Assembling ‘The 10’ and Reverse-Engineering

As a December 1st deadline approached, I was talking with another Chronicling Resistance Fellow about the challenge of fulfilling the assignment of identifying at least 10 objects from PACSCL institutions that would be included in the culminating exhibition of our research projects. The problem was not that we weren’t finding sufficient archival material. Rather, the problem was that some of the objects that we most want to be part of our exhibition came from sources other than PACSCL institutions. And so, we felt pressed to find ways to associate objects with PACSCL libraries, even when the libraries themselves might not recognize the connections. An example is that it was on eBay that I first found playbills for Blackbirds productions in which Louise Madison appeared. Later, I found the same playbills in a box of miscellaneous, unorganized and uncatalogued ephemera in a collection at the African American Museum of Philadelphia. It was pure happenstance that I found these items as I looked for materials on an entirely different line of research. Of course, it’s the very nature of archival research that we stumble onto things that we weren’t necessarily looking for. But it’s also the case that even when archives have relevant materials, it can be impossible to know that they’re there because of the way that they are catalogued, or not catalogued at all. I purchased the playbills off of eBay in order to be certain that I would have access to them when time comes to assemble the exhibition. 

In another instance I found a wonderful oral history project, “Goin’ North,” housed at West Chester University and the University of Kentucky that, among other topics associated with the Great Migration, speaks directly to the limited employment opportunities available to Black women in Philadelphia when Louise was pursuing a career on the popular stage. Even though the Blockson Collection at Temple University and other Philadelphia collections were resources for the project, and the section on domestic work was published in Philadelphia in 1985 by the Atwater Kent Museum (no longer operating), those oral histories aren’t accessible through the Philadelphia Area Archives Research Portal (PAARP), and are technically not found in PACSCL institutions. Nonetheless, I consider these oral histories fair game for the assignment in light of their close association with Philadelphia archives. 

And then there’s a book, Listen Little Girl Before You Come To New York, published in 1938, that I found in an online exhibition of the Rare Books Collection of the University of Delaware. The author, Munro Leaf, has written many books which are part of the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. And the Free Library is the repository of Leaf’s personal papers. But the Library did not have a copy of Listen Little Girl. I found a copy for sale online and notified Library staff, and the Library recently purchased a copy for its Rare Books Collection. Once this archival item could be attributed to a PACSCL institution, I was able to include it among my “10” even before I was able to lay my hands on the book in the Rare Books Room of the Free Library. And what an interesting find this was. Of course, it was not “little girls” of color that Leaf had in mind when he wrote this volume about life in the big city for wide-eyed girls and young women eager to escape conventional work life in rural, small-town, or mid-size-city America. The book is divided into three employment categories: “Beautiful,” including “Modeling,” “Theater,” and “Odds and Ends”; “Brainy,” subdivided into “Advertising,” Publishing,” “Department Stores,” and “Oddments”; and “Nice,” addressing “Social Work,” “Education,” and “This and That.” There are recurring themes in the book about the role of physical assets in getting and keeping a job, and the potential for a job to lead to meeting marriageable men. Regarding both those themes, Leach didn’t pull punches in describing the plight of a chorus girl; he quoted what he referred to as a common adage in the business: “Get a specialty and get a man if you want to come out of the chorus and up in the world.” (p.48)

Title page of the book "Listen Little Girl" by Munro Leaf
“Listen Little Girl” title page. Photo courtesy of the author.

Leach gave a sobering picture of the longevity of life as a chorus dancer: 

“Most chorus girls break into the racket when they are sixteen or eighteen and are washed up by the time they reach twenty-five, unless they have the luck and wit to learn a specialty and snare a solvent boy friend. Their average life in the line is five years, for this type of performer has to be fresh and young with a trim little figure, twinkling toes and a personality smile. That is all she has to sell and none of these qualities keeps very long in the Broadway atmosphere.” (p.48). 

Pages 54-55 of "Listen Little Girl" by Munro Leaf. Illustration of a cigarette girl and text.
Pages 54-55 of “Listen Little Girl” by Munro Leaf. Photo courtesy of the author.

I suppose that some of what Leach says about the life of white chorus dancers in 1930s New York was also true for Black chorus dancers: physical attributes often trumped talent; women broke into the business in their mid/late teens; and the more talented and enterprising ones formed specialty acts that gave them more career options than the chorus line. In previous blogs I’ve discussed the tyrannies of colorism, especially for chorus line dancers. I think of Louise’s inscription on the photo she gave to Blackbirds chorus girl Ludie Jones, encouraging Ludie to develop a specialty act. Probably the best leap to a specialty act of all time was Josephine Baker launching herself from chorus line dancer to the rave of Paris in a banana skirt. And I think of all the Black women dancers I’ve read about and interviewed who left school at an early age to join a chorus line, like Libby Spencer; or danced in a chorus line between periods of doing high school homework, like Hortense Allen Jordan; or traveled to jobs with her mother as chaperone, like Edith “Baby” Edwards; or Nina Mae McKinney catapulting from the chorus line in Blackbirds of 1928 to stardom in the Hollywood film Hallelujah at age 16. 

What’s absent from Leach’s profile of the New York chorus dancer is a sense of urgency and resistance that Saidiya Hartman ascribes to Black chorus dancers in this quote from Wayward Lives:

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.” p. 306.

Nor does Leach suggest that the chorus girls of his study had a significant cultural influence—-they were just interchangeable parts, with short shelf life, in an anatomic production line. Jayna Brown, in Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, amplifies this point in noting that “…stage directors such as Ned Wayburn, Bobby Conolly, and Busby Berkeley opened up their own institutions for the training of young white women for the stage. For these directors, ‘The girl business was strictly a commercial affair, and the girls were the product’” (166-167). Brown continues, “The dance director Busby Berkeley assessed ‘the horde of gorgeous creatures who apply to him for jobs, the way a nut-and-bolt manufacturer regards his products.’” (167)  By way of contrast, Brown credits Black chorus dancers with having a powerful influence on modern popular culture during the period 1890 to 1945, and with navigating racial and gender barriers in ways that were essential to development of the jazz aesthetic. She says of Black women in New York, “Working as domestics and as stage performers, and training white choruses, their presence was central to the meanings of urban culture, despite their erasure from the critical record. (169)”

Four elder, fair-skinned Black women donning white satin tops and silver top hats.
The Silver Belles, from left: Marion Coles, 91; Cleo Hayes, 91; Elaine Ellis, 88; and Fay Ray, 86.
John Clifford/Toots Crackin Productions. Source 

I think of the Silver Belles, original members of the #1 Chorus Line at New York’s Apollo Theater, dancing their own choreography to popular band leader Jimmie Lunceford’s 1937 rendition of “For Dancers Only,” their every move interpreting and enhancing the jazz sensibility of the tune. (I was fortunate to learn that choreography from the Belles before they all passed away.)

Such exercises in “reverse engineering” as I used to turn up Listen Little Girl and Blackbirds playbills might address the demands of the CR project. But more elusive is the “unarchivable,” a topic I played with in an earlier blog after hearing a presentation by writer, educator, activist Irit Rogoff. The idea that there are things of such complexity or immanence that they can’t be archived suggests the need for some degree of humility on the part of institutions inclined to think of themselves as the ultimate repositories of history. It also suggests that we lay archivists sharpen our capacity to distinguish between the “unarchived” and “unarchivable”—that we challenge ourselves to engage in close reading of the archive as exemplified by such writers as Saidiya Hartman and Jayna Brown, and still recognize that there are areas that evade efforts to tame them into classifications and catalogs.

Copyright 2022 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.