Do the ends justify the means In Dahomey?

In Dahomey was certainly a play that pushed the boundaries of Black theatre in America in the early 20th century. It gave Black people the opportunity to change their narrative and tell a story that did not solely conform to the rigid stereotypes of minstrelsy. They gave their characters unique personalities and depth and sent them on a national adventure. Nonetheless, the production team still decided not to stray to far from the status quo. They still wore blackface, still did cakewalks, and still ridiculed their own race. In essence, as Daphne Brooks put it, they “straddle the boundaries between an ‘authentic’ and ‘fanciful’ blackness”(223). However, can they really be authentic while still actively portraying stereotypes put on them by their oppressors? Further, can they truly progress if they are still pandering to their oppressors? It seems that the production team was not willing to fully revolutionize the industry but make enough changes to put them closer to where they wanted to be in due time. This, unsurprisingly, was met with backlash from not only white critics but Black ones as well. In trying to appease both sides, they did just the opposite. White critics complained that it was “insufficiently Negroid” (210) and that it “gives us the negro who has assimilated what is worst in European civilization instead of the negro at best, in close and sympathetic touch with nature” (234). They did not care about the talent of the actors or the plot development, but solely the usual stereotypes that were not present. On the other hand, Black critics complained that it was not pushing the boundaries enough. Both questioned its political and cultural relevance. This begs the question of whether they should have just made the production void of all minstrel stereotypes. I, for one, think they should have produced a play that was as “authentic” and “natural” as possible to them. I understand why they chose to straddle the boundaries as they were in a precarious economic and social situation. It was used as a stepping stone to advance their careers as entertainers, playwrights, composers, etc. However, because they chose to compromise, I don’t think this play made as much of a social impact as they claimed it would’ve.

One Reply to “Do the ends justify the means In Dahomey?”

  1. This is a very interesting point to make that draws me back to our conversation in class about modern influencers (i.e. King Bach) who utilize their race by portraying offensive racial stereotypes in order to generate content. Every time that I have seen content from these creators, it always strikes me as counterintuitive how they would portray something so offensive to their own race. I can definitely see this in “In Dahomey” as well, as I also found myself quite confused by it.

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