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Publication Detail
Seeing black: Foote’s Afro-American Company and the performance of racial uplift in Imperial Germany (1891)
Abstract
By 1914 African-American entertainers had become a regular part of variety show programs across the German lands, but despite their evident popularity, they have received little scholarly attention except as part of the pre-history of jazz. But even before 1914 African-American performers challenged racialized understandings of nation, culture, and modernity and, as such, took an active part in transatlantic conversations about the meanings of race. To illustrate the challenge presented by African-American performance and the range of German responses, this article takes up a little-known case study, the German tour of William Foote’s Afro-American Company in 1891. Led by a white impresario, the show brought together the broad range of black popular performance—minstrel song and dance, jubilee choirs, social dance, and concert singing—to demonstrate the rapid progress of African-American cultivation since emancipation. This message of racial uplift was framed in ethnographic terms, making a case that African Americans, like Germans, possessed distinctive folk forms that could be refined into cultivated forms with universal value. This framing made an uplifting case for an equivalence between African-American and German cultures, but there were also ambivalences built into Foote’s project as organisers played to audiences’ racialized expectations. Analysing German commentators’ responses to performances of American blackness allows us to interrogate competing discourses of blackness in the German lands and the ways they could be used strategically. More broadly, those responses also illustrate how ideas about race were negotiated, produced, and popularised in popular entertainments.
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