Highlighting the groundbreaking roles played by Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, explains what prompted her to investigate the career of the important twentieth-century performer whose work shaped racial modernity.

I first witnessed the acting grace of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong in the 1939 movie, King of Chinatown. In the opening scene she puts down her surgical implements and takes off her cap and mask after a successful emergency room operation.  King of Chinatown underscores Wong’s character, Dr. Mary Ling’s, professional competence for immediately after the surgery, the (San Francisco) Bay Area hospital director offers her the position of resident surgeon. In melodious tones tinged with an upper-class British accent, Wong firmly but politely declines the prestigious appointment because she wishes to raise money to bring medical supplies to China to combat the Japanese invasion. Flashing her trademark smile, Wong gracefully strides across the room, Edith Head-designed skirt and blouse highlighting her all-American modern professionalism. Based on a real life Chinese American woman, Dr. Margaret Chung, Wong’s role represents a modern American woman who is proud of her Chinese heritage.

Before I viewed the film, I knew that the scant scholarship’s dominant storyline focused on Wong as a marginal and exploited actress. According to that narrative, she had mostly played “foreign” and/or “negative” stereotypical roles such as prostitutes or dancers, who often died at the end of each film. Startled at how King of Chinatown proved that viewpoint wildly inaccurate, I decided that Wong’s career merited further investigation.

Anna May Wong_smIn my book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, I focus on Wong because she embodied the dominant image of Chinese and “oriental” women between 1922 and 1940. She played groundbreaking roles in American, European, and Australian theater and cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. Born near Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong made more than sixty films that circulated around the world, headlined theater and vaudeville productions in locations ranging from Sydney to Paris to New York, and, in 1951, had her own television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the now defunct DuMont Television Network. The sheer number of films, theatrical productions, magazine covers, and iconic photographs rendered Wong ubiquitous. Global cultural and political interest in the “Orient” propelled her fame in locales such as Germany and Mozambique. Although she is no longer a household name, I argue that Wong remains an important twentieth-century performer because her work shaped racial modernity.

As an Asian American, there was nothing authentically “oriental” about the very American Wong, who, until 1936, had never been to China. Yet decades before the civil rights–generated category of Asian American existed, Wong grappled with how to be an Asian American actress.

Throughout her career, Wong demonstrated an astounding ability to survive as a performer through adapting to technological and format changes. She started in black and white silent films, then pioneered silent two-tone technicolor cinema, then thrived in the “talkies” or sound motion pictures. When film work dried up, she successfully sought opportunities in radio, vaudeville, theater, and photography. Then, in the 1950s, she mastered live television. I have no doubt that if she were alive today, she would be an Instagram or Youtube star, sharing makeup and beauty tips with the world.

I situate this work as part of the feminist recuperation of women’s experiences, and, moreover, racial minority women’s responses to gender being unmarked as white. As decades of scholarship have established, this is not compensatory work but analysis that transforms how we conceptualize history. Body politics still have ramifications for people’s lives. What is at stake in this examination of Wong’s career is the very writing of history: who can speak, who can be a subject, and how it can be done. In doing this work, I wish to validate creative and risk-taking scholarly inquiry. Wong’s cultural creations point to an earlier historical moment of possibility. It shows us how she performed the modern despite facing extraordinary racial and gendered obstacles.

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Celebrating America

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the Fourth of July with ten of Temple University Press’s “American” titles. These books look at colonial America,  American culture, and the American Dream, reflecting on our country, its past, present, and future.

COLONIAL AMERICA

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Pastby Thomas A. Foster

Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America’s Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era’s major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.

The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcoholby Eric Burns

In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was “the first national pastime,” and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how “the great American thirst” developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were “comic masterpieces of the legislator’s art”) sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers’ quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memoryby Roger C. Aden

In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of the important historic site of the President’s House installation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly.

