The cynical side of me cringes when I hear of another historic Black first. On any given day, the Black press recognizes the first Black person to do this, and the first Black person to do that. Black History Month is famous for recognizing Black firsts. As absurd as the Black first movement is, I acknowledge there are moments when Black firsts creates moments of joy, pride, excitement, wonder, and encouragement.
The most recent Black first was the appointment of Ketanji Brown Jackson. I jumped back on my cynic cycle asking why is this such a big deal; shouldn’t we be discussing why it took so long for a Black woman to join the Supreme Court of the United States? However, I quickly softened after seeing all those little Black school girls so inspired seeing someone who looks like them heading to the Supreme Court that they wrote letters and sent crayon drawings expressing their pride and joy while vowing to be just like her when they grow up. Firsts can be both ridiculous and empowering.
I stumbled on a new book representing the history of a Black female first. Initially, my Mr. Cynic alter ego told me what a stupid topic the book ‘Tanqueray’ is. Who wants to read about the first Black burlesque dancer on Time Square? But hey, don’t judge me. It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. Something about learning about a Black burlesque dancer got my attention, so off into the book I went.
It didn’t take long to discover the most amazing part of the story, which had nothing to do with the Black woman or burlesque. It was the author.
I wrote a book about 10 years ago and just knew my experience with my character could never be duplicated. Not only did the author of ‘Tanqueray’ share his journey creating the book, it was damn near the same author experience I had with my character. The comparisons are freaky.
The author went through the same events with Tanqueray as I did with Melvin Wade, and the similarities between the two characters are remarkable. They both lived unconventional lives outside of Black cultural norms; they both were involved in untraditional industries; they both are fantastic story tellers who can talk without interruption for hours going from one topic to the next in no particular order; they both reached the pinnacle of success for a very short period of time and was left with hardly any money by the time they hit their 60s. The author also met Tanqueray by happenstance just as I did with Melvin. There are even more similarities that convinced me right in the introduction of the book that I should give this book a try.
The Tanqueray story is remarkable. It tells of a lady, now in her late 70s, sharing stories from her troubled early childhood near Albany, NY, to arriving in NYC before the age of 20 and carving out a fabulous life for herself working in various adult entertainment businesses. You can’t help but to hang on every word because the stories are so colorful to the point of sounding unbelievable even though you know they aren’t. You can’t make this stuff up!
Stephanie Johnson’s life as Tanqueray, the first black burlesque dancer on Times Square, would be expected to shed light on the sex entertainment industry in New York starting in the 60s, and it does, but not in the detail you’d expect. Johnson wasn’t a very sexual being, but she was smart, talented, driven, and a people person. She landed great jobs and great friends from all walks of life. The stories are as funny as they are sad, and Johnson keeps on plowing through life events with adventure and pizazz.
This isn’t a Black Erotica book although you can easily read between the lines and imagine some of the stuff she saw and did. The book is really about what was going on in the head of Tanqueray as she moves from Albany to NYC, club to club, job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, and from young lady to old lady. It’s a fun read that gets a little emotional in parts as I couldn’t help but to get pulled into her circumstances.
Just like Melvin Wade, the later days of Stephanie Johnson’s life was pretty lonely mainly because she valued and protected her personal space and was very selective on who got close to her. The two of them are only a couple years apart in age and for the first time ever I connected with the author and the methods he used to get Tanqueray’s story because it’s practically the exact same process I employed to make sense of the stories Melvin Wade told to me.
Would you rather read about the first Black man who owned an industrial factory on the Chester riverfront or read about the first Black woman to perform burlesque on Times Square? A good story is usually the only deciding factor when searching for something to read in the summer. ‘Tanqueray’ will tickle your fancy in more ways than one. It’s a heartwarming human story that’s laced with humor and human drama, just perfect for those days lounging poolside or on the beach.
Be the first among your friends to read ‘Tanqueray.’ That’s a first worth celebrating.
(‘Tanqueray’ by Brandon Stanton)
p.s. When searching for the correct spelling of the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson’s first name, I entered ‘Brown Jackson’ and hit enter. To my surprise, Jackson Browne were some of the top search results. I guess she’s not yet a famous enough Black first to out Internet the famous folk rock musician and songwriter.