Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

From Sociability to Spectacle: Interracial Sexuality and the Ideological Uses of Space in New York City, 1900-1930

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

From Sociability to Spectacle: Interracial Sexuality and the Ideological Uses of Space in New York City, 1900-1930

Article excerpt


This paper addresses inter-racial sociability and sexuality in New York City before and after the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to northern US cities. Using space and the arrangements of objects in space as my primary evidence, I argue that spatial relations both reflected and created race relations in the urban North and that these practices shifted dramatically over the course of a twenty-year period. While the black proprietors of clubs in Hell's Kitchen in the 1910s used space to make transgressive interracial sociability possible, by the 1920s, the white-owned clubs of the Harlem Renaissance did the opposite. These clubs used space to re-enforce the increasingly strict vision of white supremacy that emerged in northern cities in the 1920s. This paper traces this shift and points to the importance of the spatial organization of race and race relations even in the "unsegregated" North.

Keywords: Race/Racism, Gender, Sexuality


Writing about New York City's elaborate restaurant scene in the early 1920's, restaurant critic George Chappell touched briefly on interracial entertainment: "One of New York's evening pastimes," he reported sagely, "is to observe the antics of members of its enormous Negro population, many of whom show great ability in song, dance and comedy performance" (1925, 119-20). According to Chappell, Black Americans' "unfailing sense of rhythm, their vocal quality, something primitive, animal-like and graceful in their movements" combined "to make their performances interesting to all who can put racial prejudice out of their minds." Classifying clubs where blacks and whites mixed sociably as suitable for only the more adventurous of his white audience, Chappell advised his readers that in these establishments, "the residents of the neighborhood form part of the audience and all of the performance." For Chappell, interracial mixing in New York City meant whites observing blacks and black culture from the vantage point of their own sense of racial privilege and superiority. By definition, interracial clubs catered to the voyeuristic desires of white elites willing to tramp uptown for an amusing jaunt in Harlem. (2)

Chappell accurately described the kinds of interracial clubs that developed during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. However, the glittery world of white voyeurism and black spectacle that flourished in Harlem during Prohibition has overshadowed the more complex forms of interracial mixing that emerged before World War I in other areas of the city. In this essay, I explore New York's interracial clubs between 1910 and 1930 to investigate the ways club owners deliberately transformed the interracial sociability of the pre-war years into the interracial spectacle typical of the Prohibition era through the deliberate construction and reconstruction of physical space. Moving in both time and geographical location, I analyze three types of establishments that flourished in New York City between the turn of the century and the mid-1920's: black bars in Hell's Kitchen that sometimes tolerated white intrusion, the genuinely interracial clubs of Hell's Kitchen, and the later interracial clubs of Harlem that developed after the Great Migration of the 1910s. (3)

Relying on contemporary descriptions of these clubs and reports about how New Yorkers used them, I argue that black proprietors of black and interracial clubs, both before and after the move to Harlem, used physical space--that is, the arrangement and partition of rooms, hallways and bar areas, as well as the chairs and tables in that space-either to limit or to encourage mixing between whites and blacks. Carefully arranging space allowed them to balance the gender and racial priorities of the black community with those of white New York's racial and sexual hierarchy. Before the move to Harlem, club owners limited contact between white men and black women to disrupt the traditional relationships of power that often made black women the victims of sexual exploitation. …

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