New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ed. by Noelle Morrissette (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-02-26 02:18Z by Steven

New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ed. by Noelle Morrissette (review)

African American Review
Volume 51, Number 4, Winter 2018
pages 344-346
DOI: 10.1353/afa.2018.0049

Masami Sugimori, Associate Professor of American Literature
Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida

Ed. Noelle Morrissette. New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2017. 272 pp. $59.95.

More than a century after its initial publication in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson continues to generate commentary. The narrator’s racial passing, along with the novel’s twist of genre through “passing” for an autobiography, has led much scholarship to address the issues of race and narrative. At the same time, with the advent and development of new critical and theoretical approaches, more and more topics (pertaining to the literary climate around Johnson’s composition, the novel’s intertextuality with other works both within and outside of the era, and the sociocultural contexts of the early twentieth-century U. S., to name just a few) have arisen and enriched our inquiry. Meanwhile, the novel itself has gone through numerous editions—including, but not limited to, those published by Alfred A. Knopf (1927), New American Library (1948), Vintage (1989), Penguin Books (1990), Library of America (2004), and recently, by W. W. Norton as a Critical Edition (2015)—which attest to its increasingly canonical status in American literature. New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—the first critical anthology devoted entirely to the novel—is a timely addition to this evolution of Johnson scholarship and readership, featuring both established and innovative strategies for analysis and interpretation.

Editor Noelle Morrissette’s Introduction defines New Perspectives as a product of the ongoing critical history of The Autobiography, on the one hand, and as an embodiment of the “futurity” that explicitly or implicitly informs the novel, on the other. While offering “new perspectives” in their respective ways, the essays in this collection attend productively to the accumulated scholarship that Morrissette surveys in terms of topical trends: Johnson’s authorial achievements and the novel’s documentary values (1960s and ’70s); its intertextuality with African American narratives (late 1970s and early ’80s); modernity, modernism, and racial identity (1990s); and transnationalism, performativity, music, and sound (since 2000). These essays also share an emphasis on the visions of the future Johnson embedded in the novel—not only as an extension of his careful assessment of the contemporary U. S., but also in his resistance to the nation’s racial regime, which denied blacks a legitimate history or a sense of teleological progression in time. Thus, Morrissette designs her anthology to conduct “a reassessment of the author’s writing and legacy and the racial futurity he called for, to which we continue to respond” (15).

These guiding principles also account for the section organization of New Perspectives, with its ten chapters and an Afterword assigned to four parts according to topical focuses. The three essays in part one, “Cultures of Reading, Cultures of Writing: Canons and Authenticity,” examine Johnson’s complex relationship with “cultural” parameters surrounding his composition: white mentor Brander Matthews’s theory of modern American fiction (Lawrence J. Oliver); the early twentieth-century African American literary scene (Michael Nowlin); and the novel’s “reliably unreliable” white readers (Jeff Karem 67). Each of these relationships consists of transactional negotiation rather than one-way influence. Through careful analysis of Johnson’s Ɠuvre and correspondence, for example, Nowlin reveals that the author’s acute sense of African American literary destitution underlies the way he framed The Autobiography—both in its anonymous publication in 1912 and in the 1927 republication marketed as “a classic in Negro literature” (49)—which went in tandem with his strenuous promotion of other black writers to establish a legitimate and well-recognized African American literary tradition.

Part two, “Relational Tropes: Transnationalism, Futurity, and the Ex-Colored Man,” features three essays on the transnational and transhistorical potential of, and exploration in, The Autobiography. Diana Paulin compares the novel with Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, and Daphne Lamothe does so with Teju Cole’s Open City, to reveal the “futurity” that Johnson’s work posits in the form, respectively, of…

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Ings]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-09 18:04Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Ings]

African American Review
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2014

Katharine Nicholson Ings, Associate Professor of English
Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana

Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 315 pp. $75.00 cloth/ $25.00 paper.

In Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction, the author explores how the theatrical and literary production of miscegenation from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries both dismantled and reinforced the black-white binary that bolstered individual and national identity during Reconstruction and the subsequent period of nation-building. Paulin analyzes race from a performative perspective—an approach she establishes as unfamiliar to a nineteenth-century American—and so she mines her texts for the complex and what she calls the “often unseen processes” (xii) by which interracial relationships become spectacular, or staged. But she also frames her topic of interracial unions as a methodology of its own: if her sources’ processes are “unseen,” Paulin consciously employs “miscegenated reading practices” (xii) by engaging with diverse fields of study, including American studies and transhemispheric studies alongside theatre and performance studies, comparative race and ethnic literary studies, and literary history.

Part of this book’s appeal comes from how Paulin herself stages the narratives within. Selecting an eclectic variety of texts, Paulin organizes her chapters by pairing and comparing; she often juxtaposes a playwright with a novelist or short-story writer—Dion Boucicault with Louisa May Alcott, Bartley Campbell with William Dean Howells, Thomas Dixon with Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins with the trio Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson—to emphasize the intersecting performative aspects of their works. She introduces each chapter by situating the authors and texts within their respective biographical and cultural contexts, paying particular attention to the performance history and reception of each play. This strategy is particularly successful for chapter one, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire,” Paulin’s treatments of Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon (1859) and Louisa May Alcott’s stories “M. L.” and “My Contraband” (both 1863). She develops her analysis beyond a familiar argument of how black blood in each work functions as either a catalyst for “chaos” (14) or exotic “art” (36) to a consideration of same-sex miscegenation (including audience reception). In Boucicault, for instance, a quadroon slave and an Indian have a friendship that Paulin locates “somewhere on the spectrum between the homosocial and the homoerotic” (20); in Alcott, white women in an authoritative, read “masculine” role express their same-sex desire for former slaves via the men’s “feminized characterizations” (41)…

