The Politics of Loving Blackness in the UK

Posted in Dissertations, Media Archive, Social Science, United Kingdom on 2012-05-13 20:13Z by Steven

The Politics of Loving Blackness in the UK

University of Birmingham
March 2010
336 pages

Lisa Amanda Palmer

A thesis submitted to The University of Birmingham For the degree of DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY (Department of American and Canadian Studies)

Can ‘loving blackness’ become a new discourse for anti-racism in the UK and the broader black diaspora? This thesis will critically assess the concept of ‘loving blackness as political resistance’ as outlined by the African American feminist bell hooks (1992). The thesis will show the ways in which blackness has been both negated and denigrated in western cultures and thus constructed in opposition to notions of love and humanness. Conversely, love and blackness are also rehabilitated in different ways by Black diasporic populations in Britain through the transnational space. The transnational space can provide opportunities for constructing, networks of care, love and anti racist strategies that affirm the value of blackness and Black life. However, the transnational space can also be fraught with risks, dangers and exclusions providing Black and migrant populations with uneven forms of citizenship and belonging to western neo-liberal states. Loving blackness within a transnational context can help to create a dynamic space to affirm blackness against racial exclusions and dominations whilst providing a lens to suggest alternative ways of being human.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Politics of Loving Blackness in the UK
    • Background
    • Black feminist methodologies and personal narratives
    • The transnational space and personal narrative as a methodological reflection
    • Love and Black feminism
    • Love as a means for social change
    • Thesis outline
  • Chapter one: Racism and the denigration of blackness
    • Introduction
    • Loving dialogue and the affirmation of Black humanity
    • The politics of love and blackness
    • Is loving blackness possible in a white supremacist context?
    • Blackness as a discursive location
    • ‘Race,’ racism and pseudo science
    • Whiteness lost – the ‘origins’ of blackness in sixteenth century England
    • Plantocracy racism and slavery
    • Early black presence in England
    • Pathological configurations of blackness in the Western environment
    • Internalised narratives of racism
    • Blackness falling out of love with Britishness
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter two: A love that binds the nation: race memory and the politics of Forgetting
    • Introduction
    • Navigating race and blackness in Obama’s ‘post-racial’ America
    • Forgetting racial horrors and imperial terror
    • ‘The white, white West’ – white hegemony and social amnesia
    • ‘The forgetting machine’
    • De-colonial fantasies within liberal democracies
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter three: ‘We don’t want the hate mongers’: Multicultural love and anti-colonial politics in the making of Black Britain
    • Introduction
    • Are we all British now? Love and the multicultural nation
    • ‘Tea drinking, hokey cokey’ and other projections of monocultural Britain
    • Multicultural blackness in Britain
    • Post-colonial paradigm of blackness in Britain
    • The dialogic paradigm of blackness in Britain
    • Symbols and memory in the making of ‘Black Britain’
    • Windrush
    • Why Manchester 1945?
    • Before ‘Black Britain’
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter four: Diminishing Blackness: Transnational Blackness Beyond the ‘Black British’ paradigm
    • Introduction
    • Mixed futures/mixed histories
    • ‘Absorbing’ blackness
    • Invasion and the Black presence in Britain
    • The ‘mongrel nation’
    • Keeping racism in the mix
    • Disappearing blackness
    • Blanqueamianto – ‘The gradual whitening of blackness’
    • Troubling terms of race
    • Reframing Black Liverpool and that moment of optimism
    • Transnational blackness and Liverpool
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter five: Slipping and Shifting: The changing parameters of Blackness in Britain
    • Introduction
    • ‘It’s Grimey’ – Black Popular Culture in Britain
    • Black Boys and Eski Beats
    • New migration and new racisms
    • No more saris, no more steel bands, no more samosas
    • ‘The deportation machine’
    • ‘Ethnic’ hierarchies and the new blackness in Britain
    • Racial excesses of white privilege
    • Constant Contestation
    • Conclusion – Loving blackness within a transnational context
  • Chapter six: The Cultural Politics of Loving Blackness
    • Introduction
    • ‘Loving Justice’ – Malcolm and Martin
    • Cornel West and the nihilistic threat to Black America
    • Neoliberal nihilism, Katrina and the (in)visible Black American underclass
    • Nihilism and the Katrina catastrophe
    • hooks and ‘loving blackness’
    • Loving Native Indianess
    • Love and philosophy
    • Spirituality and politics
    • Caribbean transnational bonds of kinship and loving blackness
    • Conclusion
  • Chapter seven: ‘Ladies a you’re time now’ Erotic Politics, Lovers’ rock And Resistance in Britain
    • Introduction
    • Black sexuality and erotic corruptions
    • Historical legacies
    • Lovers’ rock and its transnational emergence in Britain
    • A femminised sanctuary
    • Blocking Jah vibes
    • Conscious lovers’
    • Love as a discourse for liberation
    • Conclusion
  • Conclusion
    • Conclusion
    • Future research – ‘Black Europe’
  • Bibliography

