In their Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam trace the overlapping of the cultural and political meaning of ‘representation’ by remarking the contamination between the ideal of representative government in Western democracies and the struggle for cultural representation faced by ethnic minorities. In an argument focusing on US cultural politics but having resonances for the wider American context, the authors observe how the ethnic Other is excluded from the system of representative politics as well as from cultural visibility, as s/he is subject to stereotyping and to the burden of representing ‘difference’ in the terms dictated by hegemonic discourses. This paper explores the negotiation between identity politics and representation of cultural difference through the tools offered by performance studies both in terms of performance analysis and of identity as a performative representation of the individual and collective self. It confronts the question whether representation in a democratic context may entail willingly taking up a quite literal mask of difference by looking at the work of Bert Williams as reinterpreted by Caryl Phillips in his novel Dancing in the Dark (2006). Originally from Bahamas, Broadway actor and singer Bert Williams engaged in the struggle for representation by performing the ‘black coon’, a staple character from US white minstrel shows; during his long career from the l890s to the 1910s, his act never shed even the most stereotypical marks of ethnic and racial difference – including, paradoxically for a black performer, blackface. This controversial element is at the core of the novel, where the writer, himself a black Caribbean artist moving between England and the US, shows how by performing cultural difference Williams was able to engage with the democratic rhetoric of US public discourses by becoming a producer as well as a actor, thus advocating agency for black performers both at the workplace and in community politics. Yet Phillips’s portrayal of Williams also undermines this success story of identity politics in the democratic West by casting Williams as a Caribbean – emphatically, not US – performer, thus highlighting the rift between US and Caribbean racial performativity. Emphasizing the difference of the Caribbean context, Phillips questions the viability of applying the criteria of representative democracy in the cultural domain: by willing and self-consciously representing ‘difference’ both from Caribbean blackness and US whiteness, Williams’s performing body is posed as a crucial nexus for the actual possibility of negotiating democratic representation in a social context constructed on racial difference.

Representative Democracy and the Struggle for Representation: Caribbean and US Performances of Difference in Caryl Phillips’ Dancing in the Dark

Guarracino S
2012-01-01

Abstract

In their Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam trace the overlapping of the cultural and political meaning of ‘representation’ by remarking the contamination between the ideal of representative government in Western democracies and the struggle for cultural representation faced by ethnic minorities. In an argument focusing on US cultural politics but having resonances for the wider American context, the authors observe how the ethnic Other is excluded from the system of representative politics as well as from cultural visibility, as s/he is subject to stereotyping and to the burden of representing ‘difference’ in the terms dictated by hegemonic discourses. This paper explores the negotiation between identity politics and representation of cultural difference through the tools offered by performance studies both in terms of performance analysis and of identity as a performative representation of the individual and collective self. It confronts the question whether representation in a democratic context may entail willingly taking up a quite literal mask of difference by looking at the work of Bert Williams as reinterpreted by Caryl Phillips in his novel Dancing in the Dark (2006). Originally from Bahamas, Broadway actor and singer Bert Williams engaged in the struggle for representation by performing the ‘black coon’, a staple character from US white minstrel shows; during his long career from the l890s to the 1910s, his act never shed even the most stereotypical marks of ethnic and racial difference – including, paradoxically for a black performer, blackface. This controversial element is at the core of the novel, where the writer, himself a black Caribbean artist moving between England and the US, shows how by performing cultural difference Williams was able to engage with the democratic rhetoric of US public discourses by becoming a producer as well as a actor, thus advocating agency for black performers both at the workplace and in community politics. Yet Phillips’s portrayal of Williams also undermines this success story of identity politics in the democratic West by casting Williams as a Caribbean – emphatically, not US – performer, thus highlighting the rift between US and Caribbean racial performativity. Emphasizing the difference of the Caribbean context, Phillips questions the viability of applying the criteria of representative democracy in the cultural domain: by willing and self-consciously representing ‘difference’ both from Caribbean blackness and US whiteness, Williams’s performing body is posed as a crucial nexus for the actual possibility of negotiating democratic representation in a social context constructed on racial difference.
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: https://hdl.handle.net/11697/128943
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