Date of Degree

6-2017

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor(s)

Robert Reid-Pharr

Committee Members

Duncan Faherty

Eric Lott

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Studies | English Language and Literature | Performance Studies

Keywords

African Americans, Germany, Women, Performance

Abstract

Dark Stars of the Evening: Performing African American Citizenship and Identity in Germany, 1890-1920 demonstrates that black performers in Germany developed wide networks in the performance world as they sought artistic opportunities beyond the racist circumscription of the American popular stage. Their performances became emblematic of modernity, globalization, and imperial might for German audiences at the turn of the century. African American-styled blackness contributed to the formation of the city of Berlin while allowing African American performers to assert themselves on the global stage. Groups like the Four Black Diamonds had a lengthy engagement with the popular stage in Berlin, as opposed to Paris, the city black performers are most often associated with in international contexts. Performances by women like Ida Forsyne and Bricktop signified urban sophistication and New World otherness for fin-de-siècle German audiences. They were also a defining feature of Berlin as a German metropolis.

Black feminist performance scholars have established the relationship between African American women and performance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by focusing on embodiment and movement (Brooks 2006, Brown 2009). Scholarship on the relationship between African Americans and the political work of transnational black performance in the twentieth century has tended to focus on the detritus of American imperialism (Von Eschen 2006, Batiste 2011). These studies reveal the multivalent nature of black performance for both actors and observers. However, little work has closely examined black performance in Berlin from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, in spite of Berlin's cultural importance.

My first chapter locates the roots of black performance on the German variety stage in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and uncovers examples of its impact on the landscape of Berlin. My second chapter finds more evidence for the importance of black performance to the formation of Berlin's landscape in its colonial exhibitions and the rise of the department store. These ethnographic exhibitions allowed Germany to present the fruits of imperial labor and discipline to its people. I also examine the way African American performers, like cakewalk duo Dora Dean and Charles Johnson, used fashion and consumer culture to capitalize on the desire for blackness on the popular stage. In the third chapter, I examine how Sissieretta Jones, often referred to as America's first black superstar, strategically curated her German performance reviews in order to increase her listenership and wages in the United States. In that chapter I also highlight African American understandings of Germany as rich space for the production of music and acoustical innovation. My dissertation ends with an analysis of the ways Americans used visual tropes of blackness to demonize Germans in American propaganda during World War I, while African Americans used that moment to stake their claim to Americanness, or "Do Their Bit", as artist Jane Louise Van Der Zee might have put it.

Primary sources for this project were drawn from special collections at the Stadtmuseum Berlin Bibliothek, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the Kislak Center. These sources include nineteenth century newspapers and periodicals, children's books, postcards, playbills and other ephemera. I analyze these materials using performance studies methodologies.

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