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  • Dominance and the Triumph of the White Trickster Over the Black Picaro in Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show
  • Michael Y. Bennett (bio)

In the opening scene of Amiri Baraka’s Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show (1966), Court Royal—”a middle-aged Negro man, gray haired, slight” (156)—is urged, with a “Come on” from the Voice of the Judge, towards the center of the stage and into the “center of the lights” (157). Court states his unease and puzzlement: “I don’t quite understand” (157). The all-encompassing and pervading Voice responds, “Shutup, nigger” (157). Thus begins Court’s “trial.” He is isolated in the center of the stage, berated by the Voice throughout the entire play. Court is, phenomenologically, a defender on an island under attack. He has nowhere to run and no ground to stand on other than his own. He is dominated because there is no respite from the attack and there is no escape route in sight, other than going right through a more powerful attacker.

These paradigms of conquest, these modes of domination, are framed geographically, spatially, and physically. Baraka’s satire becomes ironic, even for a satire, for he portrays the triumph of a white trickster over a black picaro. In a dominant-submissive relationship that mirrors the relationship of colonizer to colonized, the picaro is wiped right out of the African American. In such cases of domination, the only result can be a “coon show”—something vile that denigrates oneself and the community, ending in a self-negating, self-defeating violence.

Understanding Domination

The word “dominate” comes from the Latin dominari, meaning “to bear rule, govern, lord it,” and dominus, meaning “lord, master” (OED). This verb does not just contain an idea of action, but it contains a locus of power. One is not just ruled, when one is dominated, but one also becomes a subject. In The Forms of Power, Thomas E. Wartenberg notes the different meanings of “domination” in German and English. Max Weber, Wartenberg says, defined domination by having one’s commands obeyed (116). But the German word, Herrschaft, is defined as “rule” or “command.” However, in English, as Wartenberg defines it, domination refers to “the relationship of a ruling group to a ruled group” (117). Wartenberg goes on to complicate the notion of domination: “’Domination’ refers not to a single exercise of power but to a relationship between two social agents that is constituted by the existence of a power differential between them” (117). We have to think of Foucault’s [End Page 312] theory of power to remember that this is not a top-down exercise of power, but a multi-sided matrix. In domination, however, there is an element of harm for one party in this relationship (Wartenberg 119). The exercising of power in this type of relationship must be to the detriment of the subordinate group or individual (118). Wartenberg is careful to point out that “domination is a use and not a type of power” (120). In this way, domination is when a party acts against another party. Moving past a definition, Wartenberg discusses the three modes of domination (135–39). Hegel’s theory of domination is a form of domination from below where one group can adversely affect another group. Nietzsche’s theory relies on a top-down structure. His theory states that the dominant group has the ability to force the subordinate group to accept a negative self-valuation, which, in turn, props up the value system of the dominant group. And Foucault’s conception of domination works from neither the top nor the bottom. Domination in Foucault’s model, as Wartenberg states, comes from all sides.

For Peter Miller, in Domination and Power, domination is defined in a more specific way than for Wartenberg: domination is “a mode of acting upon individuals or groups of individuals directly counter to their aspirations or demands” (2). Miller makes sure to differentiate domination from power. Miller argues that power operates by promoting subjectivity. Unlike domination’s undertaking to deny and challenge, power “attempts to invest the individual with a series of personal objectives and ambitions” (2).

Given the...