Black-Asian Counterintimacies: Reading Sui Sin Far in Jamaica

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Passing, Women on 2018-05-22 02:17Z by Steven

Black-Asian Counterintimacies: Reading Sui Sin Far in Jamaica

J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2018
pages 197-204
DOI: 10.1353/jnc.2018.0015

Christine “Xine” Yao, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of English
University of British Columbia

In “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,” Edith Maude Eaton, writing as Sui Sin Far, reflects on her time in Jamaica as a white-passing mixed-race woman.1 Rumor of her Chinese ancestry provokes a white English naval officer to seek her out for sexual favors, a scenario still all too familiar to women, particularly women of color, today: a predatory conversation sheathed in friendly euphemisms. At first Far believes his visit has to do with her work as a journalist, but his repeated “silly and offensive laugh” suggests otherwise.2 When she attempts to dismiss him, he laughs again, “There’s always plenty of time for good times. That’s what I am here for.”3 After commenting on her “nice little body,” he invites her to sail with him where “I will tell you all about the sweet little Chinese girls I met when we were at Hong Kong. They’re not so shy!”4 The officer’s framing of her presumed affective and sexual availability, and the foregrounding of his own sexual and social prerogative, are an everyday life manifestation of what Lisa Lowe names a “‘political economy’ of intimacy … a particular calculus governing the production, distribution, and possession of intimacy” predicated on empire and settler colonialism.5 The man’s proposition to Far is a demand for her friendliness because those other Chinese girls in Hong Kong are “not so shy.” In her rejection of his desire for intimacy, she risks the dangerous backlash that attends injured white masculinity along with broader social consequences that could impact the relative privilege of her personal and professional life in the Caribbean. Still, instead of a “friendly” relationship to whiteness, Sui Sin Far seeks alternative intimacies. In the same section of her memoir she juxtaposes this incident with musings about her position as a white-passing mixed-race Chinese woman in relation to her observations about antiblackness in the West Indies. Despite the warnings of the English who tell her to fear the “‘brown boys’ of the island,” the writer considered the mother of Asian North American literature affirms a sense of transnational solidarity between peoples of color in her affective racial identifications. “I too am of the ‘brown people’ of the earth,” she confides to her readers, prefiguring, in this assertion, the anti-colonial alliance between African and Asian nations that would be formalized in 1955 at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia.6

Intimacy operates, here, as a heuristic for understanding how the racialized and gendered pressures of domesticity, sentimentality, and sexuality are imbricated with the projects of empire. These exploitative relations undergird the transnational violences of settler colonialism, slavery, and indentured servitude—systems which, as Lowe argues, enable the liberal fictions of white Western individuals, who are able to claim intimacy as one of the privileges associated with the private sphere, as a property of their citizenship in modern civil society. In the shift from the late nineteenth-century threatening “Yellow Peril” to modern-day deserving “model minority,” Asian Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent, are lured by false promises of inclusion into this liberal fiction on the basis of intimate affiliation with whiteness. Among the processes of comparative racialization that emerge from transnational intimacies, Ellen Wu traces how Asian Americans were complicit in the anti-black creation of the “model minority” category in the American cultural imaginary.7 Nonetheless, the solidarity work of activists like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, along with studies of earlier black-Asian cultural and political engagements by scholars like Edlie Wong and Julia H. Lee, indicates an alternative genealogy of counterintimacies that disrupts those aligned with the afterlife of imperial exploitation.8 In defiance of the coercive pressures made manifest through sexual violence and emotional labor, the mixed-race Asian and black women of Sui Sin Far’s fiction and nonfiction writings reorient these indices of transnational power relations away from their focus on whiteness and toward the possibility of resistance through affective connections that center peoples of color.

In Far’s rediscovered Jamaican stories and journalism…

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Passing or Transracial?: Authority, Race, and Sex in the Rachel Dolezal Documentary

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-05-18 15:32Z by Steven

Passing or Transracial?: Authority, Race, and Sex in the Rachel Dolezal Documentary

Beacon Broadside: A Project of Beacon Press
2018-05-10

Lisa Page, Assistant Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Rachel Dolezal
Photo credit: YouTube/Dr. Phil

For some of us, racial identity is elastic. We can pass. For white, for black, for Middle Eastern. For Latinx. I am one of those people. I know what it is to assimilate to a group you identify with, because I did it myself, against my white mother’s wishes. She hated me calling myself black.

