Performing Anti-slavery

Performing Anti-slavery: Activist Women on Antebellum Stages. By Gay Gibson Cima. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii + 298.

Gay Gibson Cima’s new book, Performing Anti-Slavery, should become a model for how to combine detailed historical research with activism. In her compelling study, she imaginatively links the struggle to end slavery in antebellum America with the larger issue of human trafficking. At once erudite and passionate, it is an exemplary piece of scholarship that will provoke discussions among scholars of American theatre, American Studies, Africana Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and other academic communities interested in how historical research can be imbued with a sense of immediacy for contemporary readers. And as the author promises, it engages with an impressive breadth of interdisciplinary methods, including performance studies, critical race theory, American studies, and feminist studies.

As Cima observes in the introduction, female anti-slavery activists seldom had the luxury of presenting the kinds of public performances available to their male counterparts. So she invites her readers to consider a broader definition of what might constitute “performance” for women traditionally relegated to the domestic sphere. She examines a range of performances, from the gatherings of African American female literary societies, to the public appearances of noted escaped slave Ellen Craft, who made her way to freedom and international fame by impersonating a white slave owner. While these exist outside the realms of the playhouse proper, they nevertheless became effective sites for women to perform resistance and political consciousness. In this, the project echoes her award-winning book Early American Women Critics: Performance, Religion, Race, in which she examined how antebellum women redefined themselves as “host bodies” and their roles as cultural critics rather than mere passive observers. Performing Anti-Slavery is a natural extension of that earlier work, shifting the discourse into the realm of political activism.

Cima is interested in the “stickiness” of the questions that surrounded how black and white women performed affect throughout the first half of the nineteenth century (17). She acknowledges the need for nineteenth century women to develop a wide and often subversive array of political strategies “that would enable them to reach their antislavery goals” (17). Cima pays particular attention to the question of spectatorship and how female antislavery performers such as Maria Stewart, Sarah Douglass, Ellen Craft, and Lucretia Mott, among others, conjured their imagined audiences. Rather than projecting a neutral spectator, Cima argues that activist women often invoked slaves as “the partisan, outlier spectators of their activism” (15). This paradigm shift refocused the audience’s awareness of their position, and, as Cima suggests, their understanding of their own complicity in the slave system. Cima’s study also posits what she describes as a “combination of performance strategies—working simultaneously within and outside of the state,” as a possible model for contemporary thinking about human trafficking, since “the tension . . . shows what is and what is not possible in the way of establishing human rights within a democracy” (14).

Performing Anti-Slavery spans four chapters plus an epilogue that extends the discussion into the present day. In chapter one (which lays the theoretical foundation for the study), she underscores a critical distinction between sympathy and empathy, suggesting that empathy is both an ahistorical and inaccurate term to describe how nineteenth-century women engaged with enslaved women (both directly and indirectly). For Cima, the term empathy slips too easily into the realm Saidiya Hartman cautions against in her Scenes of Subjection, in which supposedly empathetic spectators displaced the slave’s body at the center of the abolitionist narrative. As Cima observes, sympathetic critical responses prompt the “second step to performing sympathy” (55).

Cima also takes up the role of religion in abolitionism (as she did in Early American Women Critics), this time turning her attention to metempsychosis, a belief in the transmigration of souls from one form to another at the time of death. As she notes, this somewhat loose adaptation of Hinduism and Buddhism was synthesized with contemporary Western writings on sympathy (68). Not content merely to witness passively, female anti-slavery activists who embraced metempsychosis openly derided women who imagined that tears could substitute for action. The concept of metempsychosis recurs throughout the study as a touchstone for how antislavery performers envisioned their activist work.

Cima acknowledges that while common themes and discourses circulated among female anti-slavery activists, “anti-slavery women were fueled by wildly disparate objectives, so they generated different effects,” and indeed she returns to this theme in her epilogue in discussing present-day activist efforts (61). She reminds her reader that distinctions of class, color, and faith continued to divide women in the movement, no matter how closely their affective practices drew them together.

Throughout her study, Cima pays careful attention to the ways in which female activists mobilized theatrical practices (e.g., the readings of scripted “conversations” at literary society meetings the convenings of aid societies, deliveries of public lectures, publishing of poems or jeremiads under pseudonyms designed to at once conceal and provoke). In one instance that reveals a nice attention to detail, she even points to the inherently dramatic beats or moments embedded in the cry of “oh!” that punctuate antislavery writings (for example, “with no hope to cheer them—oh!”). Cima interprets this as an “indignant shout” rather than a helpless lamentation (71).

Chapters two, three, and four flow together smoothly as Cima explores the ways in which her black female subjects found compassion for themselves as well as others. For example, in chapter two she examines Sarah Douglass’s 1832 speech to the Female Literary Association of Philadelphia, in which Douglass helped to shift the rhetorical ground of abolitionist speech. As Cima argues, black women faced physical jeopardy not only for participating in antislavery gatherings, but on a daily basis as laws governing free blacks tightened in Northern states. For Douglass, feeling for the slave in bondage to the South had to be implicitly and explicitly joined to the danger facing free black women. As Cima notes, Douglass thus “created a sisterly bond, a community” (117).

Cima links that recognition of compassion to the women’s ability to develop effective performative practices. The realization (which she describes as an epiphany) that outsiders did not distinguish between enslaved and free, wealthy or working class, but saw only race, helped to promote one of the most stunning episodes considered in chapter four of the study work: the escape of William and Ellen Craft and the “brilliant theatricality” that allowed Ellen Craft to perform and re-perform both black and white racial identities on a transatlantic stage in a kind of “disruptive hybridity” (182, 205).

In her brief epilogue, Cima turns her attention to the urgent question of human trafficking in the twenty-first century. Quoting a report from the US “Trafficking in Persons” office, she notes that “12.3 million people exist within conditions of ‘forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution’ around the globe, and 56 percent of them are women and girls” (249). Asking, “How can artist-activists imagine interventions,” Cima cautions against the ‘new’ abolitionists whose debates over strategies and the links between slavery and the ideal democratic state risk reducing the enslaved bodies in question to the inert status of three centuries ago (247). At the end of the study, she invokes her own activist practice with the Humanities and Human Rights Initiative at Georgetown as a process that illuminated her own understanding of how the female antislavery activists of more than a century ago wrestled with the challenge of combining their sense of mission with the almost insurmountable obstacles around them. Framing the work of abolitionism as an ongoing process lifts the work of Cima’s subjects out of the past and places it firmly in our present.

Heather S. Nathans
Tufts University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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