Racializing/Spatializing Pasts and Futures: The Performativity of New York City’s Black Dance Houses, 1830-1870

Authors: Corinna Moebius*, Florida International University
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Historical Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: black geographies, performativity, New York City, African diaspora, white supremacy, race, race and space, dance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Nottoway, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In this paper, I suggest that processes and politics of racialization in the U.S. are tied to “racializing/spatializing imaginations” of the past and the future, and efforts to articulate these imaginations through the performativity (Gregson and Rose 2000) of 19th century “negro dance houses.” In the 19th century U.S., an imagination of blacks as permanently linked to the past, and as fixed to natural “habitats,” intertwined with another imagination: blacks—and especially blacks interacting sexually with whites—as crossing borders to threaten to the future of whiteness. I contend that the black dance house became a transnationally circulating symbol used to “prove” the naturalness of racial hierarchy and at the same time the risk and threat to white supremacy. According to Katharyne Mitchell (2009), bodies constructed as Black in anticipation of a “what/then” scenario, a future already known, are those so inevitably risky to the body politic that they require disappearance and dispossession. Apocalyptic performances of the future depicted what would “inevitably” occur in a state of disorder, if black bodies did not perform within physical and symbolic borders. Performing white supremacy required symbolic space that could evoke both a nostalgia for the past and a lesson on what would occur without racial hierarchy and racial/spatial order. The black dance house was indeed a threat: it embodied African diasporic and interracial alliances; the disruption of racial, gender and class orders; the ambiguity of racial categories; and the ability for performances to spill beyond borders.

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