Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910

Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910

by Daphne A. Brooks

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In Bodies in Dissent Daphne A. Brooks argues that from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, black transatlantic activists, actors, singers, and other entertainers frequently transformed the alienating conditions of social and political marginalization into modes of self-actualization through performance. Brooks considers the work of African American, Anglo, and racially ambiguous performers in a range of popular entertainment, including racial melodrama, spectacular theatre, moving panorama exhibitions, Pan-Africanist musicals, Victorian magic shows, religious and secular song, spiritualism, and dance. She describes how these entertainers experimented with different ways of presenting their bodies in public—through dress, movement, and theatrical technologies—to defamiliarize the spectacle of “blackness” in the transatlantic imaginary.

Brooks pieces together reviews, letters, playbills, fiction, and biography in order to reconstruct not only the contexts of African American performance but also the reception of the stagings of “bodily insurgency” which she examines. Throughout the book, she juxtaposes unlikely texts and entertainers in order to illuminate the complicated transatlantic cultural landscape in which black performers intervened. She places Adah Isaacs Menken, a star of spectacular theatre, next to Sojourner Truth, showing how both used similar strategies of physical gesture to complicate one-dimensional notions of race and gender. She also considers Henry Box Brown’s public re-enactments of his escape from slavery, the Pan-Africanist discourse of Bert Williams’s and George Walker’s musical In Dahomey (1902–04), and the relationship between gender politics, performance, and New Negro activism in the fiction of the novelist and playwright Pauline Hopkins and the postbellum stage work of the cakewalk dancer and choreographer Aida Overton Walker. Highlighting the integral connections between performance and the construction of racial identities, Brooks provides a nuanced understanding of the vitality, complexity, and influence of black performance in the United States and throughout the black Atlantic.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387558
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/18/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 488
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Daphne A. Brooks is Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

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Bodies in Dissent

Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850â"1910

By Daphne A. Brooks

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8755-8



Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle

Something was amiss on the dance floor in 1853 America. This according to the Reverend Hiram Mattison who that year published Spirit Rapping Unveiled!, a slim and somewhat obscure manifesto in which Mattison sought to expose what he read as the treachery and fraudulence of spiritualism, the grassroots cultural movement that claimed to promote communication with the dead. In his pamphlet on the subject, Mattison mocks and debunks this "grand climax" of "all other superstitions, delusions, and isms" which had, nonetheless, by 1850, a reported two million followers. Waxing incredulous throughout his little book, Mattison is perhaps most mystified and offended by the "spirit-dancers" in his midst, spiritualist practitioners who claimed to summon multiple spirits in rapid succession through their bodies while in the throes of dance. In what Mattison viewed as a bogus and blasphemous hoax for the ages, these dancers would proceed, enraptured by movement, parading a string of "'national characters'" from a "shaker" and "a negro" to an "'old maid,' [and] an Indian chief," meeting in the veil, and "descend[ing] upon a circle of media, enter[ing] their bodies, and set[ing] them to dancing." The alleged performance reaches a climax when the spirit-dancers end their "physical demonstration" by "act[ing] out the ... characters that had entered them." A spectacle of miscegenous encounter, spiritualism creates, for Mattison in this scene and others, a horrifying taxonomic crisis as women, Indians, and Negroes collide and coalesce on the dance floor. Coupling and conjoining at the site of the spiritualist medium's body, these ethnic phantoms find voice in the figure of the most often white and female spiritualist who captures and reanimates marginal "characters" across the great racial, cultural, and spiritual divide, "acting out" and performing their residue long after they have withdrawn from their host. Like the "racially equivocal" figures of Victorian fiction that operate as "feminized penetrated figures" who are "vehicles of impurity," the spirit-dancing body "contaminates," "confounds and confuses" putatively impermeable racial and cultural borders. Accordingly, Mattison's attempt to "unveil" these rappers manifests a deep-rooted anxiety of loss, the loss of social and cultural categories, the loss of a simplistic ontological certainty born out of naïve and solipsistic Eurocentric patriarchy, and perhaps most prominently the loss of epistemological clarity in reading, categorizing, and circumscribing bodies through discursive, political, and juridical means.

