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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 339-359

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Melancholy Bodies:
Racial Subjectivity and Whiteness in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones

Shannon Steen



IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= In the opening pages of White, Richard Dyer relates an embarrassing episode from his early adulthood. Recognizing the problems in drawing analogies between racial and sexual oppression, he tries to explain his persistent feelings of both kinship with and distance from the experience of black men. As an example, he offers his encounter as a white gay man dancing at a mixed-race social event organized by a multicultural gay rights group in the early 1980s, and describes one particular dance, copied from Soul Train, in which the dancers formed two lines facing each other and individuals took turns dancing down between the lines from one end to the other. For Dyer, his turn down the aisle was excruciating:

For all my love of dancing and funk, I have never felt more white than when I danced down between those lines. I know it was stereotypes in my head; I know plenty of black people who can't dance; I know perceptions of looseness and tightness of the body are dubious. All I can say is that at that moment, the black guys all looked loose and I felt tight . . . I felt it, and hated it, dancing between the lines--and hated it not for itself, but because it brought home to me that, in my very limbs, I had not the kinship with black people that I wanted to have. 1

Dyer, submerged in an experience that he feels ought to be suffused with the joy of communal feeling, instead feels deeply estranged from his fellow dancers. His alienation is prompted here not by his social position as a gay man, but rather by his separation from those with whom he wants kinship, intimacy, meaningful interaction. [End Page 339] Tellingly, he figures that alienation corporeally. It is in his "very limbs" that he is distinct, separate, alien, and it is in the "very limbs" of his dancing black friends that he sees and seeks "looseness" or freedom. He simply cannot suppress either the mournful "all black men can dance" cry, or the fantasy of hips, torsos, and shoulders throwing off the bonds of physical constraint demanded by a world hostile to both gay sexual orientation and black masculine presence; nor can he suppress hope for the exhilaration of the body in movement leading to the freedom of the body politic. In a moment of uncharacteristic paranoia, Dyer conflates this fantasy with sexual attraction to black men and scrupulously attempts to temper his attraction to men of color with an acknowledgment of the privileges of being white. But he cannot escape his own longing for an essentialized sense of corporeal freedom and fulfillment that he ascribes to black bodies. Politically sensitive and culturally savvy as he is, he is unable to dislodge either his own fantasy of the ostensible freedom of the black body or his desire for consummation with that body.

I must confess to my own discomfort with this passage in Dyer's excellent study, a study that I use here as the basis for my own conception of whiteness. I cringe every time I read this passage--partially out of sympathy with Dyer's feelings of making himself a spectacle of physical ineptitude, but also because I am embarrassed that he feels compelled to confess publicly to a set of feelings that he knows are problematic. When Dyer promotes an equation between bodily and sexual freedom that he locates specifically on a black body, he participates in a tradition that is usually said to function in either a socially benighted past or in the popular cultural practices of the present. But as he also tries to explain in this passage, scholars are not immune to the very dynamics they critique--indeed, this is the point of his confession. I want to examine Dyer's anecdote for what it reveals about a poetic psychic landscape that is persistently mapped onto black...


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