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From the Publisher“Embodying Black Experience is performance studies scholarship at its engaged and engaging best.”
Errol Hill Award of the American Society for Theatre Research
In 1901, George Ward, a lynching victim, was attacked, murdered, and dismembered by a mob of white men, women, and children. As his lifeless body burned in a fire, enterprising white youth cut off his toes and, later, his fingers and sold them as souvenirs. In Embodying Black Experience, Harvey Young masterfully blends biography, archival history, performance theory, and phenomenology to relay the experiences of black men and women who, like Ward, were profoundly affected by the spectacular intrusion of racial ...
In 1901, George Ward, a lynching victim, was attacked, murdered, and dismembered by a mob of white men, women, and children. As his lifeless body burned in a fire, enterprising white youth cut off his toes and, later, his fingers and sold them as souvenirs. In Embodying Black Experience, Harvey Young masterfully blends biography, archival history, performance theory, and phenomenology to relay the experiences of black men and women who, like Ward, were profoundly affected by the spectacular intrusion of racial violence within their lives. Looking back over the past two hundred years-from the exhibition of boxer Tom Molineaux and Saartjie Baartman (the "Hottentot Venus") in 1810 to twenty-first century experiences of racial profiling and incarceration-Young chronicles a set of black experiences, or what he calls "phenomenal blackness," that developed not only from the experience of abuse but also from a variety of performances of resistance that were devised to respond to the highly predictable and anticipated arrival of racial violence within a person's lifetime.
Embodying Black Experience pinpoints selected artistic and athletic performances-photography, boxing, theatre/performance art, and museum display-as portals through which to gain access to the lived experiences of a variety of individuals. The photographs of Joseph Zealy, Richard Roberts, and Walker Evans; the boxing performances of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali; the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, Robbie McCauley, and Dael Orlandersmith; and the tragic performances of Bootjack McDaniels and James Cameron offer insight into the lives of black folk across two centuries and the ways that black artists, performers, and athletes challenged the racist (and racializing) assumptions of the societies in which they lived.
Blending humanistic and social science perspectives, Embodying Black Experience explains the ways in which societal ideas of "the black body," an imagined myth of blackness, get projected across the bodies of actual black folk and, in turn, render them targets of abuse. However, the emphasis on the performances of select artists and athletes also spotlights moments of resistance and, indeed, strength within these most harrowing settings.
Errol Hill Award of the American Society for Theatre Research
Chapter 1 The Black Body 1
Chapter 2 Still Standing: Daguerreotypes, Photography, and the Black Body 26
Chapter 3 Between the Ropes: Staging the Black Body in American Boxing 76
Chapter 4 Touching History: Staging Black Experience 119
Chapter 5 Housing the Memory of Racial Violence: The Black Body as Souvenir, Museum, and Living Remain 167
"Look, a Negro!" The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.
-Frantz Fanon, Black Skin / White Masks
Writing in the 1950s, Frantz Fanon offers a compelling postcolonial critique of the negative effects of white European imperialism on the societal and self-perception of the black body. To him, the epidermalization of blackness, the inscription of meaning onto skin color, is something from which black men seek to escape. As he notes in Black Skin / White Masks: "However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it. For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white." In support of this "conclusion," Fanon outlines, as case studies, the bodily experiences of several black men and women whom he interviewed or treated during the exercise of his profession as a psychologist in Martinique. Despite the presence of these multiple recounted experiences, the voice that resonates best within his text belongs to Fanon himself, who intermixes his own story even as he maintains that he is relaying the experiences of others. The extent of the author's autobiographical investment appears most clearly and memorably in his recollection of a street encounter with a young white boy and his mother. In the remembered scenario, Fanon recalls walking along a city street and overhearing the loud and frightened voice of a child who exclaims, "Look, a Negro!" to his mother as she carries him. The boy's statement is repeated twice more and then is altered slightly during its fourth iteration: "Look, a Negro! Look, a Negro! Mama, see the Negro!" Whether these phrases were repeated in actuality at Fanon or were only stated once and then echoed in Fanon's imaginary like the tolling of a bell, it is clear that the look, announced, repeats. Referring to his encounter with the boy's address, an address that was not intended for him but did target him, Fanon writes, "On that day completely dislocated, unable to be abroad with the other, the white man, who unmercifully imprisoned me, I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object." The racializing look, announced, not only repeats but also transforms (the boy into a man!), dislocates, imprisons, and objectifies.
