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  • Playing with Race/Authenticating Alterity:Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora
  • John G. Russell (bio)

Old Massa sent me roaming . . .I's going to roam the wide worldIn lands I've never hoed.

—Stephen Foster (qtd. in Lhamon 1998, 133)


"Stereotyping," writes Homi Bhabha, "is not the setting up of a false image which becomes the scapegoat of discriminatory practices. It is a much more ambivalent text of projection and introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity; the masking and splitting of 'official' and phantasmatic knowledges to construct the positionalities and oppositionalities of racist discourse" (1994, 82). "Stereotypical signification," he goes on, "is curiously mixed and split, polymorphous and perverse, an articulation of multiple beliefs" (82). It is precisely this [End Page 41] ambivalence—this polysemic flow of signifiers and signified—that ensures the longevity of stereotypes as they are adjusted to suit fluid social, cultural, historical, and political contexts. As a source of identity and component of selfhood, concepts of "race" and their manipulation through stereotyped representation exert a powerful influence on constructions of Self and Other, national identity, the nature of interpersonal experiences in cross-cultural contexts, and how those experiences are verbalized, visualized, interpreted, and translated into various kinds of social performance. Globalized stereotypes of blacks and blackness mediate a space through which perdurable Western notions and iconographies of "race" are circulated, re-inscribed and reproduced abroad, and deployed by recipient cultures as they negotiate the boundaries of their own racial, ethnic, cultural, and national identities.

In recent years, particularly since the mid-1980s, much has been made of the popularity in Japan of what is commonly labeled "black culture." It is important, however, to define and delimit our terms here. Specifically, what is usually meant by black culture in this context is almost exclusively contemporary African American culture (with passing nods to Jamaican reggae) as it is generally embodied in hip hop and rap and other forms of highly commercialized and commodifiable "street culture." On the whole, this construction of black culture precludes and all too often occludes examination of other manifestations of that culture, be it African, Afro Caribbean, or African American in origin. Rarely does the public discourse examine the historical and cultural intersection of Japanese and black lives, such examination mooted by the assumption that Japan's encounter with blacks and black culture is of relatively recent origin. "Most Japanese born before 1935," anthropologist Hiroshi Wagatsuma maintained, "first discovered Negroes [not their discursive simulacra] by singing 'Old Black Joe' and other Stephen Foster melodies at school" (1967, 433; my emphasis). Others, like former Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer, maintain that Japanese had "almost no contact with blacks before the coming of the American army of occupation" (1988, 397). Seldom does the discourse, particularly in its popular enunciations, acknowledge that the presence of black people, the various forms of black culture—either directly or indirectly by proxy—and their representation in Japan are not relegated to the immediate prewar and [End Page 42] postwar periods. And although Japanese contacts with Africans and later African Americans were limited compared to their encounters with whites, their exposure to Western discourse about blacks was far less so, and in many ways shaped how they would perceive blacks when they actually encountered them—encounters transacted and negotiated within a hierarchy of power relations in which blacks occupied a subordinate position, a situation that remains true today.1

Graphic representation of black people emerged in Japan during the sixteenth century when nanban (southern barbarian) screens captured in vivid colors the processional advance of Western colonial power and inequality upon its shores, rendering Africans as slaves, servants, and occasionally, but less well-known, kings (Figure 1). Today black imagery can be found in virtually all aspects of Japanese mass media and popular culture. And although hip hop has become the cynosure of contemporary critical and popular

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Figure 1.

Portion of an early Edo Period (1600-1868) print depicting an Abyssinian king.

[End Page 43]

discourse about black culture in Japan, Negro spirituals, jazz, rhythm & blues, soul...


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