Illegible Will

Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora

Book Pages: 280 Illustrations: 7 illustrations Published: March 2017

African Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, Theater and Performance

In Illegible Will Hershini Bhana Young engages with the archive of South African and black diasporic performance to examine the absence of black women's will from that archive. Young argues for that will's illegibility, given the paucity of materials outlining the agency of black historical subjects. Drawing on court documents, novels, photographs, historical records, websites, and descriptions of music and dance, Young shows how black will can be conjured through critical imaginings done in concert with historical research. She critically imagines the will of familiar subjects such as Sarah Baartman and that of obscure figures such as the eighteenth-century slave Tryntjie of Madagascar, who was executed in 1713 for attempting to poison her mistress. She also investigates the presence of will in contemporary expressive culture, such as the Miss Landmine Angola beauty pageant, placing it in the long genealogy of the freak show. In these capacious case studies Young situates South African performance within African diasporic circuits of meaning throughout Africa, North America, and South Asia, demonstrating how performative engagement with archival absence can locate that which was never recorded.


"Illegible Will is a phenomenal book that adds intellectual and theoretical sophistication to the fields of African studies, African history, and African diaspora studies. It has great potential to contribute to the related fields of labor studies, sociology, literary studies, and the performing arts. The book is powerfully written and well researched and is well grounded in the existing scholarship." — Kwaku Nti, Journal of Global South Studies

"This is an eloquent, erudite, interdisciplinary study of centuries of willed relations that have played from Cape Town to New York in an Africanist archive of performance." — Jennifer DeVere Brody, author of Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play

"Illegible Will is, in short, a masterpiece. While it is common to find a book able to shed new light on well-worn material, or that engages with a completely new archive, it is exceedingly rare to find a book that does both. This is such a book. Hershini Bhana Young's interdisciplinary approach weaves imaginative literary renderings with historical documents to create a vibrant and capacious vantage point through which to approach coercive performances. A highly imaginative, poetic, and creative approach to the archive, Illegible Will is of tremendous value for those in performance studies, black studies, literature, queer studies, and dance studies." — Uri McMillan, author of Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Hershini Bhana Young is Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, and the author of Haunting Capital: Memory, Text, and the Black Diasporic Body.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Returning to Hankey: Sarah Baartman and Endless Repatriations  29
2. "Force Refigured as Consent": The Strange Case of Tryntjie of Madagascar  73
3. Performing Debility: Joice Heth and Miss Landmine Angola  109
4. Slow Death: "Indian" Performances of Indenture and Slavery  149
5. Becoming Undone: Performances of Vulnerability  181
Notes  217
Bibliography  249
Index  263
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6320-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6309-5
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