Vintage photos and performance by Madeline “Sahji” Jackson.
A performance by Princess D’Orsay .
Recently, mid–twentieth century Black burlesque has piqued my interest. I am fascinated with the night life of the time period, particularly — the rich cultural demographic of Harlem, Manhattan, New York. I view the women of the burlesque art form as pioneers of fearless feminine sexual expression; Black women, in particular, because of the overt racial discrimination and stereotypes of the era. In my brief viewing of films of the era, I have taken notice of the intricacies in the performances, and the layers of skill intertwined throughout the dances are quite captivating. If I may say, I have had a few interesting conversations about the comparability of burlesque performers and so called “strippers” of the modern day era; I think the most highlighted point referenced in all three dialogues, is that stripping is an evolution of burlesque, (a theory which I reject) which in turn caters to a modern audience who would be dismayed and dissatisfied at the prospect of women dancing in only partial nudity. In my opinion, burlesque and stripping have certain similarities, but they are largely incomparable and should be seen as two completely separate entities. I consider burlesque, circa 1950’s an art form in a theatrical setting, and I consider stripping, pornographic adult entertainment in a setting of monetary exchange for services rendered. There are indeed many skilled strippers who perform wonderfully and have mastered incredible dance routines, though I know patrons of strip clubs might not particularly care about the skill involved as much as the removal of clothes in those specific settings. I have not yet extensively researched burlesque, but I have found that its origin was in England, circa late 1830’s in the Victorian era.
2 AM eyes look up and down the block; only the fire from a glass pipe can be seen. After the last inhale, the blue flame disappears like magic. Like vampires they retreat into pitch darkness. High rise buildings tower over women of the night with torn stockings. The bitter cold outside combined with strong cigarette smoke, causes redness of the eyes. An old man drinks a bottle of beer, and in-between his raspy lament he cries. The 2 train stops and continues on its way to 149th street. The homeless seek warmth in building hallways so they can sleep. Children of the night in crowded bedrooms from tiny eyes peep. Snow starts to fall and covers all like a white shawl. Heroin addicts inject black tar that would make the devil crawl. Empty buses roll down White Plains road with lights off in ghostlike form. A hole–in–the–wall bar offers a strange silence with unfriendly faces that are listless. The darkness stalks from under the subway overpass; the sound of old train tracks are haunting. Snow keeps falling.
Large rats move in the shadows undeterred and stake their claim. A woman talks to herself loudly, because she is in pain. The wind that blows on the train platforms chills the bones; it is cold. Tired eyes cast off the thousand yard star. Eyes gaze at the lights of an approaching train and are caught in the glare. The gritty winters are harsh, and even the poor find a way to have at least one decent coat to wear. The snow that falls over the Bronx River with bordering trees, makes it look like a winter wonderland. A white pigeon sits atop of an old Lower Manhattan street light. Lady Liberty stands still over New York Harbor with a torch in her hand.
Oh, what summers we’ve spent together New York! Your city nights are vibrant and bustling with life. Your bright lights intrigue my sense of sight, and capture my imagination! I will take a stroll through central park in the warmth of the sun, and enjoy the vastness of the lush greenery. I will taste of your expansive cuisine and drink to my heart’s delight! I will walk the city blocks and recapture the fond memories of the past. I will leave the cares of the world behind, and jump on the 2 line, to look down on familiar city streets and reminisce. O New York, you are the city that I truly miss! Let me immerse myself in your culture and find myself again; being with you in the summer is like reconnecting with an old and trusted friend.