In Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, Stephanie Leigh Batiste “focuses on black American cultural and ideological struggles against racism and oppression during the 1930s, as these were embedded within an attempt to define and articulate an inherent Americanness that was also black and to develop a diasporic sensibility that reached beyond national boundaries” (Batiste, 2). Batiste’s quote speaks to the cultural representations of Americanness and how black performance and black performers fit or don’t fit into those representations of America. Therefore, Batiste examines how “race itself is performative, taking on race as a structure of power, and thereby assuming a hand in producing race and blackness” (Batiste, 7). This idea supports the concept that race is a social construct and is constructed in order to create a structure of power and therefore, a hierarchical structure. Batiste discusses how the concept of race performativity has allowed for the constructions of blackness and black otherness performed by African Americans, but the effect of that element of performativity is something that performers have no control over (Batiste, 9). As a result, “Such performance of an othered, markedly different, and fully constructed culture and identity permitted performers both to embody rejected cultural characteristics and to distance themselves from an identity they demarcated as ‘not me’” (Batiste, 15). However, in a film or a play, while someone may reject the assigned cultural characteristics, as a performer, they must still act that cultural characteristic out for the viewing of the audience and ensure that their own personal distancing from the assigned identity is invisible.
The elements of construction and performance were extremely reminiscent of Marcus Rediker’s passage, The Slave Ship, in the sense that Rediker also emphasizes the construction of race aboard the slave ships, with the intention of categorizing people for trade. This categorization was also something that could not be controlled by those being categorized, and was something that was done in order to create a certain “presentation” or performance of slaves. Rediker discusses how those in the slave market were segregated based on skin color, size, and general appearance, which automatically separates people based on a certain sense of “otherness” or a characteristic that could be considered “markedly different” (Batiste, 15). Therefore, the experience on the slave ship was central to the capitalist facet of modernity in the sense that the ship was used as a factory to produce and distribute, while also producing categories of race. And as Batiste says, “Given the radical exclusion of African Americans from mainstream society and its dreams of freedom and expansion, it seemed overly hopeful, if not radical, for blacks to participate in imaginative appropriations of open lands, a material process from which they had been excluded in American history except, for the most part, as bound labor” (Batiste, 27). This quote emphasizes Batiste’s point of how the element of performativity can create a system of exclusion, while at the same time can support modernity and redeploy those dreams of freedom and expansion in order to engage “with this major symbolic discourse of American identity” (Batiste, 28).
However, with respect to performing within the limitations of a “fully constructed culture and identity,” does performing that cultural identity perpetuate the constructions of race by continuing to create cultural characteristics that people may in fact reject? Because “Artists struggled to communicate black stories that would ring true to black American experiences and not offend federal or white sensibilities or violate tricky antimiscegenation laws,” how effective was their communication in the end (Batiste, 22)? As a result, does that message then reinforce the symbolic discourse of American identity or challenge it?