Possessing the Black body is as popular now as it has ever been. The recent college yearbook controversies depicting students in blackface often while posed along some symbol of racial terror (a noose, someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb, or the Confederate flag) has brought new attention to the long and ongoing tradition of blackface performance for many white Americans.
In theorizing the affective dimensions of blackface in the minstrel era, Eric Lott in Love and Theft offers valuable insight into why this kind of performance is so pleasurable and satisfying for many white Americans. “Minstrel nostalgia,” he avers, “intimated by emotional antidote all the forces in American life that seemed to be pulling the country apart.” This particular form of nostalgia was also driven by a “widespread preoccupation with traumatic parting, distance, temporal and geographical breaks” occasioned by westward expansion as well as anxieties about the deracinating experience of modern life.
Lott’s analysis of blackface and affect takes on new significance when we examine these informal acts (the slavery parties, the yearbook pictures, the Halloween parties, the marches to protect Confederate statues, etc.). When considering these kinds of performances and the ways they are enacted in modern life, it is undeniable that there is more at work. More than just a longing for a return to a simpler time or a response to anxieties about a changing society, I contend that what we are witnessing is a need to render Blackness captive. I see these performances of “Black captivity nostalgia” as a mode of reminiscing about a time when Black subjects were kept firmly in their place, as a continuation of the performative and pleasurable entanglement of Blackness and suffering, and evidence of how the specter of captivity continues to haunt Black subjects in the U.S.
Black captivity nostalgia recalls a time when Black subjects were kept nicely in their place. Much like lynching photography and the distribution of souvenirs of lynching, these mechanisms participated in the “racial disciplining process of black stillness” as Harvey Young explains in Embodying Black Experience. Also, it is no coincidence that many of these blackface incidents have increased on days like Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) or during Black History Month – a time when we revere Black subjects who actively fought against Black captivity and inequality. It is a form of what Koritha Mitchell calls “know your place aggression,” which she defines as “the flexible, dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise.” Any progress by those who are not straight, white, and male is answered by a backlash of violence—both literal and symbolic, both physical and discursive—that essentially says, know your place!” Whenever a Black subject dares “escape” from the societal place predetermined for them, white society has to institute a mechanism to remind them of their true place in society.
In an Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, a student (now a physician in Roanoke, Virginia) is dressed in blackface as Diana Ross with the caption of the photo reading: “Baby Love: Whoever thought Diana Ross would make it to medical school!” The subtext of this caption neatly places Blackness in the realm of entertainment, a contained space for Black subjectivity to be expressed. The color and gender line firmly drawn on the medical student’s body. Never mind that Diana Ross’s sister Barbara Ross-Lee is a doctor and first Black woman to become a medical school dean. At the same time, this caption also offers a window into why Black physicians make up roughly 4.5% of physicians in the U.S. Today’s blackface performance is very much about this need to contain Blackness to the version most comfortable for white supremacists and the U.S. is certainly a white supremacist nation, as our current Commander-in-Chief confirms.
Black captivity nostalgia emerges out of a long history of white investment in Black suffering. Of all the new information we have learned about the slave era from such groundbreaking historical studies, one thing remains consistent across these narratives – a deep and pervasive brutality against Black subjects. It is the way white culture has come to know Blackness – through pain. We understand Blackness through rubrics of containment, pain, and subjection. Saidiya Hartman reminds us in her transformative work Scenes of Subjection that so much of slave era performance was undergirded by the perverse relation between pleasure and terror. We can locate such terrors at benign sites of slave life (going before the master to perform, in theatrical performance, on the auction block, etc.). The afterlives of this performance is named in the discourse of Afropessimism, which takes for granted that the “originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation continue to ground dominant symbolic activity across the long duree” as Jared Sexton would have it. This particular form of nostalgia functions as a means of possessing the Black body while also disembodying it. It locates Black subjects in a static time and place while also calling upon histories of terror in which the Black body was tortured and abused. This is why most of these staged photos include both the individual in blackface pictured with a noose or a Ku Klux Klan image – be it a person dressed in a hood or some other visual representation of these histories of terror, reminding us of the intimacy between Blackness and death.
We are a society conditioned to see Blackness in a certain way and this certain way aligns with how a significant number of people in the American public need to see Blackness – as objectified, disfigured, derided. This American need is as central to understanding the psyche of this nation as the American dream. It is the potential availability of this dream to everyone that bumps up against this psychic need to keep the Black subject in captivity. It is in the collision between this affective dreaming and the escape of the Black captive subject that this dream becomes a nightmare. These recent narratives of blackface performance and imagery as well as the ongoing battles over Confederate monuments exist in a continuum of a longer and deeper narrative about America’s (and the West at-large) emotional and financial investment in Black captivity.