For this reason, my response to The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson’s new documentary about Rachel Dolezal, is complicated. Dolezal famously passed for black, for years, before her white parents outed her in 2015. I feel two ways about this. I completely get the outrage that followed the reveal. But I also have sympathy for Dolezal. I know what it’s like to turn your back on the white side of your family.

The film opens with clips of Dolezal’s activism, as president of the Spokane NAACP, which came to a screeching halt once she was revealed to be a white woman who darkened her complexion and wore a weave.

Dolezal doesn’t call that passing.

“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” she asks, near the beginning of the film. “Do we have the right to live exactly how we feel?”…

Read the entire article here.

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American Son: A Novel

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Books, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, United States on 2018-04-30 01:09Z by Steven

American Son: A Novel

W. W. Norton & Company
May 2001
256 pages
5.6 × 8.3 in
Paperback ISBN 978-0-393-32154-8

Brian Ascalon Roley

A powerful novel about ethnically fluid California, and the corrosive relationship between two Filipino brothers.

Told with a hard-edged purity that brings to mind Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson, American Son is the story of two Filipino brothers adrift in contemporary California. The older brother, Tomas, fashions himself into a Mexican gangster and breeds pricey attack dogs, which he trains in German and sells to Hollywood celebrities. The narrator is younger brother Gabe, who tries to avoid the tar pit of Tomas’s waywardness, yet moves ever closer to embracing it. Their mother, who moved to America to escape the caste system of Manila and is now divorced from their American father, struggles to keep her sons in line while working two dead-end jobs. When Gabe runs away, he brings shame and unforeseen consequences to the family. Full of the ache of being caught in a violent and alienating world, American Son is a debut novel that captures the underbelly of the modern immigrant experience.

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The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Latino Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-04-30 00:40Z by Steven

The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
2011
217 pages

Amanda M. Page

A dissertation submitted to the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

In “The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives,” I examine a subset of racial passing narratives written between 1890 and 1930 by African American activist-authors, some directly affiliated with the NAACP, who use the form to challenge racial hierarchies through the figure of the mulatta/o and his or her interactions with other racial and ethnic groups. I position texts by Frances E.W. Harper, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White in dialogue with racial classification laws of the period—including Supreme Court decisions, such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and immigration law, such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924—to show how these rulings and laws were designed to consolidate white identity while preventing coalition-building among African Americans and other subordinate groups.

In contrast to white-authored passing narratives of the time, I argue that these early African American passing narratives frequently gesture toward interracial solidarity with Native American, European immigrant, Latina/o, or Asian American characters as a means of
challenging white supremacy. Yet, these authors often sacrifice the potential for antiracist coalitions because of the limitations inherent in working within the dominant racial and nativist discourses. For example, in Iola Leroy (1892), Harper, despite her racially progressive intentions, strategically deploys white nativist discourse against Native Americans to demonstrate the “Americanness” of her mulatta heroine and demand recognition of African American assimilation. Though later African American passing narratives, such as Johnson‘s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and White‘s Flight (1926), began to reflect a collaborative global approach to civil rights as the century progressed, these strategies of domestic antagonism and/or international solidarity with groups outside of the black-white binary ultimately worked in service to a specifically African American civil rights agenda.

This study concludes with an examination of a contemporary passing narrative by an Asian American author. Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son (2001) revises the form to challenge the continued marginalization of Latina/os and Asian Americans and thus suggests the need for a reconsideration of how we approach civil rights activism to accommodate new racial dynamics in the post-civil rights era.

Read the entire dissertation here.

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A Girl Full of Smartness

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-04-24 02:25Z by Steven

A Girl Full of Smartness

The Paris Review
2017-06-02

Edward White


Mary Ellen Pleasant

As an entrepreneur, civil-rights activist, and benefactor, Mary Ellen Pleasant made a name and a fortune for herself in Gold Rush–era San Francisco, shattering racial taboos.

