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  • “A Spot of Pleasure and Importance”Jazz as Contact Zone
  • Victor Bascara (bio)
Imperial Blues: Geographies of Race and Sex in Jazz Age New York
Fiona I. B. Ngô
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. 280 pp.

In the final full chapter of Imperial Blues: Geographies of Race and Sex in Jazz Age New York, Fiona I. B. Ngô makes the following compelling observation: “The remapping of orientalist space onto Harlem had many uses, and Harlemites themselves also participated in making Harlem strange, and a little queer, to establish Harlem both as a spot of pleasure and importance” (164). With its attention to such cartographies for mapping pleasure and importance, Imperial Blues is a welcome contribution to interdisciplinary scholarship on a relatively neglected period for the intersections of postcolonial studies, critical ethnic studies, postnational American studies, and queer studies. Turning specifically to New York of the 1920s and 1930s, Ngô approaches the often casual and commercialized orientalism of that era’s US culture to assemble a suggestive and coherently focused set of materials that critically express the immanence of empire—of what Ngô calls “empire at home” (3)—in ways that illuminate cultural politics both particular to those conditions and resonant with, even prescient of, emergent and critical conceptions of empire, race, sexuality, and gender. Particularly insightful is Ngô’s invocation of the notion of the “contact zone” as a way to appreciate and parse diverse convergences of histories and subjectivities for which jazz, as such, provides a platform. Ngô figures jazz as a space, from the material to the psychical, where not only the importance of those convergences but also their pleasures become evident. [End Page 667]

With brief but useful reference to the philology of the word jazz itself (“as a euphemism for or allusion to sexual intercourse” [42]), Ngô calls attention to the crucial connection between creative expression and libidinal registers for the diverse range of manifestations that came to be called jazz. Reminding readers of this etymology draws out stakes of jazz’s development in New York City of the 1920s and 1930s as well as for conceptions of race, sex, and empire more broadly. Indeed, Imperial Blues, while situated in works of interwar New York, dramatizes how infused Jazz Age New York had become with emergent conceptions of globality and alterity. With examples from visual culture and music to literature and performance, Ngô’s exegeses explore how pervasive yet at times elusive the imperial archive had become in US culture generally. Yet it remained especially evident in the pleasures and perils of crossroads cosmopolitan spaces of New York in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the tradition of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) as well as subaltern studies, Ngô’s work is perceptive about the politics of knowledge production and interpretation for the archives of the empire. And in the tradition of those who built on such work, Ngô joins the generations of scholars who have proceeded from the critical study of colonial discourse to appreciate, recognize, and, as necessary, recover materials and subjects that revealingly animate convergences of race, sex, and empire. Though Imperial Blues is disciplinarily most at home in cultural studies, it nonetheless productively resonates with, say, the historical sociology of Rick Baldoz’s The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898-1946 (2011); the nuanced community-focused histories of Linda España Maram’s Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s-1950s (2006); and Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001). These works, like Ngô’s, all pay attention to the interplay of racial and sexual formations in both local and imperial contexts, exploring race panics and pleasures that modern US empire occasioned for diverse constituencies in the early twentieth century.

Though richly informed by the histories of the Harlem Renaissance and of post-1898 US empire in Asia and the Pacific, Imperial Blues is clearly not meant to be an encyclopedic history of either the Harlem Renaissance or of US empire. The “geographies” that the book emphasizes are arguably more conceptual than material. That is to say...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9375
Print ISSN
1064-2684
Pages
pp. 667-669
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-15
Open Access
No
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