AMERICAN CULTURE

“I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity by Rachel Clare Donaldson

In America, folk music—from African American spirituals to English ballads and protest songs—renders the imagined community more tangible and comprises a critical component of our diverse national heritage. In “I Hear America Singing,” Rachel Donaldson traces the vibrant history of the twentieth-century folk music revival from its origins in the 1930s through its end in the late 1960s. She investigates the relationship between the revival and concepts of nationalism, showing how key figures in the revival—including Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Moses Asch, and Ralph Rinzler—used songs to influence the ways in which Americans understood the values, the culture, and the people of their own nation.

Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memoryby Mike Wallace

This is a book about why history matters. It shows how popularized historical images and narratives deeply influence Americans’ understanding of their collective past. A leading public historian, Mike Wallace observes that we are a people who think of ourselves as having shed the past but also avid tourists who are on a “heritage binge,” flocking by the thousands to Ellis Island, Colonial Williamsburg, or the Vietnam Memorial. Wallace probes into the trivialization of history that pervades American culture as well as the struggles over public memory that provoke stormy controversy.

Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender, and Americanism in the First Red Scareby Erica J. Ryan

In the 1920s, cultural and political reactions to the Red Scare contributed to a marked shift in the way Americans thought about sexuality, womanhood, manhood, and family life. The Russian Revolution prompted anxious Americans who sensed a threat to social order to position heterosexuality, monogamy, and the family as bulwarks against radicalism.  In her probing and engaging book, Erica Ryan traces the roots of sexual modernism and the history of antiradicalism and antifeminism. Red War on the Family charts the ways Americanism both reinforced and was reinforced by these sexual and gender norms in the decades after World War I.

Framing the Audience: Art and the Politics of Culture in the United States, 1929-1945, by Isaorda Helfgott

Framing the Audience argues that efforts to expand the social basis of art became intertwined with—and helped shape—broader debates about national identity and the future of American political economy. Helfgott chronicles artists’ efforts to influence the conditions of artistic production and display. She highlights the influence of the Federal Art Project, the impact of the Museum of Modern Art as an institutional home for modernism in America and as an organizer of traveling exhibitions, and the efforts by LIFE and Fortune magazines to integrate art education into their visual record of modern life. In doing so, Helfgott makes critical observations about the changing relationship between art and the American public.

THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream in the 21st Century, edited by Sandra L. Hanson and John K. White

The American Dream has long been a dominant theme in U.S. culture, one with enduring significance, but these are difficult times for dreamers. The editors of and contributors to The American Dream in the 21st Century examine the American Dream historically, socially, and economically and consider its intersection with politics, religion, race, gender, and generation. The conclusions presented in this short, readable volume provide both optimism for the faith that most Americans have in the possibility of achieving the American Dream and a realistic assessment of the cracks in the dream. The last presidential election offered hope, but the experts here warn about the need for better programs and policies that could make the dream a reality for a larger number of Americans.

Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

Has the “American Dream” become an unrealistic utopian fantasy, or have we simply forgotten what we are working for? In his topical book, Free Time, Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt examines the way that progress, once defined as more of the good things in life as well as more free time to enjoy them, has come to be understood only as economic growth and more work, forevermore. Hunnicutt provides an incisive intellectual, cultural, and political history of the original “American Dream” from the colonial days to the present. Taking his cue from Walt Whitman’s “higher progress,” he follows the traces of that dream, cataloging the myriad voices that prepared for and lived in an opening “realm of freedom.” Free Time reminds Americans of the forgotten, best part of the “American Dream”—that more and more of our lives might be lived freely, with an enriching family life, with more time to enjoy nature, friendship, and the adventures of the mind and of the spirit.

Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie, or Realityby Melanie E. L. Bush and Roderick D. Bush

Could the promise of upward mobility have a dark side? In Tensions in the American Dream, Melanie and Roderick Bush ask, “How does a ‘nation of immigrants’ pledge inclusion yet marginalize so many citizens on the basis of race, class, and gender?” The authors consider the origins and development of the U.S. nation and empire; the founding principles of belonging, nationalism, and exceptionalism; and the lived reality of these principles. Tensions in the American Dream also addresses the relevancy of nation to empire in the context of the historical world capitalist system. The authors ask, “Is the American Dream a reality questioned only by those unwilling or unable to achieve it? What is the ‘good life,’ and how is it particularly ‘American’?”

 

Celebrating Pride

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Pride month with a dozen Temple University Press’s LGBTQ titles.

City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972by Marc Stein

Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves is refreshing for at least two reasons: it centers on a city that is not generally associated with a vibrant gay and lesbian culture, and it shows that a community was forming long before the Stonewall rebellion. In this lively and well received book, Marc Stein brings to life the neighborhood bars and clubs where people gathered and the political issues that rallied the community. He reminds us that Philadelphians were leaders in the national gay and lesbian movement and, in doing so, suggests that New York and San Francisco have for too long obscured the contributions of other cities to gay culture.

Civic Intimacies: Black Queer Improvisations on Citizenshipby Niels van Doorn

Because members of the Black queer community often exist outside conventional civic institutions, they must explore alternative intimacies to experience a sense of belonging. Civic Intimacies examines how—and to what extent—these different forms of intimacy catalyze the values, aspirations, and collective flourishing of Black queer denizens of Baltimore. Niels van Doorn draws on eighteen months of immersive ethnographic fieldwork for his innovative cross-disciplinary analysis of contemporary debates in political and cultural theory.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice, by Ryan Patrick Murphy

In 1975, National Airlines was shut down for 127 days when flight attendants went on strike to protest long hours and low pay. Activists at National and many other U.S. airlines sought to win political power and material resources for people who live beyond the boundary of the traditional family. In Deregulating Desire, Ryan Patrick Murphy, a former flight attendant himself, chronicles the efforts of single women, unmarried parents, lesbians and gay men, as well as same-sex couples to make the airline industry a crucible for social change in the decades after 1970.

From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United Statesby Craig A. Rimmerman

Liberal democracy has provided a certain degree of lesbian and gay rights. But those rights, as we now know, are not unlimited, and they continue to be the focus of efforts by lesbian and gay movements in the United States to promote social change. In this compelling critique, Craig Rimmerman looks at the past, present, and future of the movements to analyze whether it is possible for them to link identity concerns with a progressive coalition for political, social, and gender change, one that take into account race, class, and gender inequalities. Enriched by eight years of interviews in Washington, D.C. and New York City, and by the author’s experience as a Capitol Hill staffer, From Identity to Politics will provoke discussion in classrooms and caucus rooms across the United States.

The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture, by Heike Bauer

Influential sexologist and activist Magnus Hirschfeld founded Berlin’s Institute of Sexual Sciences in 1919 as a home and workplace to study homosexual rights activism and support transgender people. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. This episode in history prompted Heike Bauer to ask, Is violence an intrinsic part of modern queer culture? The Hirschfeld Archives answers this critical question by examining the violence that shaped queer existence in the first part of the twentieth century.

In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, by Michael Sadowski

Adolescence is a difficult time, but it can be particularly stressful for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identifying youth. In order to avoid harassment and rejection, many LGBTQ teens hide their identities from their families, peers, and even themselves. Educator Michael Sadowski deftly brings the voices of LGBTQ youth out into the open in his poignant and important book, In a Queer Voice. Drawing on two waves of interviews conducted six years apart, Sadowski chronicles how queer youth, who were often “silenced” in school and elsewhere, now can approach adulthood with a strong, queer voice.

Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural Americaby Colin R. Johnson

Most studies of lesbian and gay history focus on urban environments. Yet gender and sexual diversity were anything but rare in nonmetropolitan areas in the first half of the twentieth century. Just Queer Folks explores the seldom-discussed history of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity in rural and small-town America during a period when the now familiar concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality were just beginning to take shape. Eschewing the notion that identity is always the best measure of what can be known about gender and sexuality, Colin R. Johnson argues instead for a queer historicist approach. In so doing, he uncovers a startlingly unruly rural past in which small-town eccentrics, “mannish” farm women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were often just queer folks so far as their neighbors were concerned. Written with wit and verve, Just Queer Folks upsets a whole host of contemporary commonplaces, including the notion that queer history is always urban history.

Modern American Queer Historyedited by Allida M. Black

In the twentieth century, countless Americans claimed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identities, forming a movement to secure social as well as political equality. This collection of essays considers the history as well as the historiography of the queer identities and struggles that developed in the United States in the midst of widespread upheaval and change.

Officially Gay: The Political Construction of Sexuality by the U.S. Militaryby Gary L. Lehring

Officially Gay follows the military’s century-long attempt to identify and exclude gays and lesbians. It traces how the military historically constructed definitions of homosexual identity relying upon religious, medical, and psychological discourses that defined homosexuals as evil, degenerate, and unstable, making their risk to national security obvious, and mandating their exclusion from the Armed Services.

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer Americaby Miriam Frank

Out in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities.

Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desireby Cynthia Wu

Cynthia Wu’s provocative Sticky Rice examines representations of same-sex desires and intraracial intimacies in some of the most widely read pieces of Asian American literature. Analyzing canonical works such as John Okada’s No-No Boy, Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, H. T. Tsiang’s And China Has Hands, and Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Blu’s Hanging, as well as Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Yankee Dawg You Die, Wu considers how male relationships in these texts blur the boundaries among the homosocial, the homoerotic, and the homosexual in ways that lie beyond our concepts of modern gay identity.

Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, by Cynthia Barounis

Amputation need not always signify castration; indeed, in Jack London’s fiction, losing a limb becomes part of a process through which queerly gendered men become properly masculinized. In her astute book, Vulnerable Constitutions, Cynthia Barounis explores the way American writers have fashioned alternative—even resistant—epistemologies of queerness, disability, and masculinity. She seeks to understand the way perverse sexuality, physical damage, and bodily contamination have stimulated—rather than created a crisis for—masculine characters in twentieth- and early twenty-first-century literature.

Announcing the new issue of Kalfou

This week in North Philly Notes, we present the table of contents for the new issue of Temple University Press’s journal, Kalfou, edited by George Lipsitz.

Please recommend to your library!   • To subscribe: click here  

Kalfou_generic-cover_102015
Vol 6 No 1 (2019): Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies
Feature Articles

Art and Social Action

Teaching and Truth

In Memoriam

Book Reviews

Kalfou is a scholarly journal focused on social movements, social institutions, and social relations. We seek to build links among intellectuals, artists, and activists in shared struggles for social justice. The journal seeks to promote the development of community-based scholarship in ethnic studies among humanists and social scientists and to connect the specialized knowledge produced in academe to the situated knowledge generated in aggrieved communities.

Kalfou is published by Temple University Press on behalf of the UCSB Center for Black Studies Research.

 

Honoring the largest high school regatta in the world

This week in North Philly Notes, we honor the recent Stotesbury Cup Regatta by posting an excerpt from Dotty Brown’s Boathouse Row

Edward T. Stotesbury was 78 years old in 1927 when he decided to underwrite a high school rowing cup. Little did he know that this small gesture would prove to be his life’s greatest legacy, setting the course for a legendary high school regatta.

Called “Philadelphia’s first citizen,” and a “banker’s banker” by newspapers and civic leaders of his time, “Ned” Stotesbury was one of the richest men in the nation, with a net worth of more than $100 million (nearly $1.4 billion today). A widower for many years, at age 62 he married a socialite and built her Whitemarsh Hall, a 100,000-square-foot mansion on 300 acres in suburban Wyndmoor, Pa. With 147 rooms, 28 bathrooms, and 24 fireplaces, it was described as the “Versailles of America.” The couple summered and wintered in their other palatial retreats in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Palm Beach, Florida, where they entertained the likes of Henry Ford, Will Rogers, and the crown prince of Sweden.