But while Mattison may have aimed, through his fire-and-brimstone text, to halt the onset of spiritualist mania, he had clearly overlooked the fact that this alternative religious zeal was hardly anything new. With its spectacular display of possessed mediums and commanding trance speakers, spiritualism owed much to a hybrid jumble of popular nineteenth-century show culture rituals and diasporic religious practices. Erupting out of a broad transatlantic network of social and cultural performances that depended on corporeal conversion and fluidity, spirit-rapping, like other early-nineteenth-century theatrical genres, rehearsed the convertibility of the body. Spectacles of transfiguration were manifest in the spectral technology of early 1800s English show culture. Phantasmagoria shows, as they were known, served as the centerpiece of "illusionistic exhibitions" in which "magic lanterns" cranked out "specters" for spellbound crowds. For many, the fundamental attraction of the phantasmagoria show resided in its ability to stage the illusion of ephemeral bodies—"phantoms"—parading before audiences while altering size, advancing toward and retreating away from spectator, and passing into and through one another. Appearing to be both riddled with ontological breaks and ruptures and yet fluid and concatenate, these metamorphic and "discontinuous" bodies floated through an evolving English popular cultural imaginary.

American spiritualism absorbed the corporeal fundamentals of phantasmagoria and resituated these tropes in a volatile pre-Civil War landscape. A radical act of "desegregating the dead," the spirit-rapping sensation of mid-century North America further disrupted a country wrangling with borders between north and south, black and white, master and slave. Practiced principally by whites, spirit-rapping flourished largely within racially circumscribed confines. Historian Jon Butler in fact maintains that the movement "never transcended the lines of class and race as it spread across the country." Yet one could argue that, despite its putative social divisions, spiritualism's philosophical emphasis on metamorphosis posed an ideological resistance to the cultural politics of segregation. In its spectacular dance contests alone, spiritualism continuously flirted with the disruption of presumably arbitrary racial, gender, and class boundaries. In this regard, perhaps no cultural performance ritual figuratively and corporeally encompassed the turbulence of 1850s American culture and reflected the dissonant landscape of nineteenth-century transatlantic popular culture more so than spirit-rapping.

Bodies (Un)Bound

A kind of "gothic romance," spiritualist practices were not unlike the narratives that Toni Morrison has famously found to be so densely suggestive and evocative of early-nineteenth-century America. Like Melville's oceanic frontier narratives and Poe's haunted excavations of the psychic wilderness, spiritualism too served to articulate Americans' "fear of boundarylessness, of Nature unbridled and crouched for attack.... their fear of loneliness, of aggression both external and internal. In short, the terror of human freedom—the thing they coveted most of all." In the same way that Morrison identifies a "dark, abiding, signing" Africanist presence which haunts early Anglo-American literature, so too might we think of Anglo spiritualism as "haunted" by African religious practices. It, in effect, unveiled a repressed and "African way of remembering" (black) bodies and the "socially dead." Toiling at the intersections of the spirit and the flesh, roaming the unmined borders of the afterlife, the spiritualist imagination mirrored that of its literary counterpart. By attempting to elasticize the framework of mortality, spiritualism aimed to "conquer fear imaginatively" by pursuing questions of liberty and self-possession, loss and recuperation. The rituals challenged the limits of freedom in both the spirit and the flesh. To the many social and political reformers who were quick to embrace this movement, spiritualism represented a renewal in faith and offered both the opportunity for "self-purification" and a broader spiritual reawakening of the nation.

Geared toward fostering a "co-mingling of souls," spirit-rapping negotiated the provocative conflict between the ambiguous affirmation of self-possession and corporeal agency and the abdication of that very autonomy. Opening up the body to serve as a conduit of transpersonal contact, communal desire, and knowledge, the movement promoted the spectacle of cultural encounter and likewise manifested the conflicting agendas of abolitionism. With its struggle to simultaneously endorse the individualism and sovereignty of the enslaved, abolitionism similarly promoted an empathic process of identifying with and thereby perhaps eclipsing the subjectivity of the enslaved altogether. Not surprisingly, Anglo-American abolitionists as many and varied as Amy and Isaac Post, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison championed spiritualism at various stages of their careers. Other reformists seized on spiritualism as providing an additional sounding board for the millennial movement's ominous jeremiad of the 1850s, a wishful foretelling of America's (re)unification with the spirit world.

