Book Review: Chad Heap's "Slumming" and Racialized Spaces

By Doctor Comrade

Heap, Chad. Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Chad Heap’s Slumming analyzes the fluid sexual and racial boundaries in New York and Chicago’s nightlife at the turn of the twentieth century. Heap’s main arguments are that nightlife allowed a blurring of sexual and racial categories while at the same reinforcing the superior status of “well-to-do whites.”[1] Clubs, cabarets, and speakeasies helped catalyze reconceptualizations of race and gender, making the categories more malleable and flexible, both leading to the redefinition of race as a gendered category and sexuality as a homo/hetero sexual dyad. Heap traces these changes over the course of four slumming “vogues,” or phases of slumming: the excursions to red-light districts in the 1880s-1910s, “Bohemian thrillage” in the 1910s-1920s, negro vogue in the 1920s-1930s, and the “pansy and lesbian craze” in the 1920s-1940s. In these four phases, Heap argues that well-to-do whites “spurred the development of an array of new commercialized leisure spaces that simultaneously promoted social mixing and recast the sexual and racial landscape of American culture and space.”[2]

Slumming comprises a major addition to Heap’s PhD dissertation, which he wrote at the University of Chicago. Heap’s dissertation advisor was noted LGBTQ scholar George Chauncey, whose best-known work Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 significantly shaped Heap’s research.[3] Heap expands upon Chauncey’s argument that sexual abnormality was not defined by homosexual desire but by mannerisms and behaviors that were normatively assigned to the opposite sex; Heap asserts that nightclub patrons “[delineated] their own sexual identification within the emerging category of the heterosexual,” a category that came as a result of the pansy and lesbian craze.[4]

The book attempts to periodize the slumming phenomenon in terms of four distinct phases or “vogues”: adventures in red-light districts, bohemian thrillage, negro vogue, and the pansy and lesbian craze. For red-light districts, Heap argues that “excursions… challenged Victorian notions of social and sexual reserve by broadening the categories of leisure and sexual behavior considered acceptable.”[5] These trips were a means by which upper-class whites could explore the “moral improprieties of the working class” and engage in sexual experimentation. But instead of accepting a new definition of modernity, the upper class used these excursions to reaffirm their own sexual morality. They juxtaposed the impropriety of the lower class, of which they had become intimately familiar, with their own values, thus allowing them to conclude that their values were superior. They could retreat from the easily identifiable slum, comfortable knowing that “degradation and immorality could be safely cordoned off from their own families and homes.”[6]

Heap argues that the decline in one vogue led to the rise of another as the upper class sought entertainment and release. After the decline of the red-light districts, the well-to-do whites shifted their attention to bohemian thrillage. Bohemian tea rooms and clubs attracted these slummers because they enjoyed a “popular association… with social and sexual unconventionality.”[7] Particularly intriguing was the bohemian value of free love, which introduced well-to-do whites to “modern social and sexual norms”; however, bohemian values only served to normalize emerging definitions of heterosexuality because free love provided “a strategic counterpoint” against which sexual morality could be measured.[8] Ultimately, the well-to-do could use the unconventional bohemian sexuality as the foil for their own norms.

As bohemian thrillage declined, the negro vogue rose to prominence. Black nightlife was attractive to well-to-do whites because it also offered opportunities to challenge sexual respectability, but it also reinforced the segregated nature of the cities. The whites who traveled to black neighborhoods, particularly women, were “immediately aware that they were… ‘entering into a segregated community… like taking a trip… into another mysterious dark world,’ a trip that offered numerous occasions to take advantage of the supposed freedoms of black nightlife while simultaneously reinforcing a sense of white superiority.”[9] As Heap had argued before, whites both engaged in sexual experimentation and simultaneously buttressed their own morality. In this case, slumming sexualized race by identifying and linking the allegedly inferior race with the supposedly inferior sexuality. Heap contends this marks a critical turning point in American racial history as race became both sexualized and more divided by the black/white categories.

