Who’s Got a Brown Paper Bag?

On Sunday, May 23, 2021 NPR published a piece on Shuffle Along, the 1921 production by an all-Black creative team, including Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, and performed by an all-Black company, that took Broadway by storm. By bringing jazz to the Broadway stage, Shuffle Along not only broke the color barrier, but it forever changed the look and sound of American musical theater.  The principal source for the article is Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, by Caseen Gaines. 

Among the things that piqued my “spidering” instincts in the article was the statement: 

White audiences could go see the show and feel like they were slumming it to some extent,” Gaines says.  In fact, to appeal to white theater-goers, the chorus girls all had light complexions.” Josephine Baker auditioned for the show several times and was rejected several times,” Gaines says. “There are questions about whether it was because of her age, but more likely than not, it was because of the color of her skin. There was a lot of colorism in Shuffle Along in the cast, particularly for the women. They chose all light-skinned women, you know, women that would pass the brown-paper-bag test, which is essentially being lighter than a brown paper bag.”

Gaines adds, “I think the colorism isn’t something that should really be glossed over, because it really raises questions about how Black people sort of have to navigate through not only all white spaces, but oftentimes all black spaces. And I think, you can look at the work of Tyler Perry, for example, and see that he certainly has had questions raised about his own work in terms of the way colorism plays a part in who are the villains, who are the heroes, who are the love interests, who are the vamps in films that have been produced in the last decade. It really didn’t start in Shuffle Along. I want to make that very clear. But Shuffle Along certainly perpetuated that caste system, which is an unfortunate part of its legacy.”

black and white photo of Louise Madison in 1943.
Lobby photo of Louise from her time with Blackbirds 1934. Photographer unknown.

That quote reminded me of responses I got when, during my oral history Tap Project in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I asked some of Louise Madison’s contemporaries why they thought she did not get more recognition, considering how much she was respected for her skill and style.  Dave McHarris, of the husband/wife, music and dance team McHarris & Delores, was quick to say “it was her looks,” which he went on to explain had to do with her darker complexion. There’s little question that Louise didn’t pass the “brown paper bag test,” which was a conventional requirement for Black chorus girls. Photos of dancers Fredi Washington and Adelaide Hall, both of whom appeared in the original production of Shuffle, as well as film footage of Cotton Club dancers from the era (see below–you might want to ignore the white commentator’s introductory voice-over. Like, who asked him?) seem to bear out the claim that colorism was alive and well, at least with regard to stage opportunities for Black women.  To think that skin tone might have been a reason that Josephine Baker had trouble getting hired for the cast of Shuffle Along suggests the kind of hold that colorism had on stage producers, not to mention society in general.

Fredi Washington pictured in New York Magazine. Theater Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.
Photo of Adelaide Hall from an undated newspaper clipping. Theatre Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

There were exceptions to, or circumventions of, the color taxonomy.  Hortense Allen Jordan (1919-2008), who was one of the principal subjects of my research into senior Philadelphia-based tap dancers, started out, while still in high school, dancing in clubs in  St. Louis, and quickly became a featured dancer and choreographer/director of chorus lines for Louis Jordan and other top Black bandleaders.  Hortense herself was tall, with a light complexion, and had what was considered “good” hair. 

Hortense Allen is pictured on the lower left of this advertisement for Rhythm In A Riff, a 1947 musical film in which she performed with singer/bandleader Billy Eckstein and his band.

In interviews that became part of the video documentary Plenty of Good Women Dancers, Hortense acknowledged the color hierarchy that existed, but said that in choosing dancers for her lines, dancing ability won out over skin tone.  Besides, she said, a darker-skinned dancer “could beat her face” (i.e. apply make-up) just as well as the lighter girls.  Edith “Baby” Edwards, another interviewee in the Tap Project, was dark-skinned, short in stature, and performed as half of the duo “Spic and Baby Span.”  But sometimes she appeared with the chorus line as a “soubrette” or “pony”—a dancer who brought up the end of the line with exaggerated, mad-cap moves.  Other darker-skinned women tap dancers performed as soloists, as did Cora LaRedd, or in female duo/trio acts, like Edwina “Salt” Evelyn and Pepper and Jewel “Pepper” Welch, and the Edwards Sisters. The color regime that applied to chorus dancers did not keep talented Black women from building dance careers on the popular stage, although it might have limited their options.  

“Her looks”—colorism along with what today is being called “featurism,” or a preference for  Euro-centric facial and bodily features over Afro-centric or other non-European features—might have been a factor in why Louise chose to become a solo act rather than aspire to be a chorus dancer (although I suspect that the reasons had much more to do with her get-down, “masculine” style of dance). It’s hard to assess, but we can’t dismiss the possibility that skin tone diminished Louise’s chances for recognition.  Comparisons are difficult, since Black women dancers represent so many different journeys, and there are so many different factors that conspired (and still conspire) against Black women’s opportunities.  Among those factors are the length of their dance careers—often cut short by family obligations— and whether they lived long enough and stayed healthy enough to garner recognition in their senior years, well past their heyday.  A key reason for my undertaking an oral history project to showcase the voices and talents of veteran Black women tap dancers was that they were being overlooked for tap festivals, performances and other events to herald the so-called “revival of tap” beginning around the early 1980s. In contrast, veteran Black male hoofers, including my dance mentor/partner LaVaughn Robinson (1927-2008), were being lured out of involuntary retirement by opportunities to perform, teach, and be honored nationally and internationally.  (Between 1980 and 2006, LaVaughn taught in the Dance Department of the University of the Arts for 25 years, performed at tap festivals across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards including a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a PA Governor’s Arts Award for Artist of the Year and an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, participated in U.S. State Department tours to the Soviet Union and Africa, and performed (along with me) in the award-winning TV special Gregory Hines’ Tap Dance in America, among other well-deserved career highlights.)