On a fall day in 2000, I went for a walk along a street, State Street, to be precise, in the northeastern town in which I lived. I was snapped out of my thoughts the moment that a carload of college-aged white boys roared by in a red sedan and screamed "Nigger!" as they passed me. The announced look had repeated. The event seemed not only a reenactment of Fanon's experience in Lyon, France, in the 1950s performed across my body in 2000 in Ithaca, New York, but also a replaying of my own previous experience in that very same town. A year earlier, the same thing happened. The only difference: State Street was now Oak. The year before that I was arrested ostensibly for DWB: Driving While Black. My memory of the arrest remains vividly clear. I was driving my pick-up truck late one evening along a two-lane street. Stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, I shifted lanes, accelerated, passed the car, and returned to my original lane. Seconds later, I heard a siren and noticed flashing lights in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and watched as two white officers, one male and one female, exited their vehicle and cautiously approached my truck with their hands hovering over their guns. I was informed that I had illegally crossed over into another lane. Officially, I had failed to stay right of the double line. I handed my license and registration to the male officer and waited with his partner while he returned to his cruiser and, presumably, radioed in that he had pulled over a six-foot something, twenty-something black male. As we waited, the female officer told me not to worry because such traffic violations were not only minor but also common and that they always resulted in a ticket and a small fine. When her partner returned, he ordered me to step out of the vehicle, displayed his handcuffs, and declared, "I'm going to take you in." I was shocked. I explained that I had just been told that I was going to receive a ticket and requested what charge prompted the arrest. He brusquely replied, "You're resisting arrest. That's the charge." Having visions of Rodney King, the black motorist who was severely assaulted by the Los Angeles police for resisting arrest in 1991, I extended my arms and allowed the officers to cuff me. With an officer's hand on my back, I was directed toward the police car and seated in the rear of the vehicle. I was whisked away to a processing center where I spent two hours being shuttled from room to room. In one, I was required to stand still so that my photograph, my mug shot, could be taken from multiple angles. In another, an officer grabbed each one of my fingers, jammed it into a black ink pad, and applied it to an index card and then repeated the act until every digit was stained. I was taken to an interrogation room but never interrogated. Instead, I had a conversation with the female arresting officer, the one who told me that I would receive a ticket. When I stated, "I don't understand why I am here," she replied that I had performed an action that qualified as "passive resisting arrest-but still resisting arrest" by questioning why I was being handcuffed. She informed me that resisting arrest is considered a felony in New York State and is punishable by up to one year's imprisonment and a significant fine. She further explained that I was eligible for bail, once the paperwork had been completed, and that I, if bailed out, would have to appear before a judge on the next business day.
I never saw the inside of a holding cell. A friend, Roger, a former lawyer who had abandoned legal practice to study theater history, bailed me out before I could be transferred to a cell where, I imagine, other unsuspecting people like myself were being detained as criminal suspects. The next day, I reported to the courthouse with my friend, and together we sat and watched as the judge ruled against every defendant and gave the maximum sentence or fine. Roger whispered in my ear, "This doesn't look good," and suggested that we locate the county prosecutor and request that the charge be dropped. The prosecutor refused but offered to reduce it to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor carrying a several-hundred-dollar fine. I initially protested the reduction-I had not done anything wrong other than commit a minor traffic violation and ask a simple question under my right of free speech. I was warned that refusal to take the "deal" would leave the felony charge intact and result in me needing to hire a defense attorney for the trial. If I refused to plead guilty and pay the fine, I might spend considerably more money in lawyer fees yet still face the possibility of going to jail and being branded a convicted felon. I reluctantly agreed to the reduced charge and the drama ended.
