Book Review, Vol. 32 No. 1

Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics

Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics. Soyica Diggs Colbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017; Pp. 232.

In Black Movements: Performance and Cultural Politics, Soyica Diggs Colbert explores how post-Civil Rights Movement cultural products and performances of blackness re-map black ontologies and histories. In an extraordinary display of interdisciplinary rigor, Diggs Colbert describes—to name only a few examples—how Toni Morrison’s “flying Africans,” George Clinton’s spaceship, Beyoncé’s “Partition”-ary (re-)entanglements with Black pasts, and acts of marching, realize the “webs of affiliation” between contemporary black performances and their revolutionary antecedents. She writes, “Black Movements explores how artists actively engage with certain pasts and jettison others to remember, revive, and reimagine political movements that seem to have stalled” (7). “Black movements,” as such, inaugurate and name the field of relation between Black presents and Black pasts by way of articulations of black identity, subjectivity, and comportment in revolutionary performance.

Diggs Colbert’s previous monograph, The African American Theatrical Body: Reception, Performance, and the Stage (Cambridge, 2011) prefigures the role of discursive interplay and performer-reader engagement that is the basic premise of Black Movements. The new book extends the line of thought that the black body, through acts of repetition, can be conjured—or, importantly, erased—by discursive, spatial, and temporal realignments and points of relation that perform revolutionary potential and fervor.

The book’s virtuosity lies in the navigation of a plethora of scholarly and political positions. Diggs Colbert deftly summarizes and positions herself between the Afro-pessimist/Afro-optimist debate in African-American studies. In particular, she deploys ideas of opacity and elision toward the theorization of black performance in terms of supplementarity and revolutionary excess. Though drawing from Joseph Roach’s work on surrogation and Butlerian performativity, as well as many other scholars, the work’s greatest strength lies in Diggs Colbert’s treatment of her case studies as theories and/or theorists in their own right rather than merely reflections of pre-determined scholarly positions. Toni Morrisons’s ellipses, for example, make audible the revolutionary capacities of being silenced, functioning as a kind of praxis; Black Movements suggests the duty of the scholar, then, is to articulate how that theory always-already plays out in black life and, in Morrison’s case, via the performativity of text. In chapter one, Diggs Colbert argues that the ellipses empower the reader to become an archivist, interpreter, and writer; as such, just as the characters carve out complex and agentive identities and modes of relation in Beloved, for example, so does the reader, in the Morrison-encouraged expansion of what the act of reading includes.

The conceptual breadth and sheer variety of case studies considered in terms of performance type and genre is a strength.  This range makes it possible for Diggs Colbert to account for the idiosyncracy, hybridity, and, ultimately, opacity at the heart of black performance —and of black life and politics in performance. The consequence of this variety, however, is that it sometimes leads to a lack of clarity or impact. Specifically, the chapter on marching shows a prodigious command of how the spatial reorganization and mass comportment of, in one example, the Silent Parade in New York City in 1917 works. Diggs Colbert remarks on how the act of marching configured black bodies, costume, and accumulation in order to take up space and make “audible,” per se, the experience of being silenced. The same is true for Diggs Colbert’s discussion about the March on Washington in 1963: “Harnessing comportment in service of social reorganization clarifies how imagination and embodied action work together to shape political spheres as physical locations and ideologies” (154). Yet considering, as she often references, how foundational the publicity of Emmett Till’s brutal murder in 1955 was to the inauguration of the Civil Rights Movement and —the murder, famously, a reaction to Till allegedly whistling at a white woman—the audibly sonic (as opposed to performative silence) elements of anti-black racism and subsequent organizing are unexpectedly absent from this chapter. An odd omission, too, because Till’s supposed act—the whistle—and the act of marching itself in its most formal extreme—foot raised high, crash to the ground, triumphant and war-like— so loud. Obviously, silence as a performative can call attention to the ways that Till and others were literally silenced by being murdered. However, for a work of such breadth and investments in the phenomenology of black life  (Fanonian citations abound, especially in the Introduction), the aural frame reads muted.

Black Movements offers a conceptual, formal, and multidisciplinary approach to the spaciotemporal re-alignments forged by contemporary black movements with black pasts. In a necessary intervention, Diggs Colbert both critiques and elaborates upon critical race theory and black political radicalism in the fields of performance studies, African American studies, theatre history, and sociology. Black Movements was awarded an Honorable Mention for the Joe A. Calloway Prize for the Best Book on Drama or Theatre. It is a significant book, one that should be read alongside the scholarship of Saidiya Hartman, Daphne Brooks, Amber Jamilla Musser and other black feminist thinkers. Like Beyoncé reflecting back on Josephine Baker, Black Movements’s looks to the legacies of black performance in order to imagine and build black futures.

Eleanor Russell
Northwestern University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 32, Number 1 (Fall 2019)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2019 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Cente



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