Introduction:On Black Performance
Historically aligned with hypervisibility, blackness places the individual on display. Cultural workers have used the transformative power of performance—repeated actions presented before an audience that carry with them the history of their recurrence—to shape viewers’ and listeners’ perceptions of blackness. Working against the notion that categories of identity, including racial ones, are fixed, performance strategically uses improvisation to instate and destabilize subjectivity. While performance studies is a relatively new field of inquiry, performance has been fundamental to the revolutionary character of black culture from its beginnings. As Cedric Robinson theorizes in Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition, “The evidence of the tradition’s persistence and ideological vitality among the Black slave masses was to be found not only in the rebellions and the underground but as well in the shouts, the spirituals, the sermons, and the very textual body of Black Christianity” (311). Along a similar line, Saidiya Hartman’s groundbreaking analysis in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America demonstrates the ubiquitous intersection of subjection, subject formation, and display in black people’s earliest experiences in the United States. While Hartman and Robinson may not consider themselves black performance theorists, I include them here to demarcate a line of inquiry pervasive in black studies. Calling attention to performance as a theory that is multisensory, Fred Moten locates an acoustic materiality that emanates from the scenes of subjection Hartman describes. The sounds that echo throughout In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition necessarily belong to a history of revolutionary action that emerges in relation to degrading and dehumanizing images of black people. As scripted forms of race continue to rear their ugly heads in Will.i.am’s blackface performance at the MTV 2010 video music awards alongside a Venus Hottentot-esque Nicki Minaj, the time is ripe to investigate the past, present, and future of black performance and its relationship to the constitution of identity, aesthetic forms, and freedom movements. The articles in this special issue of African American Review demonstrate the centrality of performance to black cultural production from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. They show how artists have attenuated the hold on blackness on display atop the auction block, as animated in the soft-shoeing of the blackface minstrel stage, or personified in a grin plastered on a bottle of maple syrup. Instead, the authors reaffirm blackness as a process, following E. Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness: Performance Politics and Authenticity (2003) and Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (2006). Redefining, reshaping, and re-signifying blackness, the cultural workers examined in this special issue make use of the fluidity of identity categories in order to liberate subjectivities and collectivities.
As a field formation, black studies has been persistently interested in the way aesthetic movements enable and imagine political movements. The latest milestone in this development has been the emergence of the field of performance studies, which has enabled a new generation of scholars to ask questions and refine methodologies about theatricality—the forces and apparatuses that script production and reception—of blackness. On April 9-10, 2010, the Black Theatricality Conference, which I helped to organize, was held at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. The conference brought together theorists of sound, theater, literature, popular culture, [End Page 275] and visual culture, to name but a few of the disciplines engaged, under the rubric of performance. This special issue continues the conversation the Black Theatricality Conference began, demonstrating the wide range and varied nature of performance studies and its particular implications for black culture.
Working at the intersection of diverse fields of inquiry (from opera to science) within late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conceptions of blackness, the first three essays consider how questions of embodiment may shed new light on familiar archives and demonstrate the importance of less familiar bodies of work. The essays draw attention to the historical specificity of blackness in the antebellum period to consider its peculiarities and particularities. As Britt Rusert persuasively argues, “black performers took advantage of the undecidability and ambiguity of race in antebellum performance cultures in order to produce alternative theories of blackness, while unhinging blackness from the ‘truth’ of the body, and thereby uncoupling race from an impoverished concept of the biological body.” “A New Kind of Black Soldier” and “Utopian Movements” are similarly concerned with the artist’s ability to shape the body through the manipulation of appearances. “Utopian Movements” demonstrates the possibility for revolutionary change within collective embodied movement, calling attention to the relationship between performance studies and political movements.
While many of the essays in this issue consider the recuperation of blackness and the black body through movement, “Fasten Your Shackles” examines the limitations of blackness as a category in the late twentieth century. The last four essays work interdisciplinarily, pairing performance studies with sound studies, disability studies, diaspora studies, and women’s and gender studies. The essays draw attention to some of the most pressing concerns of black studies in the twenty-first century, including the psychic, social, and physical weight of blackness, the relationships and complications that emerge at the intersection of blackness and other identity categories, and the implications of black bodies within discourses of violence against women. Collectively, these essays draw attention to new directions in black performance and inspire further conversation. [End Page 276]
Soyica Colbert is an assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College. She is the author of The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage (Cambridge UP, 2011). She is currently working on a second book project entitled “Black Movements: Performance, Politics, and Migration.” Colbert has received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Career Enhancement Fellowship, Stanford Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship, Mellon Summer Research Grant, and the Robert W. Woodruff Library Fellowship.