…Chapter 4: DIMINISHING BLACKNESS: Transnational Blackness beyond the ‘Black British’ paradigm


There are a number of reasons why the nomenclature ‘Black British’ has remained a tenuous and contested political location for Black populations in Britain. In this chapter I will explore why our contemporary transnational situation destabilises this notion further. I am suggesting that the continuing disavowal of blackness and racism specifically in media discourses and amongst wider political and social fields in Britain continues to undermine what I will call the ‘optimistic moment of Black Britishness.’ That moment occurred between the mid 1980s and early 1990s where a ‘veritable renaissance’ of ‘Black British’ cultural representation had created a new form of Black visibility in Britain and beyond (Mercer 1994). This new visibility came into existence through the representation and cultural production of Black British film, visual arts, poetry, literature, music and television as well as through the academic writing of Black British scholars during this period such as Kobena Mercer (1994), Paul Gilroy (1987;1993) and Stuart Hall (Dent 1992; Owusu 2000). At the height of this moment, Stuart Hall (1992) suggested that ‘blacks in the British diaspora must, at this historical moment, refuse the binary of Black or British’ (Hall 1992, p.29). For Hall the ‘or’ represented a site of ‘constant contestation.’ In his view the aim of the struggle was for ‘a new kind of cultural positionality, a different logic of difference’ which he argues was encapsulated by the cultural historian Paul Gilroy. According to Hall, Black people in Britain should replace the ‘or’ with ‘and’, thus refusing the essentialising binary of Black or British. Instead the preferred ‘and’ could help us to realise the potentiality or possibility of this hybrid location (Hall 1992). For Hall the logic of coupling rather than binary opposition meant that,

You can be Black and British, not only because that is a necessary position to take in 1992, but because even those two terms, joined now by the coupler ‘and’ instead of opposed to one another, do not exhaust all of our identities. Only some of our identities are sometimes caught in that particular struggle (Hall 1992, p.29).

However, after nearly two decades since Hall’s discourse on being both Black and British, has the optimism of this moment gone? Has the expectant ‘and’ deployed by Hall to heal this ‘constant contestation’ delivered the desired end to the entangled struggle of being Black British? I will attempt to answer these questions more specifically in this chapter in relation to the predicted ‘mixed race’ future and ‘mixed race’ histories of Britain and the changing transnational formation of blackness in contemporary British life. I will approach this analysis through the lens of a less than remarkable documentary text, The Great British Black Invasion which charts the changing face of Black Britain in the 21st centaury. I will explain that this documentary works as a micro representational text to the larger continuing omission of specific forms of regional blackness found in Britain in cities such as Liverpool, a city with one of the longest settled Black populations in the UK (Brown 2006). I will further discuss the political implication of Invasion’s discourse on racialised absorption blackness and ‘diminishing blackness’ as well the configuration of blackness as a transnational cultural and political framework. ‘Mixing’ and ‘absorption’ are terms that describe the faux embrace of racial intermixture. And at the same time these terms actually, and somewhat paradoxically, also work to reinforce deeply racist ideas about British racial ‘purity.’ I will conclude by suggesting that the transnational space for Black communities in Britain defined as ‘mixed race’ or otherwise remains a critical yet complex location to build alternative concepts of blackness. Through the dynamic utilisation of diasporic resources, transnational notions of blackness can act as revolutionary interventions ‘that undermine the practice of domination’ (hooks 1992, p.20) helping marginalised human beings to recover their human worth.

