- The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory
Although the election of a mixed-race president signaled to many the beginning of the end of the problem of the color line, the discourse of postraciality is "not just the effect of recent pre- and post-millennial effusions" (9), Tavia Nyong'o notes, but rather "it was already visible, for instance, during the antebellum struggle to abolish slavery" (10). In his stunning new book The Amalgamation Waltz, Nyong'o compels us to confront the problematics of this particular dialectic—namely, the nascent talk of racial transcendence alongside the entrenchment of white supremacy and racialized slavery. For Nyong'o, this struggle was/is too often waged on the back of the "hybrid child." The Amalgamation Waltz argues against the biopolitical notion that the keys to a national transcendence of race inhere within mixed-race subjects; instead, he insists, "racial mixing and hybridity are neither problems for, nor solutions to, the long history of 'race' and racism, but part of its genealogy" (174).
The author begins with the contention that hybridity can both sustain and disrupt the pedagogy [End Page 136] of the "national Thing," Slavoj Žižek's term for an indefinable essence that appears to be present throughout the nation's way of life, but only exists as long as members of the community continue to believe in it. For Nyong'o, the American national Thing is "a powerful force shaping the nation" (3) that "often accommodates hybridity to an official teleology that is forever reducing the many to the one" (5). The problem with an American racialized "one" is its enduring connection to the nationalist discourse of the antebellum period and its lexicons of proslavery ideology and racial hierarchy. Put another way, the terms of what constitutes "American" continue to be many of those that were forged during the time of slavery, nativism, and segregation. And yet, due to the national Thing's "tautological nature and its absence of any specific positive content," Nyong'o suggests that, "under certain conditions … the very absence and void it occupies can become momentarily visible, temporarily destabilizing the processes by which subjects participate in imagined community" (6). Made visible, this absence "can produce … uncanny moments that subvert the national Thing" (7). A number of these performed subversions constitute the objects of analysis of The Amalgamation Waltz.
Nyong'o mostly limits his investigation to performances of the "the mongrel past," those that occurred within what he calls "the circum-Atlantic fold"—that is, "the period and the problematic that appears between the potential and the performance of emancipation" (18). For example, Nyong'o explores how the death of Crispus Attucks—the runaway slave often held to be the first person killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre and, by extension, the American Revolution—was employed in performances of American patriotism and black activism. Starting with an analysis of visual representations of the massacre, and most notably of Paul Revere's iconic rendering that seems to have excluded Attucks, Nyong'o argues that "rather than see Attucks either included or excluded by Revere's print, a critical reading of the visual evidence leads me to understand his status as an exception"—that is, "in the absent presence of Attucks in Revere's print, within which it is impossible to say finally whether or not he is included or excluded, because he is clearly both" (47). This remarkable reading of the Revere print reveals the hermeneutic potential that the method of "exception" offers. Like Toni Morrison's canonical Playing in the Dark, The Amalgamation Waltz demonstrates how the "absent presence" of African Americans always already marks much of US cultural production.
Chapter 1 ends with an extended discussion of William Cooper Nell and his commemorative stagings of Attucks's death. Nyong'o maintains that these performances and other iterations of Nell's "feminized activism" has "led to his being assigned a lower historical profile than famous men like Martin Delany and Frederick...