by Joseph Plaster
“When I walked in [the Peabody Library], I was like, ‘This is gonna go down in history.’ What I like about it so much is that it’s gonna be documented. So years down the line you’ll be able to tell people, ‘If you want to learn about ballroom, you can go the Peabody Library and find out about it,’ and it’ll be here.”
– Legendary Mother Monique West
“One of the exciting things about the Peabody Ballroom Experience is that it’s building on the dance program that’s here at the Peabody, it’s giving students a chance to learn voguing. And for voguers to learn a little bit about their classic ways. And there’s the film program that is learning about ballroom. So there is this mixture of the arts and creativity, and there’s an intersectionality of talent and creativity.”
– Icon Londyn Mugler
The George Peabody Library is one of Baltimore’s architectural jewels. Opened in 1878, the opulent “Cathedral of Books” features five tiers of ornamental cast-iron balconies rising dramatically to a massive skylight sixty feet above the floor. It’s a fully functioning library, but the vast majority of the collection was acquired by Baltimore’s white male elite in the late 1800s and reflects their tastes and prejudices. Often reserved for donor events or weddings for wealthy white patrons, the Library is operated by Johns Hopkins University, a white-dominated, elite educational institution, and located in a wealthy white neighborhood in one of the country’s most racially segregated cities.
Within this context, it was historic when the George Peabody Library partnered last year with Baltimore’s ballroom scene, a community and network made up primarily of queer and transgender people of color. Recently popularized by the television show Pose, ballroom culture consists of chosen families, or “houses,” and the competitive balls they produce. Ballroom, cultural critic madison moore argues, has for decades been a space “where queer people of color have removed themselves from the gendered and racist politics of everyday life and created their own unique social worlds, allowing them to live out alternative versions of sexuality and gender performance.”
As Curator in Public Humanities for the Hopkins libraries, I worked with the ballroom community to create a collaborative public humanities project we called the “Peabody Ballroom Experience.” The first year of the project—which featured film screenings, panel discussions, dance workshops, oral history interviews, and the production of a documentary film—culminated in April 2019, when ballroom leaders threw an epic ball competition at the George Peabody Library. Many ballroom artists felt they were making a political statement by staging a meaningful ritual—one created by queer people of color to insist on the value of their lives—in a historically white-dominated space.
“This space was not open to people that look much like ourselves, who were black for one, and queer for another,” Icon Londyn Mugler announced to members of the ballroom community who gathered at the Library before the competition. “You look above us and you see this glass ceiling. We are breaking glass ceilings tonight.” Icon Jack Mizrahi, one of the best-known commentators in ballroom, took over to announce the competition categories. “Amongst all these historic collections, the Peabody gets a firsthand look at ballroom. The culture. The history. The legacy we have created.” Mizrahi pointed to the judges in the second floor Library stacks. “Don’t touch the books! You have to be careful of those ghosts. You especially have to be careful of the racist ghosts.”
This post introduces the process I developed for collaborating with ballroom artists in a conservative academic setting. Like many elite institutions, Johns Hopkins tends to vacillate between viewing its black neighbors as a potential danger to be policed—earlier this year the university created its own private police force—or, at times, the beneficiaries of charity. I argue that academics too often approach public history as another form of charity. We create knowledge in the academy and then bestow it on those who, we imply, do not have knowledge of their own. The Peabody Ballroom Experience took a different approach. It cultivated an exchange of knowledge between Johns Hopkins and Baltimore’s ballroom community, bringing together faculty, students, and ballroom leaders as partners in education. Crucially, the project approached performance as a repository for history and knowledge, expanding what “public history” can look and feel like.
I moved to Baltimore in the summer of 2018 for a new position funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As Curator in Public Humanities for the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries, I was tasked with conducting original research in the university’s archival, library, and museum collections and interpreting my findings for the public through exhibits, courses, lectures, and other collections-based innovations. I knew that I wanted to create programs to address racial and economic segregation. The means of doing so was introduced to me on one of my first days in the city, when a Lyft driver asked if I was “in the life” and told me to check out Club Bunns, the epicenter of Baltimore’s ballroom culture. I’d just been to Berlin, where friend and scholar madison moore introduced me to European ballroom culture. I was blown away by the talent and creativity I experienced at these opulent, larger-than-life affairs. When I walked into the extravagant George Peabody Library, with its dramatic atrium and cast-iron balconies, it seemed to cry out for ballroom performance. I attended a “mini-ball” at Club Bunns, reached out to ballroom leaders via Facebook, and began conceiving a project that would turn the opulent space over for a celebration of black queer aesthetics and filiation.
