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Michelle Ann StephensSkin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis and the Black Male Performer

Duke University Press, 2014

by Richard Brouillette on May 28, 2015

Michelle Ann Stephens

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Why would Bert Williams, famous African-American vaudeville performer of the early twentieth century, feel it necessary to apply burnt cork blackface make-up to his already dark skin, in order to emphasize "blackness"? According to Michelle Ann Stephens, this was one question about the space between realness, race, and performance that led her to write Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis and the Black Male Performer (Duke University Press, 2014). Stephens investigates the history of the concept of the skin, especially in relation to the notion of the flesh, and how they are both re-written by colonialization, and the idea of racial difference. Stephens turns to the work of four iconic black male stars whose careers span the twentieth century–including Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte  and Bob Marley–and explores the dynamic between the gaze, representation and technology, and how these performers challenged notions of race, sexuality, and skin/flesh in the act of performing. Stephens uses psychoanalytic theory to understand the role of the viewer and the viewed and how the gaze operates as a racial and racializing object. Calling on the work of cultural theorists, Merleau-Ponty, Fanon, Lacan, Jessica Benjamin, and Sylvia Winter among so many others, Stephens takes the reader along on a bold new attempt to relate psychoanalysis, race, and gender identity in fresh, optimistic, and clinically promising ways.

Michelle Stephens teaches in the Departments of English and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Originally from Jamaica, West Indies, she graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in American Studies and teaches courses in African American, American, Caribbean and Black Diaspora Literature and Culture. She is the author of Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914 to 1962 (Duke University Press, 2005).She is currently in training at the The William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis and Psychology.

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