Mapping the liminal identities of mulattas in African, African American, and Caribbean literatures

Mapping the liminal identities of mulattas in African, African American, and Caribbean literatures

Pennsylvania State University
December 2006
285 pages
AAT: 3343682
ISBN: 9780549992738

Khadidiatou Gueye

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy December 2006

In twentieth-century African, African American, and Caribbean literatures, mixed-blood women are often misread as figures frozen in tragic postures. Such unrealistic portraitures replicate the traditional white-authored pathologizations of racial hybridity. Drawing on the theoretical framework of liminality, this study investigates how mulattas negotiate their identities in specific socio-cultural environments, times, and places. Four writers of African descent and dissimilar socio-historical backgrounds are studied: Abdoulaye Sadji from Senegal, Bessie Head from South Africa, Mayotte Capécia from Martinique, and Nella Larsen from the United States.

The study is divided into five chapters that deal with the experiences of mulattas in autobiographical writing, sexuality, madness, racial passing, and expatriation. Thematic and stylistic discrepancies in the works examined are ancillary to the common liminal strategies of de-marginalization and self-reconstruction of female heroines. Their attempts at self-assertion appear in the ways in which they resist the constrictions of patriarchal and racist regimes. Their construction of spaces of agency is interwoven with ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradictions, which are emblematic of the discontinuities of their lives and paradigmatic of their intricate search for identity. In the works, the liminal experiences of mulattas are framed within the quests for social visibility, the affirmation of humanity, the renegotiation of space, and the anomic straddling between oppositional boundaries and statuses. Through their striving to rise above the limitations imposed on their gender and race, mulattas commit acts of transgression and dissemblance, and disrupt racial taxonomy. I demonstrate that liminality is a major unifying thread that runs through all the narratives and argue that it creates alternative existential paradigms for mixed-blood women. Liminality is an appropriate tool that challenges monolithic views of identities through the re-articulation of cultural meanings.

My main contribution is twofold. First, I extend the traditional cartography of liminality, which is usually based on small-scale societies where individuals have loyalty to their primary communities. Second, I suggest new vistas for race criticism in diasporic studies.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter One
    • Monoracial, Biracial, and the Entre-Deux
    • Introduction
    • Black/White Polarization
    • Racial Hybridity
    • Betwixt and Between: The Ambiguity of Liminality
  • Chapter Two
    • Liminal Psychoautobiographies: Rites and Routes
    • Autobiography as Autrebiographie: Je-Jeu in Mayotte CapĂ©cia’s Je suis martiniquaise
    • Internal Drama: Spectralized Presences in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power
  • Chapter Three
    • The Liminal Experience of Sexuality and the Problematic of Respectability
    • Sexuality at Point Zero in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Mayotte CapĂ©cia’s La nĂ©gresse blanche
    • Sexuality and Normative Illegitimacy in Mayotte CapĂ©cia’s La nĂ©gresse blanche
    • Nini, mulâtresse du SĂ©nĂ©gal: Between Sexual Empowerment and Disempowerment
  • Chapter Four
    • Herspace: Liminal Madness and Racial Passing of the Mulatta
    • I am Mad But I am Not Mad: Shuttling Between Seamless Identities in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power
    • Telling a New Story: Racial Performance and Ambiguity in Nella Larsen’s Passing
  • Chapter Five
    • The Limen of Journeys: Mulattas and Colonial Paris
    • The French MĂ©tropole: Interior Landscapes in Nini, mulâtresse du SĂ©nĂ©gal
    • Migration and Trans-Caribbean Identity in Je suis martiniquaise and La nĂ©gresse blanche
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

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