In late July, during the media-fueled debacle surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ABC featured a roundtable discussion focused on the racial aspects of the incident and the president’s claim that the police officer had “acted stupidly”. Political commentator George Will decried what he termed the “ubiquity” of the president — particularly insofar as President Obama seemed so willing to express an opinion concerning what Will described as “a local police matter”. Donna Brazile insisted that the president’s statement highlighted the need to have an open and frank discussion concerning race so that people could come to a point of “tolerance and acceptance”. Will responded, “We converse about race too much.”
The United States is a country founded upon racial inequity. However, acknowledging this is not sufficient. Race is woven into the very fabric of the United States. But these racial categories were never simply givens. Racial categories are enacted; they have a history. A large part of the social development of the United States has taken place at those contested borders, those lines of fracture, those policed points of division. In a sense, George Will was right. We are always talking race because there is nothing that we can say in the United States that does not involve race. The same dynamic arises with our need to identify ourselves as sexualized beings. Because race and sex are social constructions, we speak them and reinforce their codes with every passing remark.
And yet as we talk our way into our racialized and sexualized corners, there is always a curiosity about the other side. Part of defining ourselves as a racial/sexual entity involves our impossible attempts to come to grips with the racial/sexual Other. Indeed it was this peculiar mixture of allure and disdain (what Eric Lott in his groundbreaking work refers to as Love and Theft) that gave rise to the first indigenous popular entertainment in the United States: the blackface minstrel show. It was this same curiosity, the same desire tempered by suspicion, that gave rise to the cultural practice of slumming — that is, the practice of well-to-do whites visiting neighborhoods and establishments occupied by the racial, sexual, or economic Other.
In his remarkable new book, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940, Chad Heap explores this important if troubling cultural practice in order to reveal the vicissitudes of its history as well as to suggest the ways in which the practice helped to bring into being the specific conceptions of race and sex under which we often continue to operate today. In the process, Heap demonstrates that our current notions of race and sex are anything but natural or given; they are the products of a historical process of negotiation and contestation. Moreover, the very geography of the two cities that serve as the focus of Heaps’s study was altered owing to the various slumming crazes that this book traces.
Heap divides his book into two broad sections. The first, “The Spatial Dynamics of Slumming and the Emergence of Commercial Leisure”, traces the shifting geographies of Chicago and New York based on the alterations in slumming practices within those urban environments. The second section, “The Changing Conceptualization of Sexuality and Race in the Slumming Vogues of Chicago and New York”, examines the ways in which the lurid observations of the slummers began to alter the notions of race and sexuality from an externalist theory to an internalist one. That is to say, as the practice of slumming progressed, the white middle-class culture began to move from a racial and sexual ideology based on outward behavior (and thus externalist) toward a racial and sexual ideology based on a belief in essentialism (and thus internalist).
This is, of course, the most striking and potentially revelatory insight that Heap provides. According to his analysis, the 19th century held an externalist view of race and sexuality. If you behaved in a manner befitting masculinist norms, then you were a heterosexual male. If you behaved in a manner suitable for a woman, you were a heterosexual female. However, if you behaved in an extravagantly feminine manner when you were anatomically a male, you were considered a “fairy” (to borrow the lingo of the time). At first glance, this might not strike the reader as very far removed from modern-day norms. But this is where Heap’s narrative takes one by surprise. It was perfectly acceptable (well, maybe not perfectly acceptable, but nonetheless acceptable) for men who were considered to be normatively heterosexual to receive oral sex from “fairies” (during a time when most women shunned such behavior) without being chastised for engaging in homosexual acts. If you did not behave as a stereotypical homosexual (based on the assumptions of the era), then you were not a homosexual, even if you did engage in homosexual relations.
Race was addressed in a similar manner by the 19th-century mind (within the United States, at least). At this time, the issue of who was to be considered white (and therefore privileged) was far from settled. Granted, blacks were considered to be of the lowest echelon (throughout most of the country — there were exceptions to be made for light-skinned blacks and Creoles in places like New York and New Orleans). However, the Irish were thought of as more closely aligned with blacks than with whites. The Germans, in part owing to their reputation for high culture, were closely aligned with whites (although not entirely white). Moreover, the leading consideration was the outward accoutrements of success. An outwardly white person of the lower class would not have been thought of as truly “white”. Success and social standing, at this time, trumped racial lineage.
The sad circumstance that arises from the slumming craze is that the racial and sexual continuums of the 19th century flatten out to become a quasi-Manichean binary between black and white, gay and straight. In absorbing and exploiting the culture of the Other, middle-class whites came to define the racialized and sexualized Other as aberrant, disruptive, and ultimately unacceptable. In observing the Other, the observers were able to hone a sense of their own essential being — an essential being that increasingly relied not upon exterior social standing but rather upon an internalized essentialist understanding of race as that which one simply is.
One of the remarkable aspects of Heap’s analysis is his ability to address the manner in which the racial, sexual, and class binaries emerged in this country not through political precedent but rather through modes of entertainment. Heap divides the slumming practice into four stages: 1) forays into the red-light districts and slums; 2) the exploration of neighborhoods occupied by bohemian artists and propagators of free love; 3) journeys into black districts (both for clubs designed exclusively for whites with black wait staff like the Cotton Club and the so-called “black and tans” for mixed crowds); 4) the patronization by heterosexual couples of nightclubs catering primarily to homosexual clients. One minor problem with the text might be that this four-fold trajectory is used to organize both halves of the book — thus rendering the second and more interesting half of the study somewhat redundant at least insofar as its structure is concerned.
Nevertheless, Heap manages to demonstrate that the search for entertainment among middle-class whites did not merely change the social and dating structures within their own class but also transformed the national understanding of race and sexuality across the social strata. This is the book’s implicit utopic moment. If race and sexuality are ultimately social constructions that reflect our willingness (or the lack thereof) to accept otherness, then those categories are always up for negotiation. If we changed our minds once regarding race and sex, we may do so again. Hopefully, this time it will be for the better.