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Posts Tagged ‘African American’

Outline and Summary of Sylvia R. Frey’s Water from the Rock

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Politics, Slavery on February 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991) 

ONE

The Prerevolutionary South: Foundations of Culture and Community

This chapter describes the landscape and characteristics of the South before the Revolution.  The Chesapeake was much different from the lower South, which depended on the production of rice for economic competition.  Rice cultivation was common in states like South Carolina and Georgia, but less common in states like North Carolina.  Virginia and North Carolina grew tobacco.  In some places in Virginia, the slave population equaled the white population; in some places in South Carolina, slaves outnumbered whites.  Whites and blacks worked together and lived in close proximity, but they developed different cultural norms.  Big homes, churches, and courthouses served to unify the white community.  Symbols of power like plantation homes served to unite whites.  The bigger the plantations, the greater the separation between masters and slaves.  Criminal codes for slaves expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the slave population increased.  The Stono Rebellion of 1735 led Southern states to pass laws to deter slave insurrection.  County courts retained ultimate punishment power over slaves.  The most common religion in the South at this time was Anglicanism, although religion generally was spread out and not institutionalized.  The gentry tended to be Anglican.  The first effort to Christianize slaves in the South came from a missionary sect of Anglicans called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.  This sect evangelized to blacks from roughly 1705-1760, at which point other denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists took up that role.  As whites gradually sought to ensure their dominance through institutions, laws, and architecture, they also allowed slaves to cultivate a unique culture.  The emerging black culture fused West African traditions with various, competing African American practices and with a new religious culture centering on the church.  By the late eighteenth century, most slaves in America had been born in America.  Slaves in the lowcountry, especially in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, were able to nourish and sustain an African-influenced culture.  Family became the site of cultural cohesiveness for slaves and even helped to determine which African customs to retain and which to discard.  By the eve of the Revolution, the monogamous slave family was not an established model partially because slaves lacked the legal and religious protocols for marriage.  Polygyny was common among slaves and in keeping with West African traditions.  Many slaves sought to preserve West African religious traditions.  Gradually slaves adopted a Christian religion alongside but not within white Christianity.  The growth of organized religion among slaves was a product of the Revolutionary era and was spearheaded by slaves themselves.  The synthesis of republican ideals and religious sentiment emanating from the Great Awakening made for the budding antislavery movement.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Shakespeare, Othello, and Science in America: An Argument I Might Make (If I had the time)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Literary Theory & Criticism, Shakespeare on September 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Kris Collins interrogates the mutually affirming racial discourses of the theater and the natural sciences in nineteenth-century America.

“The nineteenth-century scientific community’s fascination with the black body,” Collins explains, “provides a contemporary analytical template for the racialized anxieties expressed in both minstrelsy and mainstage productions of Othello: white America’s struggle to define and defend the whiteness of their own bodies” (88).

Collins focuses on the work of several white Euro-American scientists: George Gliddon, Josiah Nott, Herman Burmeiter, Cesare Lombroso, Samuel G. Morton, and Louis Agassiz. All of these men classify races hierarchically and by taxonomies putatively dependent on racial intelligence. Because of the inherent differences between the races, these scientists argue, the white population should not mingle, sexually or otherwise, with the black population. Collins thoroughly debunks these claims, which she relates to nineteenth-century minstrel performances of Othello that solidify racist significations of the black body.

While the scientists that Collins identifies opined on racial distinction, another scientist, the young Charles Darwin, dissertated on theories of natural selection and evolution. One wonders whether Darwin’s ideas about genetics and heritable traits influenced the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage as much as Collins’s subjects influenced the stage in the preceding era.

More to the point, Herbert Spencer’s appropriations of Darwin—epitomized by the phrase “survival of the fittest”—may have justified and authorized racial divisions at the same time that high brow / low brow and elite / popular distinctions began to congeal. This simultaneous segregation (scientific and socio-cultural) was not so much coincidental as mutually (re)affirming.

Bardification and Shakespeare idolatry proliferated along with scientific discourses suggesting that whites were “better adapted” or “more advanced” than people of color. Shakespearean performances—most notably blackface performances of Othello but also early twentieth-century performances starring African American actors as Othello—gradually and perhaps unwittingly reflected the Spencerian drive to “preserve” the “favored” races.

This argument is the logical extension of Collins’s work; it compels a look at the continued influence of natural science on the next generation of American actors, directors, and theater-goers. Although the display of scientific racism and its corresponding effect on the theater may have changed, the underlying idea of racial superiority remained in place.

For further reading:

Collins, Kris. “White-Washing the Black-a-Moor: Othello, Negro Minstrelsy and Parodies of Blackness. The Journal of American Culture 19.3 (June 2004), pp. 87-101.

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