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In Session: Critical Race in Asian Studies II: Performance, Visuality, and Beauty
1: Black Sailors, Black Ships, Blackface: Episodes in Race-Making Across Commodore Perry’s Pacific, 1853-56
Thursday, March 25, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
This paper describes a genealogy of performances of “Blackness” across mid-19th century Asia, from Hong Kong and Singapore to Tianjin and Yokohama, to understand how race made empire and empires made race. It works outward from performances of Blackness during the 1853-54 US expedition to open trade with Japan led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry – including performances of minstrel music by Black sailors, military displays by Black marines, and Blackface minstrelsy performances by White sailors – but also uses new evidence from paintings, dramas, diplomacy, letters, songs, and material culture to reach backward to the 18th century and forward to the 21st century.
It argues several interlocking points. First, that the discourses of race embodied in performances of Blackness were central to articulations of empire across Asia, with race discourse produced as a complement to race science. Second, that these discourses of race were worked out in back-and-forth “conversations” among the imperial powers resident in Asia, especially US, British, Japanese, and Chinese empires. This argument emphasizes the provisionality of race, as well as its embeddedness in the grounds of empire. Third, that the discourses embodied in these performances of Blackness then circulated around Asia and around the globe – both in the 1850s-60s and in the decades to come – so that these ephemeral performances nevertheless produced a racial-imperial flotsam and jetsam that lingered to wash up on the shores of Asian empires in the 20th and 21st centuries, ready to be used to articulate empire through reconfigured performances of Blackness.