• Blackface Desdemona: Theorizing Race on the Nineteenth-Century American Stage

    Brigitte Fielder (see profile)
    Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616, Literature--Adaptations, Theater and society, American drama, American literature, Americans--Social life and customs, Critical race theory
    Item Type:
    blackface, desdemona, nineteenth-century American, queer temporality, Racialization, Shakespeare in adaptation, American literature and culture, Race critical theory
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    This essay explains how blackface performance came to bear upon representations not of Othello, but of Desdemona. Here, we see a theory of race that not only registers its apparent materiality and gendered signification, but also literalizes anxieties about race’s movement through the spectacle of racial transfer. These representations of racial transfer ultimately suggest the queer temporalities of racialization inherent in nineteenth-century constructions of white womanhood. Desdemona offers a temporality in which race does not follow normative genealogies of inheritance but works backward from sexual(ized) contact with Othello. First, I discuss how tropes of white womanhood depended upon assumptions about the transfer of race via heterosexual sex in the image of Desdemona “begrimed.” Next, I examine Desdemona’s whiteness via nineteenth-century American readings of her potential re-racialization, showing how this theory of Desdemona begrimed works against normative ideologies of genealogically-inherited race. Moving to a discussion of minstrel adaptations in which Desdemona’s whiteness is refigured in blackface performance, I read a figure I call “Blackface Desdemona” as further complicating this linearity of gendered racialization. Blackface Desdemona simultaneously re-imagines this iconic white woman as racially/sexually “pure” while alluding to actual black women, whose oppression is inherently linked to popular images of Desdemona. Ultimately, examining Blackface Desdemona reveals the implications of Desdemona’s racialization for rethinking American racial theories beyond the normative genealogies of race that continue to dominate racial discourse.
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    5 years ago
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