his book is a cultural history of African American perfor-
mance in the first half of the twentieth century. It charts
early genealogy of black female performance, with
my central subjects women of the variety stage: the lesser-known
performers Belle Davis, Stella Wiley, Ida Forsyne, and Valaida
Snow; the better-known artists Ada Overton Walker, Josephine
Baker, and Florence Mills; and two generations of black chorus
line dancers, many of whom remain nameless. This is also a book
about the ways ideas of the raced body were performed, navi-
gated, and challenged. It is about the history of female minstrelsy
and other forms of race mimicry, particularly early twentieth-
century uses of black dance vocabularies, for performing race had
everything to do with articulating the modern world. The book is
about bodies and is shaped by territories, as the raced and gen-
dered politics of space—the plantation, the stage, the street, the
cabaret—organize my arguments throughout the book.
Like its topics, this book is unruly and willfully disobedient at
times. The chapters do not offer linear, complete, and seamless
biographies of their subjects. This book is not a “recovery” history;
though it has a similar inclination, it is not designed to fill the gaps
left in masculinist and/or white womanist theories. I hope to leave
enough provoked and unanswered that further work gets done on
performance, dance, and racialized bodies in resistance to oppres-
sive social regimes.
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