They did things differently in the Old West. On the morning of August 14, 1889, Stephen J. Field, a justice of the Supreme Court, was eating breakfast at a café in Lathrop, California, when David S. Terry, a former bench colleague, stopped by Field’s table and slapped him twice across the face.

This was not unprecedented behavior. Despite having risen to the rank of chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, Terry was described by one contemporary as an “evil genius” with an “irrepressible temper,” who once stabbed a man for being an abolitionist and killed a Congressman wedded to the Free Soil movement. His gripe with Stephen Field, however, had nothing to do with slavery. In 1883, Terry’s wife had filed a lawsuit (Sharon vs. Sharon) against the multimillionaire U.S. Senator William Sharon, claiming she had been married to him in secret some years ago and that, having been callously discarded by the womanizing senator, she was owed a divorce settlement. After five years the case ended up at a federal circuit court, where Field found in favor of William Sharon; there would be no divorce settlement. Terry was livid and promised to exact revenge.

It was only the latest twist in what had been a bizarre case. On the first day of the trial, William Sharon’s attorney asserted that his client was the victim of a plot involving an elderly black woman who had used voodoo to steal Sharon’s hard-earned fortune. That woman was known to the San Francisco public as “Mammy Pleasant,” around whom sinister rumors had swirled for years. Some accused her of being a murderess, a madam, and a practitioner of black magic who befriended white families only to curse them and bleed them dry; a nightmarish image of “the mammy gone wrong,” to quote one historian. But just as many—especially among the black community—knew her as Mary Ellen Pleasant: an ingenious entrepreneur, pioneering civil-rights activist, and beloved benefactor who broke racial taboos and played a singular role in the early years of San Francisco…

Even within her lifetime, there were several competing stories about Pleasant’s origins. One version has her born into slavery in Georgia; another says she was the daughter of a wealthy Virginian planter who had a fling with a voodoo priestess from the Caribbean. In her published reminiscences she claimed to have been born in Philadelphia in 1812, to a Hawaiian father and “a full-blooded Louisiana negress.” Racial mixing and ethnic ambiguity, themes that would repeat over and again throughout Pleasant’s life, appear to have been part of her identity from the start…

Read the entire article here.

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The real history behind Mary Ellen Pleasant, San Francisco’s “voodoo queen”

Posted in Articles, Audio, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States, Women on 2018-04-24 02:04Z by Steven

The real history behind Mary Ellen Pleasant, San Francisco’s “voodoo queen”

KALW Local Public Radio, 91.7 FM
San Francisco, California
2015-09-09

Olivia Cueva & Liza Veale


Performer Susheel Bibbs poses in front of an image of Mary Ellen Pleasant.
Photograph by Olivia Cueva

In the mid-1800s, boomtown San Francisco was a city of men — only about 15 percent women. While slavery was illegal in California, white men were the ones cashing out on the boom. Mostly.

Then there was Mary Ellen Pleasant. She was one of the richest and most powerful people in the state — and she was a black woman. In fact she was a freedom fighter; her nickname was “Black City Hall.”

Yet today, Pleasant is barely remembered. The story that does get told is a mythologized tale about San Francisco’s so-called “voodoo queen.”

Why did this extraordinary woman fall from the city’s graces, left to haunt its history as the voodoo queen? We start at the last stop on a city tour called the San Francisco Ghost Hunt.

The tour brings you to the corner of Octavia and Bush streets, where Mary Ellen Pleasant’s mansion once stood. Six huge eucalyptus trees tower above the spot. Pleasant planted them herself over a hundred years ago.

Jim Fassbinder guides the tour. He tells a tale that he admits is not quite fact, not quite fiction.

He says Pleasant had power over San Franciscans because she practiced “voodoo.” He says some claim she was responsible for the death of four people, including her longtime business partner. Rumor has it her servant “found Mary Ellen pulling apart the bones of his head and picking out bits of his brain,” says Fassbinder.

As the story goes, she’s haunted this corner ever since the day she died. But the story’s been mangled by history. What really happened?

