Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern

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Babylon Girls is a groundbreaking cultural history of the African American women who performed in variety shows-chorus lines, burlesque revues, cabaret acts, and the like-between 1890 and 1945. Through a consideration of the gestures, costuming, vocal techniques, and stagecraft developed by African American singers and dancers, Jayna Brown explains how these women shaped the movement and style of an emerging urban popular culture. In an era of U.S. and British imperialism, these women challenged and played with constructions of race, gender, and the body as they moved across stages and geographic space. They pioneered dance movements including the cakewalk, the shimmy, and the Charleston-black dances by which the "New Woman" defined herself. These early-twentieth-century performers brought these dances with them as they toured across the United States and around the world, becoming cosmopolitan subjects more widely traveled than many of their audiences.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Babylon Girls is a brilliant book. Consistently pushing multiple fields in new directions, Jayna Brown reveals the centrality of black female performance culture in the making of transatlantic modernity. Her incredibly valuable book demonstrates how African Americans moved in resilient and unpredictable ways—both geographically and performatively—during the early twentieth century.”—Daphne A. Brooks, author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910

“The most exciting piece of scholarship that I’ve read in ages, Babylon Girls succeeds as an extremely ambitious, meticulously researched, brilliantly theorized cultural history. It is a landmark contribution to jazz studies, dance and performance studies, black women’s history, studies of minstrelsy, and theories of cross-cultural exchange.”—Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341574
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/19/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 885,464
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jayna Brown is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4133-8

Chapter One



On June 5, 1901, the S.S. St. Paul sailed out of New York Harbor bound for Southampton, England. On board was Belle Davis, a young mezzo-soprano from the black variety stage, who was booked on a tour of Britain's Empire music hall theaters. The twenty-seven-year-old singer was already a veteran of the stage, beginning her career in 1890 as one of the illustrious teenaged chorus girls in the Chicago revue The Creole Show. This was also not her first overseas tour; she had gone to Britain in 1897 with the revue Oriental America, one of several shows that was staged after The Creole Show's success. But this was her first trip touring the overseas circuits with her own specialty act. Like other chanteuse, Davis was now accompanied by her very own "picaninny chorus." On board with her that day were two boys-seven-year-old Fernandes "Sonny" Jones and nine-year-old Irving "Sneeze" Williams-traveling with Davis as the core members of her troupe (see fig. 3). Their first booking was a North London music hall; Davis, billed as "America's Greatest Coon Cantatrice of the Century," was to be "assisted by her two Picaninny Actors." Over the next few years Belle Davis and Her Picaninnies worked on the Empire circuit of music halls. Davis, Sonny, and Sneeze were to "[see] more of Britain than most Britons" as they traveled throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.

With other black acts, Belle Davis and Her Picaninnies also entertained audiences in continental Europe. They toured Britain during the fall and winter seasons and then spent the summers performing in various European cities, including Paris, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen. Black specialty acts packed European and British music halls over the turn of the century, but the act of Davis, Jones, and Williams was among the most successful. In January 1902, they recorded for Gramaphone Records in London, and in 1906 they appeared in a short film in Paris. Black variety acts, particularly dance, remained in demand. Davis continued to tour variety circuits throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands with various casts of children until 1917, years after Sonny and Sneeze had left the troupe. Neither Davis nor the boys returned to the United States on a permanent basis. Through the Great War and after, they remained in Europe with many other African American performers. In the 1920s they were based in Paris, there to greet a second generation of black performers to the overseas city circuits.

This book begins with a chapter that considers the histories of picaninny choruses, singer-led troupes of black children performers in Britain and Europe during the 1900s and 1910s. Most of the artists in this book began performing as small children, dancing and singing with touring companies, shows, and choruses, traveling the informal circuits of tent shows and fairs in the United States and then popular stages abroad. These children were talented dancers and developed dance techniques that would influence later dance phraseologies of eccentric, tap, and chorus line dancing. "The Charleston originated with the Picaninnies," Florence Mills states, who herself began performing at three years old. Their antics gave us the convention of the "mischievous girl at the end of the line," of particular importance for this study of black women variety performers, as this is a convention later given signature by the (teenaged) performers Ethel Williams and then Josephine Baker.

Casts of African American children performers grew up on trains and boats, in cafes, clubs, and performance halls, receiving their artistic training from more seasoned performers. Their experiences were not mediated by the institution of family in the sense that we think of it; their time and training were not regulated by the school, church, or factory bell. The boundaries of nation did not contain them, as their transcontinental worldviews were formed within a loose circuitry of linked cities; London, Vienna, and St. Petersburg were as familiar to them as were Chicago and New York. These troupes were enthusiastically received by a number of audiences, composed of different class compositions. They danced something for everyone: working-class audiences in northern England, royalty in London, a growing class of the bourgeoisie in Prague. The acts of these small flâneurs presaged the trans-urban movement of later African American performers between cities in Europe and America.

