Abstract

Protests to the 1994 Colonial Williamsburg staging of a slave auction as part of a re-creation of an eighteenth-century estate sale are better understood through an examination of the restored behavior of slave auctions and auction reenactments. This essay presents a selective genealogy of auctions-as-performance, starting with authentic auctions in the US South, then comparing these to the "mock" auctions to emancipate slaves held by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in his Plymouth Church. Referring to historians of slavery, such as James Oakes and Saidiya Hartman, as well as to theatre historians, such as Joseph Roach and Richard Schechner, the essay argues that the culture of slave auctions relied significantly on the participation of the audience to help construct and defend established racial identities. These primarily white audiences actively served to deny black self-determination and reinforce the white supremacy that defined the nation's social, economic, and political life. This denial of self-determination was compounded by the erasure of the black body in Beecher's performances, which placed nearly white, female slaves on his pulpit-stage to be emancipated by a congregation consumed by two competing desires: to experience the thrill of racial mastery, and to simultaneously become instantiated in history as agents of emancipation. The performance of slavery on the stage, such as in Beecher's church and representative plays like Dion Boucicault's The Octoroon (1859), typically employed melodrama to evoke empathy from a mostly white audience, while leaving the interpretation of slavery firmly grounded in a white-authored narrative of slavery and freedom. The Williamsburg auction, despite its supposed educational intent, reproduced this melodrama as living-history entertainment, presenting the audience with a clichéd and sanitized version of slavery that failed to raise critical questions about identity, witnessing, and agency in the historical transmission of slavery, or the role of performance in that transmission. The accompanying protests thus reflected an acknowledgment of the limitations of the audience to question its own preconceived notions of slave auctions, and also the limitations of representing slavery in a nation still feeling its effects in the form of institutionalized racism.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 61-84
Launched on MUSE
2011-04-09
Open Access
No
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