Each of these incidents-the multiple hailings of/as "Nigger" and the unjustified arrest, separated by a couple of blocks and temporally by a few years-affected and effected me in the manner described by Fanon. I was and still am transformed, dislocated, incarcerated, and objectified by the continued reverberations of these repeated encounters. Influenced, in part, by the similarity of the experiences of Fanon and myself and aware that they are not particular to our respective bodies, but are shared among the majority of recognizably "black" bodies, both male and female, who live(d) an objectified existence within the Western world, I have set both the black body and the experience of the black body as the objects of inquiry for the following project. Black bodies, in the twenty-first century, continue to share in the experiences of their ancestors who were viewed as "other," unjustly incarcerated, and subjected to limitless violence. The lynching of James Byrd in 1998, the public suffering of mostly black residents of New Orleans in 2005, and the circulation of racist stereotypes and caricatures during the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 serve as reminders of the continuing existence of twentieth-century prejudices. Although the legacy of past racism(s) can create the experience of racial déjà vu in the present, this book does not contend that black bodies today face the same societal limits as their forebears. The fact that Byrd's assailants were convicted and sentenced to death and that Obama won his election demonstrates the advances in society since Senator Ben Tillman, standing on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1900, urged the nation to lynch blacks.
Embodying Black Experience spotlights the ways in which an idea of the black body has been and continues to be projected across actual physical bodies; it chronicles how the misrecognition of individuated bodies as "the black body" creates similar experiences. Despite the passage of years (nearly two hundred) and the shifting geography (across a variety of cities within a handful of Western countries), the embodied experience of the individuals profiled within this study resemble one another. Saartjie Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus" and the protagonist of Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus, was paraded throughout London and displayed in carnival-like settings as a freak or oddity in the early 1800s. Upon her death, she was dismembered by natural scientist George Cuvier, bottled, preserved, and put "on show" at a Paris museum. Renty, an African captive in the United States, was photographed as a scientific specimen for a future study by Cuvier's former student, Louis Agassiz, in 1850. George Ward, a lynching victim, was attacked by a white mob, murdered, set afire, chopped into pieces, and sold to interested collectors as a souvenir of the black body in 1901. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion boxer, whose success prompted a national search for a "great white hope" in 1908, was harassed by federal and state authorities within the United States, incarcerated, and staged within a variety of prison-based exhibition matches.
The projections continue to structure embodied black experience with each subsequent generation: James Cameron (1930s), who was literally dragged through the streets of Marion, Indiana, by a lynch mob; boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1960s), who struggled against societal efforts to transform him into a "black white hope"; and performance artist Robbie McCauley (1990s), whose dreams of her great-great-grandmother's sexual assault on a Southern plantation tormented her and inspired her to write her play Sally's Rape. Beyond drawing attention to the continuing existence or legacy of racial assumptions, I contend that their projections across individuated bodies exist as acts of violence that assume a variety of forms: an epithet, racial profiling, incarceration or captivity, and physical/sexual assault. Each engenders an experience of the body that informs black critical memory, shapes social behavior or everyday social performances (black habitus), and determines the ways in which black folk view the society in which they live and the people, including themselves, who populate it.
The premise of this book is not that all black people have the same experience; it is, rather, that a remarkable similarity, a repetition with a difference, exists among embodied black experiences. Unlike other studies that interrogate the lived realities and social performances of black folk, the emphasis here is not on the scalar differences that separate one person from another but on those moments of experiential overlap that frequently create common and, perhaps, shared understandings among black folk of the similar ways in which they are viewed and treated within society despite their differences from one another. The experience of Renty, who stood still before a daguerreotype camera, echoes the experience of other black captives who stood still on auction blocks and prefigures those of hundreds of thousands of black bodies who reenact moments of arrest and re-arrest in police precincts every year. Firsthand encounters with a racializing projection are not a requirement of embodied black experience. It can also develop through second- and thirdhand accounts that are shared among community members: the story of a neighbor being profiled by the police or the tale of a white cross being burned on someone else's lawn, among other possible narratives. Certainly, the terrorizing effect of a lynching affected more people than the individual(s) who suffered and died.
