Staging Habla de Negros: A New Book on Radical Black Performance in Early Modern Spain

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern Spain was recently published by Pennsylvania State University Press.
The author of Staging Habla de Negros: Radical Performances of the African Diaspora in Early Modern SpainNicholas R. Jonesis an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Africana Studies at Bucknell University, where his research agenda explores the agency, subjectivity, and performance of Black diasporic identities in early modern Iberia and the Ibero-Atlantic world. He is co-editor of Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology with Cassander L. Smith and Miles P. Grier. His journal articles have appeared in—or will appear in—Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, Hispanic Review, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, postmedieval, and University of Toronto Quarterly. He is currently at work on two new book projects: one that examines the role of material culture in the literary production of Black women in early modern Portugal and Spain and another that uncovers the Inquisition dossier of Catalina Muñoz. Follow him on Twitter @Bibliophilenick.

In this volume, Nicholas R. Jones analyzes white appropriations of Black African voices in Spanish theater from the 1500s through the 1700s, when the performance of Africanized Castilian, commonly referred to as habla de negros (Black speech), was in vogue.

Focusing on Spanish Golden Age theater and performative poetry from authors such as Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Rueda, and Rodrigo de Reinosa, Jones makes a strong case for revising the belief, long held by literary critics and linguists, that white appropriations and representations of habla de negros language are “racist buffoonery” or stereotype. Instead, Jones shows Black characters who laugh, sing, and shout, ultimately combating the violent desire of white supremacy. By placing early modern Iberia in conversation with discourses on African diaspora studies, Jones showcases how Black Africans and their descendants who built communities in early modern Spain were rendered legible in performative literary texts.

Accessibly written and theoretically sophisticated, Jones’s groundbreaking study elucidates the ways that habla de negros animated Black Africans’ agency, empowered their resistance, and highlighted their African cultural retentions. This must-read book on identity building, performance, and race will captivate audiences across disciplines.

A crucial intervention in discussions about black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Focusing specifically on early modern Spain, Jones offers insightful and nuanced readings of the ways in which (mostly) white Spanish writers appropriated black speech in staged performances and poetry, arguing that such appropriations actually encode black African agency. Importantly, he decenters the author and asks readers to approach these literary forms from the margin to understand how forces beyond the author influence text formation. Jones’s careful, against-the-grain readings open up to readers new archives (and re-present familiar ones from fresh, intriguing perspectives) for the study of black cultural experiences in the Renaissance era. — Cassander L. Smith, author of Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World

J.T. Roane: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject?

Nick JonesStaging Habla de Negros dismantles the long-held belief by literary critics and linguists that white appropriations and representations of habla de negros language is “racist buffoonery” or “racist stereotype.” The project calls for a specifically Black and gendered performance theory approach that challenges, revises, and radically reimagines the function, materiality, performance, and presence of Black Africans’ bodily, sartorial, and linguistic Blackness in early modern Spanish cultural and literary studies. While acknowledging the compelling research conducted by previous scholars, the impact of my work revises the dominant discourse they have established. My goal here is to highlight the agentive subject positions of habla de negros speakers and to examine their voices as viable discourses. To be clear, Staging Habla de Negros is a political project. Over the course of its chapters, the book sets into motion a new scholarly precedent and trend that will place at the forefront a paradigm shift for scholars of Iberian Studies, Latin American Studies, and African diasporic studies. One of a kind in this regard, the impact that I hope my work will have is that it will shed light on the recurring, not exceptional, instantiations where habla de negros texts showcase their Black characters acting and speaking with agency and destabilizing the category of whiteness—culturally, linguistically, and in terms of power relations—altogether. Another powerful impact of my book is its “radical” frame and the close attention it gives to Black women and Black feminist theory. The “radical” allows me to not only theorize the significance of habla de negros language, but more importantly, to arrive at a wider framework with which to theorize literary representations of Black Africans in early modern Spanish texts. I employ the concept of “radical” to unabashedly account for this book’s methodology and theoretical framework: it privileges and utilizes Africana critical thought, Black feminist theory, and Critical Race Theory (CRT) to analyze and discuss textual representations of Black Africans, in addition to equally valid and necessary conventional Western approaches, such as those informed by philology. As a scholar whose work is deeply rooted in early modern Iberian Studies and Africana Studies, I enlist the strategies, methodologies, and insights of Africana Studies in the service of Early Modern Studies—and vice versa. In one sense, Staging Habla de Negros mobilizes corrective interventions to commonly held notions in Early Modern Studies and Africana Studies and, in another sense, the project theorizes a synthetic methodology for the Early Modern/Africana Studies discursive divide. Following Fred Moten, and echoing Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, I conclude by emphasizing my commitment to language and to the power of language in that I am reclaiming in Staging Habla de Negros—via the prisms of agency, subjectivity, the radical, and Black performance—Black language that has been made to work against images of Blacks and their Blackness in early modern Spain.
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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.