In 2005 I wrote an article for the journal of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, Works In Progress, that captured some of the history and lore about Louise Madison (1911-1970), a Philadelphia tap artist who is the centerpiece of my archival research as a Chronicling Resistance Fellow. In that article, Imagining Louise, I speculated on the reasons why Louise’s life and career were shrouded and undocumented despite the monumental regard with which she was held by her peers—men and women dancers alike. Was it that she was a woman soloist who danced with the prowess of male hoofers? Was it her dark complexion and nappy hair texture? Was it that she danced in male attire—sometimes white tails, a top hat, and low-heeled tap shoes? Was it due to the assumptions of some that she was lesbian? Fifteen years later, I know more of the biographical facts about Louise, thanks in large part to having become acquainted with Louise’s granddaughter, who has been on her own search for a vision of who Louise was as an artist. But the questions that troubled my profile of Louse in 2005 remain.
So what’s different now, and why do I think that the archival research I am doing will produce more satisfying answers than I had 15 years ago? The difference is that I now see Louise as a fulcrum for exploration of an expansive web of relationships, environments, and social conditions that might have led her to make life and career choices that defied the conventions and expectations for Black women of her time. It is this broader lens, one that frames Louise not simply as a singular and exceptional or under-acknowledged performer, but as a representative of scores of Black women of her era who used popular performance as a space to invent themselves outside the stereotypes that conspired to consign them to marriage, child-rearing, household service, and low-paid manual labor.
Three writings, all by Black women, came to reshape my conception of this research endeavor. There is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), that frames dance as a principal liberatory pathway for Black women who chafed at the tight spaces that were assigned to them by the racial and gender rules and conventions in the period between the end of Reconstruction and the late-1930s. One stirring quote reads:
It didn’t matter whether it was a basement dive or a music hall. In its broadest sense, choreography—this practice of bodies in motion—was a call to freedom. The swivel and circle of hips, the nasty elegance of the Shimmy, the changing-same of collective movement, the repetition, the improvisation of escape and subsistence, bodied forth the shared dream of scrub maids, elevator boys, whores, sweet men, stevedores, chorus girls, and tenement dwellers—not to be fixed at the bottom, not to be walled in the ghetto. Each dance was a rehearsal for escape.
After reading Hartman’s work, I came across Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, by Jayna Brown (2008). Brown reveals the powerful influence that African American women who traveled the country and Europe in variety shows—via chorus lines, burlesque revues, cabaret acts, etc.—between 1890 and 1945 had on modern popular culture. Their subversive and agile navigation of racial and gender barriers supported an artistry that was essential to developing the jazz aesthetic.
Finally, Nadine George-Graves’ concept of “diasporic spidering” in her chapter, Diasporic Spidering: Constructing Contemporary Black Identities, in Black Performance Theory, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez (2014), offers a discursive strategy for thinking about how Black people construct their own identity and how identities are perceived and imposed by others. Rejecting the notion that for Black Americans probing identity is a function of digging for roots or tracing DNA, George-Graves says:
The necessarily mediated and contextualized individual hails and is hailed as she builds a life out of personal connections, family history, experiences, group identification, and so forth. Spidering embraces the complex colored contradictions of contemporary negotiations. It is being and becoming and a fluid, ever-changing act of survival. At the end of the day (or life) the meaning of all is infinitely contingent.
Inspired by George-Graves, I see my quest as one of using archives to investigate the contexts and contingencies that allow us to not only speculate, in the absence of Louise’s voice, about how and why she chose to shape her own identity, but also to attribute meaning to the persona she revealed to her contemporaries and to those of us, a half-century after her death, who are still intrigued by her life and career. How do Louise’s choices—conscious or unconscious—fit into the frame described by Hartman and Brown of Black women using stages and dance halls to subvert the suffocating weight of race, color, gender, and heteronormativity on their lives?
I am also prompted by how George-Graves analogizes “spidering” for diasporic identity to searching for data in cyberspace. She says:
A web spider or web crawler is a program or automated script that systematically browses the Internet in order to provide up-to-date information and copy URLS….The architecture of the web changes in time, and different nodes reference how other sites refer to each other….[I]dentity therefore shifts in response to how other identities are shifting in a look by an individual, less to the past than the present and future.
Similarly, my research—for now, confined to the internet due to the temporary closure of physical archives—is not limited to the span of Louise’s life or the narrower span of her performance career. My “spidering” invites dynamic connections that travel across time and disciplines.
The questions surrounding Louise and the world she inhabited ensnare all kinds of references that pop up in my email feed or in research crawls. Predisposed by Louise’s way with male costuming, my spider was recently drawn to the site of the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition, The Will to Adorn, that probes how “throughout their history in the United States, people of African descent have used adornment and the body arts as channels of economic, social, and political independence and activism.” This site kindled my recollection of performance pieces I made a decade ago about Hercules, President George Washington’s prized chef, an enslaved African who used the proceeds of selling scraps from the executive dining table to have a fine waistcoat made for himself. Richly attired, Hercules took strolls through old Philadelphia——a habit that, in my imagination, was as bold a claim on public space as he could make.
But you never know how far the line of a web will take you. As George-Graves says at the end of her chapter,
some lines of the webs…will break through other lines of wisdom and memory; some will be dead ends; some will become individual paths, some group tours, some will be geographical, some textual, some spiritual, some …