Lastly, Heap traces the emergence of the “pansy and lesbian craze” and modern notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality. During this vogue, well-to-dos flocked to gay clubs and cabarets to marvel at the strangeness of cross-dressing men and women. However, Heap argues that this vogue helped redefine homosexuality in terms of sexual desire rather than “a gendered role in male-male sexual activity.”[10] The “pansy” urban type was a man who more closely conforms to the modern notion of homosexual; in contrast, well-to-dos could explore queer spaces in order to define their own category: heterosexual. These distinctions, Heap argues, gave rise to the homo/hetero sexual dyad: an oppositional category defined by negatives, in which heterosexuals could define their category by not being like a pansy.

Slumming is a valuable extension in the burgeoning fields of queer studies and urban history, and provides a compelling example of the interconnectedness of the historiography. Heap’s work is a valuable extension of Chauncey’s seminal work; it also draws upon recent scholarship in both ethnic studies and queer history.[11] Including Heap, scholars have paid particular attention to New York City and Chicago and the intersections of black culture and gay culture; the field could also turn towards those intersections in other major metropolitan areas. Heap excludes several important groups in his research, including the Irish and Latino/as, as well as lesbians (Heap spends considerably more time on “pansies”). An interesting study would be to test his conclusions in other cities with complicated racial histories like Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, and Los Angeles.

Heap deftly observes that the upper class used slumming as a means to reinforce its own superiority, but he incorrectly concluded that slumming meant there was “an absence of middle class morality.”[12] The opposite seems more apparent: the proliferation of discourses on sexual morality indicates interaction between the resistant nightclubs and the reactionary reformers. Moreover, the upper class asserted its power over the lower class by appropriating alternative sexualities for its own moral edification. The creation of systems of knowledge by sociologists in the slums also suggests penetration by structures of power. Heap’s work would have been greatly improved by engaging Michel Foucault on these interactions.[13]

Slumming also seems to engage discourses about of systems of knowledge and otherization. In particular, the book reminds me most of Edward Said’s Orientalism and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra. Orientalism describes the processes by which Europe “invented” the Orient and how the Orient in turn came to “define Europe as its contrasting image.”[14] Creating that Other by which Europe defined itself reified European cultural superiority in the same way that the upper class realized their superiority against the foil of the “other” neighborhoods. Additionally, the study of the Orient by so-called experts yielded systems of knowledge “for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”[15] In the same fashion, Heap observed the systems of knowledge generated both by reformers (who genuinely did seek to control the slums) and the sociological “experts” who sought to understand slumming.

In a more abstract way, Baudrillard’s argument about Disneyland parallels Slumming because Heap argued that the nightclub culture fundamentally shaped American understandings of race and gender. Baudrillard argues that Disneyland is so fantastic that it convinces tourists that the world outside of Disneyland is real and acceptable; however, the fantastic nature of Disneyland seems to obscure that Disneyland is the real America and embodies the purest form of America’s cultural values and the simulacra of American capitalism.[16] Heap's descriptions of urban nightlife mirror Baudrillard's claims. The nightclubs were so tantalizing that the well-to-dos left convinced that their lives were superior; instead, I would argue that real American values were being propagated by the nightclub scene. If the elites truly believed that their “normal” reality was superior to the nightclub scene, then Heap could have easily argued that the hyperreality of nightlife was truly indicative of modernity. Where Heap succeeds is by showing the push-back and cultural transactions between the upper and lower classes, and showing how the inhabitants of the slums (both geographical and ideological) successfully mapped the social landscape.

[1] 7.
[2] 2.
[3] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995).
[4] Heap, 233.
[5] 102.
[6] 19.
[7] 155.
[8] 156.
[9] 190.
[10] 232.
[11] See Burton W. Peretti, Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and also from the University of Chicago Press, Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2009).
[12] 102.
[13] For example, Foucault argues that structures of power use sciences like anatomy and biology as political weapons for control of populations. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (Vintage, 1990), 139.
[14] Edward W Said, Orientalism (Princeton, NJ: Vintage, 1979), 1–2.
[15] 3.
[16] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 12.