The Post-Colonial Black Body
Black body has a relatively long history and there has always been certain approaches and meanings assigned to this particular body in dramatic writings as in the cases of The Tropical Breeze Hotel, That Old Black Magic and Pantomime, which are all post-colonial plays written in different times and places across the world going beyond national borders. It is a significant issue because black body is where race and gender come together; that is why, in these plays, we can see how the black female and male body are addressed in terms of racial and gender identity. Therefore, we can question the existence of racialization and sexualization of black female and male bodies in the post-colonial period with the assistance of these dramatic writings.
The Tropical Breeze Hotel, written in 1988 in the Caribbean by Maryse Condé, tells the story of a failed romance between an aging Guadeloupean former nude dancer called Emma and a Haitian revolutionist Ishmael to whom Emma opens her home in Paris in 1986. In their claustrophobic environment, these two people coming from different places and having different mindset about world meets. As Emily Sahakian asserts in her article that Condé refuses “essentialist notions of black womanhood” and “dramatize Caribbean women’s shared experiences of the traces of slavery, with its sexualized system of subjection” in her play (386). Therefore, we see that Emma is oppressed by the Caribbean women roles that defined under slavery even though she is “distanced herself from the social expectations for women in Guadeloupe” (Sahakian 397). To show this refusal and distance from expectations, Condé points out what is refused: the established racial and sexual stereotypes of black female body.
As an example for these expectations, her father’s disapproval of her career as a nude dancer is a proper one. The reason of this objection is due to the established understanding of the black females in the mindset of black people: to be a black dancer means to entertain the white people using her body and when a black woman dances for the whites as an entertainment, “showing her ass off to the whites” as the people of Emma would call it, they get into close relationship with them (Condé 123). This situation can end up with the collaboration with the whites, which is feared by the blacks because it is possible that they betray black people. According to Sahakian, this accusation “– that enslaved women chose white men and betrayed black men – is a common, albeit often unspoken, trope in the French Caribbean” (385). Therefore, we see that Emma is still affected by these certain stereotypes emerged under slavery such as betrayal of black women through their gaining power using their body over the white men.
In addition, she is also under the affect of the society’s projected ideas of black female sexuality upon her body (Sahakian 398). She acknowledges that “her brain is not the best thing about her” and that she only had a body which she made it “work for her” (Condé 127). We see that she repeats the stereotypes that are used by the whites on the black females: the black women have nothing besides their body which is something highly sexualized. Therefore, Emma uses her body to achieve a place in the society with the help of this stereotype. As Tyler Stovall says in his article, “The New Woman and the New Empire”, Emma is not ashamed of her blackness but she is using the language of primitivism to earn money and make trade of it. However, as a consequence, she is highly racialized and sexualized.
While earning her bread, Emma is racialized and sexualized, presented as a hypersexual woman in a quite primitivistic way because of her former job. The reason lies in the stereotype of “black nude dancer” who exposes her body for entertainment of others. During 19th century the scientist thought that they proved the sexuality of black females pathologically since their sexual organs are much more primitive and developed than those of the white’s (Gilman 213). Consequently, “the uniqueness of female genitalia and buttocks of the black … is taken to be a sign of an anomalous female sexuality” which racialize and sexualize the profession of nude dancing that is especially reserved for the black females (Gilman 218). This explains the primitivistic and sexual expectations of the whites from the performance of black dancers because the European audience wanted to see the primitivism of black females as a foil to their so-called unique, civilized and proper bodies and values, resulting in creating an “other” from black females (Gilman 216). For example, they are to wear “the belt of bananas,” which an allusion to their so-called ape-like sexual appetite and sexual primitivism (Condé 119). Even though Emma does not accept to wear this particular belt, she uses the language of primitivism and the vantage point of the whites toward the blacks to make money. Therefore, in the eyes of black and white people, she reduces herself to a mere sexual object, exposing her body.
However, she does not see herself as a mere body but as a boundless artisan. She cares about her job and sexuality. Emma says to Ishmael: “You think, here’s a woman who was a nude dancer; so she’s a whore. She made love to me because she’s a whore. But that’s not it at all” (Condé 134). It can be inferred that she is sick of this stereotype about black women’s hypersexuality and tries to show Ishmael that being a nude dancer or a black woman who can express her sexuality freely is not related to being a whore. Her aim is to master these stereotypes trying to be “the New Woman” that Stovall talks in his article: free, courageous, masculine and modern (2-5). In short, Emma is exposed to the prejudices of both black and white people such as objectification of the black female bodies as a mere sexual object and their possibility of betrayal that were developed under slavery. The play suggests that no matter how hard a black nude dancer tries to separate the sexuality from the black womanhood and dancing, she is destined to be seen as a mere primitive sexual object because of her repeating these stereotypes by the society and as a woman who can betray to her own “people” because of her hypersexuality by the black community even in the post-colonial era.