There is debate over why this disparity in opportunities existed. I recognize multiple factors conspired against Black women, including factors that you would not expect. Consider that much of the energy behind tap’s purported renaissance came from middle-class white women, who, as self-proclaimed feminists, were eager to be acknowledged for women’s artistry in a field dominated by men. When I started tap dancing in the 1980s, I assumed that the white women who were styling themselves as the saviors of tap would have been eager to include Black women in the festivals, performances, and master classes they were organizing in the 1980s and 90s.  For a while, I was puzzled why so many senior Black women tap dancers were left out of those opportunities.  One would think that self-defined feminists would have made beelines to the doors of women elders who defied race, gender, and other barriers to make careers in tap.

Then I came across tap dancer/educator Katherine Kramer’s 1992 essay titled “Super Moms of Tap,” published in Attitude Magazine.  In Super Moms, Kramer issued a call to action for women dancers to relax their role as “caretakers” for veteran male dancers and for the form itself, and focus more on advancing their own voices and careers as tap dancers.  Kramer said:

I was one of numerous others who, in the 1980s, felt an impulse to rediscover tap dance.  Many of us shared in common one or more cultural experiences, including being women, white, born between approximately 1945-55, middle class, college educated, and trained in other dance forms…. Tap dance appeared as a form within which I could wrestle creatively with many of my demons.  As a socially and politically conscious person, I could be involved in the revival of a waning art form that had grown out of an oppressed community.  As a “feminist”, I could take on the “challenge” of mastering an extremely difficult and competitive form that had been dominated by men…. As a woman, I fell in love with these extraordinary men and their dance.  They attracted us on many levels from the sexual to the artistic to the spiritual…. It was that wonderful ingredient of “timing” that created such profound loves.  And they were not just lovers, but fathers, brothers, storytellers, and friends.  They fit many bills.  What bills did we fit for them? Economically, we’ve helped, boosted egos, encouraged pride, inspired teaching, challenged thinking. We also took on the role of caretaker, not only of individuals, but in the art form.  We became the Supermoms of tap.

Here’s the entire essay.

scan of article super moms of tap by Katherine Kramer
Scan of “Super Moms of Tap”

By spotlighting Kramer’s essay, I don’t mean to dismiss white women who contributed mightily to the effort to acknowledge the role of Black women in shaping the art form of tap dance.  High on my list of contributors is Cheryl Willis, Ed.D., whose doctoral dissertation on African American women tap dancers in Philadelphia was foundational for my oral history project and remains an important resource for dance historians. And dance historian Sally Sommer has long been a champion of the Black women who defied racism and sexism to make careers as tap dancers.  But Kramer’s essay essentially confirmed my suspicion that the Super Moms thought that becoming lovers of, and creating work opportunities for, Black male dancers would be their ticket into the form and the tradition.  Black women didn’t fit into that strategy.  Whether attributable to the ironies of the fraught relationship of the American feminist movement to African American women, or to male domination of the form, Black women of Louise’s era had to fight and hustle to be acknowledged, even as their male counterparts found greater success and recognition in their golden years than in their prime performing days.  Black women’s exclusion was a disgrace, but it wasn’t due to colorism—not that time. It was something more complex, and in some ways more pernicious.

Lest anyone think that colorism is a thing of the past, I’ll share the perspective of MacArthur Fellow Tressie McMillan Cottom from her essay collection THICK (2019).  After recounting the greater likelihood of Black people to interact with the criminal justice system, get harsher sentences, and be suspended from school, she adds:

Black women are the least likely group to marry someone of another race, one oft-cited sign of racial “acceptance.”…And recent research shows that darker-skinned women are less likely to marry and when they do so are less likely to marry an economic peer than a lighter-skinned black woman.  Even in criminal justice, the multiple marginality of skin tone, race, gender, and social class shows up: darker-skinned black women convicted of criminal offenses receive harsher sentences than do lighter black women. Skin color matters.

The women who participated in the Tap Project, then in their 70s and 80s, delighted in telling their stories, dusting off songs and routines, refreshing old costumes, and reliving an earlier era by way of the Stepping In Time revue they helped to produce.  They showed no bitterness about the ways they had been treated. They portrayed the gracious attitude the Apollo Theater chorus girls reflected in the title of their 2006 documentary Been Rich All My Life. My regret is that the Tap Project came 20 years too late for Louise.  Twenty years too late for Louise to know what excitement she sparked in the memories and imagination of people who saw her perform and heard stories of her dance prowess.  

Postscript,  06/15/2021:

Colorism’s durability and persistence is spotlighted in critiques of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s just-released, and generally-acclaimed movie In the Heights. The scarcity of darker-skinned Afro-Latinx people in a film celebrating Latinx presence and culture in Washington Heights, NYC, has drawn questions, criticism, and an apology from Miranda.  In a statement posted to Twitter Miranda says: “I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling still unseen in the feedback. I hear that without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the work feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy….In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening.”

See stories on The Root and in Variety.

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.