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

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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


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

Publication date: March 1, 2012


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