Harlem-on-Thames, NY/London: 1919-1939

Session Abstract

Harlem, in the interwar era, was a space of avant-gardism. Groundbreaking forms of visual art, music, fashion, and popular dance, produced by Black artists, were received as racialized forms of modernism. Among those who recognized Harlem’s novelty and power and traveled there to experience it were white British artists who positioned themselves as iconoclasts: for them, Harlem was a realized site of modernity, where there were few social restraints upon expression. Simultaneously, enterprising Blacks from the United States and colonized countries in the Caribbean and Africa traveled to London, pursuing greater freedoms and career opportunities. There, they were part of interracial collaborations in concert dance, film, and musical productions; they mingled in liberal, social circles and pursued relationships across class, sexual, and racial lines. The Black presence in London was visible and remarked upon, welcomed by some and rejected by others. Both progressive ideas and fetishistic notions shaped the early twentieth-century trope of Blackness. What David Levering Lewis rightly termed the vogue for Harlem neither dispelled nor disrupted longstanding patterns of white privilege and racism within these interlocking, interwar trans-Atlantic modernisms. In the years leading up to the impending World War, many of these romantic liaisons and professional partnerships dissolved. In this session, we consider the understudied impact of the Harlem-London axis and raise questions about its legacy upon American and British cultural landscapes, undeniably shaped by Black modernisms.

Idroma Montgomery

Unruly Desires, Unruly Geographies: Mapping Black and Queer Interwar London 

In the 1930s, London acted as a nexus for Black creative migration. Soho and its surrounding areas, already understood as sites of vice, spectacle, and criminality allowed space for Black jazz culture to flourish. Deemed Little Harlem, this network of Black clubs allowed a diaspora of Black entertainers from America, Britain and the Caribbean to exchange political, artistic and cultural ideas. These clubs also belonged to a wider network of queer spaces that existed throughout Soho and the West End, creating spaces that allowed for new possibilities of desire, expression, and community across transnational boundaries. My presentation will investigate the importance of Harlem and cosmopolitan Black modernism in interwar London through the exploration of some of these venues. Though cosmopolitanism in interwar London and the Black presence in interwar London have been studied, the specific role of Harlem in how Black Britons were able to conceptualize their own spaces remains less examined. I will discuss how these spaces, especially due to their impermanence and legal and social disorderliness, allowed for interracial and intercultural sociability and desire. By mapping these various geographies across both Soho and Harlem, I will illustrate the connections between queer and Black Soho during this period, as well as how the queer nightlife of Harlem is mirrored amongst the clubs and cafes of Soho. 

Emillie Boone

The Unnamed James Van Der Zee: Londoner Cecil Beaton’s Encounter with a Harlem Photographer 

In a departure from his duties as the court photographer to the British Royal Family, Cecil Beaton authored a book on his impressions of New York City. Cecil Beaton’s New York (1938) includes a two-page, textual description of African American photographer James Van Der Zee, unnamed but identifiable through a portrait along with four pages of reproduced examples of the Harlem photographer’s wedding portraits and funerary photographs. Macabre descriptions of autopsy photographs, documented evidence of accidents, and formal mortuary portraits dominate the few pages of text, which augment Beaton’s description of Harlem. As one of the earliest published accounts detailing Van Der Zee’s photographic practice, Beaton’s text deserves a close look. Readers are left with a version of Van Der Zee at odds with later accounts of the acclaimed photographer’s practice. By considering Beaton’s sensationalized portrayal of Van Der Zee and Harlem, my presentation addresses the larger implications of Van Der Zee’s unnamed status within this encounter between two skilled photographers, one a Harlemite and the other from London.

Camara Holloway

Breaking Free? Anna May Wong in London

In 1927, the Chinese American actress, Anna May Wong, left America for London seeking better career opportunities than those available to her in Hollywood. Wong’s strategic relocation was a success as she was able to secure more substantive acting parts in the British film industry, such as her starring role in the film Piccadilly (1929). What did not change, however, was the typecasting of Wong as an exotic Other. Wong was cast in roles representing a range of ethnicities but regardless of the cultural origin of her character, Wong was conceived as the embodiment of non-White difference. The Otherness of Wong was often accentuated by her contrast with a female character who exemplified white femininity. This formula dictated Wong’s portrayal in Chu Chin Chow (1934), an adaptation of a popular musical based on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Wong was cast as Zahrat, a “slave girl” and spy for the thieves’ ringleader. Although the story was set in Baghdad, the significant presence of extras of African descent as enslaved people conjures the history of plantation slavery of Africans in the Americas. The evocation of this history indicates that the British cultural landscape was heavily influenced by the influx of Black performers who provided entertainment during the interwar years. Wong’s role as Zahrat and her London sojourn is read against the grain of this Black presence. This example reveals the limits of the British racial imagination.

Jacqueline Francis

Modernist Clarence “Buddy” Bradley: NY/LON

The African American dancer and choreographer Clarence “Buddy” Bradley (1905-1972) was a modernist trailblazer on both sides of the Atlantic in the post-World War I decades. Jazz dance was an art in New York City dance halls and on Broadway stages, and Bradley was an innovator in the form. His success as a dance director and coach (albeit one who was not credited for these important creative roles) led to invitations to join productions in England. In 1930, Bradley was a choreographer for George Balanchine’s “Cochran’s Revue” and the musical “Ever Green.” In 1932, he worked with Sir Frederick Ashton on the jazz ballet “High Yellow.” In 1934, he collaborated with Agnes de Mille on “Words and Music.” He opened a dance school in London, which he operated until 1968. In the American and English contexts, Bradley taught jazz movement to Black and non-black performers and amateurs. Bradley’s interventions advanced modernisms in “high art” and popular contexts, transforming social dance on both sides of the Atlantic in the interwar era and after it. In this paper, “Harlemania”–the name of a dance number Bradley choreographed for “Ever Green”—is expanded to discuss the international phenomenon of jazz dance as a racialized expression used by Blacks and non-Blacks in the United States and England to stake a variety of claims to modernity.

%d bloggers like this: