Embodying Black Experience

Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body
Harvey Young
How the history of the diasporic black body in American art, athleticism, and performance resonates in daily life


In 1901, George Ward, a lynching victim, was attacked, murdered, and dismembered by a mob of white men, women, and children. As his lifeless body burned in a fire, enterprising white youth cut off his toes and, later, his fingers and sold them as souvenirs. In Embodying Black Experience , Harvey Young masterfully blends biography, archival history, performance theory, and phenomenology to relay the experiences of black men and women who, like Ward, were profoundly affected by the spectacular intrusion of racial violence within their lives. Looking back over the past two hundred years—from the exhibition of boxer Tom Molineaux and Saartjie Baartman (the "Hottentot Venus") in 1810 to twenty-first century experiences of racial profiling and incarceration—Young chronicles a set of black experiences, or what he calls, "phenomenal blackness," that developed not only from the experience of abuse but also from a variety of performances of resistance that were devised to respond to the highly predictable and anticipated arrival of racial violence within a person's lifetime.

Embodying Black Experience pinpoints selected artistic and athletic performances—photography, boxing, theater/performance art, and museum display—as portals through which to gain access to the lived experiences of a variety of individuals. The photographs of Joseph Zealy, Richard Roberts, and Walker Evans; the boxing performances of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali; the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks, Robbie McCauley, and Dael Orlandersmith; and the tragic performances of Bootjack McDaniels and James Cameron offer insight into the lives of black folk across two centuries and the ways that black artists, performers, and athletes challenged the racist (and racializing) assumptions of the societies in which they lived.

Blending humanistic and social science perspectives, Embodying Black Experience explains the ways in which societal ideas of "the black body," an imagined myth of blackness, get projected across the bodies of actual black folk and, in turn, render them targets of abuse. However, the emphasis on the performances of select artists and athletes also spotlights moments of resistance and, indeed, strength within these most harrowing settings.

"Young's linkage between critical race theory, historical inquiry, and performance studies is a necessary intersection. Innovative, creative, and provocative."
—Davarian Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Trinity College

Harvey Young is Associate Professor of Theatre, Performance Studies, and Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University.

Praise / Awards

  • "Embodying Black Experience is performance studies scholarship at its engaged and engaging best."
    Theatre Journal

    "Performance studies scholarship at its engaged and engaging best. Harvey Young’s book contributes valuable detailed local readings of several sites of academic debate… a very significant contribution to our understanding of the performance of race, the performance of memory, and the phenomenology of the body."
    Theatre Journal

  • "Young provides an excellent rendering of the "black body" as screen for racializing projection, demonstrating how contemporary Americans "continue to share in the experiences of their ancestors who were viewed as 'other,' unjustly incarcerated, and subjected to limitless violence." 
    Choice, T. F. DeFrantz, Duke University (Highly Recommended)

  • "Providing singularly fresh new readings of some of the ur-texts of African American studies ... Harvey Young’s Embodying Black Experience also forge[s] new ground by placing these works in conversation with offerings that have as yet garnered scant scholarly attention."
    --American Literature
  • "The innovative approaches to the Agassiz daguerrotypes... speak to important points of similarity and difference in current studies of early African American photography." 
    American Studies
  • Winner of the National Communication Association's Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance Studies, 2011

  • Winner: American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) 2011 Errol Hill Award

Look Inside

Copyright © 2010, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 272pp.
  • 16 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2010
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05111-3

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  • $33.95 U.S.

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  • racial violence, racial profiling, driving while black, lynching, black drama, black body, habitus, embodied experience, critical memory, black history