- Blackface, Rape, and Beyond: Rehearsing Interracial Dialogue in Sally’s Rape
in memory of Ronald Thompson
“[A]in’t no rape crisis center on the plantation.”—Sally’s Rape 1
When Robbie McCauley made this statement three summers ago in the partially revamped warehouse of DiverseWorks in Houston, where I sat amid a multi-racial but for the most part self-segregated audience, I felt accused. 2 And challenged. McCauley speaks this line—several times—in Sally’s Rape, a two-woman performance piece that McCauley characterizes as always, finally, a “work in progress” (221). The entire piece is partially scripted, partially improvised by McCauley and Jeannie Hutchins; at interludes, the two also spur the audience into call-and-response participation. This particular line is spoken when Robbie is partway in the persona of Sally, her great-great-grandmother, who was raped by her white plantation master. (Robbie is a descendent of this rape.) Robbie/Sally is responding to her white friend and collaborator Jeannie Hutchins, who is partway in the persona of a rape victim talking about the herb tea and blankets she is given at the rape crisis center. Both women describe rapes—and their aftermaths—in alternating lines, but they do not describe them together. The women remember past and present pains, inscribed on their bodies. Their memories are both similar and incomparable. Indeed, comparison leads to more [End Page 123] pain and resentment. It leads to an impasse. “Ain’t no rape crisis center on the plantation,” Robbie snaps. Jeannie challenges in reply: “Then what do you do about it?” (233).
Sally’s Rape is a piece that asks “what do you do about it?” where “it” is the impasse in interracial—particularly black-white—dialogue currently at play in North American cultural politics. It is also a piece that performs one possible response to its own question. As a white anti-racist academic, I look to art, and particularly to theatre, to show me alternative ways to re-imagine socio-political structures such as interracial relations and indeed racial identities—ways not yet culturally available. I am looking for workable interracial tropes with which to conceive a productive positionality for myself vis-à-vis African American culture and politics. I find plenty of negative tropes of violence, theft, and rape. But our culture offers us few tropes for productive interracial configurations. And perhaps it’s not appropriate, yet, to abandon the tropes of violence and abuse when they still bear so much power and yet are barely acknowledged. The critical problems are how both to acknowledge (even insist on acknowledging) and to disavow historical paradigms of interracial relations, and how to create more productive paradigms without acting as if we’re performing on a clean stage.
I will devote the majority of my discussion to considering how Sally’s Rape intervenes in the unclean historical stages of blackface minstrelsy and interracial rape and to suggesting how the piece uses the theatrical stage to participate in the creation of a more productive paradigm of interracial dialogue. First, however, I want to mark my own racial performance here, a performance that the printed medium masks. As a talk, the original medium of this paper, it wore the tensions of its positionalities more overtly. Its audience saw a white woman talking black talk. In opening the talk with “ain’t no rape crisis center on the plantation,” a line spoken by an African American woman in an African American dialect that is not my own, I felt myself crossing a taboo. As Eric Lott suggests, “[e]very time you hear an expansive white man drop into his version of black English, you are in the presence of blackface’s unconscious return.” 3 And I recognize, too, that in reading the lines my vocalization is bound up troublingly in longing and desire.
Lott’s use of the masculine pronoun reflects his important study’s focus on the overwhelming dominance of white male performers in the creation of blackface minstrelsy. I will consider some of the implications of that dominance and its historical moment below. Here, my focus is on our historical moment—in which women can, and...