Darkening Mirrors

Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance

Darkening Mirrors

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 35 illustrations Published: January 2012

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Theater and Performance > Theater

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 "Swing" 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.


“What separates Batiste’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....” — Marvin McAllister, Journal of American History

“Throughout, [Batiste’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, Batiste’s book itself 'performs' important cultural work.” — Lori Duin Kelly, Journal of American Culture

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.” — Sandra M. Mayo, New Theatre Quarterly

“Batiste’s turn to the 1930s is refreshing, in part because it addresses black performance culture during a less frequently examined decade. Unlike most scholars who study this time period, the author stands apart not by grounding her research in a single locale or regional performance culture (such as  Chicago’s Black Renaissance), but by looking at the ways that performance inspired artists and audiences to look beyond their communities and, indeed, beyond the nation to consider international and transnational issues.” — Harvey Young, Theatre Journal

“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 body…. Darkening Mirrors is a thoughtful and rigorous study of an underexamined era of black performance. Batiste’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.” — Soyica Diggs Colbert, Theatre Research International

“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.” — P. Khalil Saucier, Interventions

“An important contribution . . . Batiste’s work builds on both, extending forward historically and west and south geographically and guiding readers through these haunting, Depression-era works.” — Uri McMillan, Modern Drama

"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 shows—from The "Swing" Mikado and the Federal Theater Project's 'voodoo' Macbeth to Katherine Dunham’s concert ballet L'Ag'Ya—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." — Joseph Roach, Yale University

"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." — E. Patrick Johnson, author of Appropriating Blacknesss: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity

"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." — Daphne Brooks, author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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 Back to Top
List of Figures ix

Prologue xi

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction 1

1. "Harlem Rides the Range": 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

Epilogue 256

Notes 261

Bibliography 299

Index 317
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2011 William Sanders Scarborough Prize, presented by the Modern Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4923-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4898-6
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