To understand the cultural meaning of their acts, this chapter goes back in time, to a much earlier period of antebellum slavery. It reads their acts in relation to the circulating discourses of plantation slavery, civic freedom, and the laboring black body, and it argues that these earlier discourses profoundly shaped their significance, as well as their performance strategies. The children, as well as the young women who led the troupes, were working in and against a circulating commerce of black iconography, spun out of nineteenth-century discourses on race and black subjecthood in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. Debates, assertions, and appeals of anti- and pro-slavery literature shaped these ideas. Competing claims about race were negotiated in and between these discourses, such as the educability and physiology of the Negro and the consequences of miscegenation. Christian missionary doctrine and treatises of natural science also informed common-sense notions on the constitution of raced bodies, which I focus on in chapter 2. Aided by new technologies of manufacture and transportation, these debates and discussions had been relayed with remarkable immediacy into popular culture.

This chapter is about how the picaninny choruses figured in relation to ideas of blackness and the laboring body circulating in slave-owning and then imperial Britain and Europe. Dialogues fostered between these earlier black anti-slavery activists, whose lectures were well attended and whose narratives were read vociferously, and organized labor in the United Kingdom informed the reception of the later picaninny performances in the cities and small towns of working-class England. The figure of the child had a specific resonance. Parallels were drawn by labor, in conversation with the black activists, between chattel and wage slavery, and particularly between the condition of the laboring child of Victorian industrial England and the slave child of the New World. That these parallels were drawn is important in our understanding of the black performers who toured later, as it keeps the black actors from being understood simply as icons, produced and controlled by the paternalism of the major abolitionist movement. Their presence was dialogic, invoking the complex conversations mentioned above.

Thinking about what these acts may have meant to audiences in Poland, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I suggest that the European currency of the black children performers was shaped first by racializing narratives from U.S. slavery and British colonization, but also in relation to specific sociopolitical conflicts and struggles in the regions of Europe where they were invited to perform. The reception of the artists and their creative choices were informed by the shifting class formations and ideological evocation of the folk in early European nationalist movements.

The dancer Ida Forsyne went to Britain with a picaninny troupe called the Tennessee Students, led by Abbie Mitchell. Forsyne did a star turn as "Topsy" in London and Budapest and then toured Eastern Europe for nine years from her base in St. Petersburg (see fig. 4). Her versions of both the cakewalk and the Cossaski gave audiences a symbol for Western imperial wealth and so-called democratic freedoms, but also referenced the growing uses of the folk in Europe, accompanying the relaxation of the feudal system and the rise of the nation-state. Serfs were emancipated in 1863, two years before the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Mid-century, Russian activists had drawn comparisons between the systems of serfdom and slavery in their arguments against systems of unfree labor. The cultures of those closest to the land took on new meanings in this moment, representing the people of the nation. These folk cultures, though, could also come to represent nostalgia for past hierarchical stabilities and an (imagined) pre-industrial peace. It is ironic that the most unfree populations from the center of the free world, black Americans, should come to represent the promises of the Enlightenment come to fruition. This is an irony that threads throughout this book.


The term picaninny comes from picayune, a coin of small value circulating in the United States during the 1800s. The derivation of the term picaninny signals the interchangeability between the black child bodies and the small bits of money required for their acquisition. Not always purchased but often "made" on the plantation, they embodied the very public marketplace politics of sexualized subjection at the heart of the domestic sphere. Slave children were living currency. The picaninny was a key symbol of the conflation of sex and commerce, which defined the peculiar institution.

On the plantation, the domestic sphere of the home was fused with large-scale commercial concern. As Hortense Spillers eloquently points out, the private (home) and the public (marketplace) were "useless distinction[s]":

Deeply embedded ... in the heart of social arrangements, the "peculiar institution" elaborated "home and marketplace" as a useless distinction since, at any moment, and certainly 1850-the year of the Fugitive-the slave was as much property of the collusive state as he or she was the personal property of the slaveholder. We could say that slavery was, at once, the most public private institution and the ground for the institution's most terrifying intimacies, because fathers could and did sell their sons and daughters, under the allowance of law and the flag of a new nation, "conceived in liberty," and all the rest of it.

U.S. plantation slavery disrupted communities and severed family ties, at the same time that it staged itself as a family romance. But in this system of "terrifying intimacies," master and slave relationships were figured as those of parent and child, as well as owner and saleable property. "The Children must be particularly attended to," a plantation record reads, "for rearing them is not only a duty, but also the most profitable part of plantation business." The children, as the most private and miraculous expressions of family life, were the products of the most cruelly public of marketplace rituals. The figure of the picaninny symbolizes the convergence of the domestic and commercial at the heart of the American racial drama.

