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Embodied AvatarsGenealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance$
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Uri McMillan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781479802111

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479802111.001.0001

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Mammy Memory

Mammy Memory

The Curious Case of Joice Heth, the Ancient Negress

(p.23) 1 Mammy Memory
Embodied Avatars

Uri McMillan

NYU Press

This chapter focuses on resituating Heth’s brief but iconic impersonations, as George Washington’s nursemaid in 1830s America, as performance art. It begins to do so by tracing mammy memory, an affective charge suturing race, childhood and nostalgia, both in photographic depictions of the black wet-nurse and that figure’s seeming recurrence in two additional black female avatars enacted in this time period: “Joice Heth’s Grandmother” and “Mother Boston.” Paired with her performances of disability, the chapter ruminates on these sundry attempts to script the partially paralyzed Heth as both a cultural and biological anomaly as well as an embodied portal to a mythic and majestic American past. The chapter, then, shift gears, to the brief rumor of Heth as an inert automaton ventriloquized by Barnum, using Sianne Ngai’s concept of “racial animatedness” to delimit the complex interplay between race and the mechanical. Coupled with the visual and literary reanimations of Heth by Barnum, the chapter details the seduction of this ontological mystery: is Joice Heth a human or a machine? These incidents lead to a final discussion of Heth’s ostensible resistance, a brief vocal interjection delineated as a sonic of dissent. The focus on Heth’s sonic of dissent, while not an explicit attempt to solve the quagmire regarding Heth’s agency, is two-fold: 1) to privilege embodied memory over the textual and visual distortion of Barnum (and others), and 2) to ultimately engage with the disturbing legacies of brute objecthood and fabulation that are central components of black performance art’s haunting historical backdrop.

Keywords:   Joice Heth, PT Barnum, America, mammy memory, disability, automaton, sonic of dissent

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