The posh and the ruck intermingle in this snapshot of a night late in the Harlem Renaissance.
The setting is the Faggots Ball, Harlem's annual drag extravaganza. It is 1930, and the Depression is hard on the land, making quick work of anyone's renaissance, but the partying is equally hard. One attendee spotlighted by novelist Neihart (Hey, Joe, 1996, etc.) is A’Leila Walker, heiress to a beauty-products fortune, a black woman christened Harlem’s “Joy Goddess” by Langston Hughes. Walker threw the most lavish and decadent parties, festivals of booze and sex that gave some the “mistaken impression that A’Leila and her high-living gang were an irrelevant sideshow that might undermine the heavy intellectual and spiritual progress the race had made during the Renaissance.” On the contrary, asserts Neihart, this louche crowd—“the party girls, the witty boys, the bootleggers and gamblers, the sheiks, vamps, and man-eaters”—were a counterpoint to the likes of W.E.B. DuBois: a Renaissance is many things, and the hard work of creation can produce a poem, a song, or simply “an ephemeral moment, a party.” Their unbuttoned revels also reflected a burgeoning trade in sex, and Neihart uses another partygoer, a down-low crossdresser given to rough amusements named Jennie June, as a mouthpiece to explore the growth of prostitution and casual sex in New York City, in particular its relation to sports. “This commitment to sexual abandon, reckless games, and after-hours carousing,” he concludes, was “a way to keep that feminine trap, the family, the nice home, at bay.” Neihart is good with the quick character sketch—Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, various gangsters, and A'Leila's progressive-philanthropist mother, Madame C.J. Walker, all get their due—and he draws a memorable picture of the evolving “down-low” scene in African-American New York from 1880 to 1930.
Written with the same brisk energy as the life it portrays.