It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything – and more than a few since I’ve posted anything substantial, mostly owing to being lazy and depressed but more the former. I’m going to go back and flesh out my previous book review after this, but be warned: the book I am about to review is going to be eating my blog over the next few days. Indeed, the work of theory which I am about to share with you is one that is substantial, inspirational, in a bizarre coincidence, completely relevant to several of this past week’s biggest news stories.
I’m talking about Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, the master work on all things African-American and representational, by one incredible writer and researcher, Daphne A. Brooks. I’m telling you, this book is a gold standard for understanding issues of race and gender, especially that of the African-American female, from an artistic yet practical angle. If anything that I’ve described piques your fancy, read on, because this book delivers.
As I was saying before, this book goes there, in terms of discussing race, gender, and everywhere in between. There is so much going on in this book that this review could turn into either something completely pointless and superficial, or long enough to occupy a trip to the DMV. I’m aiming for a happy medium.
Brooks starts her first chapter, “Our Bodies Our/Selves: Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle” with mention of the oddities of spiritualism, as seen by Reverend Hiram Mattison in 1853. He describes a “collision of cultures” where men, women, “Negroes,” Indians, and ghosts intermingle in religious zeal. In terms of spiritualism, not uncommon, but as far as a mixing of races, quite a shocker. This leads to a discussion of the character in Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a play I admit to not being as familiar with as I should, so look out for that in a future Flip the Script, maybe. The chapter concludes with a discussion of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the “blackening” of the evil Hyde character in performance, which is interesting, because the one performance of Jekyll and Hyde that I saw had a multi-racial cast, with Lucy being black, Emma being white, and Jekyll/Hyde himself being white.
Chapter 2 jumps into the juicy details of Henry Box Brown and how, as a black slave in the South, he put himself in a box and mailed himself to freedom – twice, in fact, and the second time across the Atlantic, to Leeds – and the levels of theory which go along with this “performance,” from in/visibility to traveling to a reversal of the slave trade corollary. Of particular interest later in the chapter, on page 79, is the coining of the word “peristrephic,” meant to described something rotary or revolving, in reference to the “moving panorama” form of entertainment that had arisen in England in the 1790s, wherein a canvas moved on rollers to give the sense of a changing of scenery and of evolution, and how this medium effectively portrayed the timeline of slavery in the United States, ergo, to a timeline of African-American identity. There was even a moving panorama depicting the Henry Box Brown story.
Chapter 3 turns the focus to women, and to the very interesting and enigmatic Adah Isaacs Menken. I’m not going to go too much into her at the moment, you’ll see why later. But suffice it to say, she had a pretty interesting story in her life and work. And there’s burlesque. That too.
Chapter 4 was actually the reason I became of aware of this book in the first place; it was my topic for presentation in my Theatre History class last year. Entitled “Alien/Nation,” it discusses In Dahomey, the first musical written by blacks for blacks, and played to success of two different kinds, both on Broadway and across the pond. The content of this musical proved to be meta, with a re-imagination of Africa from an African-American, once-removed perspective. And of course, there’s the proliferation of the cakewalk, an incredibly popular dance craze. Overall, it “enacted a struggle to dream intensely, and to employ what could only be read as fantasy sequences which served as responses to a naturalizing discourse which render Africa and African Americans as dreamless subjects. As cultural documentation alone, In Dahomey reveals ‘things Negroes were not supposed to think about, or were considered incapable of thinking about'” (Brooks 268).
Chapter 5 is called “Diva and Diasporic Consciousness,” and discusses the “New Negro Womanhood.” Subjects it includes are Pauline Hopkins’ varying characterizations of the Negro Women in Peculiar Sam, or the Underground Railroad, as well as Of One’s Blood. I especially enjoyed reading about the history of the dialect. Brooks returns to Aida Overton Walker, one of the stars of In Dahomey, in her discussion of Walker’s “Salome” dance, an embracing of black sexuality through a silent, veiled performance. An interesting bit of useful theory comes on page 338, regarding Walker’s portrayal of Salome as an act of resistance. Dance theorist Susan Leigh Foster sees the historical evolution of 18th/19th century Western dance as a performance in which bodies became “no-bodies,” by which she means that they achieved a “mastery over bodily display,” which “signaled an entirely new relationship between body and self, one that dismissed the body as an intersubjective discursive field,” making the dancing body into a figure filled in (and filled out) by the story being told by the dancer.
Overall, if you’re really, really interested in this type of theory or whatnot, or you have a lot of time to kill, get this book and look it over to fill in the gaps I left in this review. Despite the subject matter, the vocabulary is not exceedingly difficult, and I feel like just about anyone who is remotely interested in this topic could glean something from this book that could inform their further research, whether it be in academia or in merely observing media or the life occurring around them.
And of course, here come the lists of theory books I need to read now as a result:
- George L. Barclay, The Life and Career of Adah Isaacs Menken
- Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret
- Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess (wtf? how’d this end up as a primary?)
- Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood
- Pauline Hopkins, Peculiar Sam
- Adah Isaacs Menken, Infelicia
- Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave
- T. A. Palmer, East Lynne
- Rachel Adams, Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
- Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture
- Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth Century United States
- James Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum
- Jane C. Desmond, Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance
- Gary D. Engle, This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage
- Earl Wesley Fornell, The Unhappy Medium: Spiritualism and the Life of Margaret Fox
- Noel B. Gerson, Queen of the Plaza: A Biography of Adah Isaacs Menken
- David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry
- David Krasner, A Beautiful Pageant: African American Theatre, Drama, and Performance in the Harlem Renaissance, 1910-1927
- Allen F. Lesser, Enchanting Rebel: The Secret of Adah Isaacs Menken
- Allen F. Lesser, Weave a Wreath of Laurel: The Lives of Four Jewish Contributors to American Civilization
- Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England
- Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the Politics of Performance
- Renee M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity
- Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas
- Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
- Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
Clearly, I have my work cut out for me. Good night, everybody!