Babylon Girls

Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern

Babylon Girls

Book Pages: 360 Illustrations: 49 illustrations Published: September 2008

Author: Jayna Brown

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Theater and Performance > Theater

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.

Investigating both well-known performers such as Ada Overton Walker and Josephine Baker and lesser-known artists such as Belle Davis and Valaida Snow, Brown weaves the histories of specific singers and dancers together with incisive theoretical insights. She describes the strange phenomenon of blackface performances by women, both black and white, and she considers how black expressive artists navigated racial segregation. Fronting the “picaninny choruses” of African American child performers who toured Britain and the Continent in the early 1900s, and singing and dancing in The Creole Show (1890), Darktown Follies (1913), and Shuffle Along (1921), black women variety-show performers of the early twentieth century paved the way for later generations of African American performers. Brown shows not only how these artists influenced transnational ideas of the modern woman but also how their artistry was an essential element in the development of jazz.


Babylon Girls salutes the efforts of the early twentieth century African American female performers in paving the way for the ‘modern woman’ and urban popular culture.” — Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World

Babylon Girls . . . covers a broad spectrum of black female performativity with surprising detail and scope. The result is new discoveries about an overlooked subject in the history of American popular culture.” — Audrey Thomas McCluskey, Feminist Formations

Babylon Girls does what it sets out to accomplish. The book shows how Black women performers in the first half of the twentieth century shaped the terms of spectacle inferred by their presence on the public stage. In addition, Babylon Girls illustrates the ways Black women performers questioned the grounds of the dominant gaze by positioning themselves as bodies in expressive motion, and as bodies in modern dissent, that dared to ‘gaze back.’” — Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, American Studies

Babylon Girls tracks the black female artist-as-flâneur across an astonishing panorama. . . . Babylon Girls is diasporic performance history from below. It decenters the better-known artists such as Josephine Baker in order to make room for Valaida Snow, Stella Wiley, Belle Davis, and Adelaide Hall. It covers the major genres of popular performance—minstrelsy, burlesque, the variety stage, the chorus line, social dance, and jazz music and dance—all with synoptic rigor. Studded with archival finds that open up many new avenues for future research, Babylon Girls is also a challenge to theories and histories of black performance that fail to incorporate gender into their analyses of theater, dance, and music.” — Tavia Nyong'o, American Quarterly

“A remarkable cultural history of African-American performance from 1890 to 1945. Drawing on archival research, historical documents, literary texts and travelogues, Babylon Girls brings to life the performers of the era and situates them in their complex sociopolitical contexts, thus performing an important act of cultural restitution. . . . Brown's richly researched work makes an invaluable contribution to the burgeoning field of performance studies. It is of interest to cultural and dance historians, literary scholars, ethnic and gender studies specialists, dancers and performers and the general public alike.” — Terri Gordon-Zolov, Times Higher Education

“[A]n important cultural history of African American women stage performers from 1890 to 1945. . . . What makes Babylon Girls unique is Brown's contention that black women dancers, who traveled internationally from the turn of the century, popularized new experiences of bodily habitation that were both raced and gendered. In engaging, intensely eloquent prose, Brown asserts that black women's performances therefore shaped transatlantic articulations of modern selfhood. Her work thus challenges the male bias and American-centrism native to most studies of blackface minstrelsy and the formation of vernacular culture.” — Emily Lordi, Callaloo

“[A]n original, exciting, and ambitious study of black women performers in the early decades of the twentieth century. . . . In a book filled with fascinating and valuable insights and information, the discussion of white female minstrelsy is one of the most interesting and original. . . . Artists such as the women about whom Brown writes deserve to have their lives and work studied and attended to—as Brown does, providing brilliant analysis of and insight into the meanings embedded in them.” — Farah Jasmine Griffin, Women's Review of Books

“[S]o deeply felt is this work that the author’s compassion for the actresses in palpable. Brown’s moving defense of these performers overcomes any objection, making this an important study of pioneering women who contributed an enormous amount to the cause of civil rights and the development of American theater.” — David Krasner, American Historical Review

“Brown's scholarship makes an important contribution to the burgeoning field of African American performance studies. . . . Babylon Girls is further notable for providing a long-awaited feminist critique of the male biases dominating scholarship on minstrelsy. . .” — Lori Harrison-Kahan, Modern Drama

“Jayna Brown provocatively compels the reader to recognize not only the effects early Black women performers had on shaping early American and European 20th century physical artistic expression, but also the imprint it continues to impact on the world today. Babylon Girls demands a second reading, and should serve as a reference for anyone who is a student of any type of performance.” — Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, Feminist Review

“Jayna Brown’s book is exceptional. The research is thorough and meticulous, and the archival photographs interspersed throughout further enrich the transatlantic stories. History weaves throughout this important book without crystallizing into a neat, linear, all-encompassing framework. Bodies are alive and (re)acting in its pages. They dance about their realities, but they also resist, reinterpret, and reposition blackness as something mobile, material, and modern.” — Melissa Blanco Borelli, e-misférica

“This important book examines the history of African American women stage performers from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. . . . Including extensive notes and bibliography and some pictures, this book will be valuable in performance and popular-culture collections. Highly recommended. All readers, all levels.” — R. Sugarman, Choice

“This is a fascinating subject. Jayna Brown’s study of well-known, little-known, and unknown African American female performers—from minstrels to ‘coon cantatrices,’ from dancers to jazz trumpeters—in the first half of the twentieth century offers us ways to understand the multilayered significance of their appearance and forms of expression on stages in the United States and Europe.” — Maureen E. Montgomery, Journal of American History

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


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
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. Translocutions: Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, and Valaida Snow 238

Conclusion 280

Notes 285

Bibliography 313

Index 333
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2009 Errol Hill Book Award, American Society for Theatre Research

Winner, 2009 George Freedley Memorial Award, Theatre Library Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4157-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4133-8
Publicity material