- The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory
In one scene in Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Mammy Barracuda, a slave, and Abraham Lincoln waltz out of a room while Barracuda sings “Hello Abe” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly!” Her white master, Master Swille, and another slave, Uncle Robin, joyfully clap along. The scene, ludicrous and absurd, in some ways speaks to Tavia Nyongo’o’s description of what the “ ‘amalgamation waltz’ is meant to evoke: a momentum that spins the body into and out of the symbolic order, a performance that becomes a mirror in which seeing and being convene, without ever quite converging” (103). While Reed’s pairing satirizes Lincoln’s assumed affinity with blacks, Nyong’o’s discussion of antebellum “amalgamation waltzes” underscores the panicked public discourse about racial hybridity. Nyong’o’s The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory examines responses to the threat of [End Page 317] amalgamation in the U. S., exploring the performativity of race. “The external, intersubjective, and embodied aspects of social remembering,” Nyong’o declares, “are critical to the ways in which I make use of performance and performativity in this study” (13). The first half of Nyong’o’s title draws on the title of a nineteenth-century political cartoon by E. W. Clay, An Amalgamation Waltz. This satirical cartoon attacked abolitionists’ views of black freedom and equality by illustrating the supposed hideousness of black and white interracial couples dancing “cheek-to-cheek, breast-to-breast” (81–82). Nyong’o informs us that the waltz was initially seen as a sensual, transgressive, and threatening dance in its European birthplace; it thus serves as apt metaphor for thinking about racial amalgamation and performance in the U. S.
With a mixed-race president, a myriad of mixed-race memoirs and biographies, and ongoing academic inquiry into and public interest in racial mixing, racial crossings, and racial identity, The Amalgamation Waltz is timely and relevant. Nyong’o’s goal is to “both assert and show the performative effects of history rather than simply add to the weight of history’s pedagogy” (7). To this end, the book’s four body chapters chronologically examine four “historical flashpoints”: competing and conflicting representations of Crispus Attucks, black abolitionism in the 1830s, blackface minstrelsy in the 1850s, and present-day artistic responses to race and racism in the antebellum South.
Throughout the book, Nyong’o employs the motif of the “circum-Atlantic fold,” a metaphor that concerns both time and space. As he explains, “[b]etween the potential and performance of black freedom . . . there lies the hollow of a fold within which many of our conceptualizations of race, inheritance, and hybridity were formulated” (18). In chapter one, “The Mirror of Liberty: Constituent Power and the American Mongrel,” Nyong’o explores contradictory portrayals of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution, and demonstrates how the figure of Attucks has been (mis)construed and reproduced in the fold. Examining various illustrations of the Boston Massacre, Nyongo’o discusses how artists of the late eighteenth century (such as Henry Pelham and Paul Revere) and nineteenth-century abolitionist texts (such as the frontispiece of William Cooper Nell’s The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution) portray Attucks as whitewashed, mulatto, or black, according to their political purposes. Nyongo’o highlights how Attucks (and his “blackness”) has been both included and excluded from pictorial representations, revealing a national ambivalence about this revolutionary exemplar. He ends by describing how Attucks was recovered in black collective memory, a move prompted by black abolitionist William Cooper Nell.
In chapter two, “In Night’s Eye: Amalgamation, Respectability, and Shame,” Nyong’o asserts that the 1830s present a unique decade because of its “lawless violence” and the “moral status of the scapegoated minority” (72). He reminds his readers that abolitionists saw themselves as morality enforcers. Not all abolitionists were amalgamationists; many abolitionists portrayed the South as a cesspool of cross-racial immorality, pointing to the sexual exploitation of black...