That Old Black Magic, written in 1993 in Ivory Coast by Koffi Kwahulé, imagines the black experience beyond its national borders through American boxing. In the play which is jammed by male characters, Angie emerges as an ambitious female jazz singer who “had a nightclub in Spanish Harlem” (Kwahulé 178). She chooses her art and job by her own choice like Emma; however, this time Angie is respected in the surface level by these males. For example, Chuck pays compliments to her “divine voice”: “Angie, sugar, you have the most divine voice… You send me to heaven… your voice is magic; it’s the secret of life” (200-201). She is treated as if she is a precious gem and angel-like creature, which are very unlikely in the case of Emma as she gets only money from the men she interacts with not respect. Angie, for example, is also helped with her coat, which is a way for the men in the play to show proper politeness to her (215). In addition, she officiates the singing of national anthem in the beginning of the matches, which is particularly important because national anthem is “national”. Historically, black people are not accepted as American since they are seen as inferior to the white Americans due to the stereotype of the blacks who are inherently primitive, ape-like and barbaric as in the case of Emma (Gilman 212). However, we see that Angie is not bothered with these stereotypes at first. She is accepted as “American” and allowed to sing the national anthem. Nevertheless, this is only an illusion because at the end, society shows its real face and notions on blackness.
Everything changes in Angie’s life when the rumors about the incest relationship with her brother spread. It is difficult to defeat Shorty because “he’s the perfect American hero,” who is “a modest type, rather mysterious, very civilized” (Kwahulé 236). To overthrown Shorty, McKenzie and Ketchell agree that it is necessary “to sink to the depths of the American psyche, where the most morbid impulses lie, the hidden original sins that molded this country” (236). By doing so, they “prod the great American people, open their eyes so they can see that behind the healthy, shining hero, lurks a nigger mocking us all” (236). Therefore, their motive is to activate the stereotype that black people are naturally barbaric, sexually primitive and abnormal. As Gilman asserts in his article called “Black Bodies, White Bodies,” “by the 18th century, the sexuality of the black, both female and male, becomes an icon for deviant sexuality in general” (209). With this iconography, McKenzie and Ketchell present Shorty and Angie as brutal and sexually abnormal figures dehumanizing them. In conclusion, this incest relationship will end the title of Shorty as an American hero and of Angie as an American jazz singer because according to the mindset of society, this barbaric practice has nothing to do with being an American since they see themselves superior and more civilized compared to the blacks.
After the rumors spread “the boxing commission decides that Angie cannot sing the national anthem before the match” because she is instantly seen as a primitive, barbaric and non-American (Kwahulé 244). We see that these stereotypes are ready to be activated in the society at the first instance of action which is complied with the stereotype, not matter how they seem to extinct. It is quite interesting how society ready to accept the accuracy of these rumors. They adore Angie in one second and hate her in the next. They accuses her saying that she would “taint the Star Spangled Banner” due to her so-called primitive sexual appetite which they think is inappropriate to the American identity (244).
In the end of the play, Angie completely breaks down because of the working stereotype of black women, as well as of black community. Shadow implies that she is pregnant from Shorty: “Your soul was already captured through her sex and was sitting tight in her belly,” which is probably the thing that causes her to lose herself in the trial (262). She hits Shadow with her “blood stained pants,” showing the solid evidence that she is not pregnant at all (262). However, it is no use because once the stereotype activated, there is hardly a reversal. In short, we see that at first Angie was able to create a limited freedom and authority over her body. As Harvey Young defends in his article, “Embodying Black Experience,” the physical experience of black body becomes a vehicle to obtain some kind of freedom which is a thing that Angie achieves with her voice. Nevertheless, this freedom is immediately cancelled at the wish of society; because the white American’s vantage point towards black female body, which is mostly formed under the influence of slavery, actually never changes during the post-colonial era and Angie suddenly becomes “Emma;” a black female who is defeated to her “unbridled and primitive sexuality” (Gilman 229) .
As to Pantomime, it is written in 1980 by Derek Walcott who is a mulatto from Saint Lucia. The play takes place in the West Indies in a gazebo on the verge of a cliff. There is a claustrophobic partnership between English Harry Trewe who is the owner of the guest house and Trinidadian Jackson Philip who is a retired calypsonian, which is similar to the relationship between Emma an Ishmael (Walcott 132). Harry symbolizes “the master” and Jackson represents “the servant” in their partnership. However, with the play within play they reverse this relation in their enactment of the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Therefore, Harry takes the place of Friday, the colonized one, and Jackson plays the master, the colonizer one. This is particularly interesting because when there is a reversal of roles, there reveals certain kinds of racial and gender stereotypes.
