“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2019-06-21 20:07Z by Steven

“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 49, Number 1, Winter 2019
pages 27-54
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2019.0001

Lauren Kuryloski, Assistant Professor of Teaching
State University of New York, Buffalo

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life is ostensibly the story of Bea Pullman, an entrepreneurial, white, single mother who establishes a successful waffle-house restaurant chain with the help of her black maid and friend, Delilah. It is also a story of ‘passing,’ and Hurst’s only novel explicitly dealing with issues of race. The novel was later adapted into two films, with Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version the adaptation discussed here. While both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life were met with widespread commercial success, each treatment illustrates the narratological challenges of working with the passing trope, particularly when attempting to represent the relationship between black and white characters and acts of gender and race passing. Hurst’s and Sirk’s depictions of passing, and more specifically their employment of the ‘white passing’ narrative, reveals the irresolvable paradox of all such acts. To pass is to both subvert notions of fixed identity categories and cement them, a reality elucidated by the complicated representation of gender and race passing in novel and film.

Both literary and cinematic versions of Imitation of Life interrogate passing and its potential to destabilize existing social hierarchies. Although Sirk exercises significant artistic license in his adaptation, both versions of the story adhere to the same essential narrative arc. In each text the central white female protagonist, known as Bea in the novel and Lora in the film, accomplishes a gender pass, moving into the masculinized public sphere to secure financial stability for her family. Similarly, each version of the narrative features the light-skinned black daughter of the protagonist’s maid, known as Peola in the novel and Sarah Jane in the film, who performs the traditional racial pass in an attempt to enjoy the financial and social privileges associated with whiteness. Through the depiction of these double acts of passing, the narratives construct a commentary on the very real limitations that white and black female characters face in an unequal society. Moreover, the characters’ abilities to pass into different identities suggests the inherently performative nature of all identity categories, deconstructing essentialist notions of race and gender and revealing the subversive promise such performances hold. The passing trope’s allure resides in this ability to upend static conceptions of selfhood.

Yet despite the progressive potential to disrupt normative identity codes that passing appears to offer, Hurst’s and Sirk’s texts demonstrate the inherent internal conflict of all such narratives, as passing is often suggestive of subversion while in fact reifying the very same systems it purports to undermine. Although the passer may transgress established social boundaries and upset notions of fixed-identity categories, the move across identity lines simultaneously grants authority to binary constructions of identity. This paradox is at the heart of any act of passing and serves as the primary conflict in both novel and film. The characters in Imitation of Life may achieve varying degrees of financial or material success by passing, but their success is fleeting and mitigated by the system of narrative punishment that is doled out for their actions. While the texts toy with depicting race and gender identity as social constructions to be both challenged and performed at will, both the novel and film conclude that such performances are but imitations of real life, even when ‘real life’ is simply an adherence to essentialist race and gender roles. My work offers an analysis of this punishment and (occasional) reward system through a study of the way in which acts of racial passing are used in the service of moving the white female protagonist toward either her ultimate narrative chastisement (in the novel) or her redemption (in the film), demonstrating that passing relies on the maintenance of normative social hierarchies.

Both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life have received significant critical attention, and the genre of passing has itself been the subject of sustained scholarly debate. However, while both the novel and film…

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Coloring Locals: Racial Formation in Kate Chopin’s “Youth’s Companion” Stories

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Monographs, United States on 2019-06-03 17:58Z by Steven

Coloring Locals: Racial Formation in Kate Chopin’s “Youth’s Companion” Stories

University of Iowa Press
2003
168 pages
7 drawings, references, index
Cloth ISBN: 9780877458289
eBook ISBN: 9781587294280

Bonnie James Shaker, Assistant Professor of English
Kent State University Geauga, Burton, Ohio

Coloring Locals examines how the late nineteenth-century politics of gender, class, race, and ethnicity influenced Kate Chopin’s writing for the major family periodical of her time.

Chopin’s canonical status as a feminist rebel and reformer conflicts with the fact that one of her most supportive publishers throughout her life was the Youth’s Companion, a juvenile periodical whose thoroughly orthodox “family values” contributed to its success as the longest-running and, at one time, most widely circulating periodical in nineteenth-century America. Not surprisingly, Chopin’s Youth’s Companion stories differ from her canonical texts in that they embrace and advance ideals of orthodox white femininity and masculinity. Rather than viewing these two representations as being at odds with each other, Bonnie Shaker asserts that Chopin’s endorsement of conventional gender norms is done in the service of a second political agenda beyond her feminism, one that can help the reader appreciate nuances of identity construction previously misunderstood or overlooked in the body of her work.

