Structuring my questions about the “wayward and wild”

“…promiscuous, reckless, wild and wayward…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to approach the oral history interview I have scheduled with Louise’s granddaughter at the end of January. I’ve known Carol for maybe 15 years, since her first email popped up unexpectedly, with her asking for my help in learning more about her grandmother’s, tap dancer Louise Madison’s (1911-1970), performance career. We were on the same quest, and I suspect that she’s done more to help my journey than I have to help hers. 

I’ve shared the couple of photos I have of Louise, some passing mentions of Louise in newspaper entertainment columns from the 1930s, and recollections of Louise’s performance prowess I gathered in conversations and interviews with my mentor and dance partner LaVaughn Robinson (1927-2008) and with a cohort of senior Philly-based performers who were involved in the film documentary Plenty of Good Women Dancers and the stage revue, Stepping In Time, both of which I was involved in directing and producing. She shared with me nuggets of family stories of Louise’s life growing up in North Philadelphia and recollections of Louise’s reclusive existence after her relatively-brief performance career ended. I never did a formal interview with Carol. Now is the time. 

This will be a different interview from what it would have been 10 years ago. A decade ago, I would have been trawling for information to paint as clear a picture as possible of Louise’s physical characteristics, her schooling and training, her performance dates and venues, her colleagues on and off the stage, her family and personal life, anything she said about the satisfactions and challenges of her performance career … The overarching question would have been why there is so little known about Louise’s performance career despite the accolades that were heaped on her by performers of her era, and the number of celebrated tap artists, both male and female, who admit to having learned from or been influenced by her. Those are still areas of interest despite my having delved into some of those queries—with varied success— in past conversations with Carol and one other member of Madison’s immediate family. 

My oral history interview this month is newly-framed since having read Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), that spoke to the ways that African American women, in the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1930s used the stage, dance halls, and other provocative venues to defy the stranglehold that conventions of race and gender conspired to impose on their lives. Hartman says that she “offer[s] an account that attends to beautiful experiments—to make living an art—undertaken by those often described as promiscuous, reckless, wild and wayward.” Now, as opposed to a decade ago, I’m intrigued with the premise that Louise was an example of young Black women who Hartman describes as being in “open rebellion” against “new forms of servitude.” Can I—how can I—shape my interview with Carol around this central premise? Perhaps there’s a ready pad to launch from.

In September 2016 Carol, at my suggestion, audiotaped a conversation with her great-uncle, Louise’s brother, who was in his 90s. At one point in the conversation, he said of Louise, “She was wild——your grandmother was wild.” One important line of questioning for Carol would be, “What do you think your great-uncle meant by that statement? What conventions or expectations do you think existed for him that would cause him to describe Louise in that way? Were there/are there other family members who thought of her in those terms? In your own experience with Louise, did you see signs of ‘wildness’ in her spirit or behavior?” The challenge may be not to push this premise too hard in the interview—not to be so enthralled with my thesis that I hear or prompt responses that Carol doesn’t intend. As Nadine George-Graves says of the “spidering” quality of researching Black people’s lives, “some lines of the webs…will break through other lines of wisdom and memory; some will be dead ends….” We have to be content to let spiders do what spiders do. 

In addition to probing how perceptions of Louise compare with Hartman’s portraits of wayward and rebellious resistors, I aim to structure the interview in a way that anticipates possible use of parts of it in a performative fashion in community presentations or in the culminating exhibition for Chronicling Resistance. At the moment, I’m not sure how that aim will inform the interview. We’ll see.

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.