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A “Brutology” of Bozal: Tracing a Discourse Genealogy from Nineteenth-Century Blackface Theater to Twenty-First-Century Spirit Possession in Cuba

  • Kristina Wirtz (a1)

In tracing a discourse history for the emergence and enregisterment of Bozal, a Cuban speech style that robustly indexes the historical persona of the African slave, this paper proposes that such discourse “genealogies” are more accurately reconstructed not through a linear, teleological metaphor of “speech chains” but through a more reticulated, multiply stranded web of interdiscursive connections. Bozal, in contemporary Cuba, characterizes the voices of African deities and spirits of the dead who possess their devotees to speak during folk religious ceremonies. I consider a deeper history of theatrical “blackface” influences on religious performances of spirit possession, a discourse history that destabilizes facile notions of “authentic, African” cultural sources in Cuba. I argue that rather than reflecting direct memories of actual speech by African-born slaves, once upon a time, Bozal's enregisterment began with, and always involved, double-voiced representations of imagined social types—what recent scholarship has described as “mock” forms disparaging the speech of racialized Others. The “Bozal slave” was a figure caricatured for comedic effect, proliferating into a whole set of stock theatrical characters, some of which became focal points for building nationalist sentiment in mid-nineteenth-century Cuba. The lesson for understanding the role of Bozal or any “Africanizing” voice in performance today is clear: we must always consider the mediating effects of metacultural practices in shaping our understanding of the social meaning of speech styles.

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