The Backdrop—1920s–1940s

  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild


This book is about the urge, the desire—the need—to dance, against all odds. It begins as a story of elite performance in humble places, of growing up black in the United States of America at a time when racial segregation was so potent that the black poor, working class, and middle class lived together in the same neighborhoods and had limited access to, or were deprived of, the same services. But it is also the story of one community whose black elite’s ceremonial, festive, and charitable traditions outstripped those of other communities, black and white. Keep in mind that such a tradition arose even though the black bourgeoisie (and a small community of aristocrats of color) lacked the financial means to compete with whites of similar rank and station. The economics of discrimination meant that a typical black person might work for a white or black employer in a menial position such as a janitor, laundress, or seasonal farm worker. A number of working-class service positions in the white world—including sleeping car porter, caterer to white clientele, or maid or butler to a wealthy family—carried middle class status in the black community, despite the low wages accorded them. (On the job market in the white world, blacks were systematically paid less than whites employed in the same positions and performing identical labor.) Within the black community, middle-class status came from small business occupations such as dressmaker, tailor, carpenter, mortician, milliner, or owner of a beauty shop or barbershop. In general, white-collar positions in the white world—secretaries, salespersons, and such—were off limits to blacks.1


Black Community Ballet Dancer Broad Street Straight Hair Ballroom Dance 
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  1. 1.
    Isabel Wilkerson, in The Warmth of Other Suns (New York: Random House, 2010), relates an incident of the discrimination “a colored man in Philadelphia faced when he answered an ad for a position as a store clerk. ‘What do you suppose we’d want of a Negro?’ the storekeeper asked of the applicant” (p. 315).Google Scholar
  2. Quoted by Wilkerson from Scott Nearing, Black America (New York: Schocken Books, 1929, p. 78);Google Scholar
  3. original reference: H. G. Duncan, The Changing Race Relationship in the Border and Northern Stated (Philadelphia, 1922, p.77).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1931; Cambridge, MA: University Press John Wilson and Son, 1903;, 1999, In chapter 1, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” the frequently quoted paragraph, from the first page, reads, After the Egyptian and the Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Vincent P. Franklin, The Education of Black Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 198.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For a full discussion of the interface between black and white minstrelsy, see Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, 1998 [paper]), chap. 5.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 10–11, 97 101.Google Scholar
  9. 12.
    Information on The Philadelphia Negro gleaned from online links at, including H. V. Nelson, “The Philadelphia Negro,” in Encyclopedia of Black Studies, ed. Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004);Google Scholar
  10. and Elijah Anderson and Douglas S. Massey, “The Sociology of Race in the United States,” in The Problem of the Century: Racial Stratification in the United Stated, ed. Elijah Anderson and Douglas S. Massey (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001).Google Scholar
  11. 18.
    This was true as late as the 1940s. For example, George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco premiered in 1940 at New York’s Hunter College Theater; his Four Temperaments premiered in 1946 in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades, also in New York. See Horst Koegler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (London: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 129, 205.Google Scholar
  12. 29.
    W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Talented Tenth,” from The Negro Problem: A Series of Articles by Representative Negroes of Today (New York: James Pott and Company, 1903).Google Scholar

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© Brenda Dixon Gottschild 2012

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  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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