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Prefiguring Postblackness - Cultural Memory, Drama, and the African American Freedom Struggle of the 1960s

Prefiguring Postblackness

Cultural Memory, Drama, and the African American Freedom Struggle of the 1960s

By Carol Bunch Davis
Paperback : 9781496814869, 220 pages, 13 b&w illustrations, September 2017
Hardcover : 9781496802989, 224 pages, 13 b&w illustrations, November 2015

An examination of five visionary stage plays written and performed during the throes of the movement that shook America


Prefiguring Postblackness explores the tensions between cultural memory of the African American freedom struggle and representations of African American identity staged in five plays between 1959 and 1969 during the civil rights era. Through close readings of the plays, their popular and African American print media reviews, and the cultural context in which they were produced, Carol Bunch Davis shows how these representations complicate narrow ideas of blackness, which often limit the freedom struggle era to Martin Luther King's nonviolent protest and cast Malcolm X's black nationalism as undermining the civil rights movement's advances.

These five plays strategically revise the rhetoric, representations, ideologies, and iconography of the African American freedom struggle, subverting its dominant narrative. This revision critiques racial uplift ideology's tenets of civic and moral virtue as a condition of African American full citizenship. The dramas also reimagine the Black Arts movement's restrictive notions of black authenticity as a condition of racial identity, and their staged representations construct a counter-narrative to cultural memory of the freedom struggle during that very era. In their use of a "postblack ethos" to enact African American subjectivity, the plays envision black identity beyond the quest for freedom, anticipating what blackness might look like when it moves beyond the struggle.

The plays under discussion range from the canonical (Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman) to celebrated, yet understudied works (Alice Childress's Wine in the Wilderness, Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, and Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody). Finally, Davis discusses recent revivals, showing how these 1960s plays shape dimensions of modern drama well beyond the decade of their creation.


Prefiguring Postblackness provides an astute reading of postblackness in plays which predate the Post-Soul Aesthetic. The Post-Soul Aesthetic is conceived of as a post-Civil Rights phenomenon, yet Davis analyzes plays such as A Raisin in the Sun, Dutchman, The Great White Hope, Wine in the Wilderness, and No Place to Be Somebody: A Black Black Comedy as texts out of time which prefigure postblackness by critiquing racial uplift ideology and reimagining proscriptive notions of black authenticity. Prefiguring Postblackness is a very important and timely contribution to our field, which pushes our discussions in important new directions.

- Venetria K. Patton, author of The Grasp That Reaches beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women's Texts and Women in Chains: The Legacy of Slavery in Black Women's Fiction

Prefiguring Postblackness is an original, thorough, and consequential monograph that will alter contemporary discussions of what scholars have dubbed a 'postblack' cultural moment following the civil rights era, in which a singular and coherent notion of black identity that unified the Freedom Struggles of the twentieth century gives way to a notion of blackness riven with internal differences--of gender, of class, of nationality, of sexuality, of age, of an endless list of specificity. Finding incipient traces of a postblack sensibility in mid-century African American drama, Davis unmoors discussions of black representation that have developed, especially since the election of President Barack Obama, and shows that they have a deep history. Doing so, she tells us something new about both our current moment and the history that preceded it. Prefiguring Postblackness announces Davis as a significant theorist of African American identity and a major theater historian.

- Shane Vogel, author of The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance