Progressive Mindsets in In Dahomey

The Lightfoot family in In Dahomey can be seen as representing very clear differences between the mindsets of black people in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Mr. Lightfoot, Mrs. Lightfoot, and Rosetta each exhibit varying degrees of a “progressive” mindset, showcased in Act two of the play. Mr. Lightfoot is the least progressive of the three. He is a well-off black man in the south, due to his former master’s death. He was left his former master’s house and wealth, and now his family lives pretty well. However, Mr. Lightfoot insists on continuing to call Mr. Goodman “Mars John”, and reminiscing about his past life with his master. There almost seems to be some form of respectability politics at play here, though not in the usual sense. Usually, respectability politics are a performance for white society; however, “Mars John” is dead, and therefore Mr. Lightfoot is only “performing” to himself, which seems to suggest it is not a performance at all. It appears that Mr. Lightfoot believes that “Mars John” is the respectful title, despite all the connotations and history that come with that term. Mrs. Lightfoot has a slightly more progressive mindset than Mr. Lightfoot. She very clearly takes issue with Mr. Lightfoot’s references to Mr. Goodman as “Mars John”, and makes sure to tell her husband so. She scolds him throughout the play for it, and doesn’t allow her own opinion to be nullified when Mr. Lightfoot continues to use the title “Mars John”. However, Mrs. Lightfoot is still less progressive than their daughter, Rosetta. Rosetta has at least two songs where she refers to a wish for black people to be treated equally to white people – one literally called “Leader of the Colored Aristocracy”, and one that discusses how a smart black girl got into a private, mostly white school because of her ability rather than money. While we don’t see Rosetta’s thoughts about calling Mr. Goodman “Mars John”, we can see that her mother seems to think that she is a little too progressive when she tells Mr. Lightfoot, “She might mean well, but she never does well.” These levels of progression in one family could quite easily be adapted to fit the progressions of the mindsets of black society at the time.

One Reply to “Progressive Mindsets in In Dahomey”

  1. I think we could also see Rosetta as emblematic of the Harlem Renaissance. She never gives her opinion on her father calling Mr. Goodman “Mars John” because she represents a youth culture in the African-American community that wants nothing to do with the history of slavery. In some ways, Mr. Lightfoot earned his wealth through work, which aligns with the old order of African-American thought that sought autonomy through economic means. Rosetta represents a new order that wants to rise through the arts and through their abilities.

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