Consuming the New Negro
The Whirlpools of the Sex-Race Marketplace
In one of her publicity photographs (Figure 3.1), the blueswoman Ethel Waters is displayed in a costume she wore while performing in Paris in the mid-1920s. Her dress seems a curious cross between an elegant satin gown and an eroticized European fantasy of African or Asian “tribal” dress. The satin bodice is lined with sparkling jewels, as are the headdress and the buttons on her satin pumps. She wears shimmering hose and shows off her legs in a pose seemingly designed to display her in the midst of a dance. Her arms and fingers, too, sparkle with jewelry. Yet the straw- or feather-like material of her skirt and the plume of her hat bespeak a Western notion of primitive womanhood made available for white delectation through Waters’ performance. This costume and the photograph of Ethel Waters wearing it conjure the primitivism born of modern longings for the imagined simple, natural life of “native” peoples, nostalgia for the days of unchallenged white dominion over “the darker races,” and the fantastic allure of dark-skinned, nubile bodies.
Born in 1896, raised in small-town Pennsylvania, and later a migrant to Philadelphia, Ethel Waters claimed a miserable, loveless, poverty-stricken childhood during which she entertained and ran errands for the neighborhood prostitutes in exchange for nickels and dimes and much-needed affection.1 The product of her mother’s rape, Waters married at the age of thirteen to escape her abusive family. When her husband, too, proved abusive, she left him and supported herself by working as a maid in Philadelphia hotels. It was during this period of her life that her talent was discovered when she