Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

American Literature
Volume 75, Number 4, December 2003
pages 813-841

Julie Cary Nerad, Associate Professor of English
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Conceived in slavery, gestated in racialist science, and bred in Jim Crow segregation, the U.S. race system calcified into a visual epistemology of racial difference based largely on skin color. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this visual schema of biological difference, despite fluctuation within racial categories—even within whiteness itself—was generally reduced to just white and nonwhite. This illusion of racial dichotomy sometimes allowed very light-skinned African Americans to choose between a black or a white identity. “The position of the pale [black] individual,” wrote African American psychiatrist Charles Gibson in 1931, “is analogous to that of a traveler who has come to a forked road. One branch of the fork is remaining Negro; the other is ‘passing for white.'” In Gibson’s schema, light-skinned African Americans could choose to retain their black identity and risk reverse discrimination within the darker-skinned community, or they could pass as white through an identity of deception, trading the ties of their African American family and friends for economic opportunity, a choice often conceptualized as crass materialism. Recent scholarship on passing for white has complicated Gibson’s simple binary of individual choice by recognizing racial passing as an aggressive political challenge to the ideological construct of race. As a form of performative trespass, many have argued, passing exposes race as a performative identity category, like gender and class. Recognizing this dimension of racial identity does not reduce the cultural and psychological significance of race; rather, it attempts to separate race from biology and the fallacious hierarchy of innate difference that has been used historically to justify systemic inequity and violence.

Despite its impetus, however, recent critical work on race often illustrates the degree to which the one-drop rule still has a toehold on American racial consciousness. “One drop” of “black blood” continues to imply a responsibility to blackness that academic deconstructions of race have not significantly altered. One goal of my essay is to investigate how continuing misconceptions about race as a biological imperative influence our readings of novels about racial passing, despite our acknowledgment that race is performative. The cause I identify here is twofold. First, the ideology of racial uplift and the tenacious persistence of the one-drop rule converge to influence our perceptions of race and our reading of passing novels. Racial uplift, with its debt of responsibility, has become a significant part of our racial ideology: if one’s family is African American, if one has any “drop” of black blood, then one has a responsibility to the race and should proclaim oneself black. That is, no matter how “white” one’s skin, we assume that passers are black and censure their attempts to live outside the bounds of that identity. This assumption evinces the tenacity of—and simultaneously reinforces—the one-drop rule.

Second, in focusing almost exclusively on passing as an intentional act of racial identification, scholars have regarded it as primarily a political challenge to the racial status quo. In many novels of passing, however, the characters’ sense of racial identity develops less consciously, in conjunction with (not simply in conscious opposition to) the racially marked socioeconomic and cultural spaces they inhabit. Legally black but corporeally white, these passers are initially unaware that their genetic heritage includes a “drop” of black blood. I call these critically neglected characters unintentional passers. They do not know that in the eyes of the law they are passing. Texts of unintentional passing, and there are many, destabilize notions of biologically constructed racial identity precisely because the passers are unaware that they are transgressing legal boundaries. The discrepancy between legal race categories and racial self-perceptions reveals how race functions in the United States to maintain socioeconomic inequalities by controlling an individual’s sense of identity and her place within family, community, and nation. Our own tendency to conceptualize these fictional characters as…

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