Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

Lori Brooks explores why trips across US social divides were a popular white middle-class activity

March 5, 2009

Looking teasingly at the camera, a woman clad in a tightly fitting dress "shakes her shimmy" near a table of white nightclub patrons. Shielding his face with his hand, one of the men seated at the table attempts to escape the camera's gaze while, behind them, we glimpse two dark-skinned black men in the rear of the room. This 1930s photograph of a white "slumming" party in a mixed- race nightclub seems to make transparent the gender, sexual and racial identities of its subjects. But is the dancer really "black"? Does her husky build hide something about her "true" gender identity? Why is the seated white woman casually laughing while her bespectacled companion frets? Are we witnessing the construction of shame or a momentary reprieve from the constraints of race, gender and heteronormativity?

This richly ambiguous photograph adorns the cover of Chad Heap's provocative study of white middle-class incursions into black, Chinese and queer urban social spaces and shapes the inquiries of his book Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Heap explores the demographic changes in New York and Chicago during a period of large-scale immigration, black migration from the South and the emergence of sexually transgressive bohemian enclaves.

Moving between the ethnically and racially distinct Chinatowns and Little Africas and the gay and lesbian "fairy" balls and masquerades, Heap frames his richly documented history of the culture of slumming with two well-supported contentions.

First, he argues that "slumming" (which became popular in the mid-1880s) constituted a wide range of social and cultural activities, encompassing a broader and more complex range of behaviours than historians have typically considered. White middle-class men and women ducked into immigrant, black, working-class urban neighbourhoods in pursuit of leisure and to satisfy a burning curiosity about the night-time doings and sexual lives of "the other half".

But they also came to do fieldwork as missionaries, reformers, municipal anti-vice workers and even researchers in what was then the new field of sociology. Often those boundaries between work and pleasure - between the high-mindedness of missionaries and the carnal pursuit of happiness - were quite muddy.

Second, Heap contends that these predominantly white and middle-class urban "slummers" helped to construct racial and sexual "ghettos" and binaristic conceptions of racial and sexual difference.

Drawing on an exhaustive range of sources - including urban newspapers, progressive reform committee papers and urban tour guides - Heap moves deftly between documenting these demographic changes in turn-of-the-century Chicago and New York and making a much-needed argument about the centrality of slumming to 20th-century constructions of whiteness and heterosexuality.

Tireless efforts to regulate such transgressions led, in effect, to the creation of a Manichaean understanding of race as a "black/white" dyad and sexuality as "homo/hetero" binary. Heap argues for a more nuanced understanding of processes of racialisation: the "in-between-ness" of Italians and Jews, the "orientalising" of both Chinese and Jews, and the implications of class on notions of whiteness (as the nouveau riche invaded the slums their forebears had only recently escaped). Such processes are, Heap argues, inextricably tied to constructions of sexuality, as the divide created between straight and gay sexualities in this period emerged from attempts to police the voyeurism that grew up around the cross-dressing adventures of "fairies" and "bulldaggers". In doing so, queer identities became detached from gays with "normative" gender identities.

Slumming offers its readers an especially salient model for scholarship that spans the divide between social history and cultural studies, race and sexuality, archival recovery and reading the archive as a "text". Slumming itself, the author notes, provided an appeal that went beyond "crossing the social and geographical boundaries" of respectability but became, as well, "a matter of balancing pleasure and danger". Heap's work is a fine choice for graduate courses and for academics in the fields of urban studies, social and cultural history, gender/queer studies, and race and ethnic studies scholars.

Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940

By Chad Heap

University of Chicago Press 384pp, £20.50

ISBN 9780226322438

Published 6 February 2009

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