Mixed futures/mixed histories

Within the UK, the ‘racial’ forecast for African Caribbean populations suggests that this particular ethnic group will eventually decline as a distinct ethnic category from Britain’s multicultural map (Platt 2008). According to the report, Ethnicity and Family- Relationships within and between ethnic groups: An analysis using the Labour Force Survey (Platt 2008), Britain is facing a ‘mixed race’ future:

At the other end of the spectrum, Black Caribbean men and women were the most likely of any group to be in an inter-ethnic partnership (48 per cent of men and 34 percent of women in couples were in an inter-ethnic partnership); and this increased between first and second (or subsequent) generations and between older and younger men and women. Rates were also higher among couples with children. For 55 per cent of Caribbean men living with a partner and children under 16, and 40 per cent of Caribbean women, that partner was from a different ethnic group. It therefore appears a trend that is set to continue and that will result in an increasing number of people with diverse identities of which Caribbean heritage forms a part. It also means that those who define themselves as singularly Caribbean are likely to decline over time, as increasingly complex heritages emerge among those with some element of Caribbean descent (Platt 2008, p.7).

For many yeas now, it has been suggested that the fastest growing population in the UK will be of ‘mixed origins.’ For example, in the early 1990s, it was reported that around 53 per cent of African Caribbean men age 16-24 and 36 percent of Caribbean women of the same age were married or cohabiting with white partners (Modood et al., 1997). In our increasingly globalised societies, where diverse mobile populations move around the globe for temporary or permanent settlement, patterns of sexual interaction across racialised, national, religious and linguistic borders are set to continue (Bhattacharyya, et al. 2002). However, it is worth pointing out that the practice of ‘race mixture’ is not new to British soil. The long historical presence of Black populations in Britain, in particular African, Caribbean and Asian populations has been documented in the social histories that trace the Black presence in Britain back to the Roman era (Fryer 1984, Walvin 1994, Christian 1998, Ramdin 1987). Since the rise of the British Empire, the continuity of this presence has been directly linked to transatlantic slavery and the expansion of British imperial and colonial endeavours (Fryer 1984, Ramdin 1987). Metropolitan cities such as London, Cardiff, Liverpool and Bristol were some of the major British seaports involved in the transatlantic slave trade. It was at these ports that many Africans enslaved and in servitude first glimpsed British soil and began to make an impact upon local white populations (Christian 1998). During the nineteenth century, amongst the Black settler communities and visitors that emerged within the major British slaving ports, the practice of interracial marriage became widespread between Black males and white females (Fryer 1984, Christian 1998). The most common explanation for intermarriage suggests that on the whole the Black population during this period (numbering approximately 10,000 in total) had largely consisted of young African males who heavily out numbered the presence of African women (Fryer 1984, p.235). The practice of interracial marriages and the integration of African men into to larger white populations became a common practice amongst earlier noted individual Black settlers to Britain such as Olaudah Equiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and others who came before them (Fryer 1984). Early Black radical figures to emerge onto the British scene were of ‘mixed origins.’ Personalities such as William Davidson one of the infamous Cato Street conspirators who attempted to blow up the entire Cabinet of the British Government in 1820 alongside Robert Wedderburn a working class hero who advocated press freedom in Britain whilst proclaiming that slaves had the right to kill their masters, both had fathers from Scotland and Black mothers from Jamaica (Fryer 1984). The Jamaican nurse and healer Mary Seacole the celebrated heroine of the Crimean War (1853-1856) who risked her life to nurse wounded and dying soldiers in the British Army also shared a ‘mixed’ Jamaican and Scottish ancestry (Fryer 1984). In the early twentieth century, in port cities such as Liverpool, Black male settlers to the city whether as students, seamen or factory workers inevitably formed intimate interracial relationships and families with local white women (Christian 1998). What I am referencing here is that the idea of a ‘mixed race’ future in Britain is neither novel nor without historical continuity. Indeed we cannot consider the possibility and implications of mixed futures without considering the living contextual legacy of mixed heritage communities in Britain. Thus as Peter Fryer (1984) had noted in response to the question as to what actually happened to Britain’s earlier nineteenth century Black populations, it would appear that the decedents of ‘interracial’ couplings no longer thought of themselves as constituting a distinct Black community and over time became part of the British poor (Fryer 1984, p.235). As such it would be reasonable to suggest that a significant number of ‘white’ families in Britain share a hidden history of Black ancestry. As Fryer explains,

The records of their lives are obscure and scattered, and they have for the most part been forgotten by their descendents. But there must be many thousands of British families who, if they traced their roots back to the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, would find among their ancestors an African or person of African descent (Fryer 1984, p.235).

