Synopses & Reviews
In Darkening Mirrors, Stephanie Leigh Batiste examines how African Americans participated in U.S. cultural imperialism in Depression-era stage and screen performances. A population treated as second-class citizens at home imagined themselves as empowered, modern U.S. citizens and transnational actors in plays, operas, ballets, and films. Many of these productions, such as the 1938 hits Haiti and The andquot;Swingandquot; Mikado recruited large casts of unknown performers, involving the black community not only as spectators but also as participants. Performances of exoticism, orientalism, and primitivism are inevitably linked to issues of embodiment, including how bodies signify blackness as a cultural, racial, and global category. Whether enacting U.S. imperialism in westerns, dramas, dances, songs, jokes, or comedy sketches, African Americans maintained a national identity that registered a diasporic empowerment and resistance on the global stage. Boldly addressing the contradictions in these performances, Batiste challenges the simplistic notion that the oppressed cannot identify with oppressive modes of power and enact themselves as empowered subjects. Darkening Mirrors adds nuance and depth to the history of African American subject formation and stage and screen performance.
andquot;In Darkening Mirrors, Stephanie Leigh Batiste rigorously explores black Americans' complicity in imperialist discourse at the height of the Depression era. She makes an important, enlivening contribution to a growing body of scholarship examining some of the more complicated and ambiguous political affiliations of black cultural producers of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. This is a tremendously provocative study.andquot;andmdash;Daphne Brooks, author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850andndash;1910
“In Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression Era African American Performance, Stephanie Leigh Batiste argues that black arts and ‘uplift’ movements as embodied in popular performance participated in the larger imperial and nationalist projects of the United States in the 1930s as well as resisting the dominant culture’s racism. In a series of vividly illuminating readings of films and stage shows—from the Federal Theatre Project’s ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth, and the Swing Mikado to Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag Ya—she makes her case stick, and she makes it sting. Even while critiquing the colonialist implications of film and dance ethnographer, however, Batiste has written a beautiful evocation of their achievement in asserting the preeminence of African and Afro-diasporic arts on the national and transnational scene.”—Joseph Roach, Yale University
andquot;Darkening Mirrors is a powerful argument that during the 1930s, African American popular performers took part in U.S. imperial and nationalist projects even as they resisted the dominant culture's racism. In vivid, illuminating readings of films and stage showsandmdash;from The andquot;Swingandquot; Mikado and the Federal Theater Project's 'voodoo' Macbeth to Katherine Dunhamandrsquo;s concert ballet L'Ag'Yaandmdash;Stephanie Leigh Batiste makes her case stick, and she makes it sting. At the same time, she writes beautifully about how black Americans asserted the genius of African and Afro-diasporic arts on the national and transnational scene.andquot;andmdash;Joseph Roach, Yale University
andquot;Darkening Mirrors is an important contribution to thinking about what has been, until now, an undertheorized subject: black Americans' complicity in imperialist discourse. Stephanie Leigh Batiste covers drama, film, and dance; analyzes texts that have received little critical attention; and brings the insights of postcolonial, critical race, performance, and theater studies to bear on complex issues of power, desire, imperialism, aesthetics, and racial solidarity. Her nuanced readings of Depression-era performances show not only how African Americans were implicated in the quest to solidify American imperialism and the colonization of the 'racial other,' but also how they rejected those same projects through performance practices including costume, set design, speech, movement, and music.andquot;andmdash;E. Patrick Johnson, author of Appropriating Blacknesss: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity
andldquo;What separates Batisteandrsquo;s work from the existing literature is her ability to pinpoint how modern black film, theater, and dance performances repurposed normative gazes, racist imagery, and dominant narratives to relocate black identities from the margins to a reimagined center.... Batiste achieves an impressive balance....andrdquo;
andldquo;Throughout, [Batisteandrsquo;s] analysis is rich and meticulous, grounded in and facile at negotiating and nuancing the subtleties of racial and postcolonial theory. Indeed, by demonstrating the variety of ways that black performers in this period not only engaged but also expanded, refined, challenged, and subverted the meaning of blackness in American culture, Batisteandrsquo;s book itself and#39;performsand#39; important cultural work.andrdquo;
andldquo;Darkening Mirrors provides insightful detailed critical commentary on theatricality and aesthetics as well as a wealth of details on the milieu and audience responses, with concentrated attention to issues related to empowerment and disempowerment. Batiste is especially strong in revealing the complicated duality for blacks in assuming the imperial culture and protesting against it.andrdquo;
andldquo;Resisting simplification at every turn, Darkening Mirrors deftly describes the complicated negotiations Depression-era African-American performers entered into with the hopes of incorporating themselves within a national bodyandhellip;. Darkening Mirrors is a thoughtful and rigorous study of an underexamined era of black performance. Batisteandrsquo;s book not only draws attention to an all-too-frequently neglected body of work, it also offers a theoretical corrective to the impulse to position black cultural workers as either heroes or villains.andrdquo;
andldquo;What makes Darkening Mirrors an important contribution to postcolonial studies, performance studies and area studies is that it strengthens our empirical understanding of black performance past and present so as to better theorize both temporalities. Batiste implicitly expands our understanding of the governmentalities that structure modernist artistic discourse in the twentieth century. In the end, Darkening Mirrors skilfully brings together the aesthetic and national to deepen our understanding of these operations.andrdquo;
An analysis of imperialist imagery in Depression-era African American stage and screen productions.
Darkening Mirrors analyzes the complicated relationships between African American identity, as reflected in performances, and the forces of imperialist and racial oppression.
About the Author
Stephanie Leigh Batiste is a performance artist and Associate Professor of English and Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Table of Contents
List of Figures ix
1. andquot;Harlem Rides the Rangeandquot;: Expansion, Modernity, and Negro Success 27
2. Epaulets and Leaf Skirts, Warriors, and Subversives: Exoticism in the Performance of the Haitian Revolution 70
3. Prisms of Imperial Gaze: Swinging the Negro Mikado 115
4. Lens/Body: Anthropology's Methodologies and Spaces of Reflection in Dunham's Diaspora 165
5. Ethnographic Refraction: Exoticism and Diasporic Sisterhood in The Devil's Daughter 201
6. No Storm in the Weather: Domestic Bliss and African American Performance 228