Douglas A. Jones, Jr.

Douglas A. Jones, Jr., Rutgers University

Black Sprezzatura and the Advent of Performative Writing in (African) American Letters


How might one combat, let alone countervail, the racist grotesqueries that typified late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatrical and visual representations of black personhood and sociality? This question preoccupied social critics throughout the Black Atlantic, and the prescriptions they urged black audiences to perform ranged from upholding the most decorous middle-class behaviors in domestic and public spaces to avoiding places like the theatre altogether. In the 1850s, a cadre of intellectuals affiliated with Frederick Douglass’ Paper formulated their own solutions by means of literary experimentations that advanced new ways of “seeing” and “hearing” black subjectivity; that is, their epistles, essays, and sketches beckon readers to encounter and even perform blackness in ways that avoid the racially overdetermined effects that shaped trans-Atlantic cultural productions. Using James McCune Smith’s “The Critic at Chess” (1855), this paper theorizes their belletristic efforts as a corpus of performative writing avant la lettre that enacts forms of black personhood that work to deaden the minstrelizations that pervaded dominant theatre and visual cultures. Such writing often flummoxed even the most sympathetic of readers (including Frederick Douglass), but prefigured a number of formal interventions that would characterize literary postmodernism.


Douglas A. Jones, Jr. (PhD Stanford) is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, where he studies and teaches (African) American literature of the long nineteenth century, democratic theory, and the cultural history of slavery. He is the author of The Captive Stage: Performance and the Proslavery Imagination of the Antebellum North (Michigan 2014), and is at work on a new book on slave culture and American political theory (especially Emerson and democratic individuality). He has published in a wide range of journals and edited collections; a new article, “Evangelicalism, Orature, and the Beginning of African American Writing,” is forthcoming in Early American Literature (2018).