“Is Dwight, White?!” or Black Transgressions and the Preeminent Performance of Whiteness
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314 D. Soyini Madison “Is Dwight, White?!” or Black Transgressions and the Preeminent Performance of Whiteness At one of the many memorial services for Dwight, a beloved African American female student of his, Professor Renee Alexander-Craft,1 stepped up to the podium and told the story of how she shared with her dearest friends or “sisterhood” a visit with Dwight in the hospital, during his last days. Renee softly and graciously told the audience how she described to her friends (who had never met him) the way cancer had transformed Dwight’s body. She then slowly looked up, with a gentle smile, and said one of them suddenly cried out: “You’ve talked about Dwight all these years—­ is Dwight, white?!” I retell Renee’s story in this essay because it is both emblematic and ironic as it reflects how Dwight taught, researched, and lived a racial politics that refused placid notions of looking past racial difference but, instead, was always strategically marking difference in the service of racial justice inside the academy, across fieldwork in Asia, the Middle East, and the streets of Chicago as well as prisons and death penalty sites across this nation. For Dwight, the realities of racial identity in all these domains were a serious matter. In the tradition of African American struggle, and as an antiracist activist, Dwight would be considered a “race-­ man” putting his body on the line in perilous territories at home and abroad and in the vortices of ideological struggles inside and outside the academy. It is ironic that those of us who are racially and often defiantly black, who “when and where we enter our race enters with us,”2 and who talked about Dwight “all the time,” often forgot he was white. While Dwight was always aware of his own white privilege and his status as a white male, it ironically made his racial phenotype rescind under the mighty weight of his racial principles. In the late 1980s at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, after a riveting presentation of his ethnographic research with Chicago critical responses  315  street gangs, an audience member gravely raised his hand: “Please be careful, Dwight. You are very brave, but please be very careful.” Other members of the audience nodded their heads in solemn agreement. Later that evening, Dwight and I were walking along my neighborhood in Durham. He remarked on the impenetrably quiet road and the stark blackness of the Carolina night sky, and then he paused and said, “Everyone is so worried about the white man. What about the children, the families, the old and the young people living there every day? Everyone is worried about the white man.” Textual Imperialism and Black Bodies of Meaning In this brief meditation, I want to reflect upon Dwight’s legacy as it pertains to race, specifically the eighteenth-­and nineteenth-­ century elocutionary movement, in the way he employed enslaved black literacies to radically unravel what he called “textual imperialism” (1995, 3). These are instances where black people through risk, threat, and tactics seized a written text, learned and deciphered its words, and then used it against dominating forces for the purposes of liberation. Dwight embraced “theories of the Flesh,”3 subaltern practices, and contested bodies in motion that unsettled hegemony and elocution’s valorized textual paradigms that absented bodies of color. It is through Dwight’s critique of textuality or text-­ centered ways of knowing, that both his contributions and transgressions on race theory and racial justice are arguably most compelling. This was a provocative call to break open the racial hegemony of text-­ based elocution and its “preeminent performances of whiteness” (2000, 326) by illuminating the liberating impulses of black bodies where words were lifted from writing and performatively set loose in countercultural publics. This was elocution from “below,” a subaltern override of normative whiteness that upset certain disciplinary histories by disturbing the racial privileging and the pedagogical relevance of their taken-­ for-­ granted foundations. This is provocatively illustrated in Dwight’s “resuturing of elocution and oral interpretation into the intertwining disciplinary genealogies of English, speech, theatre, and performance studies” (325). In his classic and controversial essay “Rethinking Elocution: The Trope of the Talking Book and Other Figures of Speech,” Dwight states his purpose is “to relocate elocution within a wider socio-­ historical context of racial tension and class struggle” (326). He goes on to state that his approach to the elocutionary movement is “from the angle of...


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