"Some Were Wild, Some Were Soft, Some Were Tame, and Some Were Fiery": Female Dancers, Male Explorers, and the Sexualization of Blackness, 1600–1900

Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM
Southdown Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Katrina Dyonne Thompson, Saint Louis University
This paper examines how the discourse and imagery of West African female dance coalesced with notions of power, desire, disgust and superiority, in western travel narratives from the sixteenth to nineteenth century.  The authors of these publications wrote extensively of the cultures they encountered in West Africa, noting indigenous performances and customs--especially dance. Informed by their own cultural and social norms, these writers transformed African dance performances into pornographic scenes for consumption and sexual enticement for a mainly white male audience.  African dance became evidence of the overt sexuality of blackness, helping create racial stereotypes of the black “other” and provide validation for the sexual abuse of black women in the Atlantic slave system.  There is an association between performance and blackness that influenced negative racial conceptions of blacks in the North American slavery system. Travel narratives presented the identity of black femininity as malleable and capable of being shaped according to the desired purpose of the gazer.  This sociocultural construct reassured these travelers of their sexual power and at the same time denied any sexuality of women except as it related to the white male desires.  These women were thus depicted as sexual predators that lacked traditional feminine qualities, therefore placing them outside of the traditional female sphere reserved for white womanhood.  Using these travel narratives, and tying together dance culture in both Europe and Africa, this paper examines how the white male gaze sexualized African dance, contributed to the construction of race and gender, and affected the experiences of black women in the Atlantic world.
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