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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Real Blackness is Played Out: Blackness and the Politics of Performance

  • Author(s): Stephens, Brian Curry
  • Advisor(s): Finch, Aisha K
  • et al.

The eighteenth century American popular art-form known as blackface minstrelsy was an often severely reductive or wholly fabricated rendering of black American life. The absence of representational complexity in the related blackface visual iconography was also appalling. Many black cultural workers or "black uplift" advocates countered the discursive violence of blackface minstrelsy through producing "positive" representations of black people. In the post-civil rights era the archetypes of blackface minstrelsy continue to implicitly shape perceptions of black people despite the significant cultural and political gains of the recent past. However, the politics of black uplift and the racist

imaginary have been unlikely partners in attempting to permanently fix the meanings and representations of blackness. Counter to anti-racist commonsense, I argue that black performances of minstrel iconography might present a sardonic challenge to both hermeneutic projects. Specifically, this study examines the art of Kara Walker and the literature of Darius James as two examples of black cultural workers that utilize performance as an analytic vehicle to challenge the essentialist politics of black uplift and the racist/racialist imaginary.

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