The Death of Social Death: Im/possibility of Black Maternity in Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel


Although Angelina Weld Grimké’s 1916 play, Rachel, has historically been read as a sentimental, anti-lynching drama, such classifications might limit the play’s anarchic potential. Instead of viewing the characters as responding to anti-Black violence, this paper proposes reframing the play’s discussion within a context of Black maternity and its necessary engagement with the Afro-pessimist concept of social death. Such reorientation suggests that Rachel works within the theater’s very materiality in order to explore the effects of anti-Blackness on Black life. Specifically, this paper argues that the play’s performances of abiological Black maternity—and, particularly, the titular character’s performances—fugitively evade the natal alienation of social death. Furthermore, such performances link past, present, and future stage productions as well as character representations, recreating kinship formations within Black social life to stage spatio-temporal disruptions on the equation of Blackness as social death. In this way, Rachel offers modern scholars an understanding of how older works might yet be read in light of the more recent theoretical work of radical Black feminist and Afro-pessimist scholars.

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