Book Review
Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. E. Patrick Johnson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003; pp. xiii + 365. $79.95; Paper $22.95.

Poststructuralsim and theories of the performative have decentered the autonomous subject in such a way that identity politics have, in the prevailing academic milieu, gone by the wayside. In the process, the proverbial baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. The bathwater here is the essentialized subject, the bulwark of authenticating discourses; the baby is the situated, embodied, material (i.e. lived) experience of real people vying for visibility, voice, and legitimacy. Inasmuch, E. Patrick Johnson's Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity is a welcome golden mean. Appropriating Blackness evokes and holds in abeyance the tension between, on the one hand, blackness as a lived, embodied experience and, on the other, "blackness" as a discursive construction; performance meets performativity, being meets becoming, and the result, in Appropriating Blackness, is a tenuous coupling that is necessary for understanding the performance (read "identity") politics of blackness. Appropriating Blackness's table of contents suggests a collection of only nominally related chapters; however, each of the six chapters adroitly probes contested sites of blackness performed, and does so from different, if not disparate, methodological and disciplinary perspectives.

The first chapter sets the keynote of the book in taking up Marlon Riggs's 1995 film, Black is...Black Ain't. Johnson persuasively argues the film (which chronicles Riggs's life with and death by AIDS) both "critically interrogates cleavages among blacks" and "exposes the social, political, economic, and psychological effects of racism and the role racism has played in defining blackness" (p. 40). Using Riggs's allusion to blackness as a kind of "gumbo," Johnson demonstrates how the film deconstructs discourses of black authenticity predicated on black working-class (i.e. folk) signifying practices, hegemonic masculinity, and the abjection of homosexuals that threaten "black heteronormative masculinity" (p. 36). In a lyrical mode characteristic of Appropriating Blackness, Johnson concludes by playing off of Riggs's metaphor of blackness as gumbo, saying that, "like blackness, the recipe can be altered, expanded, reduced, diluted. At the same time, Riggs also asks that we not forget that the gumbo (blackness) is contained within a sturdy pot (the body) that has weathered abuse, that has been scorched, scoured, and scraped, a pot/body that is in the process of becoming but nonetheless already is" (p. 46).

Chapters two and three, "Manifest Faggotry" and "Mother Knows Best," delve further into the interstices of black performance and sexuality. The former chapter critiques the heterosexist performances of heterosexual black men — namely Imamu Amiri Baraka, Eldridge Cleaver, Eddie Murphy, Damon Wayans, and David Alan Grier — who enact "negro faggotry" "to demean and disparage and ultimately exclude black gays from authentic blackness" (p. 51). Johnson curiously operationalizes Freudian psychoanalysis, albeit modified by gender/sexuality scholar Judith Butler, to demonstrate these paradoxical performances' simultaneous homophobia and internal dependence on homosexuality for heterosexual sustenance. While Johnson's Derridean logic effectively and subversively shows how "black heterosexual men are always already 'queered'" (p. 51), I wonder if his use of pyschoanalysis, an individualistic interpretive schema, renders homophobia a psychological, rather than a social, phenomenon. Further relying on Freud and Butler, Johnson argues in chapter three that black gay men performing heterosexuality (e.g. in Paris is Burning) appropriate "heteronormative tropes of domesticity" to "challenge the notion of the domestic site as only a heterosexual paradigm, constituting a reconfiguration of the very notion of 'family'" (p. 77). Standing out in this chapter is Johnson's adroit vernacular (i.e. raced and sexualized) etymology of "house." I did feel, however, that there was one glaring omission in the chapters on blackness and sexuality: the telling exclusion of a consideration of lesbians of color as a site of struggle and resistance seemed to occlude them legitimizing — that is, empowering — discourses and thus followed the precedent of the heteronormative tradition that Johnson indicts.

Chapter four marks for Johnson a departure from sexual politics in discourses of blackness as well as a change in methodology. "Nevuh Had Uh Cross Word" moves away from textual analysis and psychoanalysis to ethnography in order to show how his grandmother's vernacular narrative performance of "mammy" — a trope of subjugation for black womanhood — "challenges essentialist notions of race and gender identity as well as illustrates the ways in which black authenticity is and is not authorized through performance" (p. 105).

Another illustration of the ways in which black authenticity is and is not authorized through performance, according to Johnson, is the subject of chapter five, "Sounds of Blackness Down Under." In this chapter, an earlier version of which was published in Text and Performance Quarterly (22.2 [2002]: 99-121), Johnson details his ethnographic experience with the Australian (non-Christian) gospel group, Cafe of the Gate of Salvation. This decidedly autoethnographic chapter argues that "'blackness' may exist as a floating signifier in various cultures, but the consequences of its signification vary materially, politically, socially, and culturally dependent on the body on which it settles" (p. 218). In other words, the settlement of "black" music on nonblack bodies yields a precarious both/and logic whereby nonblacks get to both appropriate "blackness," thereby sharing in its cultural fund, and, at the same time, benefit from "white-skin privilege" (p. 218).

"Performance and/as Pedagogy" is the sixth and final chapter of Appropriating Blackness, which serves as the book's denouement. In a vigilantly self-reflexive manner, characteristic of the entire volume as it is, Johnson considers his experience in teaching "Performance of African American Literature," a class predicated on representational politics that are necessarily ideological and that simultaneously articulate both forms of discursivity and embodiment. As such, Johnson claims that when "non-African American as well as African American students perform 'black' texts, the boundaries of race, class, gender, and sexual identities become blurred" (p. 244), so much so, in fact, that these performances of Other and self as Other dismantle hegemonic notions of identity as they dismantle and confound the boundaries of embodiment and discursivity, performance and performativity, being and becoming. Admirably, Johnson implicates his teacherly identity in these classroom performances.

Appropriating Blackness is a compelling book not only because of the range, rigor, and cogent insight it provides relative to studies of black performance, but also because, put simply, it does what it says. Johnson writes himself into the body of the text and frequents the margins as well, performing his "status" as being and becoming a man, a black man, a gay black man — and one that teaches. Aside from the potentially problematic use of psychoanalysis and the general silence concerning lesbians of color in the discussion of the intersection of race and sexuality, I commend this book, especially, to scholars of cultural politics, performance, race, queer studies, and those that take up these issues in critical media studies.

Robert Avery
University of Georgia

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