But whereas some high-profile antislavery figures evolved into even "more ardent champions of spiritualism," others such as Lydia Maria Child and Thomas Wentworth Higginson "constantly tried to distinguish their own beliefs from those of the mass of Spiritualists who flocked to witness sensational demonstrations." Hiram Mattison rose out of this latter pack to underscore his role as a reformist and a fervent antispiritualist. In his written work, Mattison strove to reveal the "fraud" of the ephemeral "frontier" which the Posts and others attempted to traverse. But unlike Child, Mattison waged a fight against spiritualism that rested less on exposing the movement's threat to conventional religious practices and the "authority of the Bible" (Braude, Radical Spirits, 28) and more so on literally exposing the body of the medium. His Spirit Rapping Unveiled goes to great lengths to detect and destroy the work of a colorful array of alleged crooks, charlatans, and bohemian interlopers. Likewise, his text takes aim at spiritualism's Swedenborgian-influenced "theory of 'progress.'" Nothing could be more absurd, Unveiled! suggests, than the notion that spirits have the ability to advance through evolutionary spheres (SRU, 2021). Roaming this haphazard universe of "porous bodies" and reckless soul swapping, Mattison works assiduously to separate and re-stabilize the "magnetized" figures (SRU, 54) from opposing electrical states who couple, collide, and collude in a turbulent intercourse of the spirits.

Yet in this raucous world of transgressed spheres and dissolving barriers where bodies remain vulnerable to violation and penetration, Mattison confronts a troubling ontological dilemma. "But suppose," he queries, "one of the 'lower spirits' ... having got possession of the medium's body, and crowded his soul out into the disembodied state, should refuse to go out of the body ... what would the poor medium do?" Sensing the chaos that might erupt on the medium's corporeal frontier, Mattison appears to recognize how spirit-rapping dangerously fostered a culture with no borders at all. Only a bit of sardonic wit might provide a salve to this otherworldly anarchy on the horizon: "In the case cited by Mr. Ballou, the spirit of a deceased gentleman enters the body of a young lady! Adin's soul in Alice's body!! Well, then, which is it, Alice or Adin? a lady or a gentleman?" (SRU, 68-69). Perplexed by the distressed boundaries at hand, Mattison waxes anxious about spiritualism's potential to render bodies completely unreadable. Under the aegis of the "Sacred Scriptures," he sets out in his text to discredit and to still the mobility of spiritualist practitioners.

Mattison would direct much of his ire toward the female spiritualist in particular, and his Unveiled would serve as a critical platform on which to disparage "the medium [who] must give herself entirely up to the control of the spirits; that is, abandon herself to her imagination" (SRU, 55). The very question of female agency and the use of the female body as an instrument of some "other" (aesthetic, spiritual) power runs as a seething subtext to Mattison's presumably high-minded social and sacred concerns. Still more, his quest to unveil the "truth" about the spiritualist female figure affords him a Coverdale-esque "veil" of his own. Beneath the aegis of his altruistic agenda lies a prurient spectator who imparts a patriarchal gaze of detection onto the bodies of liminal mediums. For as he speculates, this damned mob of rapping women might, in fact, harbor some essential "electrical affinity" which makes them more susceptible to communications with the dead. Mattison conflates his naked suspicion of spiritualism with his more subtle paranoia of women, and he speculates that the female domination of the field perhaps owes to the fact that "ladies would ... be less liable to detection and exposure?" Hence, he assures that "[w]hether the 'spirits' think of it or not, we mortals know that their sex and costume is a fine security against detection" (SRU, 58). The crux of his discursive manhunt remains exposure. Abject and "unveiled," the medium remains under attack here as Mattison aims to restrict the ephemeral and ideological mobility of spiritualist practitioners. The text insists that women's "natural" sex covers over the flesh and essentially veils them. In Mattison's charged and unstable universe, women are naturally fraudulent and thus always threatening with a hidden agenda, and to be sure, always in need of a vigorous "unveiling." The tactical aim of his book, then, remains to strip these eccentric bodies of their polyvalent power, to make the spiritualist's figure speak a singular and innocuous "truth." Forced into a cyclical maze of logic, Mattison's work depends on unseating the spirit-rapper's potential for intellectual and aesthetic polymorphousness and ambiguity. Yet simultaneously the text imbues these same women with social and cultural abstraction by reacting to their putative power to mask and convert their bodies into instruments of deception.

With his palpably anxious regard for border crossing apparent, it comes as little surprise that Mattison would carry his obsession with ambiguous (female) corporeality forward and directly into the culture of slavery. Turning to yet another sort of corporeal medium, he focused his attention on the "300,000 mulattos" rearing their disconcerting faces in America's racial quagmire. Still fascinated with liminal bodies when he turned toward the plight of "the Octoroon," Mattison translated his interests and anxieties into racial terms. In 1860, Mattison took up the cause of Louisa Picquet, a freed Louisiana slave who was touring the midwest and the northeast struggling to raise funds to free her mother in bonds. Mattison's subsequent participation in the production of the 1861 text Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life is such that he alternates between interviewing the former bondswoman and intervening as narrator in Picquet's abolitionist text and her quest for freedom. Displaying a relentless interest in the (un)readability of the light-skinned Picquet, Mattison assures that no one "would suspect" that she "had a drop of African blood in her veins." Peculiarly drawn to "white slaves" and physical affliction, Mattison repeatedly returns in his interrogation of his subject to the petrified flesh of Picquet and others who "looked like her," who faced the whip and who were "stripped and examined" under the evil eye of slavery.

