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Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 63, Number 1, March 2011
pp. 138-139 | 10.1353/tj.2011.0008

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After a brief exegesis of Frantz Fanon's "Look, a Negro!" from Black Skin, White Masks, Harvey Young's Embodying Black Experience opens with the author's personal account of being hailed with racial epithets from drive-by white boys, and being arrested, handcuffed, processed, and fined by police in Ithaca, New York for DWB ("driving while black"). Young claims to be neither exceptional nor representative, nor does he use the anecdote to claim embodied authority or authenticity. He uses it to introduce his focus on those moments when "the black body" is not seen to be multiplicitous, as it has been in much recent African American scholarship that he acknowledges and admires. Young focuses rather on instances, exemplified by DWB, in which the only externally legible feature of the subject as spectacle is her or his blackness: "the premise of this book is not that all black people have the same experience; rather, that there is a remarkable similarity, a repetition with difference, among embodied black experiences" (5). He sets out to probe when and how that difference can be made productive.

Young assembles an exemplary archive of case studies that cuts across place and time in America from 1850 to the present, in which an idea of the black body has been projected upon actual bodies to create similar experiences. He looks at ways in which stillness and critical memory structure embodied black experience across several realms of performance and representation, and does so with considerable precision and analytical acuity.

In the daguerreotypes taken by James Zealy for anthropologist Louis Agassiz in 1850, he sees in the enforced stillness of Zealy's subjects—Alfred, Delia, Drana, Fassena, Jack, Jem, and Renty—a (re) performance of their captive stillness in the months preceding, during, and after their passage from Africa to the plantations of Columbia, South Carolina. He finds the embodied memory of this stillness resisted in the photographs of Richard Roberts in the 1920s, and replayed in those of Walker Evans in the 1930s.

In Muhammed Ali's chosen stillness—his refusal to step forward and accept the hail of the draft in 1967—Young traces the critical memory of African American boxers, from Tom Molineaux's journey from plantation fights staged like human cock fights for his white "masters" to competing in London for the championship title, through Jack Johnson and his belligerent embrace of racist stereotypes throughout his championship career, to Joe Louis and his crafted public persona as the "Black White Hope."

In lynching-survivor Dr. James Cameron's "America's Black Holocaust Museum" in Milwaukee, and in the lurid fetish souvenirs and postcards of lynchings, Young teases out complex ways in which, through contextualization and reappropriation, America's history of racist violence can be productively memorialized and restaged by and for black people.

In three plays by contemporary black female playwrights Young analyzes the ways in which the restaging of traumatic displays of black women's bodies, while risking revictimization, can also be recuperative. In Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus he examines the representational legacies of Saartje Baartman and other nineteenth-century "Hottentot Venuses"; in Robbie McCauley's Sally's Rape he considers the naked captive body of the African woman on the auction block through McCauley's treatment of her great-great-grandmother Sally, and the earlier Sally Hemmings, who was Thomas Jefferson's captive and mistress; and in Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman he treats the fictional self-hating Alma as representative of hundreds of historical figures, "my mother women like my mother and her mother before her" (qtd. on 150). Each of these representations invokes and interrogates a history of sexual assault on the black female body in captivity, and all use reenactment "to assert the black body's agency in scenarios within which it historically has been rendered powerless" (158). Young further contends that Parks's staging of an almost silent black body in her later play In the Blood showcases the vocal marginalization of the disempowered and encourages audiences to imagine the experience of that body and to speak on her behalf and in her support. In all of these performances the black body speaks.

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