Aubrey Pankey and Performativity of Blackness in Maoist China

Aubrey Pankey, a classically trained baritone and performer activist, used the global stage as a platform for discussions of race vis-à-vis his performance of Negro Spirituals. His concerts in China in 1955 reflected his range and musicianship as his repertoire also included a few Chinese folk songs that he learned for the occasion. Yet, it was his performance of Negro Spirituals that garnered the most attention and press in China and captivated the Chinese audiences. Why, in Maoist China, did the songs of former enslaved peoples resonate with Chinese concert goers, students, and others able to hear Pankey sing? The proposed paper uses the narrative and travels of Aubrey Pankey to address race and performance in the Cold War era to argue that Aubrey Pankey and his performance of Negro Spirituals had a political as well as cultural and historical connection with Chinese audiences. His performances became an auditory space that melded Maoist ideals concerning folk music as the repository of culture with the sound of enslaved ancestors whose calls of hope and pain echoed the sentiments of Chinese people who suffered a different form of oppression at the hands of Whites. Aubrey Pankey’s performances both tapped into ideas of authenticity and representations of Blackness as well as interrogated ideas about race in China as it relates specifically to the Black American other and generally to the racialization of the Black body in China. 


  • East Asian Studies