For example, when Jackson starts to mimic the goat and Crusoe’s making “a goatskin hat and umbrella” out of it, Harry sarcastically praises his ability to mimic with a stereotypical allusion. He says to Jackson: “You’re the bloody ape, mate. You people just came down from the trees” (Walcott 146). This stereotype of black people as barbaric and primitive creature goes back to the pre-slavery era when “the whites portrayed people of African descent as primitive and animalistic as part of the process of demonizing and otherizing black men,” which in turn creates another prejudice related to the black males about their hypersexuality (Richeson 103). Harry is able to bring back all this history of oppression and dominance over the blacks with just one word, “ape”. We can infer that even in the post-colonial era this imagery of animal exposed upon the black body still exist in the society as in the case of Angie. In another conversation, when Jackson does this exaggerated British accent, Harry again retorts with the same stereotype: “Ape! Mimic!” (Walcott 147). Here, there is another allusion to this particular animal, to its ability to mimic because apes are known to repeat what they see as children would do. Again, it can be inferred that through Jackson’s ability to mimic like an “ape, Harry brings the stereotype to light, which describes the blacks as naturally childlike, immature and unintelligent (Eiselein 53). Therefore, according to the mindset of Harry, black people are incapable of creating anything original because “they cannot think for themselves” which constantly causes them to repeat what they see (Walcott 148). However, this is not the issue at all because these stereotypes are the result of colonialism and slavery.
As to Jackson, he is quite aware of those stereotypes and he relates them to the history of colonization and slavery. He defends in his “child/shadow” metaphor that the whites dominated the blacks and their minds so much that the way of thinking of blacks became a shadow of theirs (Walcott 137). “Every movement you made, your shadow copied” explains Jackson to Harry. Therefore, the play actually questions the vicious cycle. The whites are essentially the ones who created those stereotypes of black people which are all related to each other such as their lack of intelligence and originality, their ability to repeat like an ape, their primitivity, childishness animalization and so on. The vicious cycle begins when the whites accuses the black people with this same stereotypes in the post-colonial era because, as Jackson also implies, this is what actually happens when you made the black people your servant for three hundred years (Walcott 137). They cannot form their own originality and their way of thinking in one night. In the words of Jackson, “you must not rush things” because “people have to slide into indepedence” (Walcott 147). Therefore, the play questions the postcolonial attitude towards the blacks and postcolonial behavior of the blacks with the aid of those racial stereotypes about the black people. So to say, we see that the racial stereotypes of the black males are woven in the play purposefully such as their being ape-like primitive figures who are lack of intelligence and originality along with their childishness and they survive till the post-colonial period.
These three dramatic writings, The Tropical Breeze Hotel, That Old Black Magic and Pantomime, written in different times and places present us certain similar approaches to black body, mirroring trans-national aspect of black experience. In the case of Emma in The Tropical Breeze Hotel, the play shows us that the stereotyped black female body as hypersexual and as a means of betrayal to black community is still prevalent in the society during the post-colonial period. It is hard to demolish because it is woven in the mindset of people. As to That Old Black Magic, it presents us that the stereotype of ape-like sexual appetite of black females is never forgotten and it is buried in the psyche of American people. If you happen to act according to this prejudice, society will immediately punish you. Therefore, society, consciously or unconsciously, treats the black women according to the established stereotypes. In Pantomime, we see that black males are not exempted from the racial prejudices. They are seen as animalistic figures that are primitive, childish, lack of intelligence and originality. It is possible to infer that these three plays has something in common in general terms: the black female and male body are both seen as inferior compared to the white body, which is something aimed for since the whites wanted to dominate the black race through those stereotypes that are even sometimes solidified with “science”. Therefore, the transatlantic experience of black and female body has a common ground: they are used as a means to strengthen the stability of colonialism and slavery, which resulted in the rooted stereotypes developed under slavery that are not easy to reverse and remain in the psyche of people during the post-colonial era.
Condé, Maryse. The Tropical Breeze Hotel. Trans. Barbara Brewster Lewis and Catherine Temerson. Plays by Women: Book Two: An International Anthology. New York: UBU Repertory Theater, 1988. 119-164. Print.
Kwahulé, Koffi. That Old Black Magic. Postcolonial Plays: An anthology. Ed. Helen Gilbert. London: Routledge, 2001. 169-266. Print.
Walcott, Derek. Pantomime. Postcolonial Plays: An anthology. Ed. Helen Gilbert. New York: Routledge, 2001. 132-152. Print.
Eiselein, Gregory. Literature and Humanitarian Reform in the Civil War Era. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. Google books. Web. 03 Jan. 2016.
Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 204-242. Print.
Shakian, Emily. “Beyond the Marilisse and the Chestnut: Shattering Slavery’s Sexual Stereotypes in the Drama of Ina Césaire and Maryse Condé.” Modern Drama 57.3 (2014): 385-408. JSTOR. Pdf. 03 Jan. 2016.
Richeson, Marques P. “Sex, Drugs and Race-To-Castrate.” Harvard Blackletter Law Journal 25 (2009): 98-131. Web. 03 Jan. 2016.
Young, Harvey. “Between the Ropes: Staging the Black Body in American Boxing.” Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2010. 76-118. Print.