Increased awareness of the historical continuity of early Black settlers would enable twenty first century Black populations in Britain to form more complex discursive engagements with the notion of blackness and its emergence within the British Isles. Furthermore, a more complex rendering of the pre-twentieth century Black experience in Britain would further contribute to debunking the implausible myth of a racially sealed pure white Anglo Saxon race as synonymous with being British…

Read the entire dissertation here.

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Biologically, there is only one human race.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2012-05-13 18:49Z by Steven

Biologically, there is only one human race. Race applied to human beings is a social grouping; it is a system originally devised in the 1700s to support slavery and colonialism that classifies people into a social hierarchy based on invented biological, cultural, and legal demarcations.

Dorothy E. Roberts, “Breaking the Bonds of Race and Genomics,” GeneWatch, Volume 25, Issue 1 (January-February, 2012):

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Taking racism into account does not mean refusing to collect and classify data in medical research according to race and ethnicity.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes, Health/Medicine/Genetics on 2012-05-13 18:38Z by Steven

Taking racism into account does not mean refusing to collect and classify data in medical research according to race and ethnicity. On the contrary, those classifications provide important epidemiological information, as Risch et al. maintain, about the impact of social and environmental factors—including socio-economic inequities and cultural biases—on the health of individuals and groups. As Troy Duster argues, the way to ‘recognize, engage, and clarify the complexity of the interaction between any taxonomies of race and biological, neurophysiological, society, and health outcomes’ is to consider ‘how science studies deploy the concept of race’. The story of how biotechnology is revolutionizing medicine has put genomic research very much into public consciousness and has made genetic explanations of health disparities among individuals and especially groups the ‘default position’. Distinguishing between genomic and social and environmental factors in disease susceptibility and drug response is notoriously difficult, especially since, as Keita et al. note, ‘some environmental influences can be so subtle and occur so early in life as to be missed . . . ’. Yet, that distinction determines how researchers and practitioners understand and address the problem of health disparities. ‘Race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are very different as surrogates for genomics and for social and environmental factors in the assessment of health outcomes, which is why the larger stories in which the research is embedded are scientifically and medically as well as socially relevant.

Priscilla Wald, “Blood and stories: how genomics is rewriting race, medicine and human history,” Patterns of Prejudice, Volume 40, Numbers 4/5 (2006): 316.

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The institution of colorism exemplifies how “non-Whites” serve to uphold White supremacy.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2012-05-13 18:33Z by Steven

Given the historical fact that White supremacy has been constructed by Whites for the benefit of Whites, White supremacy is routinely interpreted as a code word for White people. However, White supremacy is more than a collection of White people. As a system, many people participate in it, and as an ideology, many people think, feel, behave, and operate according to it, and in many ways defend and uphold it—White and “non-White” alike. The institution of colorism exemplifies how “non-Whites” serve to uphold White supremacy. For example, while most individuals who bleach their skin vehemently reject accusations that they desire to be White, and in fact are aware that no amount of chemical intervention will actually render them White nor will Whites, the gatekeepers to Whiteness, ever grant them access to the racial or social category, as they seek to gain access to the privilege that has historically been afforded to lighter skin as an approximation of Whiteness, they endorse the constructed superiority of Whiteness and thus White supremacy. As such, any true understanding of White supremacy must transcend focus on White people and physical White power alone. It must address White supremacy as an ideology and confront the psychological power of Whiteness.

Yaba Amgborale Blay, “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, (Volume 4, Number 4, June 2011): 7-8.

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The concept of race is still loaded with ideology and carries within it relationships of power and domination.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2012-05-13 18:17Z by Steven

In the past, the belief that human races had substantial and clearly delimited biological differences contributed to justify discrimination and was used to oppress and foment injustices, even within the medical context. The concept of race is still loaded with ideology and carries within it relationships of power and domination. It is similar to a banana peel: empty, slippery and dangerous.

