Performing in a Zoo

Located in Harlem, the Club Deluxe was an intimate supper club owned by Jack Johnson, the first African American to be the heavyweight boxing champ. He sold the club to a gangster, Owney Madden, who renamed it the Cotton Club. Madden’s primary purpose in buying the club was to sell alcohol during the Prohibition Era.

The Cotton Club went “unnoticed” by the police largely because it became a favorite nightspot of the elite of New York. Entrance to the club was expensive.

The Cotton Club featured live music from its house band and invited performers. Duke Ellington was the house band leader for close to four years. It was during this time that many of the Ellington arrangements first were performed.

Many of the performers we now associate with the Great American Songbook were showcased at the Cotton Club. These included Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Sammy Davis Jr. All were African American. Because of its location in Harlem and its introduction of African Americans to white audiences, we think of the Cotton Club as a model for racial integration. In fact, the Cotton Club would not admit people of color as guests. Performers were restricted to the stage. The décor of the club was blatantly racist.

Langston Hughes, a prominent African American activist called the Cotton Club a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites. He described the atmosphere as akin to what would be found in a zoo.

Rather than supporting an opening of society, the Cotton Club had another unintended consequence. The clubs owned by African Americans in Harlem couldn’t compete with the Cotton Club for entertainers.

When we think of the Cotton Club, we imagine it to be a place where integration got a foothold in society. But that was not the case. It did give a voice to African American performers while asking them to showcase their talent in a racist environment.

Just imagine being asked to perform in an environment where your talent is appreciated, but as a person you are treated as inferior. What personal humiliation must the great stars of this era have faced in the environmental of the Cotton Club? With the exclusivity that has now infected professional football and basketball, might they be this generation’s Cotton Club?

* * *

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen,
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.” – Langston Hughes (Poet)

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