Boathouse Row_smThe son of a Quaker mother and Episcopalian father, Stotesbury had worked his way up from a clerk’s position at Drexel & Company to become senior partner of the banking behemoth. He was also a partner in J. P. Mor- gan, finance chairman of the Reading Company, and a top fundraiser for the Republican presidential campaigns of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. With his economics acumen much in demand, he was recruited to the boards of nearly three dozen banking, rail, and coal companies, and helped open the doors to China trade by negotiating a major loan to its railroads. He was also a trustee of both the University of Pennsylvania and the Drexel Institute (now Drexel University).

Civic-minded as well, for 26 years he served as president of the Fairmount Park Commission. He also chaired the American Red Cross’ local chapter during World War I, helping to raise $3.5 million and winning the gratitude of the French, who honored him as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

If his now-forgotten achievements went on for pages, so did his membership in clubs and societies, through which he sought recognition and connections, as did so many Philadelphians of his time. The Social Register of 1901 lists Stotesbury’s membership in nine clubs before ending its entry in “etc.” These included the Ritten- house Club, the Art Club, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Radnor Hunt, the Germantown Cricket Club (vice president), the Union League (president), and the Racquet Club (president).

In his acerbic look at Philadelphia society, The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy, Nathaniel Burt attributes Stotesbury’s social reach to his not quite blue blood. Stotesbury, he writes, was “fairly definitely not an Old Philadelphian, despite a good old-fashioned semi-Quaker family and so his social row was harder to hoe than that of his predecessors.”

It may be one reason why in 1887, the aspiring Stotesbury, still in his 30s, decided to join the Bachelors Barge Club, though not as a rower. He valued the camaraderie of the club on Boathouse Row, whose members were of the highest pedigree. Only a social member, the slim, jocular financier dined at the Bachelors’ upriver club, the Button, with men with names like Burpee, Clothier, Lippincott, and Wyeth. There, members would address Stotesbury by his one-syllable nickname, a Bachelors tradition that continues today. Stotesbury, who had a quirky sense of humor, was “Brother Gum,” perhaps deriving from a song he liked to sing about a shared family toothbrush, “all covered with slime.”…

One day in 1927, “Brother Gum,” now 78, was approached by 32-year-old “Brother Loft”—high-flying rower Garrett Gilmore, who three years earlier had won Olympic silver in the single scull. Gilmore wanted to see a blossoming of schoolboy crew, which had so faded after the war. He asked Stotesbury to fund a silver trophy cup for a new eight-oared race on the Schuylkill.

Along with Gilmore, another Olympian, John B. Kelly Sr., was also trying to lure more teenagers into crew and had begun recruiting students at West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys to build bench strength for his club at the time, Penn AC.

Six weeks after the West Catholic boys began practicing with Penn AC’s storied coach Frank Muller, its crew won the very first Stotesbury Cup race, on May 30, 1927.… In 1935, Gilmore expanded the Stotesbury cup race into a full-fledged regatta.

Follow Dotty Brown’s blog on Boathouse Row history at: 

Announcing Temple University Press’ Fall 2019 Books

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase the titles on Temple University Press’ Fall 2019 catalog.

