This page was created by Brandi Hanna.  The last update was by David Squires.

Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men

Performative Allyship

By Brandi Hanna

What is Allyship?

To think about allyship and what it means to be an ally, a true ally, is to think, in part, of sacrifice on a number of levels—sacrifice of personal interest, sacrifice of comfort, and most significantly, sacrifice of power.

Indeed, allies are both a welcome and a necessary presence in any fight for justice. Crucial social movements throughout history have been built on the grounds of allyship and won through a concerted effort to do battle against the malicious and divisive forces of the world, regardless of the stake one holds in it. An ally, in the purest sense, is one who approaches instances of inequity as an unaffected party and remains as a fervent participant—willing to relinquish whatever inequitable power they posses in the name of justice. In addition to joining a movement, an ally is prepared to take a back seat, actively and meaningful contribute, and, most importantly, check their egos at the door. 

As with all things, though, regardless of all the good a structure like allyship can accomplish, the perversion and misrepresentation of its intentions are never far away.

Performative Allyship and Modern Social Rights Movements

As we are currently living through a series of social movements, on local and global levels, we are constantly and consistently seeing our lexicon expand to contain vocabulary which provides us with a fresh and critical understanding of our current circumstances. The concept of performative allyship, a perversion of true allyship, is one of them.

Performative allyship names the presence of sentiment with no applicable substance.

In thinking about and discussing performative allyship, it is worth keeping in mind that while the term is fairly new, the phenomenon has a longer history in struggles for racial justice. In Scenes of Subjection, for instance, Saidiya Hartman covers much ground in her conversation slavery and the covert terror it brought to the Black population trapped in it. Her discussion of liberal ideals in the nineteenth century explains how the Black body had a contradictory relationship with performative activism. While abolitionists held out the hope of freedom, they also subjected enslaved and formerly enslaved people to liberal forms of white supremacy.

Although Hartman does not use the term performative allyship, her analysis elucidates a dynamic we witness in the era of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Specifically, the popularization of this term comes along with the great display of support from individuals and businesses alike—both within and outside of the black community for the black community. The thing about performative activism, though, is that it attempts to make it easy, and somewhat comforting, to take the gestures—social media posts, black squares, BLM social media bios, stock quotes and empty promises—that are offered at face value. But doubt about commitment to the cause is always present.

It has to be.

A tradition of compromised allies spans from at least the nineteenth century to our present moment. No surprise, then, that we should see performative allyship operating in A Gathering of Old Men despite the term not being coined when Gaines published the novel in 1983. With new sensitivity to the social phenomenon, it is important to discuss how the pervasive structure has endured across centuries and generations—permeating through the novel and existing long before it, unnamed and all.

Hartman’s discussion of staging the Black body describes the performative as a kind of dual power dynamic where both oppressors and the oppressed create new ideas of Blackness, Black humanity and, perhaps, most pertinently, Black pain. In her analysis of John Rankin’s writing on slavery’s atrocities, for instance, Hartman notes his appropriation of the enslaved person’s pain, turning empathy into unearned and self-aggrandizing sympathy. “Beyond evidence of slavery's crime,” Hartman writes, “what does this exposure of the suffering body of the bondsman yield? Does this not reinforce the 'thingly' quality of the captive by reducing the body to evidence in the very effort to establish the humanity of the enslaved? Does it not reproduce the hyperembodiness of the powerless?” (Hartman, 19). This question about the apparently contradictory effort to recognize the humanity of subjugated people while reinscribing their powerlessness allows us to reconsider Candy's role as ally to Mathu in A Gathering of Old Men.

Candy's Allyship

In A Gathering of Old Men, the character that most intensely embodies the qualities of performative allyship is Candy Marshall—manager and part owner of the Marshall plantation. Specifically, she thinks of herself as an ally to Mathu, a black sharecropper on her family’s plantation who played a pivotal role in her upbringing, practically raising her from childhood to adulthood.

Considering how Candy handles her affairs and position of power, we see not only the way she cares but also, and importantly, how that care is tightly bound to control. The grand plan she carries out from the beginning of the novel relies on all the Black men in the area—not just on her plantation but also other, nearby plantations—to follow her lead without rebuttal. Despite whatever good intentions she has going into the situation, mainly to save Mathu’s life, it becomes difficult to justify her actions when she, at the first sign of resistance to her viewpoint, threatens to kick the men off the land they tilled and called home.

"But remember this" Candy tells the men, "Clatoo got a little piece of land to go back to. Y'all don't have nothing but this. You listen to him now, and you won't even have this" (174). In this moment, Candy’s concern quickly shifts from the well-being of the men to her position as their superior, and this alone sums up the heart of the issue—the danger of performative allyship is that it sustains current power relations.

It’s easy, tempting almost, to see the work Candy is doing as necessary and important. It could be, it should be. But as the novel unfolds, her allyship shifts from helpful organizing role to self-interested maintenance of the status quo. What Candy does, essentially, is center herself and privilege the ideas she has about how these men should handle their affairs, based on her position as a white woman in society, over the lived experiences of said men. 

As a whole, what A Gathering does well is lead readers to actively become a part of the dynamic relationships as they unfold. In that way, the novel insists readers take note of how each part of the journey to racial freedom and equality comes together and falls apart, over and over.

Reading this novel, we see performative allyship on display. However, to witness and reconcile the harm it brings is not always cut and dry, nor is it easy to detect and call out. It often appears thinly veiled by the guise of good intentions. Even as we unveil Candy's good intentions with a critical eye, it is important to avoid vilifying her or dismissing the love and care she must have felt for these men, Mathu specifically. The point is to recognize how, for all the good that can and does come from being an ally, there are opposing, often stronger consequences that can hinder meaningful progress if that allyship is not put in check.

Candy's desire to have Mathu around long enough to raise her children becomes a perfect example of this. She professes her love for him in a way that is at once endearing and off putting. "You raised my Daddy,” Candy says to Mathu. “You raised me. I want you to help me raise my own child one day” (176). She continues by reaffirming her needs by saying "I want you to hold his hand. Tell him about Grandpa. Tell him about the field. Tell him how the river looked before the cabins and wharves. No one else to tell him about these things but you" (177).  In this moment, Candy's want for Mathu exceeds his value as an individual, as a human in his own right. He, instead, becomes a conduit—a library to house and dispense all the important history and stories and information down the lines.

Reconciling Harm

What becomes interesting, confusing even, in the delineation of performative allyship is making a determination of when and how it is harmful. Thinking about performance on its own, it can be argued that we are always involved in it. To live in relation to others is too perform. So when is the performance of allyship dangerous, and when is it simply human nature? There is no simple answer to this question. There are many lenses through which we can view this phenomenon.

In thinking about allyship and what it should look like, perhaps an accurate way to gauge its authenticity is to consider the 5 Ws and 1 H: what is it doing, who is it centering, why is a particular action being taken, how is this action directly and productively helping those who are being harmed, and, when the road gets hard or the attention goes away, will you still be prepared to travel the distance?

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