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)
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.
Document Type: Research Article
Affiliations: Department of English,University of California, Los Angeles,
Publication date: March 1, 2012