The strategic abolitionist rhetoric of this questioning is, no doubt, evident here. The racial liminality of "mulattas" such as Picquet exposes the inevitable fallacies of a system that relies on the mythical quantification of blood to define racial categories. Although slavery was fueled by the "power" to "make all slaves black regardless of their seeming whiteness," "white" slaves served as the ultimate appeal to abolitionist audiences since they called into question the logic of enslaving people according to "blackness." Conversely, the white mulatta's bondage threatens to destabilize the security and authority of the white reader/spectator whose subjectivity is fundamentally challenged by this spectacle of confluence. For, as many have noted, it is at the point where difference is indiscernible that problems occur. Unlike "the ideal spectator" who, Kristina Straub claims, "is not only detached from the spectacle [but] almost, indeed, invisible himself in his relation to the visible ... benignly distant from the objects of his gaze," Mattison's interrogator/detective is, himself, unveiled through the body of Picquet. The white mulatta's body of evidence, her figure (encom)passing the uncanny traces of the familiar and the foreign, makes the violence of his white supremacy spectacularly visible and yet disturbingly contiguous with blackness. By discursively excavating and exhibiting the body of the octoroon, Mattison uncovers the body of white power itself and paradoxically leaves traces of its impurities.

No surprise that Mattison's work hinges on exposing and spectacularizing the white mulatta's figure as a means to demarcate the boundaries of racial difference. In a lengthy exchange between Mattison and Picquet, he asks of her whether she was whipped "hard, so as to raise your marks?" and whether she was "cut through [her] skin?" By framing his interrogation repeatedly in terms that force Picquet to deliver and demonstrate the economy of her physical torture, Mattison defuses the "octoroon's" body of its perplexing, multivalent resonance by reducing her flesh to pure and naked petrified matter. Although he repeatedly draws attention to her visible "whiteness" throughout the narrative, he maintains a steady aim and desire to ritualistically "strip" Picquet of her complex social and historical lineaments in order to clarify and calcify racial boundaries—even at the cost of "whitening" slavery. He assures his readers that "notwithstanding the fair complexion and lady-like bearing of Mrs. Picquet, she is of African descent ... an octoroon or eighth blood," and he marches righteously toward his fiercely segregatory conclusions.

Fixated as much on the confusing ocular politics of race as he is on the confounding porousness of the female medium, Mattison holds a penchant for "scrutinizing the body for signs of buried black life" and this obsession steers his literary collaboration with Louisa Picquet. As he had before in his anti-rapping treatise, Mattison steams ahead here toward properly resituating Picquet's haphazard, racially phantasmagoric body in mythically stable blackness. For Mattison, Louisa Picquet's narrative pivots on the reader's acceptance of his insistence that she is "black" despite her phenotypical "whiteness." His race for Picquet thus manifests "a factitious public discourse concerning the 'blood' and 'breeding,' the dominant mode [which] succeeds in transposing the real into the mythical/magical." Like the spiritualist medium, Picquet's white mulatta body "functions as a floating signifier ... [s]he is perpetually being erased or effaced in an effort to stabilize (reify) the tenuous, permeable boundaries between white and black, high and low, male and female, England and America, pure and impure" (Brody, Impossible Purities, 18). In response to this "category crisis," Mattison anoints himself as a discursive street-cleaner of sorts, wiping away these "polluted" bodies from the interstices of social and cultural dislocation. His work as author/editor "projects white desire onto 'mulatta' bodies by emphasizing the paternal and the patriarchal, the phallic and juridical Law of the (white) Father."


Excerpted from Bodies in Dissent by Daphne A. Brooks. Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

1. Our Bodies, Our/Selves 14

Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle

2. The Escape Artist 66

Henry Box Brown, Black Abolitionist Performance, and Moving Panoramas of Slavery

3. “The Deeds Done in My Body” 131

Performance, Black(ened) Women, and Adah Isaacs Menken in the Racial Imaginary

4. Alien/Nation 207

Re-Imagining the Black Body (Politic) in Williams and Walker’s In Dahomey

5. Divas and Diasporic Consciousness 281

Song, Dance, and New Negro Womanhood in the Veil

Epilogue 343

Theatre, Black Women, and Change

Notes 349

Bibliography 417

Index 455

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