'Mississippi Goddam': Geography, Performance, and the Racial Politics of Time

Authors: Julius Fleming Jr*, University of Maryland, College Park
Topics: Regional Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Performance, Blackness, Time-Geography, Theatre, Civil Rights
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 2:40 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Napoleon D2, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper examines the politics and aesthetics of time and space animating black art and political action in the Civil Rights Movement. To do so, it considers the cultural and political work of the Free Southern Theater (FST)—a Mississippi-based grassroots theatre founded in 1963. Performing and repurposing plays like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952), FST used performance to echo the Movement’s demands for “freedom now.” In doing so, they challenged widespread calls for black people to “go slow” in their historic fight for full citizenship. Bridging the critical insights of time geography and black performance theory, this paper analyzes how the theatre revamped the temporal and spatial character of the Jim Crow South, namely its uses of time (e.g., “go slow”) and space (e.g., racial-spatial segregation) as resources for anti-blackness and white supremacy. The theatre achieves these goals by mounting plays that unsettle what I call “black patience.” By this I mean the long history of black bodies being forced to wait—from the slave ship to the auction block—through a series of tactics time geographers might call “constraints.” More still, by staging plays in cotton fields and on former plantations, the theatre highlighted the sharp contrast between the speed demanded of black laborers—whether slaves, sharecroppers, or the chain gang—and calls for black people to “go slow.” Using performance to expose and critique this paradox at the heart of global modernity, FST challenged the cruel temporalities that fueled the economies and ecologies of slavery—as well as its afterlives.

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