My first challenge was to address the often exploitative relationship between Johns Hopkins University and Baltimore’s black communities. Hopkins has a long history of predatory research practices with respect to black communities in Baltimore. Examples include the case of Henrietta Lacks or the Kennedy Krieger lead studies. University campus expansions via eminent domain have further damaged black communities. Ballroom is also having a “mainstream” moment. The past few years have seen television shows like Pose and My House and events at major art museums. One of the dangers of mainstreaming is that outsiders can co-opt and appropriate a culture.
I worked to design a project that would not perpetuate these dynamics. I first brought together a core advisory group of ballroom leaders to lead the project. The core advisory group was made up of the Iconic Sebastian Escada; Legendary Mother Marco Blahnik of the House of Manolo Blahnik; Londyn Smith De Richelieu (Mother Miyake Mugler); Legendary Enrique St. Laurent; and Keith Ebony Holt, Father of The House of Ebony. I then created and shared a list of “guiding principles” with advisory group members. It read: 1) any project should be based on a two-way exchange of knowledge between the university and the community; 2) community members should shape research questions and frame interpretation from the beginning of the project; 3) any project should generate tangible outcomes for the community, including financial compensation; and 4) any project will approach performance as a system of learning, storing, and transmitting knowledge.
I worked with the committee to create a door policy that prioritized the ballroom community in order to avoid turning a meaningful ritual into a spectacle for white observers. Because of the historical relationship between Baltimore police, Johns Hopkins security, and black Baltimore, we also decided to hire members of the ballroom community to provide all security for the ball.
I also worked with the core planning group to interpret Peabody Library collections through ballroom performance traditions. At balls, participants compete, or “walk,” in a variety of categories, including performance, runway, and realness. Each Peabody ball category was inspired in some way by the Library. The pairing of ballroom and the Library at first seemed incongruous. Few of the books were authored by people of color. But one of the most powerful aspects of ballroom is its ability to adopt elements of mainstream culture—even those elements that are built on unjust privilege—and reinterpret them as life-affirming for queer people of color. The pairing also enabled us to foreground ballroom as a repository of history and knowledge. “The Peabody is a library, a source of information, a source of history,” Father James Icon told me in an oral history. “Ballroom is a place of history. There’s history in ballroom. There’s knowledge in ballroom. So to combine the two was a great idea and it was a successful idea, because it emulated what ballroom is.”
To create the categories, library curators began by presenting a selection of the existing collections to the advisory committee at workshops and informal gatherings, usually over dinner. Materials included rare books dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century, ranging from a copy of Paradise Lost to Edward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. The core planning group then discussed how to interpret these books through ballroom performance conventions, ultimately creating the twelve runway, vogue, and realness categories that made up the ballroom competition categories. We advertised these categories on a Facebook event page, on the project webpage, through Facebook Live videos, and through ballroom houses in Baltimore and beyond . Competitors then researched the books and categories to prepare their costumes and performances for the ball. This approach built on existing ballroom conventions, in which competitors are often asked to “do research” before they compete. Core planning group member Enrique St. Laurent appreciated that people “have to do research” to prepare for the ball. “So, when you’re researching, you’re doing what? You’re reading the book…When you’re reading, you’re learning—but by accident, so to speak.”
I also created a partnership between veteran voguer Marquis Revlon Clanton and the Peabody BFA Dance program. Clanton taught several vogue workshops for undergraduate dance students, who then performed at the ball. He began his workshops by talking about the “history behind the movements,” he said. “It comes from New York City. It started off with poses in the magazine. You know how when a model is doing a photo shoot, and the camera and the photographer saying ‘pose?’ It started with just poses first, and then the poses created movement and create flow, and then from there, it created the form.” History is important “because anytime you have a history, you have something to follow. You have something to look up to, and then you also have something to call your own if you are a part of that culture. At that point when it started, it was a place where we call it our own because other places we couldn’t call our own. So you take that with pride.”
Students in the Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies MA program documented George Peabody Library workshops, advisory committee meetings, and profiled several ballroom performers. They created a ten-minute film about the project, which appears in this post, and are in the process of editing a longer film about Baltimore’s ballroom scene. I also conducted a dozen oral histories with ballroom participants, which will be made a permanent part of the Peabody collection.