“It still is a mystery,” says Susheel Bibbs, “Her life is still a mystery.”

Bibbs has been studying Pleasant for over 20 years. She says part of the reason it’s so hard to distinguish fact from fiction is because Pleasant herself never kept her story straight.

“It was ingrained from the very beginning that survival meant that you don’t tell. You just keep secrets,” Bibbs says.

By best accounts, Pleasant was born on a plantation in Georgia. Once she was freed as a young girl, she began falsifying her identity. Slavery was still alive and well, so she needed to protect herself from law enforcement.

“If they decided she was an escaped slave and she had no freedom papers, they could just wrest her off the streets and back into slavery,” Bibbs says.

Her skin was fair enough to pass, so when she docked in San Francisco in 1852, she arrived as a white woman

Read entire story here. Listen to the story (00:08:37) here.

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Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2018-04-23 22:42Z by Steven

Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity

University of Virginia Press
February 2018
352 pages
6.13 × 9.25 in
Cloth ISBN: 9780813941042
Ebook ISBN: 9780813941059

John A. Hodgson, Former Dean
Forbes College, Princeton University

Apart from a handful of exotic–and almost completely unreliable–tales surrounding his life, Richard Potter is almost unknown today. Two hundred years ago, however, he was the most popular entertainer in America–the first showman, in fact, to win truly nationwide fame. Working as a magician and ventriloquist, he personified for an entire generation what a popular performer was and made an invaluable contribution to establishing popular entertainment as a major part of American life. His story is all the more remarkable in that Richard Potter was also a black man.

This was an era when few African Americans became highly successful, much less famous. As the son of a slave, Potter was fortunate to have opportunities at all. At home in Boston, he was widely recognized as black, but elsewhere in America audiences entertained themselves with romantic speculations about his “Hindu” ancestry (a perception encouraged by his act and costumes).

Richard Potter’s performances were enjoyed by an enormous public, but his life off stage has always remained hidden and unknown. Now, for the first time, John A. Hodgson tells the remarkable, compelling–and ultimately heartbreaking–story of Potter’s life, a tale of professional success and celebrity counterbalanced by racial vulnerability in an increasingly hostile world. It is a story of race relations, too, and of remarkable, highly influential black gentlemanliness and respectability: as the unsung precursor of Frederick Douglass, Richard Potter demonstrated to an entire generation of Americans that a black man, no less than a white man, could exemplify the best qualities of humanity. The apparently trivial “popular entertainment” status of his work has long blinded historians to his significance and even to his presence. Now at last we can recognize him as a seminal figure in American history.

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In Black and White: A Hermeneutic Argument against “Transracialism”

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2018-04-19 00:47Z by Steven

In Black and White: A Hermeneutic Argument against “Transracialism”

Res Philosophica
Volume 95, Issue 2, April 2018
Pages 303-329

Tina Fernandes Botts, Professor of Philosophy
California State University, Fresno

Transracialism, defined as both experiencing oneself as, and being, a race other than the race assigned to one by society, does not exist. Translated into hermeneutics, transracialism is an unintelligible phenomenon in the specific sociocultural context of the United States in the early twenty-first century. Within this context, race is a function of ancestry, and is therefore defined in terms of something that is external to the self and unchangeable. Since transracialism does not exist, the question of whether transracialism would be ethically advisable if it did exist is inapposite. Nonetheless, at a minimum we can say that racial transition (defined as attempting to change one’s race through artificial and/or associative changes, and living life as a race other than the race assigned to one by society, etc.) is possible, but is very likely unethical, since it is the same as racial passing.

Read or purchase the article here.

