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  • “Let me see you dance:”Ada “Bricktop” Smith, the Charleston, and Racial Commodification in Interwar France
  • Matthew McMahan (bio)

Part African American, part Irish American, Ada “Bricktop” Smith’s nickname, derived from her brilliant red hair, was emblematic of both her fiery temper and exuberant personality. She proudly embraced both sides of her identity, insisting well into the 1970s that people refer to her as a Negro: “Don’t say ‘black,’ I hate ‘black.’ I am 100 percent American Negro with a trigger Irish temper.”1 This vaudeville performer turned entrepreneur, whom Cole Porter once called an “empress,” became one of the most famous African American performers in Europe during the early part of the twentieth century.2 At the cabaret Le Grand Duc located at 52 Rue Pigalle in the heart of Paris’s Montmartre, she entertained and hosted famous American expatriates, Parisian socialites, and European royalty. Furthermore, she achieved enormous economic success by performing at Porter’s Charleston cocktail parties, where she taught many of Porter’s friends how to dance the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and other popular dances related to Negro music, specifically Jazz. Eventually she became so successful that she owned and operated her own nightclub, Chez Bricktop at 66 Rue Pigalle.

Emerging scholarship establishes the importance and influence of Bricktop’s career in France. Tyler Stovall studies Bricktop’s role in creating a tightly knit community of Negro performers and artists in France, a sort of Harlem in Paris, while Rachel Gillet illustrates how Bricktop’s success in France provides evidence for France’s mythic colorblind status.3 Most recently, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s new book, Bricktop’s Paris: African American Women in Paris between the Two World Wars (2015), uses Bricktop as an “anchor and magnet” for an expatriate community of African American women in Paris.4 Writing a “multilife” biography of twenty-four women, including Adelaide Hall, Laura Wheeler, and Lillian Evant-Tibbs, Sharpley-Whiting depicts Paris as “a training ground, a field, where [these women] could mine their dreams until mature and ripe for transport home.”5 Given these historical accounts, my study offers a closer examination of the intersection of Bricktop’s race and gender and how the double bind of these qualities affected her status as both performer and entrepreneur. [End Page 43]

Bricktop achieved cultural recognition by exploiting a transnational Negro vogue, drawing from the French and American expatriate desire for an “authentic” Jazz culture in Paris. Furthermore, she participated in what bell hooks calls the “black appropriation of stereotypes” in her essay, “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Market Place,” where she points to Tina Turner as an example of a performer whose career profited from a depiction of the black woman as a “wild sexual savage.”6 Hooks claims many black female performers face a similar predicament. They must either “assert control over the representation” of their sexuality, or at least “reap the benefits of it.”7 My study explores how Bricktop managed this balance. While “dancing” along the thin line of cultural commodification, Bricktop deftly positioned herself as a shrewd businesswoman who utilized white fascination with Jazz culture by creating and maintaining a small market where she controlled her own exposure. Her ability to do so reveals much about the commingling of race, gender, and the business of performance in France versus America in the early twentieth century. It also illustrates Bricktop’s capacity to maneuver through these divergent, complex, and multivalent issues. Tied to Bricktop within this narrative was the Charleston, a dance she used in order to satisfy the desire of her white patrons, while simultaneously establishing her autonomy and her brand.

“A Precarious Balance:” Intersectionality and Public Intimacy

Anna Julia Cooper in A Voice from the South (1892), the first ever book-length example of black feminist theory in the United States, articulates concern that the Negro woman is “confronted by both a woman question and a race problem,” and is “an unknown or unacknowledged factor in both.”8 To address this problem brought up by Cooper, the theory of intersectionality offers a lens through which to discuss the accomplishments of influential black women. The theory...


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