 

Action=Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France, by Christophe Broqua
Chronicling the history and accomplishments of Act Up-Paris

The Battles of Germantown: Effective Public History in America, by David W. Young
Lessons from Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood on how the public engages the past

Campaigns of Knowledge: U.S. Pedagogies of Colonialism and Occupation in the Philippines and Japan, by Malini Johar Schueller
Making visible the afterlives of U.S. colonial and occupation tutelage in the Philippines and Japan

Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion, by Milo W. Obourn
Offering a new avenue for understanding race, gender, and disability as mutually constitutive through an analysis of literature and films

Feminist Post-Liberalism, by Judith A. Baer
Reconciling liberalism and feminist theory

Immigrant Rights in the Nuevo South: Enforcement and Resistance at the Borderlands of Illegalityby Meghan Conley
Examining the connections between repression and resistance for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Southeast

Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the MarginsAlex Tizon; Edited by Sam Howe Verhovek; Foreword by Jose Antonio Vargas
Unforgettable profiles of immigrants, natives, loners, villains, eccentrics, and oracles

Japanese American Millennials: Rethinking Generation, Community, and Diversity, Edited by Michael Omi, Dana Y. Nakano, and Jeffrey T. Yamashita
A groundbreaking study of ethnic identity and community in the everyday lives of Japanese American millennials

Protestors and Their Targets, Edited by James M. Jasper and Brayden G King
Examining the dynamics when protesters and their targets interact

Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the DecolonialEdited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vazquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and Sarah Jaquette Ray
Putting the environmental humanities into dialogue with Latinx literary and cultural studies

Little Italy in the Great War: Philadelphia’s Italians on the Battlefield and Home Frontby Richard N. Juliani
How Philadelphia’s Italian community responded during World War I

Memory Passages: Holocaust Memorials in the United States and Germanyby Natasha Goldman
Considers Holocaust memorials in the United States and Germany, postwar to the present

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, Edited by Paul M. Farber and Ken Lum
A living handbook for vital perspectives on public art and history

Pennsylvania Politics and Policy: A Commonwealth Reader, Volume 2Edited by J. Wesley Leckrone and Michelle J. Atherton
Addressing important issues in Pennsylvania politics and policy in a constructive, nonpartisan manner

Power, Participation, and Protest in Flint, Michigan: Unpacking the Policy Paradox of Municipal Takeovers, by Ashley E. Nickels
The policy history of, implementation of, and reaction to Flint’s municipal takeovers

Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Parisby Andrew Israel Ross
How female prostitutes and men who sought sex with other men shaped the history and emergence of modern Paris in the nineteenth century

Reencounters: On the Korean War and Diasporic Memory Critique, by Crystal Mun-hye Baik
Examines the insidious ramifications of the un-ended Korean War through an interdisciplinary archive of diasporic memory works

The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960sby Masumi Izumi
Dissecting the complex relationship among race, national security, and civil liberties in “the age of American concentration camps”

Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young EvangelicalsJeremiah J. Castle
Are young evangelicals becoming more liberal?

Stan Hochman Unfiltered: 50 Years of Wit and Wisdom from the Groundbreaking Sportswriter, Edited by Gloria Hochman, Foreword by Angelo Cataldi, With a Message from Governor Edward G. Rendell
50 years of classic columns from one of Philadelphia’s most beloved sportswriters

Strategizing against Sweatshops: The Global Economy, Student Activism, and Worker Empowerment, by Matthew S. Williams
Explores how U.S. college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world

Taking Juvenile Justice Seriously: Developmental Insights and System Challenges, by Christopher J. Sullivan
Comprehensive developmental insights suggest pragmatic changes to the complexity that is the juvenile justice system

The Age of Experiences: Harnessing Happiness to Build a New Economy, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, With a Foreword by B. Joseph Pine II
How the booming experience and transformation economies can generate happiness—and jobs

The Subject(s) of Human Rights: Crises, Violations, and Asian/American Critique, Edited by Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Guy Beauregard, and Hsiu-chuan Lee, With an Afterword by Madeleine Thien
Considers the ways Asian American studies has engaged with humanitarian crises and large-scale violations

Mourning the loss of lindy hopper and author Norma Miller

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post the obituary from the May 5 issue of the New York Times that celebrated the life of Norma Miller, author of Swinin’ at the Savoy

By Robert D. McFadden

swingin at the savoyNorma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ′40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.

