From the book Sepian Stars:
The Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive is a collection of more than 40,000 news photographs from 1932 to 1942. This global collection contains many unknown or anonymous photographers who worked around the world. They brought photographs of Tibet, Nazi Germany, Midwestern beauty pageants, and Hollywood celebrities to the news syndicate in New York City. The collection is now housed at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York.
I was researching archival material at the Visual Studies Workshop in the summer of 2013. In the boxes of the Soibelman Collection, in a folder titled, “AFRICAN AMERICANS/CIVIL RIGHTS/JESSE OWENS,” I found Miss Mae Johnson’s strip tease photographs atop a pile of Jesse Owens photographs. The next folder in the same box was titled “NUDES,” and contained the picture of the dancer from the Casino de Paris, performing the “Dance of the Slave.” Could there be more? Did the Soibelman Agency capture these paradoxes in the history of performance? This book contains my discovery.
In 1920, Club Deluxe was opened in Harlem. By 1922, the name was changed to the now iconic, familiar name of the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, the Nicholas Brothers, and Bill Robinson all performed at the venue, along with many other top African American performers of the time. Catering to a “whites only” clientele, the Cotton Club closed in Harlem in February 1936. Race riots in 1935 made the white patrons feel unsafe in Harlem. In September 1936, the Cotton Club reopened on Broadway at 48th Street, in the former Connie’s Inn. It remained at that location until June 1940. The building was demolished in 1989.
Advertisements for the Ubangi Club begin to appear in the New York Times in January 1935. The club, featuring only African American performers, catered to “mixed” audiences. After the winter of 1935, many of the same performers from the Cotton Club begin to appear at the Ubangi Club. In April of 1937, the club was forced to close its location at 2221 7th Avenue, for serving alcohol on a Sunday. During the early 1940s, Club Ubangi appears in advertisements as being located on Broadway, between 52nd and 53rd Street. While it was open from at least January 1942 to January 1944, this location did not seem to have the same level of performance as the Harlem location. The Ubangi Club in Harlem was approved for demolition early in 2013.
As the historic landmark was being demolished, I was discovering unpublished and forgotten iconic images of the peak and end of the Harlem Renaissance. Finding the photographs presented me with an enormous responsibility. First and foremost, it was necessary to present them as “truth.” The truth that many of the talented actors, singers, and dancers in these clubs (while considered celebrities in their time) remain unknown today; the truth that burlesque was only a small step away from the difficult and often demoralizing performance of Vaudeville; the truth that these performances could only happen with segregated talent, and in front of often segregated audiences; the truth that the photographs were taken and written about by men, for a predominantly white audience.
I needed to communicate these truths without using the photographs to further objectify their subjects. I also needed to present the photographs without using them as a weapon against those who would objectify the exotic other. Langston Hughes, a stalwart supporter of the beauty and power in being black, provides a counterpoint to the news photographs. In Harlem Sweeties, Hughes celebrates, dignifies, and humanizes the black body. For Hughes, being black was glorious and sexy; the titillation was not in having been enslaved, but was in the discovery of what it means to be black and free. In a 1926 essay titled The Negro and the Racial Mountain, Hughes wrote, “…it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful’?”
The responsibility of “truth” led me to a second, deeper, personal obligation. Living in an “or” society as person of mixed descent, I felt there was no place for me to be an “and”; there was no place for me to be black and white. I had to reconcile the feeling of “I want to be white” with the feeling of “why should I be white? I am a Negro– and beautiful.” My father’s oldest sister, Maggie, moved to Manhattan in 1957 as a nanny. The most fair-coloured of the 13 siblings, she married well— a wealthy white man who worked as a private investigator. Living in an apartment just south of Central Park, she was elegant, and often treated like royalty by my family. She was, however, not afraid of hard work; she vividly recalled pushing a stuck car through mud and ice while visiting my parents in a 1980s upstate New York winter. Maggie lived in a building with a doorman, and often socialized with musicians, performers, and celebrities in Manhattan. Did her friends reminisce on the good-ole-days of performing in Harlem?
As one of the few fair-coloured people in my generation in my father’s family, I identified with Maggie because of the fairness of her skin. Since childhood, I have envied Maggie’s elegance and nobility. I have yearned for the self-awareness and self-confidence she possessed. How can I learn to be the colour of any of Hughes’ Harlem Sweeties? In finding Mae Johnson, I have also sought for a deeper understanding of myself.
Visual Studies Workshop