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Ira Aldridge´s Africanness

Bernth Lindfors





Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) was the most visible black man in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. In forty-two years on stage he performed in more than twenty European nations, winning more awards, honors, medals and decorations than any other actor of his generation. He began his professional career in the British Isles but spent his last fifteen years touring the European continent where he was hailed as the greatest tragedian of all time. He was known primarily as a Shakespearean actor but he also starred in melodramas about slavery and in farces about black servants. However, he did not limit himself to racial roles. To expand his Shakespearean repertoire he whitened up to play Richard III, Macbeth, Shylock and Lear. He also occasionally performed as a Peruvian general, a Dutch sea captain, a Swiss patriot, and even the monster in a stage adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN. His versatility was impressive.

Yet he insisted on stressing his race when publicizing his performances. He was always billed as the "African Roscius," an honorific title alluding the a great Roman actor of tragedy and comedy. And early in his career he adopted the ploy of pretending to be the son of an exiled Christian Fulani prince from Senegal--in other words, a true Moor, someone who could play Othello with ethnic authenticity. The fact that he was born and brought up in New York City did not necessarily invalidate this claim. Audiences believed him to be African and evaluated his performances accordingly. Africa thus became his theatrical trademark and a key to his success as well as to several of his notable failures.

Aldridge's remarkable career raises a number of questions about racial attitudes in the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century, an era that saw the abolition of slavery, increased exploration and expropriation of Africa by Europe, the emergence of ethnography as an academic discipline, the spread of Darwinian ideas, and the rise of scientific racism. Since he was a highly visible black in a white world at a time when the nature of the relationship between whites and blacks was being redefined, his life might be expected to yield insights into the big racial issues of his day.

I am currently writing a biography of Aldridge that will focus on his strategies as an "African" performer. I have published a number of articles and book chapters on various aspects of his career, but I want to go beyond what is already known about him to view his accomplishments in a larger historical perspective. Much of my research in recent years has concentrated on his activities late in life on the Continent, especially in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine, where he had some of his greatest triumphs on the stage. I have also formerly done work on ethnological exhibitions of Africans in nineteenth-century Europe.

It would be helpful to me to meet other scholars who are working on similar problems of black representation and self-representation in Europe.

Potential questions for the workshop on Representing Black European History:

  • Is there any harm in misrepresenting oneself as African if one's aim is to present a more accurate image of African humanity?

  • Can negative stereotypes be countered effectively by positive stereotypes?

  • Should thnological exhibitions of African peoples stress differences or similarities with other peoples?

  • Does exoticism serve any useful purpose?


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