This process culminated with the April 13, 2019 ball. Marquis Clanton and Peabody BFA Dance Program students kicked off the ball with a choreographed performance. Hopkins film students shot the ball. “Ballroom Throwbacks” also filmed the ball. Jack Mizrahi opened up the competition, choreographing competitors’ participation in the twelve vogue, runway, and realness categories.
For the sake of space, I present just one of the categories that made up the competition. The “Executive Realness” category asks that competitors bring it to the runway in the style of an executive. madison moore argues in his book Fabulous that runway can only be understood within the context of white supremacy and homophobia. When one is “doing fabulousness” in public, “you could be a target,” which means that simply walking on the street can be dangerous. “In this context,” moore argues, “when walking is elevated to the level of performance, what it underscores is survival and assertion—taking space, not waiting to perhaps one day be given it.” This is why I appreciated the Executive Realness category Marco Blahnic wrote for the Peabody ball: “Executives don’t always have to wear a suit. Tonight we simply want to see your interpretation of an executive. However you must have information about the Peabody Library as you plan to buy the library.” The category asks that competitors claim and “own” a historically white-dominated space.
Inspired by Apple’s decision to refurbish and open a store in Washington DC’s Carnegie Library, competitor Janol Balenciaga arrived at the ball in a suit and a copy of a faux-Wall Street Journal article he created that read, “Apple CEO Janol Balenciaga will Transform Peabody Library into an Apple Store.” The paper features a photo of Balenciaga, in a suit and bow tie, speaking at a lectern. Janol told me in an oral history that he conducted extensive research to compete. “I got to learn about the Peabody. I learned that it is one of the premier libraries in Baltimore, and really one of the premier libraries in the country. I learned more about Johns Hopkins. I’m a history buff in general.”
I asked Janal how he thought about the politics of race and sexuality as he was competing at a space founded after the Civil War. “Honestly it felt like this is what Reconstruction should’ve looked like the first time around,” he told me. “That was what I was literally thinking.” He told me he’s had the privilege to earn degrees. His job as a school counselor “is solely focused on getting young, black and brown, poor kids into college. So the fact that I was able to be in a space where all my identities were once not welcomed, it was kind of like a moment where I was like, ‘damn, I’m sticking it to the man right now.’ Like this is what it’s all about. This is what ballroom is about. This is what being a queer, black man is about. Showing up in spaces where we’re not always welcome or where we’re not the norm. That ball was a symbol of our community becoming the norm.”
Balenciaga summed up many of the goals of the Peabody Ballroom Experience in his oral history. “The purpose of ballroom is to truly love who you are as a black and brown, queer or trans person,” he told me. “It’s also a space where you are challenged to grow. I took away the purpose [of the ball] to bridge the gap and start conversations on how Johns Hopkins can show up to be a greater ally for our community, recognizing the privilege that the institution has and knowing a lot of the challenges that our community faces. Knowing that there are a lot of challenges that continue to stifle our community, I really felt like the institution wanted to be an active change agent in that.”
Dr. Joseph Plaster is
Curator in Public Humanities for the Sheridan Libraries and Assistant Research
Scholar at the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
His research and teaching focuses on collaborative public humanities,
performance studies, oral history, and queer studies. Plaster completed his PhD
in American Studies at Yale University. His dissertation explores the social
trauma inflicted on queer, marginally housed youth in U.S. “tenderloin”
districts and the ways they work to reinterpret and transform those realities
through religious ritual, performative storytelling, kinship networks, and the
arts. His work has appeared in Radical History Review and has been
supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and
fellowships at The New York Public Library and The Graduate Center of the City
University of New York.
 madison moore, Fabulous: the Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale University Press, 2018), 189.
 bell hooks writes of Paris is Burning: “Much of the film’s focus on pageantry takes the ritual of the black drag ball and makes it spectacle. Ritual is that ceremonial act that carries with it meaning and significance beyond what appears, while spectacle functions primarily as entertaining dramatic display. Those of us who have grown up in a segregated black setting where we participated in diverse pageants and rituals know that those elements of a given ritual that are empowering and subversive may not be readily visible to an outsider looking in. Hence it is easy for white observers to depict black rituals as spectacle.” bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Routledge, 2015), 150.
 moore, Fabulous, 176.
More Facebook Lives, if you want to link to several: https://www.facebook.com/londyn.derichelieu/videos/10157012081941101/
Londyn Mugler is a FORCE!