Here’s a sharp short poem about an alienated performer written by a little-known Afro-American poet who slots in between Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, Raymond G. Dandridge.* Given that most 20th century Afro-American poets get placed in the “Harlem Renaissance” shelf-section, it’s notable that all three of these Black poets have connections with Ohio. Dandridge lived his life in Cincinnati, Dunbar was from Dayton, and Hughes went to high school and started writing poetry in Cleveland.
Unlike Dunbar and Hughes, Dandridge never left Cincinnati, but “Zalka Peetruza (Who Was Christened Lucy Jane)” made it into some anthologies, and that’s where I came upon it in the early years of the Parlando Project. It’s a momentary portrait of a woman who has taken on a foreign sounding name to further her persona as an exotic dancer. Dandridge says she “danced, near nude,” but the poem doesn’t more fully explain the context. Moderns may wonder if this is a tawdry stripper kind of gig, but my ignorance of what Dandridge would have known and possibly seen as a young man in early 20th century Ohio, doesn’t give me enough of a clue.
The 19th and Early 20th century in America did have scandalous but putatively artistic dancing by scantily clad women, often playing exotic roles from myths, legends, or even the Bible. So, I just don’t know. What Dandridge does make plain is that our Zalka Peetruza is doubly alienated. She’s not presenting herself as Lucy Jane, a domestic Afro-American, and there’s no sign that she has agency or enjoyment in the eroticism of her act.** There are levels upon levels of alienation here: she’s pretending to not be an Afro-American, she’s performing without joy in the performance, without any understanding of her by the audience, and all this is in the situation of America’s racial caste system and overt early 20th century racism.
To illustrate the strange alienation of black dancers before white audiences, I was able to find some pictures of the Afro-American performers at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club whose audience was “whites only.”
Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” has become a famous general statement of Afro-American alienation. Dandridge’s poem is more specific and focused, but it gains its own power from that.
But wait, there’s one more level of alienation to deal with here. Raymond Dandridge was paralyzed from polio as a young man. He wrote this poem about a dancer when he himself was bedridden, able only to write after learning to use his left hand. From this stance, this situation, he wrote a poem about all the ways that dancer was alienated from being an authentic artist in America, and the moment of “shame” in that failure.
A newspaper illustration of how Dandridge wrote. Oddly, the illustrator shows him using his right hand.
There are three ways to hear my performance of “Zalka Peetruza (Who Was Christened Lucy Jane)” that I’ve re-released as part of our observance of National Poetry Month this April. Above is a new lyric video, and then below (for some) is a graphic audio player. If you just want to hear the audio of my performance and musical setting for Dandridge’s poem, and don’t see the player, there’s also this highlighted link.
*Silly things I wonder about sometimes. There are two other notable Black Dandridges. One that even comes up in web searches for Raymond G. is Ray E. Dandridge who was a slick fielding and hot hitting Negro Leagues 3rd baseman who was just a bit too old to benefit from the post Jackie Robinson integration of baseball. He did spend time in the high minors past his prime playing years with the Minneapolis Millers, who played a few blocks from where I write this. And then there’s Dorothy Dandridge, who was a mid-20th century Afro-American singer, dancer, and actor. I idly wonder if our poet was related to either. Ray E. was from Virginia, but Dorothy was from Cleveland.
**Nor does the poem’s speaker, who is perhaps Dandridge himself, admit to any positives to Zalka’s dance. The implications may be that he does not have, or that he’s not willing to talk about any erotic charge received from it — but I also suspect that there are elements here of the sexual exploitations of enslavement making the dance situation shame-prone. However, Dandridge is not shaming the dancer, only noting that she feels shame. The poem doesn’t tell us what took Zalka/Lucy Jane to this career, or even who the audience or employer is. I can only speculate.