S. D. J. Pena, “The fallacy of racial pharmacogenomics,” Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, Volume 44, Number 4 (April 2011): 272.

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White Supremacy

Posted in Definitions on 2012-05-13 18:14Z by Steven

White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples classified as “non-White” by continents, nations, and peoples who, by virtue of their white (light) skin pigmentation and/or ancestral origin from Europe, classify themselves as “White.” Although history illuminates the fabrication, changeability, and contingencies of Whiteness (e.g. the case of Irish and Italians once being denied entry into the White “race”), it is important to note that this global power system is structured and maintained not for the purpose of legitimizing racial categories as much as it is for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege. Thus, it has been Whites who have constructed racial categories based on the economic, political, and social aspirations of Whites, for the benefits of Whites (L. Ross, 1995). In this way, Whites define who is White; a definition that has changed and will likely continue to change based upon the particular economic, political, and social conditions of the moment (e.g. the case of Egyptians now being classified as White when they were once classified as Arab, and previously as Black). It is clear then that White supremacy is based less on racial Whiteness (as evidenced by skin color) than it is on ideological Whiteness—the exclusive value assigned that involves “a series of immunities, privileges, rights, and assumptions…” This [value is] not inherent, natural, or biologically determined. Rather [it reflects] artificial beliefs created by social, economic, and political conditions” (L. Ross, 1995).

Yaba Amgborale Blay, “Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction,” The Journal of Pan African Studies, (Volume 4, Number 4, June 2011): 6-7.

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Ethnicity and Stroke: Beware of the Fallacies

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2012-05-13 03:08Z by Steven

Ethnicity and Stroke: Beware of the Fallacies

Volume 31, Issue 5 (May 2000)
pages 1013-1015
DOI: 10.1161/​01.STR.31.5.1013

Osvaldo Fustinoni, MD
Departments of Neurology
University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina

José Biller, MD, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Surgery
Loyola University, Chicago

The role of ethnicity in stroke has been the subject of a considerable number of published reports. A quick Medline search detected 454 citations on “ethnicity and stroke,” 386 on “stroke in blacks,” 251 on “stroke in African Americans,” and 74 on “stroke in Hispanics,” of which only a few can be mentioned here. There even exists a journal dedicated to ethnicity and health.

However, the assumption that ethnicity is an isolated epidemiological variable delineating clinically distinct disease subgroups is controversial. The very concept of the word may be confounded with race (“black”), a common language or culture (“Hispanic”), a shared geographic origin (“Asian”), or a presumed common descent with diffuse boundaries (“Caucasian”). Ethnic categories are usually not defined in scientific reports, which results in dubious findings that are difficult to compare. The idea that a socially defined variable may reveal biological differences is fallacious, leading dangerously to biological determinism. For example, the genetic variation between races, traditionally classified on phenotype, is only slightly greater (10%) than that between nations (6%), and much larger within a local population (84%). Moreover, the genes responsible for skin color are few and are not associated with genetic markers for disease.

Ethnicity as a variable may be too greatly influenced by cultural attitude and therefore biased. In the past, this attitude led to the entire invention of diseases on the basis of race. At a time when the genetic inequality of races was considered obvious, the existence of these diseases was not questioned. In the present, ethnicity may be used euphemistically to avoid racist implications. A survey of 48 medical schools in the United States revealed that up to 91% of clerkship directors answered “yes” or “variable” after being queried whether students were taught by example to use the terms “black” or “white” when introducing case presentations. In another study, “black” patients were far more likely than “whites” to be racially identified at morning report. As recently as 1991, arterial hypertension has been related to skin color, even allowing for the fact that darker “blacks” may as a consequence be poorer and suffer more psychosocial stress.

Ethnic classification may vary from one community to another, as the perception of an ethnic group may be different across countries. As Caldwell and Popenoe put it, “what is black to someone from the United States may be white to a Brazilian or a Caribbean islander.” It may be added that the authors of the present editorial, both of European descent and born and raised in Spanish-speaking countries, would probably be classified as “Hispanic” in the US, although neither is of Spanish descent. Obviously, there is no such thing as a “Hispanic” ethnic group in Spain or Latin America.

