Bodies in Dissent

Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910

Bodies in Dissent

Book Pages: 488 Illustrations: 23 illustrations Published: July 2006

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Theater and Performance > Theater, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

In Bodies in Dissent Daphne A. Brooks argues that from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, black transatlantic activists, actors, singers, and other entertainers frequently transformed the alienating conditions of social and political marginalization into modes of self-actualization through performance. Brooks considers the work of African American, Anglo, and racially ambiguous performers in a range of popular entertainment, including racial melodrama, spectacular theatre, moving panorama exhibitions, Pan-Africanist musicals, Victorian magic shows, religious and secular song, spiritualism, and dance. She describes how these entertainers experimented with different ways of presenting their bodies in public—through dress, movement, and theatrical technologies—to defamiliarize the spectacle of “blackness” in the transatlantic imaginary.

Brooks pieces together reviews, letters, playbills, fiction, and biography in order to reconstruct not only the contexts of African American performance but also the reception of the stagings of “bodily insurgency” which she examines. Throughout the book, she juxtaposes unlikely texts and entertainers in order to illuminate the complicated transatlantic cultural landscape in which black performers intervened. She places Adah Isaacs Menken, a star of spectacular theatre, next to Sojourner Truth, showing how both used similar strategies of physical gesture to complicate one-dimensional notions of race and gender. She also considers Henry Box Brown’s public re-enactments of his escape from slavery, the Pan-Africanist discourse of Bert Williams’s and George Walker’s musical In Dahomey (1902–04), and the relationship between gender politics, performance, and New Negro activism in the fiction of the novelist and playwright Pauline Hopkins and the postbellum stage work of the cakewalk dancer and choreographer Aida Overton Walker. Highlighting the integral connections between performance and the construction of racial identities, Brooks provides a nuanced understanding of the vitality, complexity, and influence of black performance in the United States and throughout the black Atlantic.


Bodies in Dissent offers a complex, fascinating, and theoretically rich account of how African Americans used performance strategies to construct resistant bodies and identities during slavery and in the years following. . . . This broadly interdisciplinary study draws on performance theory, feminist theory, literature, and the history of the theater. . . . Brooks provides a theoretical scaffolding that is sensitive and nuanced. Her approach is particularly interesting when she is examining the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and other categories of identity. In fact, the more complex the performance, the better Brooks’s reading.” — Alison Piepmeier, Legacy

“A very rich, meticulously researched and carefully detailed analysis of the lives and times of her chosen subjects. . . . Placing performance within the politics of the day, the corporeal within the cultural inscriptions of gendered and racialised bodies, and complex texts within equally complex contexts, Bodies in Dissent is a fine example of cultural analysis at its most worthy and its most compelling.” — Vivian Muller, M/C Reviews

“[A]n extraordinarily erudite work that will make a lasting contribution to American theatre scholarship.” — Heather S. Nathans, Theatre History Studies

“[Brooks makes] unique and engaging insights . . . and Bodies in Dissent is a considerable contribution to the fields of performance and African American studies.” — Sinead Moynihan, Journal of American Studies

“[T]he case studies in Brooks’ Bodies in Dissent articulate an historically and culturally grounded case for specific and purposeful (black) theatricalities against formalist abstraction and modernist appropriation.” — Ric Knowles, South Central Review

“Brooks . . . shows how the once enslaved recast the future self through performance, putting together the shattered pieces of a yesterday edging toward wholeness. In connecting a puzzle of driven, sometimes tragic personalities using the interstices of shifting times to link to the future, Brooks produces a work layered in surprising insights and ancestries.” — Barbara Lewis, Theatre Survey

“Most powerful and original in [Brooks’s] study is her emphasis on Victorian spectacular culture: spiritualism, mesmerism and magic, and its influence on expressive and literary forms. Brooks’ wide-ranging choice of texts and subjects and her unexpected juxtapositions give her analysis a blessedly nonlinear rhythm.” — Jayna Brown, TDR: The Drama Review

“This book will be an instant classic in the field of performance studies. . . . Essential.” — G.R. Butters Jr., Choice

“Vividly detailed and rewarding in its complexity, Bodies in Dissent travels between the cultural landscape of the antebellum and post-Reconstruction United States and the British stage to make a strong case for African American spectacle as a means of achieving freedom in the transatlantic world.” — Lori Harrison-Kahan, Modern Drama

“Daphne A. Brooks has developed a truly wonderful way of matching up odd couples, such as Ada Isaacs Menken and Sojourner Truth, and finding the kinship marks of ‘overlapping diasporas’ in their improbable but richly informative union.” — Joseph Roach, author of Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

“Daphne A. Brooks is a brilliant, creative, and original thinker. Because Brooks so adeptly crosses the disciplinary boundaries of fields as diverse as performance studies, nineteenth-century American literature, and black studies, Bodies in Dissent is an extraordinary model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Brooks’s original archival work coupled with her engagement with recent scholarship in cultural studies and studies of the black Atlantic provides us with a beautifully written exploration and theory of black performance practices.” — Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Daphne A. Brooks is Professor of African American Studies, Theater Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgements ix

1. Our Bodies, Our/Selves 14

Racial Phantasmagoria and Cultural Struggle

2. The Escape Artist 66

Henry Box Brown, Black Abolitionist Performance, and Moving Panoramas of Slavery

3. “The Deeds Done in My Body” 131

Performance, Black(ened) Women, and Adah Isaacs Menken in the Racial Imaginary

4. Alien/Nation 207

Re-Imagining the Black Body (Politic) in Williams and Walker’s In Dahomey

5. Divas and Diasporic Consciousness 281

Song, Dance, and New Negro Womanhood in the Veil

Epilogue 343

Theatre, Black Women, and Change

Notes 349

Bibliography 417

Index 455
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3722-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3710-2
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