What Slumming Can Teach You About Race, Class, and Sexuality
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What Slumming Can Teach You About Race, Class, and Sexuality
Chad Heap. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. xii + 420 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

Like all of us who are responsible for big U.S. history surveys, when I teach our state mandated “American Civilization” class I have to explain to my students that people in the past had different understandings of gender, race, and sexuality than we do. My students see our definitions of race as timeless and are baffled by nineteenth-century formulations that cast Jews, Italians, and the Irish as “nonwhite.” Similarly, sexual orientation is “natural,” and arguing otherwise appears homophobic to them. To say that homosexuals did not exist in the past posits that they might not need to exist now or in the future—something our politicians here in Utah argue for quite often. While the current work on the emergence of contemporary definitions of race and sexuality provides excellent analysis of broad ideological changes, most of these works fall short when explaining how average Americans moved from one set of definitions to another.

In this superb new study, Chad Heap demonstrates how the practice of slumming solidified the emerging racial and sexual systems of the twentieth century. Slumming involved middle-class white Americans crossing geographical and social boundaries to gape at, lecture, and/or frolic with their social inferiors. When they did so, they confirmed their own place atop the social hierarchy. Slumming also facilitated the transition from the complex racial hierarchy of the nineteenth century to the more simplistic black/white system of the twentieth century. By the early twentieth century, second-generation European immigrants joined native-born white Americans in slumming, allowing them to lay claim to a whiteness their immigrant parents had not enjoyed. Slumming had a similarly profound impact on sexual categories. Both the “Negro vogue” and the “pansy craze”1 gave slummers the opportunity to engage in more permissive sexuality activity than they could in their own communities, expanding the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior for the white middle class. [End Page 678]

Heap’s first chapter describes how a trendy English practice of visiting working-class districts spread quickly in the U.S. because of the enormous geographical and demographic changes to nineteenth-century American cities. As streetcars made traversing the city easier, middle-class urbanites abandoned previously class-integrated neighborhoods for the emerging suburbs. At the same time, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe poured into America’s largest cities and particularly into their newly emerging slums. Heap identifies “the slum” as both a spatial and ideological construct, arguing that it represented “both a physical urban space and a white middle-class idea about that space and the people who inhabited it” (p. 18).

Heap begins his discussion with a narrative familiar to those of us who have read widely in nineteenth-century women’s history, namely missionary and reform activities. Arguing that these practices should also be categorized as slumming, Heap immediately broadens the significance of his work. He shows how slumming could be either about uplifting slum dwellers or descending to their level. At its heart, slumming provided the middle-class with a useful way to define its own moral and social superiority, a dynamic that worked as well for reformers as it did for amusement seekers. Furthermore, even as reformers railed against slumming, their reports provided excellent maps of where to go and what to visit. As he wryly observes, “the presence of reformers—especially female reformers—on the streets and in the tenements and dives of these districts paradoxically suggested that such spaces were safe for popular congregation, and reformers’ activities in the cities’ slums and red-light districts were often remarkably similar to those of their pleasure-seeking compatriots ” (p. 18).

Heap’s second chapter addresses how slumming expanded from a practice based on visiting a particular place to one involving the search for a certain kind of entertainment. While the first slumming vogue did focus on “slums,” subsequent ones emphasized crossing social rather than geographical boundaries. For example, by the early 1920s...