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TYLER STOVALL Black Community, Black Spectacle Performance and Race in Transatlantic Perspective We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties . . . Let them only see us, while We wear the mask. —Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Lyrics of Lovely Life” This quotation from Paul Laurence Dunbar suggests that African American life in general is often a performance given before an alien, hostile, and uncomprehending audience. One reading of it implies that blacks in white society have been forced to disguise their real feelings and nature, instead acting out a series of stereotypes to please their oppressors. But the ‹nal stanza, “We wear the mask,” prompts one to ask where the mask ends and the “real” face begins. Rather than emphasizing authenticity, or viewing blackness as an unchanging essence, this perspective suggests that racial identity is itself constituted through performance, shifting in myriad ways along with the relations between blacks and the wider society they inhabit and help shape. Blacks thus create not only themselves, but also their white interlocutors, through the conscious and unconscious acts that constitute performative strategies.1 In a recent essay, bell hooks distinguished between two types of black performance: performance as complicity in racial oppression for the sake of survival, and performance as ritual play. The ‹rst involves a display of blackness as a consumer product for a larger, nonblack audience, whereas in the second case black performance functions as a liberatory practice that 221 emphasizes the creation and articulation of languages of identity.2 These two aspects of black performance cannot be separated, but are constantly interacting and changing over time. To adapt Dunbar’s metaphor, there is no hard-and-fast distinction between the face of af‹rmative performance and the stylized mask worn for outsiders; each shapes the other. Consequently , following hooks, any approach to black performance must be grounded in a broader, antiessentialist perspective, one that privileges continual interplay between performances in different contexts over notions of authentic black culture.3 I wish to adapt hooks’s insights on the two faces of black performance by underscoring the role of expressive culture in the creation of community solidarities and traditions. In this perspective, one can develop a kind of insider/outsider motif, opposing performance for others to performance as a ritualistic act that binds a group of people together. This practice subverts the traditional pattern of black/white relations in Western societies, making the outsiders insiders and vice versa. In exploring the nature of black community from both nationalist and diasporic approaches, the role of performance in creating and politicizing them must be acknowledged.4 This essay will discuss black performance in Paris during the era of the Harlem Renaissance. It will consider black performance from the standpoint of both community solidarity and voyeuristic spectacle, exploring the differences and intersections of both. Paris during the Jazz Age has long been famed for its exciting avant-garde culture in a variety of ‹elds ranging from literature to drama to music.5 Although many have commented upon the spectacular career of Josephine Baker, making her a symbol of “the crazy years,” the central role of other African American performers in the creative spirit of interwar Paris has often been overlooked. At the same time, the contribution of Paris to the history of black performance has generally not received due consideration. I will argue here that Jazz Age Paris represented an extreme example of both black community and black spectacle, therefore casting an interesting and instructive light on the interrelationship of the two. Yet Paris was not an exceptional island; rather, it shared a key role with New York, Chicago, and other centers of black modernity in the early twentieth century. This transatlantic example of black performance will hopefully demonstrate the manifold uses of black culture and the many ways in which it exempli‹ed the anxieties of the interwar years.6 BLACK CULTURAL TRAFFIC 222 Black Modernity, Black Performance Throughout the history of the African diaspora, performance has been both an expression of black consciousness and the product of the interactions between blacks and the dominant white culture.7 On the one hand it has been rooted in and shaped by African traditions. On the other, blacks have adapted these traditions to the radically different conditions they encountered in the New World, from the era of slavery to the present...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780472025459
Related ISBN
9780472068401
MARC Record
OCLC
588869387
Pages
416
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-08
Language
English
Open Access
No
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