Samuel Jennings’s 1790 painting Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences, or, The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks offers a striking point of entry into Jenna Gibbs’s excellent new study of trans-Atlantic performances of race. The painting, as Gibbs explains, imagines the relationship between Atlantic humanism and chattel slavery. A classically draped female Liberty sits among the neoclassical props of western humanism—musical instruments, architectural ornaments, art supplies, books, even a liberty pole represent Anglo– American artistic, scientific, and political achievements. Most strikingly, Liberty inclines benevolently toward a genuflecting black audience, slaves or former slaves, more of whom remain outside in the scene’s open-air background. [End Page 338]
That image of a white feminized Liberty offering the fruits of the Enlightenment to slaves, as Gibbs explains, gives tangible form to some of the book’s central questions. How, for example, did the Anglo–Atlantic world imagine knowledge, culture, progress, and liberty? How did neoclassical humanist ideologies intermingle with the emergent national ideologies of the Revolutionary era? Most importantly, what happened when those concepts came into contact with the people, practices, and discourses of slavery, abolitionism, and racial revolution?
For Gibbs, the answers to these questions lie not only in the conventional archive of intellectual and literary history, but also in the world of embodied performance, stage pageantry, plebeian poetry, and popular images. Its sustained attention to the rich interplay between performances and other kinds of cultural phenomena seems one of the most distinctive contributions of Gibbs’s study. In the style of Jean-Christophe Agnew’s Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge, UK, 1988) and Jeffrey H. Richards’s Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic (Cambridge, UK, 2008), Gibbs recognizes that U.S. theatre shared dramatic content and institutional form with its trans-Atlantic interlocutors. Racial performance, however, has long been treated as a distinctive feature of American theatre, and the study of blackface minstrelsy has only gradually outgrown its reliance on national frameworks. After all, as Eric Lott persuasively argued, minstrelsy marketed its invented origins in southern U.S. slavery to working-class white Americans. At the same time, the theatre of racial mimicry also had roots in Anglo–Atlantic folk customs and English pantomime, as Dale Cockrell and John O’Brien have shown. Blackface, moreover, became one of the trans-Atlantic entertainment world’s most successful acts, as W. T. Lhamon demonstrates. Gibbs’s study avoids searching for folkloric proto-minstrelsy altogether, imagining the history of racial performance as something that from its earliest moments traversed Atlantic routes and overleapt national ideologies.
Supported by a thorough and imaginatively assembled range of published and unpublished archival sources, Performing the Temple of Liberty focuses on the performance cultures and intellectual life of London and Philadelphia. Centering on two of the era’s most energetic centers of theatrical and cultural production means that Gibbs’s study neither promises nor delivers the circum-Atlantic variety of the work of Joseph Roach or, more recently, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon. Nevertheless, the metropolitan axis allows Gibbs to highlight the ways that performances [End Page 339] and politics of blackness often seem turned to wildly different uses even when they share basic features. The weight of Gibbs’s cultural history archive (featuring novels, nonfiction texts, poems, prints, and dramatic texts) pressures the study toward metropolitan sites, and one could imagine a version of this book that strayed farther from the centers of power and privilege. At the same time, Gibbs’s broader argument—that trans-Atlantic performances, largely concentrated in major cities, centrally shaped the era’s discourses of race and slavery—never loses sight of the wider social and geographic scene, showing how African chattel slavery, plebeian activism, and even Caribbean slave revolts remained central to the popular culture of the English and American metropoles.
Performing the Temple of Liberty paints a complex and intriguing picture of the exchanges between...