What separates this study from other books that either revel in the misfortune of black people or set aside their suffering in an effort to privilege the joys of blackness is a pragmatic understanding not only of the ways in which the past shadows the present but also of how the joys and, perhaps, the jouissance of blackness, are tempered with pain. Employing performance studies methodology in addition to phenomenological and biographical methods, this book critically reads and theorizes this two-ness. The people profiled here, through perseverance and determination, stood up to, stood tall against, and looked back at a community determined to cripple them for the meaning that it ascribed to their complexion. They employed performance, frequently a performance of stillness across a variety of media-photography, theater, and museum display-to challenge racializing projections. Renty employs stillness to subvert the gaze of Agassiz. Ali uses it to refuse induction into the U.S. Army. McCauley stages it with the aim of reactivating the memories of her great-great-grandparents. James Cameron uses the still photographs of previous lynching campaigns and a souvenir from his own near-lynching to establish an archive of the horrors of U.S. racial violence.
This book is not about photography, theater, athletics, or museums. It is about how similar experiences of the body repeat within the lives of black folk and how select individuals have employed expressive forms to relay their stories and life lessons to largely unimagined future audiences. While the artistic framing affects the manner with which we encounter the black body depicted within it, its particularities are introduced primarily to reveal a new way of engaging with or encountering the embodied experience of its creator and/or featured protagonist(s). The fact that black captives sat before a daguerreotype machine, an early camera, is of greater concern than the history of photographic portraiture. Similarly, the stories of black captive women as portrayed by Suzan-Lori Parks and Robbie McCauley get more attention than theater architecture. Although book-length accounts of nineteenth-century daguerreotypes, Great Depression photography, African American boxers, the dramaturgy of black playwrights, and the philosophies of museum curators can be-and, often, are-compelling, this book strives to be none of them. Embodying Black Experience stands at the point where these various projects intersect. In retelling the stories of black folk, it begins with two-dimensional artistic projects and slowly moves toward three-dimensional interactive displays. In the journey from the photographic still to the museum, the existence of the black body proves not only unmistakable but also unavoidable.
When popular connotations of blackness are mapped across or internalized within black people, the result is the creation of the black body. This second body, an abstracted and imagined figure, shadows or doubles the real one. It is the black body and not a particular, flesh-and-blood body that is the target of a racializing projection. When a driver speeds past a pedestrian and yells "Nigger," she launches her epithet at an idea of the body, an instantiation of her understanding of blackness. The pedestrian, who has been hailed and experiences the violence of the address, which seems to erase her presence and transform her into something else (an idea held by another), becomes a casualty of misrecognition. The shadow overwhelms the actual figure. The epithet, asserting an adjectival influence that locates within the seen (body) an aspect that is largely imagined, brings together the physical black body and the conceptual black body. It blurs them. Fanon was aware of this. He understood that the slippage of abstraction into materiality frequently resulted in the creation of an embodied experience of blackness that was tantamount to imprisonment.
As an instantiation of a concept (blackness), the black body does not describe the actual appearance of any real person or group of people. On this distinction depends a scene in Gordon Parks's film Shaft, in which a police lieutenant holds a black pen to the title character's face and declares, "You ain't so black"-to which Shaft, after comparing a white coffee cup to the lieutenant's corporeal mug, responds, "And you ain't so white, baby." Black is always an imprecise projection or designation. It is an "enigma ... wrapped in the darkest and deepest subliminal fantasies of Europe and America's cultural id," as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has observed. The mystery of blackness, which manages to become a fact through repeated deployment across a range of bodies, encourages the (mis)identification of individuated bodies (a body) as the black body. The latter replaces the former. The individual becomes anonymously or, more accurately, metonymically black-in much the same way that Renty became "slave," Fanon became "Negro," and lynching victim George Ward became (a) "souvenir." The epithetic nature of the black body does not erase or discount the unique experiences of individuals. It recognizes that each figure lives in a distinct temporal, geographic, and sociopolitical moment. However, it privileges those instances of similarity among these various bodies and collapses them into a singular body within the imagination. The black body becomes a souvenir, a captive, a Negro, the Hottentot Venus, Renty, George, and Frantz. Equally importantly, each becomes the black body.
Excerpted from Embodying Black Experience by Harvey Young Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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