Prof. Nadine George-Graves: Performance is Not Benign (on Minstrelsy; The Compton Cookout)

“An advertisement for “William H. West’s” minstrel show, courtesy of Library of Congress.”

Dr. Nadine George-Graves is a Professor of Theatre and Dance at UC San Diego. She is the author of  books like The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater.

This speech, Performance is Not Benign, was given by Dr. George-Graves at a University Sponsored Teach in following “The Compton Cookout” on February 24, 2010. This is an excerpt of that speech, edited for clarity:

I’ve been asked to explain the historical and social context surrounding the “Compton Cookout” to help people understand why the originating incident is “a big deal.”

I’ll be honest with you, when first asked, I was concerned, ambivalent and a bit outraged about this charge. My entire body of scholarship is dedicated to analyzing and articulating the negotiations of power in terms of race, class and gender through performance on and off stage. So it makes sense that I was asked. But how do I condense that rich and complex scholarship into 15 minutes? But as events escalated I decided that I wanted to use this opportunity to do a small part toward battling ignorance.

Of course, two hours is a drop in the bucket. And this must be part of the larger response from the University and not just a band-aid. We must all keep the administration accountable for that.

I can’t tell you how many versions of this talk I’ve written, each in response to the latest occurrence or internet response or news piece. And I stand here right now, not quite knowing what to say. This has become so inflamed that I seriously doubt anybody can hear what I have to say.

There is no trust on this campus

The atmosphere is toxic and hostile.

The atmosphere was toxic and hostile before but it has become unbearable and unsustainable.

This community has fractured.

Unless the demographics of student, staff and faculty representation and the commitment to work in areas of race, ethnicity, gender, class, disability and cognate fields is more fully supported, nothing I can say here today will matter.

Not to mention this is just plain embarrassing. UCSD is becoming known nationally as an institution of intolerance and ignorance. What year is this?! I hope the university takes quick, decisive and sufficient measures to address the campus climate, starting with the already existing yield report and the calls for action from the students who are bravely leading us all. I hope we all commit to our part of the project of ensuring that something like this doesn’t happen again. And I hope that we can all commit to our part in changing the atmosphere so that students don’t think these behaviors are sanctioned. Because I don’t know how much longer I can take it and I’m sure there are others of you who agree.

So, what do I do? Do I try to begin to talk about these issues or do I stop here and give up?

I’m not one to give up, so I’ll try to do my small part.

My other area of concern was who to address. The students who threw and attended this party? The students who are the target of these vicious representations and have to live with the fallout? The faculty and administration members who have fostered the toxic campus environment that allows students to think this event was harmless?

What I’ve decided to do is to begin with the premise that these events and others like them are wrong and that they instill hatred, racism and violence. If you don’t believe me then I refer you to the library; or to the many responses that have come from various departments and faculty members who study this stuff; or to this huge national outcry denouncing the actions.

I’ve decided to address this talk to those of you in the room who know that this incident was wrong (no matter what your race, class, gender or age) but don’t quite know how to articulate your feelings when talking to roommates or colleagues who pose different beliefs and ask certain questions. There are many ways to approach this but I want to show you how the language of theater studies and performance studies is particularly useful for understanding the events and fallout.

So the title of the talk is Performance is Not Benign.

The imagery described in the original party invitation draws on a long history of stereotyping first begun in the theater genre of minstrelsy in the early 1800s. Minstrelsy has the dubious distinction of being labeled the first truly American theater form. Prior to minstrelsy’s inception, American audiences were entertained by versions of music hall and variety that were imported from England albeit with an American flair. But minstrelsy is all ours and as such has become one of the primary narratives of human interaction in this country. And the development of stereotypical character types is the most significant legacy of minstrelsy. These types were developed not only to ridicule and entertain; they also served very significant social functions. As popular culture, minstrelsy marked changing social tide and served as a site for racial negotiation during antebellum, wartime and reconstruction. Minstrelsy was a performative argument for slavery. It presented African Americans as less than human and therefore only worthy of being slaves. And it has resurfaced over and over again throughout American history. It was used as the argument for Jim Crow laws and the continued second-class citizenship of African Americans, among many other directly destructive effects. So that as the times changed, the stereotypes changed but they always served to disenfranchise African Americans, even when African Americans do it. Because we are all implicated in these narratives. There is a complicated history of African Americans also performing these roles but that happening doesn’t diminish the negative power of the stereotypes and it remains with us as a constant anxious negotiation of classed, raced and gendered bodies with different particulars but doing the same cultural work.

The original party invitation acts as a script. And the event itself was a rehearsal of the negotiation of power. It gives people the performative argument for the continued systematic oppression of poor, black and brown men and women. In other words, by playing at mocking a group of people one can practice not respecting them as human beings. We can tell ourselves it is all done in fun, but it fundamentally changes the way we see those people in the future especially at a place like this when there are so few of us that you see. This is not just symptomatic of racism but it creates racism—it enacts racism again and again. There are many reasons why—just one of which is the fact that this was a mockery of black history month. And the social work of this party will come back to haunt other spaces—job interviews, legislative chambers with lawmakers drafting legislation, doctor’s offices, classrooms—this is where racial profiling comes from.

Performance is Not Benign.

I could go on and point to other moments in history where these kinds of acts were negotiated. But what I thought would be most useful is to focus on developing language to help us articulate our feelings of dissent. I’ve talked to a number of people who essentially say, “I know it was wrong but I don’t quite know how to respond when somebody says____.” 

I’ll start you off with an example: Somebody said to me “People are so sensitive. It doesn’t mean anything and I’m tired of people complaining.” To which I said, “Well let’s talk about this oppression fatigue—who gets the right to be bored, who gets the right to dictate who is offended? I was to resist allowing others to dictate the terms of my offense and I’m bored with people who are bored with the continued acts of racism. If these acts didn’t persist, if we didn’t have an atmosphere that fed the ignorance then we wouldn’t have these problems and we could all get on with our lives. But they do persist, it is important and people don’t feel safe, so we can’t stop.”

Another comment was “I don’t want to look stupid so I don’t say anything.” To which I responded, “Well how can we create a climate of respect especially in this educational setting so that you can feel comfortable working through these issues.”

I’m out of time but I hope this has gone a little way in our productive conversations. I invite you to bring up those situations when we open up the discussion so that we can all think together of strategies for battling racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.

Thank you.

You can read the speech in full, here.