The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory [Review: Zack]

The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory [Review: Zack]

American Nineteenth Century History
Volume 11, Issue 2 (2010)
pages 269-270
DOI: 10.1080/14664658.2010.481885

Naomi Zack, Professor of Philosophy
University of Oregon

The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory
Tavia Nyong’o
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009
Pp. 230. ISBNs 978 0 8166 5612 7 and 978 0 8166 5613 4

If The Amalgamation Waltz were not a 230-page book, published by a university press, complete with scholarly apparatus, readers might think that Alan Sokal was at it again, this time with the bad taste to caricature postmodern treatments of mixed race—as though mixed race did not already have a history of tragedy in fiction and biography. But alas, Tavia Nyong’o’s jargon-ridden exercise in “mixed-race theory” probably is the sincere but feverish reworking of a doctoral dissertation written under great stress, which it purports to be. Most readers, after reviving from the stupor induced by grappling with the first half of the introduction, would probably simply recycle the book unread and have done with it. But, I am heartened by the fact that mixed race has become a sufficiently respectable intellectual topic to support publication of even such a failed effort.

Nyong’o’s major theme appears to be that the idea of racial miscegenation enables certain errors in the mass political memory (which is something like a Jungian collective unconscious, only structured by anxiety). The idea of racial miscegenation leads to a “miscegenation of time.” When time is miscegenated, temporal order gets disorganized, so that what people imagine as A preceding B is in reality a case of B preceding A. Thus, the idea of mixed race is imagined to come after the idea of pure race. But in reality, the idea of mixed race comes first and the idea of pure race is constructed as a defense against the nightmarish chaos and danger evoked by the idea of mixed race. However, to put it this way might be too literal, because Nyongo writes, “My method employs the archive as a practice of ‘countermemory’ but without the pretense of using it to build a complete or coherent historical narrative” (p. 7). Indeed, such a narrative is not possible insofar as the “spurious issue” of mixed race/hybridity/amalgamation is not a thing but a performance that defers solution of racial problems into some future in which it (m-r/h/a) will transcend race.

Although Nyongo begins The Amalgamation Waltz by castigating Americans for the assumption that that the history of race in the U.S. offers the final meanings of race words, the four chapters of the book are largely restricted to American history. Chapter one, “The Mirror of Liberty,” is about representations of Crispus Attucks, a mixed-race patriot or insurgent who was killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre on 5 March 1770. Nyong’o weaves Attucks’s role as a symbol of unresolved racial injustice in colonial times with reflection on a book in the Wellcome Library in London that is falsely described as bound in the “Tanned Skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence.” Nyong’o notes that some books were in fact bound in human skin, a practice called “anthropodermic bibliopegy” (p. 37). Chapter two, “In Night’s Eye,” begins with a nineteenth-century story about a traveler in a coach at night, who informs his companions that the idea of amalgamation is used by anti-abolitionists to frighten and shock abolitionists. This notion of moral panic, based on imagery of sexual disorder, is further developed throughout the chapter, and Nyong’o makes a lucid case that such imagery was used by both sides of the slavery…

Read or purchase the review here.

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