be re-envisioned as a "trope for black female expressive resilience" (56). A chapter titled "The Cakewalk Business" examines how black expressive techniques of dance were incorporated and eventually became the chosen "gestural languages of a northern urban populace" (128). Brown contends that the cakewalk and other black dances of the early 1900s shaped modern spaces of the city, such as the fairground, the world's fair midway, and the park, where, she asserts, ideologies of American wealth were being formed. She argues against studies that oversimplify the relaxing of socioeconomic boundaries as a defining precept of modernization, noting that although urban civic spaces allowed for more sociability and the mixing of classes, they were still policed for blacks: "[w]hite people performed black dances to celebrate democratic progress, and this use served to retain and restabilize the gestural codings of such hierarchies" (129). The politics of racial segregation also shaped gestural and social languages of "interracial exchange" between black and white bodies in the United States. These new forms of contact, Brown stresses, are "central to the concept of the modern and the emergence of metropolitan modernity" (174).

Chapter 5, "Everybody's Doing It: Social Dance, Segregation, and the New Body," continues the discussion of female minstrelsy and forms of racial mimicry...


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pp. 701-702
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