Shaker articulates this second agenda as “the discursive act of coloring locals,” the narrative construction of racial difference for Louisiana peoples of African American, Native American, and French American ancestry. For Chopin, “coloring locals” meant transforming non-Louisianans’ general understanding of the Creole and Cajun as mixed-race people into “purely” white folks, this designation of whiteness being one that conferred not only social preferment but also political protections and enfranchisement in one of the most racially violent decades of U.S. history. Thus, when Chopin is concerned with coloring her beloved Louisiana Creoles and Cajuns “white,” she strategically deploys conventional femininity for the benefits it affords as a sign of middle-class respectability and belonging.

Making significant contributions both to the scholarship on Kate Chopin and on race and gender construction, this sophisticated study will be of great interest to scholars and students of nineteenth-century ethnic and cultural studies as well as Chopin scholars.

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Rethinking Transracialism: Ariana Grande and Racial Ambiguity

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2019-06-03 17:34Z by Steven

Rethinking Transracialism: Ariana Grande and Racial Ambiguity

Cult Plastic: Dance And Culture In The Plastic Age
2019-02-19

Anh Vo


Ariana Grande from the 2018 Billboard Woman of the Year Cover Shoot

This article revisits, revises, and expands on the arguments I make in Blackface and Pop Princesses: A Brief Genealogy. Previously, I wrote three brief paragraphs on Ariana Grande, trying to position her donning of black and brown visuality (i.e. blackface/brownface) alongside similar practices of other pop princesses such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Miley Cyrus. However, I no longer think blackface as a phenomenon can quite account for how Grande is manipulating the racial ambiguity of her image. Even though she certainly inherits the history of pop princesses borrowing the cultural signification of blackness/brownness to shed their young and innocent facades and sell their more sexually dangerous personas, Grande also departs from this “tradition” radically. She does not borrow; she becomes black, becomes brown, becomes something not quite black or brown, yet not quite white either. She becomes transracial.

At stake here is not the matter of people simply being confused about Grande’s racial identity. Confusion is almost always inevitable when it comes to race, because the colonial fantasy of racial purity, and even of race itself, always falls apart as it tries to categorize the unruliness of the body to create a hierarchy of humanity (with whiteness at its apex). What so disturbing, then, is the fact that Grande successfully mobilizes, amplifies, and capitalizes on this (trans)racial confusion, and gets away with crossing into non-whiteness the way Rachel Dolezal cannot. My goals in writing this essay are two-fold: (1) to articulate Ariana Grande’s image transformation not as an act of racial passing, but as a gradual racial transitioning from whiteness into ambiguity (2) to redirect the discourse on transracialism away from the monopoly of Dolezal, who, together with her transracial “identity” of blackness, has been too easily brushed off as a joke, a lie, or at best an individual anomaly…

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Black Achilles

Posted in Articles, Europe, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2019-06-01 23:57Z by Steven

Black Achilles

Aeon
2018-05-09

Tim Whitmarsh, A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture
University of Cambridge


Achilles slaying Penthesilea. Detail from an amphora, 530-525 BCE. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

The Greeks didn’t have modern ideas of race. Did they see themselves as white, black – or as something else altogether?

Few issues provoke such controversy as the skin-colour of the Ancient Greeks. Last year in an article published in Forbes, the Classics scholar Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa caused a storm by pointing out that many of the Greek statues that seem white to us now were in antiquity painted in colour. This is an uncontroversial position, and demonstrably correct, but Bond received a shower of online abuse for daring to suggest that the reason why some like to think of their Greek statues as marble-white might just have something to do with their politics. This year, it was the turn of BBC’s new television series Troy: Fall of a City (2018-) to attract ire, which cast black actors in the roles of Achilles, Patroclus, Zeus, Aeneas and others (as if using anglophone northern European actors were any less anachronistic).

The idea of the Greeks as paragons of whiteness is deeply rooted in Western society. As Donna Zuckerberg shows in her book Not All Dead White Men (2018), this agenda has been promoted with gusto by sections of the alt-Right who see themselves as heirs to (a supposed) European warrior masculinity. Racism is emotional, not rational; I don’t want to dignify online armies of anonymous trolls by responding in detail to their assertions. My aim in this essay, rather, is to consider how the Greeks themselves viewed differences in skin colour. The differences are instructive – and, indeed, clearly point up the oddity of the modern, western obsession with classification by pigmentation…

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“You’re Neither One Thing (N)or The Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and The Passing Trope

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-05-22 17:53Z by Steven

“You’re Neither One Thing (N)or The Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and The Passing Trope

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2012
pages 45-61

Donavan L. Ramon, Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies
Kentucky State University

Philip Roth has historically been situated in a male literary tradition, with critics assessing him alongside Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and more recently, Charles Chesnutt and Ralph Ellison. Because of his problematic portrayals of women characters, Roth is not often discussed alongside women writers. My paper goes beyond this by situating Roth alongside a black woman writer, Nella Larsen. In fact, Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) share several thematic and structural similarities, such as the tropes of belated race learning, double consciousness, anonymous letter writing, taboo sexualities, and ambiguous deaths. My essay argues that these tropes underlie passing narratives and reveal the development of twentieth century passing texts.

