Who gets a say in a Black woman’s embodied politics?

At the time of my last blog post, I was anticipating doing an oral history interview with Louise Madison’s granddaughter, Carol. Carol and I have been in contact off and on for about the past 15 years as each of us has tried to imagine Louise more fully and concretely. I was anxious about the interview out of concern that a new level of formality would be off-putting for Carol. Sure enough, when I sent her a standard oral history release form the day before the Zoom interview, she wrote right back, stating that she did not want to sign any forms. I responded that she was calling the shots, but, absent a release, it might not be possible for historians or scholars to utilize her interview in their research. She said that she was not concerned about historians or scholars——she was only interested in supporting my research and years-long interest in Louise’s life. So, we proceeded without a release. 

I was also anxious about what Carol would think about my framing Louise as a representative of African American women that Saidiya Hartman described in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, who crafted unconventional lives for themselves during the period between the end of Reconstruction and the late 1930s in order to escape the suffocating restraints on the life options assigned to Black women. Carol was not impressed when I recalled for her the exclamatory comment of Louise’s nephew, now age 96, that Louise was “wild,” and connected it to Hartman’s statement that her purpose was to call attention to the “beautiful experiments …to make living an art … undertaken by those often described as promiscuous, reckless, wild, and wayward.” Carol’s emphatic reaction was, “We all were wild!” She pushed back against the notion that Louise was doing anything other than what she had to do to make a living. 

Carol’s challenge was in my head as I prepared to do a presentation for a graduate level class in a course titled “Kinesthetic Anthropology” at the University of Pennsylvania a couple of weeks after the interview. The course is being co-taught by anthropologist Dr. Deborah Thomas and New York-based choreographer Reggie Wilson. The theme for a two-week segment of the course, “How does a body index a politics?” seemed a ready-made invitation for my query about applying a political lens to Louise’s career. In preparation for the class, I read and viewed the materials assigned to the students for the unit, and I developed a set of framing questions for them to consider as I gave them an abbreviated survey of my more than twenty-year fascination with Louise Madison. My framing questions were:

  1. How does the body “index a politics”? How does the body index politics? Are these the same question? How might they be different?
  1. What are the markers of embodied politics or an embodied politics?
  1. Who gets to say whether politics or “a politics” is indexed in a body or a collection of bodies?
  1. Does a historian have the same license to make judgments about the politics of a body or groups of bodies as, say, an ethnographer or an artist? 

I gave the class a brisk overview of what I’ve come to know of Louise’s life and career, and explained how I came only recently to see Louise in this, among other, quotes from Hartman’s book:

Like the flight from the plantation, the escape from slavery, the migration from the south, the rush into the city, or the stroll down Lenox Avenue, choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere else to go, no place left to run. It was an arrangement of the body to elude capture, an effort to make the uninhabitable livable, to escape the confinement of a four-cornered world, a tight, airless room. Tumult, upheaval, flight—it was the articulation of living free, or at the very least trying to, it was the way to insist I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it. p. 299 (emphasis mine)

Since no one that I know of has located performance footage of Louise, I showed them this footage of the incredible Lois Bright, of the team The Miller Brothers & Lois, from the 1947 film Hi-De-Ho.

Lois, like Louise, hailed from Philadelphia, and performed from the late 1930s to the late 1940s. Lois and Louise were the two women dancers who were held in especially high regard among the artists I interviewed for the Tap Project, the oral history project I did back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.

Although I imagine that Louise’s style and presentation were quite different from Lois’s, I wanted the students to have a sense of the performance prowess of Philadelphia’s Black women tap dancers of that era. They were wowed. (You will be too, if you check out the 6-minute video.). I also shared the two still photos I have of Louise, and some posters from Blackbirds, a popular stage revue in which she performed in the U.S. and London in 1934/35.

In the closing minutes, the students, teachers and I wrestled with the issue of representation of a person who can no longer speak for herself. I ventured the opinion that even though I can’t determine Louise’s personal politics from the embodied or historical evidence, I can address the political and social significance of her career choices, as reflected in her performance persona, in the context of the time in which she made those choices. And I can speak to how her embodied practice impresses me as an example of eons of Black women’s resistance to political and social constraints and oppression. 

Reggie Wilson, the choreographer, asked how I plan to interpret and present the research I’m doing. I said that it is too early for me to know that, and that my usual process is to allow the material to tell me how it wants to be used. That said, I’m sure that I will want the presentation to reflect the “spidering,” speculative quality of the research itself, and to capture/reveal the sense of imaginative fabrication that’s at work. 

Copyright 2021 by Germaine Ingram. All rights reserved. 

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Germaine Ingram (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based jazz tap dancer, choreographer, songwriter, vocal/dance improviser, oral historian, and cultural strategist. She creates evening-length pieces that explore themes related to history, collective memory, and social justice, and designs arts/culture projects that explore and illuminate community cultural history. She collaborates with artists from diverse traditions and disciplines, including jazz/experimental music composers, site-specific choreographers, dance and vocal improvisers, African diasporic culture specialists, and visual/media artists.