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Seeing Black: Foote's Afro-American Company and the Performance of Racial Uplift in Imperial Germany in 1891

Bowersox, J; (2020) Seeing Black: Foote's Afro-American Company and the Performance of Racial Uplift in Imperial Germany in 1891. German History , 38 (3) pp. 387-413. 10.1093/gerhis/ghaa064. Green open access

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Abstract

By 1914 African American entertainers had become a regular part of variety show programmes 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 took an active part in transatlantic conversations about the meanings of race, challenging racialized understandings of nation, culture and modernity. 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 organizers 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 popularized in commercial entertainments.

Type: Article
Title: Seeing Black: Foote's Afro-American Company and the Performance of Racial Uplift in Imperial Germany in 1891
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1093/gerhis/ghaa064
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1093/gerhis/ghaa064
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > SELCS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10084749
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