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  • The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance
  • Erin D. Chapman
The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance. By Shane Vogel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. 272. $22.00 (paper).

Through recent studies of New Negro era art, performances, and racial and sexual politics, African Americans have emerged as sophisticated agents of social change and arbiters of racial discourses. Such studies document the various means by which African Americans who came of age in the interwar period challenged static conceptions of their character not simply by seeking [End Page 193] to prove their excellence and capabilities but more significantly by emphasizing their multifaceted humanity. Aware of both ongoing white supremacist oppression and modern, primitivist exploitations, the New Negroes found imaginative ways to manipulate their own commodification and interfere in the processes by which the dominant culture sought to exploit them. While they did not succeed in overcoming those dominant conceptions, they did engage the struggle and thus set the stage for the race politics of the twentieth century in both cultural expression and racial advocacy. Vogel’s rich analysis adds an important facet to the historical significance of that New Negro engagement.

Sex was a major field of contention for the New Negroes. Primitivism meant that New Negro performers, artists, and authors were most often sold through racialized conceptions of their sexuality as earthy and uninhibited. In this context, Vogel conceives of the cabaret as a forum or “scene” in which New Negro performers could reconceptualize their sexual subjectivity for their own uses and negotiate the dominant sexualized racialization of black bodies. Using the history of the cabaret, autobiographies and statements of cabaret performers such as Duke Ellington and Lena Horne, and representations of cabaret experiences in the fiction of authors like Nella Larsen and Claude McKay, Vogel argues that New Negro artists navigated a spectrum of “tightness-looseness” in the atmosphere and opportunities for self-construction offered within the cabaret scene. Vogel eschews the characterization of black performances in cabarets with black audiences as more “authentic” than those in segregated cabarets. Instead, adapting the theory of Erving Goffman, he posits all cabarets as spaces that were more or less “loose” or “tight,” offering performers more or fewer opportunities to improvise, move freely, and shape their own racialization and sexualization in relationship to audiences. Although they were generally “tight” spaces, “Harlem’s segregated clubs were important institutions of artistic creation and an elaboration of blackness that was never only a performance of exploitation, appropriation, and subjection” (89).

Through this theoretical frame, Vogel provides an analysis of the complexity of sexualized racial discourse in the interwar period and of African American assertions of self-creation in and through the very structures used to exploit them. He addresses queer black subjectivities but expands that category to include all those who did not conform to the ideals of African American uplift, on the one hand, and the characterizations imposed by the dominant culture, on the other. In this way, Vogel provides a frame for consideration of all New Negro expressions that sought to subvert the racial and sexual status quo as well as the strictures of intraracial advancement ideology. Refreshingly, Vogel’s analysis overcomes the usual dichotomy between queer and gender studies. His considerations of Zora Neale Hurston’s and Nella Larsen’s writings and the performances of Ethel Waters and Lena Horne do not read as ill-fitting additions to an [End Page 194] interpretation prioritizing queer men’s racial and sexual subjectivities. And yet Vogel’s critique of New Negro “hetero-patriarchy” through celebration of the works of writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay fails to account for the masculinism apparent in their works.

Following the lead of literary critics such as Deborah McDowell, Vogel finds homoerotic impulses in Nella Larsen’s fiction, so he reads the character of Helga in her novel Quicksand as conflicted by an attraction and identification with fellow cabaret-goer Audrey Denney, who is scorned for her interracial socializing. Helga experiences the cabaret as a tight space while she observes and covets Audrey’s ability to navigate it loosely, at will and in apparent comfort, despite the gossip flowing around...


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pp. 193-195
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