This week’s readings were an interesting extension of our conversations about minstrelsy, making a different framework for considering its role in racial history and identity. White people donning blackface and performing their ideas about blackness clearly and overtly comes from racist narratives and a desire for Irish and other immigrants to separate themselves in order to be read as white. Brooks’ ideas about minstrelsy in The Octoroon provided the first complication to this reading, demonstrating the subversive places where minstrelsy actually allows these identities to interact, creating the space for racially liminal bodies. The racial nuance of In Dahomey takes this one step further. As a piece of traveling theater, it powerfully allowed for a reclamation of black narratives and bodies through an overtly racist medium.
Williams and Walker factor into themes of exhibitionism and exchange of their era. Getting their start in performing africaness at a world’s fair, they not only demonstrate their cultural distance from the “homeland” they enact in In Dahomey, they also begin to participate in the various ways identity was codified — it wasn’t just minstrelsy on the stage. Their performance of blackness on stage, however, is meant to serve a distinctly different purpose than the otherness on display at the fairs. In Dahomey was pushing for a collective artistic agenda, cleverly allowing for empowerment under the guise of debasement or debauchery. As every creative mind involved in the performance was black, they could take back this medium that was used against them and repurpose it right under the nose of white audiences. I still have some questions about their enactment about this however, and our discussions of the successfulness of this kind of subversion touched on that. In Dahomey demonstrates the imposition of structures of racism and racial identity constructions that make its subversive elements hard or impossible to read by contemporary white audiences. Does its artistic vision and reclamation of these tropes by cooperative black efforts counteract the continued performance of blackness as an other? As a transitional piece, from our 21st century perspective, I think it can be constructively read both ways — despite the fact that it presents racist tropes of performative blackness, it was a step forward and a form of empowerment necessary to make space for later black performers and allowing them to perform without needing to perform race as well.