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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Restructuring Respectability, Gender, and Power: Aida Overton Walker Performs a Black Feminist Resistance


Aida Overton Walker, a premier vaudeville entertainer, engaged in a calculated, career-long process to restructure and re-present how African Americans, particularly black women in popular theater, were viewed and perceived in American society. Through a feminist lens this essay will demonstrate her awareness of her visual presence to perform black resistance by embodying the ideological practice of racial uplift—the response delivered by the African American, educated, middle-class elite to the anti-black racist environment prevalent in the early 1900s.

The goal of this essay is to elucidate Overton Walker’s understanding of her image and her onstage performance career—choreography, dance, comedy, and drama—as powerful, subversive tools that countered the virulent racist portrayal of blacks rendered on the vaudeville stage through minstrelsy, and the damaging imagery persisting from slavery, white supremacy, and the prevailing Jim Crow regime. She enacted her brand of feminism to utilize her onstage and offstage likenesses to perform and proselytize for racial uplift, work traditionally designated almost exclusively for the black male elite.

Overton Walker’s transnational forms of black resistance reside in her direct engagement in Britain and her indirect and imagined connections with the African continent. She is an understudied figure in the era of the New Negro. This essay will illuminate and consider her contributions to racial uplift in context to the US and abroad. Overton Walker’s transnational links between the African continent, Great Britain, and America were transformative performances in popular culture, and in context of an emerging American modernity.


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