By Guest Contributor Sydney F. Lewis
I have been up all night looking at vintage Jet Magazines on Google Books. A friend and fellow Black burlesque performer, Chicava HoneyChild of Brown Girls Burlesque, introduced me to this impressive online archive of Black politics, society, and entertainment. Founded in 1951, by John H. Johnson, Jet magazine was initially billed as “The Weekly Negro News Magazine.” I like to think of it as Ebony magazine’s tawdry little sister. After about eight hours of being glued to the screen, flipping virtually through captivating documentation of Black strippers from the 1940s-1970s, I have come to the conclusion that, just as I suspected, the omission of Black Women and other Women of Color from the realm of burlesque picture and history books is just willed ignorance– ignorance, lazy scholarship, and yup I’ll say it, racist brands of white feminism.
Once I learned about the online archive of Jet magazines, it took me a few hours of leisurely and pleasurable research to compile a list of almost fifty names and locations and about thirty pictures of black burlesque performers, strippers, and “Shake Dancers.” Some women were big-time enough to work on the Minsky circuit, earn $1000+ a week, insure their bodies, tour the US and Europe, and work with (and date) prominent entertainers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., and Little Richard. Women such as Rosalee Takeela, Rose Hardaway, Vida de Soir “The Red Hot Sex Queen,” Elizabeth “China Doll” Dickerson, and Jean Idelle were commonly pictured in the gossip columns of the national black magazine.
One woman, Rosa La Roso was in an extended legal battle with white burlesque performer Rose La Rosa after the white dancer sought a court injunction to prohibit Rosa la Roso from using such a similar name. Rose La Rosa is listed in various burlesque history books, while the Black performer, Rosa La Roso is never mentioned. This is particularly ironic given that Rosa La Roso commented about the white performer, “I’ve never even heard of that other Rose.” In the October 29, 1953 issue, Jet published an expose entitled “Why Girls become Shake Dancers” with content that, even in 2011, is fairly stripper-positive.
My pleasure perusing the Jet archive quickly turned to anger as I realized that I have been bamboozled into believing that my Black burlesque foremothers didn’t exist or were all little-known, no-name (read low talent) chorus girls. Due to racist and exclusionary scholarship, I’ve been tricked into believing that it was racism from long ago that kept these brown burlesque queens nameless and lost to history, that no one bothered to document their presence then so we can’t find documents now. And that’s a lie. Such performers were documented, extensively, by the black press, and that documentation isn’t impossible to find. If I can discover more than fifty performers of color in a leisurely few hours at my computer, then imagine what treasures of information could be found in black theater and performance archives, newspapers, or other black magazines. Black striptease artists had a voice is the 40s, 50s, and 60s and it is contemporary burlesque historians who repress their presence.
I personally own at least 10 books on burlesque, neo-burlesque, and striptease which I comb like a CSI agent for any evidence of women of color performers. Despite their claims that they are a “Pictorial History of Burlesque,” a compendium of “Legendary Stars of Stage,” or an “untold history” of striptease these books disturbingly omit countless black and brown performers.
To burlesque history (read white burlesque history) brown burlesque queens didn’t exist. Out of 342 pages (not counting footnotes) purporting to tell “The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” Striptease by Rachel Shteir contains less than 10 pages referencing black and brown performers. According to the index, “Race” is mentioned solely on page 32 and the iconic Josephine Baker merely referenced on pages 96 and 268. The words “black,” “African-American,” or “Women of Color” are not even listed in the index. Compare this to the 21 pages on Lili St. Cyr, 27 pages on Sally Rand, and a whopping 43 pages on Gypsy Rose Lee. Since a dozen films and multiple biographies have been made about Gypsy Rose Lee, hers is hardly an untold story.
Mainstream documentation of the neo-burlesque performance scene is very similar in its exclusions. Lush with gorgeous photographs, Michelle Baldwin’s Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind contains few images of performers of color and only one mention and no pictures of Harlem Shake Burlesque, the nation’s first Black neo-burlesque troupe and 2004 Miss Exotic World winners. The common excuse offered by researchers and writers for such “oversights” is we don’t even know how to find any women of color. These excuses for POC exclusions are hardly new and always hollow whether the context is burlesque performers or college professors and it always boils down to a refusal to look beyond one’s white cohort accompanied by the fallacy of a “qualified applications.”
To be clear, my grievances are not rooted in a simple politics of representation – begging the Massa to put one or two pictures of women of color in a book is not an adequate corrective to the purposeful erasure of a slew of folks from burlesque history. The lily-white conventional burlesque narrative must be drastically altered. These necessary changes can only come about through holding contemporary scholars accountable for their racist exclusions and demanding answers as to why women of color have been erased from burlesque history. Black and brown women must be acknowledged as pioneers and integral players in the golden era of burlesque (both in front of and behind the velvet curtain) and given their proper dues for being among the first to shamelessly bump and grind. White women did not invent sexual agency.
Historical exclusions are just the tip of a whole iceberg of racism that affects neo-burlesque. As long as the historical face of burlesque is porcelain then contemporary neo-burlesque performers will always be seen as exotic others, brown-skinned derivatives of Sally Rand, Dixie Evans, and Dita Von Teese. Despite what mainstream burlesque narratives might lead you to believe, our legends were not merely chorus girls for white headliners, thus contemporary performers of color do not have to be content with the ways in which that subordinate role continues to play out on the neo-burlesque stage.