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Sugarwork: The Gastropoetics of Afro-Asia After the Plantation

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2019-05-19 00:18Z by Steven

Sugarwork: The Gastropoetics of Afro-Asia After the Plantation

Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas
Volume 5: Issue 1-2 (2019-04-11) Special Issue: Expressions of Asian Caribbeanness edited by Andil Gosine, Sean Metzger, and Patricia Mohammed
DOI: 10.1163/23523085-00501003

Tao Leigh Goffe, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies; Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Cover Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas

The politics and the poetics of sugar and its production have long connected African and Asian diasporas as the material legacy of the Caribbean plantation. This article considers the repurposing of sugar as art and the aesthetic of artists of Afro-Chinese descent, Andrea Chung and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Part of a diasporic tradition of employing sugar as a medium that I call sugarwork, their artwork evokes the colonial entanglements of nutrition and labour on the plantation, centered in the belly. The womb makes, and the stomach unmakes. This practice, employing the materiality of foodstuffs, is part of a gastropoetics, wherein centering the sensorium opens alternative forms of knowledge production to the European colonial archive. As the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured Chinese, Campos-Pons and Chung metabolize sugar in ways that grapple with the futurity of the plantation to form a new intertwined genealogy of black and Chinese womanhood.

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‘Funnyhouse of a Negro’ gets under character’s skin

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-05-14 15:12Z by Steven

‘Funnyhouse of a Negro’ gets under character’s skin

KU Today
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas 66045
2019-05-01

Rick Hellman, KU News Service
Telephone: 785-864-8852

LAWRENCE – More than one white politician has landed in hot water this year after old photographs of them dressed in blackface surfaced. Clearly, racial stereotypes are still a touchy subject. So is it OK for minorities to dress in whiteface? What if it’s meant to represent an inner conflict among people of mixed-race identity?

“This question implies that there is such a thing as reverse racism, and I don’t think we can even ask that without discussing the systemic inequality and racial hierarchies that result in internalized racism experienced by historically underrepresented groups,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, University of Kansas associate professor of theatre.

Melting Pot Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, goes there this month when Hodges Persley directs an avant-garde play from 1964 titled “Funnyhouse of a Negro” by Adrienne Kennedy. The play, which opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 3, for a two-week run, is part of Hodges Persley’s exploration of the ways 20th-century black artists undermined racial and mixed-race stereotypes in their creative work.

For the past couple of years, Hodges Persley has been working on the first major biography of actress Fredi Washington (1903-1994), a woman of mixed racial background who fought against the racial stereotyping of her day while also working for black empowerment…

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BWW Review: THE DAY I BECAME BLACK at Soho Playhouse

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-04-12 02:39Z by Steven

BWW Review: THE DAY I BECAME BLACK at Soho Playhouse

Broadway World
Off-Broadway
2019-04-08

Derek McCraken

BWW Review: THE DAY I BECAME BLACK at Soho Playhouse

Wake up! Bill Posley has a stunner of a story to tell, and although comedy may not resolve his existential crisis, it’s a trip well worth taking with him at Soho Playhouse. Witty, fearless and “woke as f***,” Posley describes (and often reenacts) parts of his lived experience as a biracial man in search of an identity. Feeling too black for white people and not black enough for black people, he regales us with anecdotes that, although amusing in their own right, are also the kind of antidote that our racially fractured country needs right now.

How do you help an integrated audience in an intimate theatrical space feel at ease? Posley’s style: assure white people it’s ok to laugh, then ask black people not to stare at them. Ironically (deliberately?) he doesn’t specifically address any potentially biracial audience members.

To ease us into his culturally conflicted space, Posley shares the many micro-aggressions he endures, such as the intrusive and objectifying question he fields way too frequently. He asks, in an incredulous Valley Girl dialect, “Omigod, like, what ARE you?” Then he deadpans his response: “A Costco member.”