Ethnicity is not a dichotomous variable, such as gender. How black is black? How is a person classified whose father is “white” and mother “black”? What about “mixed” grandparents? How does one classify a phenotypically “black” (by US standards) Spanish-speaking national from Central America? How are his children classified? Finally, how white is white? Do a Scot from Edinburgh and an Italian from Milan belong to the same ethnic group?…

…To avoid the shortcomings linked to classification, it has been proposed (and is now used in many reports) that patients entering population studies “self-classify” their ethnicity, assuming that “racial and ethnic categories are understood by the populations questioned.”

However, misinterpretation, confusion, and self-reclassification have been found in these cases. One striking example is that the category “South and Central American” was thought by respondents in one census to refer to natives of the south and central United States!…

…The consequences of flawed ethnicity research may lead to the assumption that ethnic minorities are an unhealthy social burden, that there are “ethnic” diseases which separate specific groups from the general population, that consequently they do not merit any further attention, and that “whites” are the “gold standard” of health. All this could do nothing but fuel racial prejudice…

Read the entire article in HTML or PDF format.

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Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled

Posted in Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs on 2012-05-13 02:49Z by Steven

Nella Larsen, Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled

Louisiana State University Press
496 pages
6.00 x 9.00 inches
12 halftones
Paperback ISBN: 9780807120705

Thadious M. Davis, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought; Professor of English
University of Pennsylvania

Nella Larsen (1891–1964) is recognized as one of the most influential, and certainly one of the most enigmatic, writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With the instant success of her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), she became a bright light in New York’s literary firmament. But her meteoric rise was followed by a surprising fall: In 1930 she was accused of plagiarizing a short story, and soon thereafter she disappeared from both the literary and African American worlds of New York. She lived the rest of her life—more than three decades—out of the public eye, working primarily as a nurse. In a remarkable achievement, Thadious Davis has penetrated the fog of mystery that has surrounded Larsen to present a detailed and fascinating account of the life and work of this gifted, determined, yet vulnerable artist. Davis deftly situates the writer within the broader politics and aesthetics of the Harlem Renaissance and analyzes her life and work in terms of the current literature on race and gender.

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The Beginning and End of Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-05-13 02:02Z by Steven

The Beginning and End of Nella Larsen’s Passing

The Common Room: The Knox College Online Journal of Literary Criticism
Volume 8, Number 1 (Spring 2005)

Sarah Magin

Nella Larsen’s novel Passing is centered on the character Clare Kendry, a light-skinned, biracial woman living as a white woman.  She has married a white man who knows nothing of her race and enjoys all the social comforts of being white.  In this way, this novel breaks down the thematic binary of black and white with its depiction of racial passing.  In addition to the reconstructed as fluid binary of black and white, Larsen’s novel simultaneously explores the thematic binary of homosexuality and heterosexuality.  Deborah McDowell observes of the racial issues of Passing that  “underneath the safety of that surface is the more dangerous story–though not named explicitly–of Irene’s awakening sexual desire for Clare” (xxvi). Corinne Blackmer notes that the encounter between Irene and Clare “instigates a potent desire in her, described in an effusive letter intertwining romantic and racial longings for Irene” (52).  Thus, not only does Passing make fluid the binary of black and white, but also that of heterosexual and homosexual.  Further, the novel also renders fluid the apparently solid barrier of class.  Biman Basu observes that “Clare Kendry’s passing. . . is predicated on a crossing over into otherwise barricaded economic zones” (384).  Neil Sullivan summarizes, usefully, that “For Larsen”  “‘race’ is inextricable from the collateral issues including class, gender and sexuality, and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of identity” (373).  This introduces the concept that these fluid binary oppositions of race, sexuality and class are themselves interlinked under the larger rubric of identity formation…

Read the entire article here.