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Journey into Speech-A Writer between Two Worlds: An Interview with Michelle Cliff

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Caribbean/Latin America, Interviews, Media Archive on 2016-06-23 23:33Z by Steven

Journey into Speech-A Writer between Two Worlds: An Interview with Michelle Cliff

African American Review
Volume 28, Number 2, Black Women’s Culture Issue (Summer, 1994)
pages 273-281
DOI: 10.2307/3041999

Opal Palmer Adisa, Professor of Creative Writing
California College of the Arts

Among the subjects Jamaican born writer Michelle Cliff explores in her writings are ancestry, the impact of colonization on the Caribbean, the relationships among and interconnection of African people in the diaspora, racism, and the often erroneous way in which the history of black people is recorded. In her latest novel, Free Enterprise (1993), Cliff attempt: to rewrite the story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, the African American woman who supplied money with which John Brown bought arms for the raid at Harper’s Ferry. Her other two novels, No Telephone to Heaven (1987) and Abeng (1984), are semi-autobiographical and explore the life of Clare Savage, fair-skinned girl raised between Jamaica and North America, who must reconcile her mixed heritage in a changing society. Other works by Cliff include Bodies of Water (1990), The Land of Look Behind (1985), and Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980).

The following text is based on two separate interviews: one done in person in Albany, California, in December 1989, and the other conducted over the telephone in September 1993.

Adlsa: When did you find your voice, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?

Cliff: I always wanted to write. Actually there was a terrible incident. I don’t know if I should tell you, but I will. When I was at Saint Andrews I was keeping a diary. I had been very inïŹ‚uenced by The Diary of Anne Frank, and as a result of seeing the movie and reading her diary, I got a diary of my own. I wasn’t living with my mother and father at this time; I was living with my aunt in Kingston [Jamaica] and going to Saint Andrews. This aunt also had a house in Saint Ann, where we used to stay on the weekends. Anyway, my parents broke into my bedroom in Kingston when we were not at the house. They went into my room, broke open my drawer, took out and broke the lock on my diary, and read it. Then they arrived at the other house. My father and mother had my diary in their hands and sat down and read it out loud in front of me, my aunt, and everybody else. My sister was there. There were very intimate details; there were a lot of things about leaving school and not going to class and playing hookey, but there was also the experience of the ïŹrst time I menstruated, and I remember just being shattered. My father read it, and my mother was in total collaboration. (Pause.) Anyway I remember just crying and being sad and whatnot. I spoke to my sister about it once, and she remembered, even though she was seven at the time. And she said, “Don’t you remember screaming and saying, ‘Don’t I have any rights?'”…

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Beautiful White Girlhood?: Daisy Buchanan in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-03-14 15:13Z by Steven

Beautiful White Girlhood?: Daisy Buchanan in Nella Larsen’s Passing

African American Review
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2014
pages 37-49

Sinéad Moynihan, Lecturer in English
University of Exeter

This article expands recent scholarship on race in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and intertextuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing by arguing that the latter is a “blackened” version of Gatsby. Mapping the genealogy of Passing, from Gatsby through Larsen’s first published work of fiction, “The Wrong Man” (1926), it proposes that Larsen’s allusions to Fitzgerald’s novel work to destabilize radically any secure sense of Daisy Buchanan’s whiteness by linking her quite emphatically with Clare Kendry. By reading Passing in this way, the article also reveals the extent to which Larsen built covert engagements with reading, writing and authorship into a text thematically preoccupied with looking, seeing and interpreting.

“The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again.  —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925; emphasis added)

She couldn’t betray Clare, couldn’t even run the risk of appearing to defend a people that were being maligned, for fear that that defence might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her secret. —Nella Larsen, Passing (1929; emphasis added)

In October 1927 The Forum published a debate entitled “Should the Negro be encouraged to cultural equality?” Writing in favor of the proposal was Alain Locke, one of the leading intellectuals of what was subsequently termed the Harlem Renaissance; writing against it was the nativist and eugenicist, Lothrop Stoddard. Although the thrust of Locke’s argument rests on encouraging cultural equality through white recognition of “Negro genius” as evidenced in the work of CountĂ©e Cullen, Langston Hughes and others, he anticipates Stoddard’s concern that “cultural equality” equates with interracial sex, marriage and reproduction. Locke identifies the hypocrisy of a situation by which a man who opposes “amalgamation” so passionately is the very man who “by the sex exploitation of the socially and economically unprotected Negro woman, has bred a social dilution which threatens at its weakest point the race integrity he boasts of maintaining and upholding” (Locke and Stoddard 503, 505). What is striking about Stoddard’s rebuttal is his refusal to acknowledge, as Locke does, that “amalgamation” is a fait accompli, that the amalgamation horse, if you will, had long ago bolted. For Stoddard, “the plain facts of the case” are as follows:

Since the Negroes form nearly one-tenth of the population of the United States, we are statistically light mulattos. In the last analysis, the only thing which keeps us from being biologically mulattos is the color-line. Therefore, once the principle of the color-line is abandoned, White America is doomed, and a mulatto America stands on the threshold.

(Locke and Stoddard 515)

By the term “statistically light mulatto,” Stoddard means that the American racial body (envisaged as white) is already one-tenth black. Stoddard believes that the color line must be policed rigidly if the other nine-tenths of the population are not to become “biologically mulattos,” as if America’s “white” majority were not already racially mixed. Here, