Babylon girls : black women performers and the shaping of the modern / Jayna Brown.

by Brown, Jayna, 1966-Looking glass.

Publisher: Durham, NC ; Duke University Press, 2008.Description: xi, 339 pages : illustrations, facsimiles, portraits ; 24 cm.ISBN: 9780822341574; 9780822341338; 0822341336; 0822341573.Subject(s): Baker, Josephine, 1906-1975Looking glass | African American women entertainers -- Biography | African American dancersLooking glassNote: Bibliography: pages 313-332.- Includes index.
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Short loan London College of Fashion
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Printed books 792.7 BRO (Browse shelf (Opens below)) Available 54095948
Short loan London College of Fashion
Main collection
Printed books 792.7 BRO (Browse shelf (Opens below)) Available 54095953
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Babylon Girls is a groundbreaking cultural history of the African American women who performed in variety shows--chorus lines, burlesque revues, cabaret acts, and the like--between 1890 and 1945. Through a consideration of the gestures, costuming, vocal techniques, and stagecraft developed by African American singers and dancers, Jayna Brown explains how these women shaped the movement and style of an emerging urban popular culture. In an era of U.S. and British imperialism, these women challenged and played with constructions of race, gender, and the body as they moved across stages and geographic space. They pioneered dance movements including the cakewalk, the shimmy, and the Charleston--black dances by which the "New Woman" defined herself. These early-twentieth-century performers brought these dances with them as they toured across the United States and around the world, becoming cosmopolitan subjects more widely traveled than many of their audiences.

Investigating both well-known performers such as Ada Overton Walker and Josephine Baker and lesser-known artists such as Belle Davis and Valaida Snow, Brown weaves the histories of specific singers and dancers together with incisive theoretical insights. She describes the strange phenomenon of blackface performances by women, both black and white, and she considers how black expressive artists navigated racial segregation. Fronting the "picaninny choruses" of African American child performers who toured Britain and the Continent in the early 1900s, and singing and dancing in The Creole Show (1890), Darktown Follies (1913), and Shuffle Along (1921), black women variety-show performers of the early twentieth century paved the way for later generations of African American performers. Brown shows not only how these artists influenced transnational ideas of the modern woman but also how their artistry was an essential element in the development of jazz.

Bibliography: pages 313-332.- Includes index.

Table of contents provided by Syndetics

  • Acknowledgments (p. ix)
  • Abbreviations for Libraries and Archives (p. xiii)
  • Introduction (p. 1)
  • 1 "Little Black Me": The Touring Picaninny Choruses (p. 19)
  • 2 Letting the Flesh Fly: Topsy, Time, Torture, and Transfiguration (p. 56)
  • 3 "Egyptian Beauties" and "Creole Queens": the Performance of City and Empire on the Fin-De-Siecle Black Burlesque Stage (p. 92)
  • 4 The Cakewalk Business (p. 128)
  • 5 Everybody's Doing It: Social Dance, Segregation, and the New Body (p. 156)
  • 6 Babylon Girls: Primitivist Modernism, Anti-Modernism, and Black Chorus Line Dancers (p. 189)
  • 7 Translocations: Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, and Valaida Snow (p. 238)
  • Conclusion (p. 280)
  • Notes (p. 285)
  • Bibliography (p. 313)
  • Index (p. 333)

Reviews provided by Syndetics


This important book examines the history of African American women stage performers from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. Whereas most histories of vernacular performance focus on men, Brown (ethnic studies, Univ. of California, Riverside) reclaims women's history in these areas as she explores the racial and gender barriers female performers faced. She recounts the experiences of African American women performers who toured and sometimes settled abroad, where they avoided the racist and segregated experiences they faced in the US but often found themselves accepted within "primitivist" stereotypes. She also analyzes the "pickaninny" troupes that toured in the US and abroad and the idiosyncratic performances related to the Topsy character, who lived and danced outside rhythmic and social expectations. Organized chronologically, chapters treat the black burlesque stage, the cakewalk craze, the emergence of social dance, modernism, and chorus line dance. Brown also provides close analysis of three women who achieved their greatest success abroad--Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, and Valaida Snow--and examines the ways in which white performers appropriated the work of African Americans. Including extensive notes and bibliography and some pictures, this book will be valuable in performance and popular-culture collections. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers, all levels. R. Sugarman Southern Vermont College

Author notes provided by Syndetics

Jayna Brown is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside