Lori Brooks

Lori Brooks is a postdoctoral fellow in African & African American Studies at Fordham University and an adjunct professor in Africana Studies at Barnard College in New Yawk, New Yawk. She publishes in the areas of popular music (ragtime), vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, the history of comedy, African American & women’s history, masculinity and culture and gender/racial formations.

The “Red Hot Mama” in Black and White: Teddy Peters as “The Mae West of Harlem” 
From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, black blues singer-comedienne Teddye Peters received repeated public warnings from the managers of white singer and film actress Mae West to cease billing herself as “The Harlem Mae West.” The irony was that Mae West crafted her seemingly singular, sexually-assertive performance persona from what she observed by African American female singers and stage performers and the gender performances, or “drag,” of queer performance subcultures. The daughter of first-generation black vaudevillians, Peters built a unique stage personae by framing herself as a “classic blueswoman” but moving into genres extending beyond her talents as a blues singer. She began her career as singer and emcee on Chicago’s South Side, moving between both coasts as a performer in the black New York musical scene and the culturally-diverse night-club scene in San Francisco. As a night-club emcee, blues and novelty song singer, and male impersonator, she gained a reputation for her bawdy humor, suggestive songs, and pliability as a dancer that belied her 200-pound frame.
But celebrity at West’s level was unavailable to Peters and unlike West, her name is largely unrecognized today. I am interested in the small number of African-American women who moved in male-dominated genres of entertainment, especially as they used comedy in their work as masters of ceremonies, singers, and dancers in the midcentury night-club scene. I pose the question of how the “silence,” gaps and inconsistencies of the archive might encourage productive interrogations about the personae created by female singer-comediennes. And how the acts of “borrowing,” theft, adaptation, and acts of stubborn reclamation served as a field for the constitution of race and sexuality within popular performance. My talk, then, is about the strangeness of the racial appropriation and reappropriation of the “red hot mama” persona between these two female performers, West and Peters, and the space of popular performance as a silent (often antagonistic) medium of communication. How does one “take back” the stylized performative elements of black female sexuality from a white performer who herself has not only appropriated this sexuality but trademarked it in the popular commercial sphere? And what might these cross-racial stylistic thefts and counter-thefts tell us about the relations of power that shaped the performance worlds of midcentury black and white women in the U.S.?