Her longtime manager and caretaker, John Biffar, announced her death.

Among the cultural prodigies who arose after the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s “hop” from New York to Paris in 1927 — hence the dance’s name — Ms. Miller, known as the “Queen of Swing,” was the youngest recruit and last survivor of the original Lindy Hoppers, the all-black Herbert White troupe that broke in at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and popularized the Lindy Hop in Broadway shows, on tours of Europe and Latin America, and in Hollywood films.

In the movies, she danced and sang in memorable black-cast numbers in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937) and in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941). She later thrived as a choreographer, comedian, television actor and author, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003 as a conservator of the Lindy Hop.

With her own black companies, the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where black entertainers — even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. — drew big crowds but afterward had to leave through the kitchen and stay in segregated accommodations.

A child of poverty whose father died before she was born, Ms. Miller lived with her mother and sister in a cramped, noisy Harlem apartment, whose back windows looked out on the ballroom that would be her steppingstone to stardom. On the horizon were professional friendships with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw and other musical legends.

She was discovered on Easter Sunday 1932 by the great swing dancer Twist Mouth George Ganaway as she flashed her moves on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, a blocklong rhythm factory on Lenox Avenue between West 140th and 141st Streets. She was only 12, too young even to get into the swanky, mirrored emporium of swing that Langston Hughes called “the heartbeat of Harlem.”

“I was a precocious youngster,” Ms. Miller said in “Queen of Swing,” a 2006 documentary on her life. Mr. Ganaway spotted her performance and gave her a Coca-Cola. From inside the Savoy, a swing band’s hard-driving sound beat its way to the sidewalk, and there she and Mr. Ganaway danced.

“He swung me out,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around.”

Norma, wiry and nimble, already knew some Lindy Hop moves: the swing out, the hip-to-hip, the side-flip, the sugar push. Mr. Ganaway was impressed. He took her into the Savoy, ignoring the technicality of her age, and they were soon captivating the regulars with through-the-legs slides, over-the-head flips and acrobatic aerial lifts. Later, they won a Lindy Hop contest at the Savoy.

She continued to improve. After watching her win the Harvest Moon Ball dance contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934, Herbert White invited her to join his new troupe, the Lindy Hoppers. She agreed, and at 15 came under the tutelage of Mr. White’s choreographer,  Frankie Manning, the master of swing-era dances, who was the inspirational coach of the Lindy Hoppers.

What followed over the next few years was the professional education of a dancer: the wider world of hard work and the excitement and grind of travel to faraway places, of dancing in Broadway shows and on a seven-month tour of Paris, London and other European cities, then performances across America with Ethel Waters and a girl’s first adventure in Hollywood.

She was not quite 18 when she met the Marx Brothers, Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot and made her film debut in “A Day at the Races.” She danced and sang with the Lindy Hoppers in the well-known black-cast barn scene number, “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” which featured Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington’s orchestra. The Lindy Hop sequence was nominated for an Academy Award for dance direction.

Ms. Miller and the Lindy Hoppers were showcased in the Broadway musical revue hit “Hellzapoppin’ ” in 1938 and in 1941 appeared in the Hollywood version, both of which starred Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye. It was a slashing satire of show business, with slapstick mayhem, horned demons, collapsing staircases and fun house slides that led straight to hell.


In a sequence widely regarded as the best example of the Lindy Hop on film, four couples in backstage-workers’ get-ups swing out, one after the other, into acrobatic shines at a frenetic tempo. Ms. Miller and Billy Ricker, dancing in chefs caps like animated rag dolls, execute breathtaking flips, slides, kicks, splits, lifts and lightning moves that seem to defy gravity and human speed limits

After completing the filming, the Lindy Hoppers flew to Brazil and were performing in Rio de Janeiro when the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Unable to find transportation home, the troupe toured for six months in South America before returning home exhausted and nearly broke.

