Black History Month on Travalanche: 2019

Children’s fashion contest, Harlem, photographed 1928 by Otis Butler

Before I came upon the caption, I imagined the girls in this photo were lining up for an audition or a dance class (most of them seem to be turning out one foot in a classic dance position), but a pageant will serve just as nicely. Most of the girls don’t look too happy; I imagine their stage mothers fussing over them, and combing the snarls out of their hair in preparation for the big day and the big photo. Someone seems to be forgetting that smiles are normally part of the equation. But no matter. I see a few faces transcending the misery of the moment and those are our likely show folk of tomorrow.

I love this picture so much. I’ve literally been hanging on to it for months trying to figure out what to do with it.  I think it is because I find myself relating to this bunch first as kids, then as performers. The fact that they are African American kids in 1920s Harlem, and girls, anchors it in a fascinating specificity, and even (for me) an exoticism, but it dawns on me last. The similarities precede the differences. That’s what vaudeville did, and show business does. It presents people, every kind of people. The diversity of kinds of people generates novelty but repeated exposure brings out those qualities we all share…”hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer”, as Shakespeare put it.

Over time this blog has inadvertently become an exercise in discovering that. With vaudeville as a jumping-off point, I created categories for each type of act, and then (because it mattered so much in vaudeville, and yes, because it also helps with marketing, guiding pairs of eyes) I created categories for “identity” (racial, ethnic, sexual, etc). And the daily discipline of writing about people, I feel, has changed me somehow, it’s made me relate intensely to them, to identify with them, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, whatever they do. And what I’ve come to learn is that I have much more in common with, say, a Chinese juggler than with a fellow WASP who has no time for show business.

So I add to the “African American Interest” category throughout the year, but generally try to add even more during Black History Month, which is every February. Some years I manage to add more than others. This year, thanks to my recent encounter with a cache of vintage TV Guides, I’ll be adding way more than usual, most of them having to do with African American performers on television.

So from over 300 posts on the topic, the section will grow closer to 400. It’s not opportunism that motivates this. If anything, this is an underperforming area of this blog. I get the sense that readers might prefer African American sources on such matters, and also maybe that white readers skip over it, assuming it has nothing to do with them. The first is understandable, the second is not.

Nor am I patting myself on the back. With 4600+ posts on the blog, and African Americans constituting 17% of the population, proportional representation in this case ought to be something closer to 800 posts. On top of this, of our 300+ posts in the African American interest section, a certain amount are about white blackface performers, racism being an undoubted topic of African American interest. So the actual number of posts celebrating African Americans is still smaller. In our defense, we write mostly about historical show biz, when African American inclusion in the theatrical arts was much lower, but we can still do better, and the realization is illuminating. We always think we’re doing something, but we’re rarely doing as much as we think we are. Conveniently, we tell ourselves we do what we can…but maybe things will only get better when we do what we can’t. At any rate, we dedicate ourselves, and this blog, to being better. During Black History Month, and throughout the year, you can find the relevant posts here.