Against the backdrop of having been born biracial into a Massachusetts family, and raised in a culture that demanded he identify as black or white but never both, Posley invites us to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. He first assumes the role of our “beginning black friend,” but this initial duality soon manifests itself as a multi-generational multiplicity: with a slight change of posture and modification of his voice, he embodies his well-intentioned but metaphor-mangling black father, his fierce black grandmother (Grammy), and “Karen at Starbucks,” a white privileged prima donna who unleashes a belittling barrage of complaints directed at Posley, her barista. Let’s just say that his response to her was anything but basic…

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Yaller Gal – The Fortnightly Word

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2019-04-12 01:18Z by Steven

Yaller Gal – The Fortnightly Word

This Cruel War: An Evidence-Based Exploration of the Causes and Ramifications of the American Civil War
2016-10-03

One of the things that keeps us from easily accessing primary sources is their language. Though documents from our past are in English, it’s often a very different creation than we know now. I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. From time to time, I’ll share one of these new old words that I come across. By learning about words we no longer use, we can better understand the past.

The Word this Week is “Yaller Gal.”

I first came across this word while reading some of the slave narratives recorded in the 1930s. Here are a few of examples of how they were used:…

…The word was also used to describe varieties of grits (“yaller hominy”), cake, and even cats. In that light, it seems pretty obvious that “yaller” is “yellow” in a Southern dialect. But while yellow hominy, yellow cake and yellow cats all make sense, what is a yellow girl?

Though Mrs. Southwell’s quote above might be evidence enough, another from Texas makes it clear.

“When massa come home that evening his wife hardly say nothing to him, and he ask her what the matter and she tells him, ‘Since you asks me, I’m studying in my mind about them white young’uns of that yaller nigger wench from Baton Rouge.’ He say, ‘Now, honey, I fetched that gal just for you, because she a fine seamster.’ She say, ‘It look kind of funny they got the same kind of hair and eyes as my children and they got a nose looks like yours.’ He say, ‘Honey, you just paying attention to talk of little children that ain’t got no mind to what they say.’ She say, ‘Over in Mississippi I got a home and plenty with my daddy and I got that in my mind.’” –Mary Reynolds, Black River, Louisiana.

Plainly speaking, a “yaller girl” was a mulatto, a person of mixed-race conceived through some combination of black and white parentage.1 The four examples used above don’t go into too much detail. It was, for the time, a very understood phrase.

A yaller girl had very light skin, but was still considered nonwhite. For many enslavers, when it came to yaller girls, the more white the better. Of course, she could not be purely white, but the more white in her, the more she was wanted as a sex slave…

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The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-03-25 13:16Z by Steven

The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2015

Julia S. Charles, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

This dissertation mines the intersection of racial performance and the history of the so-called “tragic mulatto” figure in American fiction. I propose that while many white writers depicted the “mulatto” character as inherently flawed because of some tainted “black blood,” many black writers’ depictions of mixed-race characters imagine solutions to the race problem. Many black writers critiqued some of America’s most egregious sins by demonstrating linkages between major shifts in American history and the mixed-race figure. Landmark legislation such as, Fugitive Slave Act 1850 and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) are often plotlines in African American passing literature, thus demonstrating the failure of America to acknowledge its wrongdoings against people of color. While this project surveys passing narratives collectively, it pays careful consideration to those novelists whose presentations of the mixed-race figure challenge previously conceived notions of the “tragic mulatto” figure. I investigate how the writers each illuminate elements of the history of slavery and its aftermath in order to remark on black disenfranchisement at the turn of the century. Ultimately, however, I argue for the importance of the mixed-race figure as a potent symbol for imagined resolution between the larger narrative of American freedom and enslavement of blacks in the United States.

I examine several works of African American racial passing literature: William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African American writer. It explores the complexities of American culture at a time when tensions between North and South were about to explode into the Civil War. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), tells the true story of the mixed-race Ellen Craft and her husband who escaped to freedom through various racial performances. Nella Larsen sets her novella Passing (1929) in Harlem in the 1920s. The story centers on two childhood friends reunited, but each dealing with their mixed-race ancestry in different ways. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928) and The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” (1900). endeavors to depict a better class of blacks through her examination of the fair-skinned bourgeois-striver Angela Murray. Each of these stories address American legacies of racism and representation beginning with the Civil War.

I investigate how these authors use the mixed-race figure (mostly) following the Civil War to mark the continuing impact that its legacy has had on black Americans through the New Negro Harlem Renaissance, but also to gesture to the mythic moment of freedom symbolized by successfully crossing the so-called color line. In addition to cataloguing an era of migration, the African American passing narrative represents the moment in which we shift from only seeing characters in terms of monoracial identities. These writers suggest that new performative modes of racial affiliation are necessary to achieve freedom. Reminding us that characters of mixed status practiced race in ways that enabled them to build shared identity despite an often disparate cultural heritage, these works suggest that identities like blackness are always constituted through performance. I argue that racial passing facilitated the “performance” of whiteness together with, an acknowledgment of what is accepted as blackness.

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