Stephanie Batiste Darkening Mirrors –– Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance.
(Santa Barbara, Calif.) –– As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Stephanie Batiste saw a photograph of seven African American performers dressed in leaf costumes for a 1930's production of "Macbeth." She wondered how it could be that "these black men were dressed up like savages in a black show." That image became the genesis of her doctoral dissertation, and now serves as the cover art for her new book, "Darkening Mirrors –– Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance" (Duke University Press, 2011).
In her book, Batiste, an associate professor of English and of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, examines ways in which African Americans imagined themselves as empowered, modern United States citizens and transnational actors in Depression-era plays, operas, ballets, and films. "That image had me asking in a lot of different ways how these people who were treated as second-class citizens could participate in what are essentially racist, nationalist, global imperialist cultural formations," she explained.
As Batiste describes it, the book is about the promises and failures of American national identity, and the cultural gestures through which that identity is sustained. "Imperialism is about nationhood and power, not only about race," she said. "I don't cast African Americans as perpetrators as racism, it is just one way of framing the question. Instead, they emerge as people who operate fully as Americans in their use of U.S. symbols meaning."
Batiste presents a chapter on orientalism, which studies "The Swing Mikado," a version of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera put to swing music and performed by African Americans in yellow face. "The argument I make is that this is a conduit through which the United States appropriates a British imperial past and activates its own imperial present and future in the Pacific," she said.
From there, she takes a look at ethnographic anthropology as one of the foundational imperialist discourses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, African Americans made strides in anthropology, she noted, including formal training with notables in the field such as Franz Boaz, whom scholars have referred to as the father of modern anthropology.
Finally, she examines the film "Stormy Weather," and discusses how the various resistant and imperial operations of black culture were appropriated by a dominant discourse to reclaim black people as citizens.
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TEXT and IMAGE: University of California CONTACT: Andrea Estrada 805-893-4620 George Foulsham 805-893-3071. FEATURED RESEARCHERS Stephanie Batiste 805-893-5666