With the war on, the Lindy Hop began to fade as musical tastes changed. In 1942, Ms. Miller made her last tour with the Lindy Hoppers, appearing in New York, Washington and Baltimore. When her dance partner was drafted into the military, she left the troupe, which disbanded soon after. While her career went on for decades, it never returned to the high notes of her early years.

The Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1926 and brought blacks and whites together in an era of racial segregation, was torn down in 1958 to make way for a housing project. On any given night, thousands had packed its hardwood floors as swing music by Ellington, Basie or Chick Webb inspired the Norma Millers.

“Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” she told a Florida radio station in 2015, eight decades after her heyday. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for any of those. I could dance. I could just do it naturally.”

Norma Miller was born in Harlem on Dec. 2, 1919, the second daughter of Norman and Alma Miller, immigrants from Barbados. Her father, a shipyard worker, died of pneumonia a month before her birth, and her mother worked as a charwoman to raise her and her sister, Dot. Norma was fascinated with dance, and her mother, though struggling to pay rent, enrolled her in Saturday dance classes. Norma danced at her mother’s “rent parties,” as friends chipped in.

In the Roaring Twenties, music was everywhere in Harlem, but after 1929, when the Millers moved into a tenement apartment on West 140th Street, swing from the Savoy boomed nightly through their back windows. Looking out on the ballroom’s rear windows, Norma saw dancing patrons as shadows moving behind the curtains, doing the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.

She and her friends practiced the dances in the gym at her school, P.S. 136, and after church on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, where Mr. Ganaway discovered her. As her talents grew, she was enrolled at the Manhattan School of the Arts on the Upper West Side.

After her meteoric Lindy Hop career, Ms. Miller reinvented herself in 1952. She founded and choreographed the Norma Miller Dancers, a jazz-dance troupe that toured America and Australia for two years, then joined Count Basie on a national tour. In the pervasive racial segregation of the day, Ms. Miller and her group faced daily reminders of their secondary status in renting rooms, riding in the back of buses, dining in black eateries and sometimes confronting white protests.

In 1957, the Norma Miller Dancers played long-running engagements in Miami Beach and Las Vegas as part of an extravagant production called the “Cotton Club Revue.” The show, starring Cab Calloway and a 48-member all-black cast, drew huge nightly audiences for months. But it also stirred racial unrest, as had been anticipated: Every cast member was given an identity card issued by the police, and after each show had to retreat to a “colored” hotel.

“We were to be the first all-black show to play the Beachcomber in Miami Beach,” Ms. Miller recalled in “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer” (2003, with Evette Jensen). “During rehearsal, racial tensions surfaced. The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in The Miami Sun telling Murray Weinger” — a Miami nightclub owner — “that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach.”

Ms. Miller lived in Las Vegas for much of the 1960s and ′70s. She did comedy routines in clubs with Redd Foxx and taught children’s dance classes. In 1972, she entertained American troops in Vietnam. She had roles in three of Mr. Foxx’s NBC sitcoms: “Sanford and Son” in 1973-74, “Grady” in 1976, and “Sanford Arms” in 1977.

Besides “Queen of Swing,” John Biffar’s documentary on her life, Ms. Miller appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy and other subjects, including Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz” (2000). She was the subject of a children’s book by Alan Govenar, “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller” (2006). Her own books include “Swing Baby Swing” (2010, with Darlene Gist), a chronicle of swing dancing over her century.

Ms. Miller, who never married and left no immediate survivors, had a long-term relationship with fellow Hellzapoppin’ performer Roy Glenn, who died in 1971. She traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days. “The Savoy was our community,” she told Bobby White in one interview in 2016, “and the dance floor was the place we found freedom.”

In 2018, Ms. Miller appeared at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, an annual gathering since the 1980s of Lindy Hop lovers from around the world. “A place like this is unbelievable,” she said. “It’s like Brigadoon” the musical about a Scottish village that magically reappears once every 100 years.

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