top of page

Scripts of Blackness:

Early Modern Performance Culture and the Making of Race

(University of Pennsylvania Press, September 2022)



Scripts of Blackness shows how the early modern mass media of theatre and performance culture helped turn blackness into a racial category, that is, into a type of difference justifying emerging social hierarchies and power relations in a new world order driven by colonialism and capitalism. Race is a system of power falsely packaged as a system of knowledge that essentializes and hierarchizes difference in order to justify and consolidate unequal social structures. For a long time, in Europe, the term “race” referred primarily to rank and to religion, as those were the criteria on the basis of which dominant groups had built an uneven system of power and resource distribution. At the end of the sixteenth century, in a context of global expansion, what I call the racial matrix produced a new paradigm: race started also referring to physiological differences for which skin color quickly became a shorthand. Four hundred years later, we are still trying to extricate ourselves from that epistemological shift. Scripts of Blackness explores how that shift was absorbed into early modern popular culture and came to permeate European readings of human bodies.

To do so, Noémie Ndiaye studies the techniques of impersonation used by white performers to represent Afro-diasporic people in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, France, and Spain on the commercial stage, at court, and in spaces of everyday life such as civic pageants, market fairs, religious services, tavern gigs, semi-private readings, wedding parties, block parties, colonial plantations, and slave ships. I reconstruct three techniques of racial impersonation —black-up (cosmetic blackness), blackspeak (acoustic blackness), and black dances (kinetic blackness)— in order to track the metaphorical strains that early modern play texts regularly associated with them.


Organizing chapters around performance techniques (rather than around countries, authors, or plays) allows her to curate collections of exhibits across languages, borders, media, and centuries that rub up against each other and, in that rub, acquire evidentiary density. Stage directions, acting companies’ receipts, costume sketches, and testimonies help reconstruct the looks of black-up; play texts, broadside ballads, music sheets, and Christmas carols script black accents; dictionaries, poems, dance treatises, travel writing, engravings, woodcuts, and legal documents depict black dances. The metaphorical strains animating those performance techniques, the titular scripts of blackness of this book, provided participants with new ways of thinking about the Afro-diasporic people who lived, could live, or ultimately would live in their midst. Those scripts hinged on demonization, exclusion, animalization, commodification, sexualization, consensual enslavement, misogynoir, infantilization, and strategic association with other racialized minorities. By tracking scripts of blackness, Ndiaye seeks to grasp the stories that Western Europeans told themselves through performative blackness, and the effects of those fictions on early modern Afro-diasporic subjects.


By putting in conversation vast English, French, and Spanish archives that are seldom discussed and never discussed in relation to one another, Scripts of Blackness intervenes in Premodern Critical Race Studies to reveal idiosyncrasies that mono-national approaches enshroud. It brings to the fore patterns of resemblance, difference, and circulation that attest to the emergence of race-making as a simultaneously local, global, and intercolonial European project. The book’s interventions are archival (the majority of French and Spanish plays and documents Ndaiye studies have not been translated into English), but also methodological (as Ndiaye names and works through a number of affective and ethical difficulties in the present state of the field), and theoretical (as Ndiaye opens up the sensorium of PCRS to the highly generative and hitherto untouched acoustic and kinetic repertoires of early modern race-making).


Join us for virtual conversations around Scripts of Blackness!


9/20/22  Official Book Launch

In conversation with Dr. Joyce Green Macdonald

2 -3.30pm CST

Registration link

Discount code to order the book through Penn Press’s website: NDIAYEBBPUC30-FM

Active 9/13-9/27


10/7/22  Yale University

Renaissance Colloquium + Iberian Connections

12.30 - 2 pm EST

Registration link

Discount code to order the book through Penn Press’s website: NDIAYERCICYALE30-FM

Active 9/30 - 10/14/22


10/19/22  CUNY

Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance 

6 - 7:30 pm EST

Registration link

Discount code to order the book through Penn Press’s website: NDIAYESSWRCUNY30-FM

Active 10/12 - 10/26/22

11/14/22  RaceB4Race Mentoring Network

2 - 3pm EST  (Private Event)

bottom of page