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Building new selves: identity, “Passing,” and intertextuality in Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light

Posted in Africa, Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, South Africa on 2018-04-13 23:53Z by Steven

Building new selves: identity, “Passing,” and intertextuality in Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light

Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies
Published online: 2018-04-03
DOI: 10.1080/17533171.2018.1453977

David Hoegberg, Associate Professor of English; Africana Studies
Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis

This article examines Zoë Wicomb’s wide-ranging use of intertextuality in the novel Playing in the Light to explore the links between identity construction and postcolonial authorship. Focusing on the characters as intertextual agents, I argue that the three coloured women on whom the novel focuses – Helen, Marion, and Brenda – use texts in distinctive ways that illuminate their struggles to position themselves in South Africa’s complex and changing racial landscape. Racial “passing” is one form of a larger pattern in the novel of the use of citation and imitation to achieve specific ends. By embedding the citations of Helen and Marion within the citation-rich narrative of Brenda, Wicomb lays bare the mechanisms of identity construction within a work that stages and highlights its own intertextual practices.

Read or purchase the article here.

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Passing as Post-Racial: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Political Correctness, and the Post-Racial Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2018-04-12 00:38Z by Steven

Passing as Post-Racial: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Political Correctness, and the Post-Racial Passing Narrative

Contemporary Literature
Volume 58, Number 2, Summer 2017
pages 233-261

Mollie Godfrey, Assistant Professor of English
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

In March 2016, Robert Folsom published an article in The Socionomist declaring that the rise of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate marked “the violent death of political correctness” (1). Folsom argued that while “[t]he conventional narrative on Trump is that he has succeeded despite his rejection of political correctness,” the “truth is that he has in large part succeeded because of it” (4). Indeed, the past few years have seen the rise of vigorous, mainstream opposition to many multiculturalist policies associated with political correctness at all levels and from all directions: from the Supreme Court’s back and forth on voting rights and affirmative action, to the 2015 spate of articles that derided trigger warnings as an attack on free speech, to the crowds of voters like Steve Crouse cheering Trump for speaking his mind and “saying a lot of the things that I think we’re all thinking” (Proskow). These recent events have renewed a debate that began in the 1960s and 1970s, when Civil Rights and Black Power activists and second-wave feminists sparred with traditionalists over the diversity and inclusivity of university curricula, faculty, student bodies, and standards of academic excellence. By the culture wars of the mid–1980s, traditionalists had begun to use the phrase “political correctness” in order to deride these demands for inclusivity.1 Teresa Brennan argues that the phrase “political correctness” was especially useful to its critics because it enabled the rebranding of demands for inclusive language as a violation of the American principle of the freedom of speech: “[t]he campaign against political correctness has been so successful because it has portrayed the attempt to uphold the rights of disadvantaged groups as the infringement of individual rights” (x). Now, criticism of political correctness has gone mainstream: a poll conducted in October 2015 by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 68% of Americans and 81% of Republicans agreed with the statement “[a] big problem this country has is being politically correct” (Lalami 12).

The year 2000, which Folsom describes as the turning point in American public discourse over the value of liberal multiculturalism and its much caricatured cousin, political correctness, was also the year that Philip Roth’s highly acclaimed novel The Human Stain was published. The Human Stain made waves among critics and scholars as a racial passing novel for the new millennium, one that was especially surprising because the passing genre focuses on a social practice that Jet magazine had once optimistically declared would “pass out” with the end of Jim Crow (“Passing Out”).2 In The Human Stain, the light-skinned African American protagonist, Coleman Silk, decides to pass as Jewish during the 1940s, gaining as a Jewish American in the post–World War II era many of the privileges of whiteness.3 He marries a Jewish woman and rises to prominence as a professor of classics and the first Jewish dean of faculty at Athena College, a small liberal arts school in New England with a mostly white faculty and student body. Near the end of the novel, Coleman’s sister affirms that his black-to-Jewish-to-white passing is out of place in the post-Jim Crow era of liberal multiculturalism and affirmative action: “Today, if you’re a middle-class intelligent Negro and you want your kids to go to the best schools, and on full scholarship if you need it, you wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re not colored. That would be the last thing you’d do” (326). Her claim that passing is no longer profitable in contemporary America is also arguably affirmed by the twist in Coleman’s plot: near retirement, he uses the word “spooks” to refer to two students who have been absent from his class all semester; the students turn out to be black, Coleman is accused of racism by his politically correct colleagues, and he resigns amid the ensuing scandal. This plot twist seems to turn Coleman’s racial passing plot into an ironic tragedy about the shifting…

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