Mammy–memory: Staging Joice Heth, or the curious phenomenon of the “ancient negress”

Author: McMillan, Uri

Source: Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Volume 22, Number 1, 1 March 2012 , pp. 29-46(18)

Publisher: Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group

Buy & download fulltext article:

OR

Price: $54.28 plus tax (Refund Policy)

Abstract:

This essay examines the theatrical spectacle – and vexed legacy – of Joice Heth, an elderly and severely disabled black female performer whose role play as a putative ancient negress garnered her brief acclaim. Specifically, in 1835, P.T. Barnum fraudulently staged Heth as George Washington's 161-year-old nursemaid in New York (and elsewhere) until her death in 1836. I discuss these elusive somatic acts through, first, the careful scripting of Heth within freak-show dramaturgy and a uniquely fictionalized national past. I argue that through Heth's mythic impersonation as a black female surrogate for a collective American memory, we come to see how the latter was as much a tenuous and rehearsed fiction as her corporeal stagings. In the second half of this article, I approach the quagmire of Heth's free will vis-à-vis her brute objectification through the emergence in the archive of her vocal resistance, a disruptive sound I call a “sonic of dissent.” Ultimately, the spectral traces of Joice Heth's performances as an ancient negress intimate the longing for a black maternal national memory.

Keywords: America; Joice Heth; black performance; freak show; mammy; myth; sonic dissent

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0740770X.2012.685395

Affiliations: Department of English,University of California, Los Angeles,

Publication date: March 1, 2012

Related content

Key

Free Content
Free content
New Content
New content
Open Access Content
Open access content
Subscribed Content
Subscribed content
Free Trial Content
Free trial content

Text size:

A | A | A | A
Share this item with others: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. print icon Print this page