- Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness by Nicole R. Fleetwood
Awide range of scholarship examines the complexity of racial identity and meaning; however, the study of how said identity is articulated in American culture is still being investigated. In her study, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness, Nicole R. Fleetwood examines the complexities of racial articulation and reception in public culture. Fleetwood’s study is an addition to an emerging study of the nexus of performance studies, visual theory, and racial theory.
Blackness and American culture have had a troubling history and relationship. An examination of just how engrossed America is in blackness is at the core of Fleetwood’s text as she analyzes how blackness is viewed as both problematic and attractive to the American public. Fleetwood’s text examines how blackness is not fixed, but rather circulates and “attaches to bodies and narratives … but … always exceeds these attachments” (6).
One of this study’s most intriguing aspects is its successful navigation of a wide variety of texts. Fleetwood ranges widely through a number of works to examine blackness, performance, and visual culture. Among these are works of drama, visual art, music, and fashion. Through close examination, she illustrates how the hyper-visibility of blackness is performed as both troubling and empowering. Fleetwood actually presents an approach to research that emphasizes the intersections of race, gender, class, and other categories. In chapter two, “Her Own Spook: Colorism, Vision, and the Dark Female Body,” her analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s play Color Struck demonstrates how far an analysis of these intersections can go. By examining how Hurston’s play negotiates race, gender, class, color, region, and time, Fleetwood’s study reflects a thorough approach to capturing Hurston’s text and to scholarship in general. Moreover, Fleetwood uses the Hurston play to inform a close reading of Dael Orlandersmith’s play, Yellowman, as she argues that both texts “provide the opportunity to reconsider colorist practices as moments where we can see racial marking and subjugation and where the thematic preoccupation with color coding brings to the fore the anxieties of the dominant visual sphere” (83).
In an effort to argue that “black theatrical traditions’ use of black performing subjects to articulate processes of racialization serves as an important domain for understanding how the codes of blackness and the seeing of certain bodies as marked racial subjects function in dominant public discourse,” Fleetwood also uses Hurston’s play to reveal how the visuality of color actually comments on racial narratives (71). Incorporating Cheryl Harris’s claim that whiteness is property, Fleetwood argues that black playwrights use their work to redress the racial narrative codes articulated by white cultural productions. These productions, such as nineteenth-and twentieth-century minstrelsy have previously disseminated specific racial markings via performance and visuality. Black playwrights have produced work that explores, if not undermines, the racial coding that supports white dominance. By examining Color Struck with Yellowman, Fleetwood concludes that not only is the visuality of color gendered, but its performance possibilities are complex and fluid. Unlike Hurston’s character Emma’s inability to see herself outside of a dominant gaze, the vision of Alma, Orlandersmith’s character, is more emancipatory in theory. Alma, by contrast, “emerges as a viewing and speaking subject” (104).
In chapter three, “Excess Flesh: Black Women Performing Hypervisibility,” Fleetwood moves from the narrative of colorism and the historic and dramatic black female body in Hurston’s play to modern cultural artistic representations of [End Page 680] blackness. By doing so, Fleetwood produces enough evidence to support her argument that gender plays a role in how blackness is performed and consumed. Among the texts that she examines include those of a variety of black female cultural artists such as Janet Jackson, Renee Cox, and Lil’ Kim. Fleetwood’s study is one of the few that engage a critical perspective of the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” incident involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. It is a brilliant example of how she pulls her readers into a reading of the complexities...