Perhaps the most apt imprint of the "terrifying conflation of sex and commerce," the slave plantation and the intimate histories it contains, sits on the back of the nickel, the modern picayune. Thomas Jefferson's massive slave plantation, Monticello, is engraved on the back of every five-cent piece, the small change that still circulates through millions of daily monetary transactions. Monticello is celebrated as a feat of architectural genius and serves as a symbol of colonial American nation building-practical, utilitarian, sensible, democratic. Jefferson himself designed Monticello and worked on it for over fifty years. His engineering and aesthetic innovations are said to "produce domestic democracy"; for instance, Monticello's biographer claims Jefferson's "simple stairway ... demands [that] the meeting of those who are equal before the law be conducted on an egalitarian surface, level ground." His claim, that the architecture demands a leveling of social hierarchy, is an obscenely absurd one considering that it was slaves who staffed the household. Like the dumbwaiters and the kitchen below level, the stairwells were designed for the discrete passage of unpaid labor. Monticello's ingenuity for hiding the slaves who lived within it is literally part of the blueprint of American architectural history. Notable also is Jefferson's bedchamber, which is fitted with a closed alcove for the bed itself, and with a stairwell leading to it. The movements of Sally Hemings through this "domestic democracy," as her mother had moved through her own master's plantation house, are the ghostlike imprints on the historical record, remaining profoundly unrecognized.

I think it useful to include Jefferson's plantation compound as a form of captivity equivalent to the camp, the prison, and the reservation. Including the "southern household" as a public space whose business was a traffic in "bare life" expands and decentralizes our concept of what constitutes "exemplary places of modern biopolitics." Love was work in this model site of domestic democracy; and bodies for sale were created there, in its most private alcoves. It deserves emphasis that Jefferson's case was a well-known and often-used argument of both the abolitionists and black anti-slavery activists.

The family was the central trope and problematic in sentimental fictions, and the southern cotton plantation, as a peculiarly American "family," became the prime site at which the racio-sexual drama of chattel slavery unfolded. At the center was the capering black slave child, a key product of this drama. The mischievous and often unruly "picaninnies," grown on the plantation, would become long-standing stock characters of the popular press, the minstrel stage, and the music score.

Mid-century, ideas of the black child and the childlike races from abolitionist, Christian, and scientific discourses shaped the course and tactics of much sentimental fiction. Picaninnies were an integral part of the domestic space of the (imaginary) southern plantation. Unlike the primitive races Europeans were subduing in far away places, African Americans were internal colonial subjects, not only geographically, in the public spheres of nation and colony, but also within the "private" sphere of the home and family. Picaninny performers did not begin in Uncle Tom's Cabin, but they are markedly present in Harriet Beecher Stowe's text. The novel is opened by the forced cavorting of a small black child, Little Harry. In his act, prompted by his master in the interest of a sale, the popular stage is conflated with the auction block.

The fantasy of the plantation returns again and again in popular cultural forms well into the twentieth century. It does so because histories of plantation slavery (particularly large cotton plantations in the South) form the key topos in the nation's dialectic of racial formation. The staged plantation was a prime site of return. Traveling shows were often referred to as "plant shows," and, as I explore in chapter 4, the fictive plantation was the setting for inner-city spectacles at the turn of the century. Black dancers competed in huge Cakewalk Jubilees in New York City's Madison Square Garden, with black sporting celebrities such as Jack Johnson officiating at the proceedings. A stranger event was a summer-long plantation recreation called Black America, which was staged over the summer of 1894 in a Brooklyn city park. We begin and will return to the strange space of the plantation, but we will not remain there. Instead I will incorporate these returns into the larger questions of race and place which run throughout this book.


Excerpted from BABYLON GIRLS by JAYNA BROWN Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix Abbreviations for Libraries and Archives xiii Introduction 1
1 "Little Black Me": The Touring Picaninny Choruses 19
2 Letting the Flesh Fly: Topsy, Time, Torture, and Transfiguration 56
3 "Egyptian Beauties" and "Creole Queens": the Performance of City and Empire on the Fin-De-Siecle Black Burlesque Stage 92
4 The Cakewalk Business 128
5 Everybody's Doing It: Social Dance, Segregation, and the New Body 156
6 Babylon Girls: Primitivist Modernism, Anti-Modernism, and Black Chorus Line Dancers 189
7 Translocations: Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, and Valaida Snow 238 Conclusion 280 Notes 285 Bibliography 313 Index 333
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