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Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and the Fading Subject

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-05-13 01:38Z by Steven

Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and the Fading Subject

African American Review
Volume 32, Issue 3 (Fall 1998)
pages 373-386

Neil Sullivan

. . . Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well. It was a brutality, and undeserved. Surely, no other people were so cursed as Ham’s dark children. (Passing 225)

Although many critics have accused Nella Larsen of using race as a pretext for examining other issues, Passing (1929), her second novel, is profoundly concerned with racial identity. In “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” Barbara Smith cautions critics about the danger of ignoring “that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are crucially interlocking factors in the works of Black women writers” (170). For Larsen, too, “race” is inextricable from the collateral issues – including class, gender, sexuality, and rivalry-that bear upon the formation of identity. “Passing,” of course, alludes to the crossing of the color line that was once so familiar in American narratives of “race,” but in Larsen’s novel the word also carries its colloquial meaning – death. Thus Passing’s title, like the title of Larsen’s earlier Quicksand, hints at the subject’s disappearance in the narrative, or the possibility of aphanisis, which Jacques Lacan defines in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis as the disappearance of the subject behind the signifier. For Irene Westover Red field and Clare Kendry Bellew, the “twin” protagonists of Passing, the obliterating signifier is nigger, a word that comes to encapsulate their struggle with the conflicts of American racism and assimilation. The narrative representation of these conflicts also suggests at a symbolic level Larsen’s repetition and working through of her own anxieties about the rejection she experienced as a result of her racial identity.

Her hazy origins and almost traceless “disappearance” differentiate Larsen from the other authors of the Harlem Renaissance, but not from the characters of her own novels. Until the publication of the 1994 biography by Thadious Davis, Nella Larsen’s life was shrouded in silence; not even the year of her birth was certain. Davis’s project was “to remove the aura of mystery” from Larsen’s life (xix), an aura that often resulted in critics’ presentation of Larsen as inscrutable Other. But with the details unearthed in her extensive research, Davis reveals that Nella Larsen was deeply scarred by the reality of racism; her seeking of celebrity as a writer was in fact a symptom of the need for recognition and validation, something which she never received as a child and only tenuously as a young adult (Davis 10). As the daughter of the Danish immigrant Marie Hansen and the African American Peter Walker, Larsen was already doubly marginalized in American society, but when her mother remarried a white man (also a Danish immigrant), Larsen found herself so excluded from the family that her mother did not even report her existence to census takers in 1910 (Davis 27). The Larsens orchestrated their dark daughter’s absence from their Chicago home by sending her to the Fisk Normal School in Nashville when she was only fifteen, and when the money ran out a year later, Marie Larsen apparently asked the sixteen-year-old Nella (then Nellie) to make her own way in the world. Larsen vanished temporarily, resurfacing three years later at the Lincoln Training Hospital in New York City as a student nurse, where, according to Davis, she began her ascent into the black middle class all alone (66, 70-72).

Larsen’s childhood rejection was seemingly reiterated in her 1919 marriage to Elmer S. Imes, which ended in a much-publicized divorce in 1933. As Ann Allen Shockley explains, the deterioration of the marriage was accelerated by the overt antipathy felt by Larsen’s light-skinned mother-in-law and, significantly, by Imes’s indiscreet affair with Ethel Gilbert, a white staff member at Fisk University, where Imes taught physics (438). “He liked white women,” several of Imes’s friends remarked to Thadious Davis in explanation of his betrayal of Nella Larsen (362). It is hardly incidental in Larsen’s construction and subsequent dissolution of identity that the rivals for her husband’s affection were both “white” women, and that she could therefore attribute the second major rejection in her emotional life to her inability to be sufficiently white. Although there were many problems in the Larsen-Imes union, the divorce contains the hint of another command to “turn white or disappear,” the imperative that Frantz Fanon suggests is implicit in all interracial dialogue (100). In effect, the rejections by her family and by her husband, exacerbated by the “problem of authorship” stemming from charges of plagiarism in the “Sanctuary” affair (Dearborn 56), destroyed the identity Larsen consciously cultivated during the 1920s, and provoked her disappearance from public life.

Perhaps because Larsen discovered Imes’s affair with Ethel Gilbert during the composition of Passing (Davis 324), her desire for recognition and fear of rejection surface in the characters Clare Kendry and Irene Red field. In Passing, Irene and Clare are tyrannized by the Other’s desire, and though their relationship is complicated by issues of gender and sexuality, the dynamics of white racism and the demands of assimilation dictate the lives of the two women. White racism ultimately defines their lives in the word nigger, and that definition determines the limits of their lives; in other words, it over-determines their ends—narratively and otherwise…

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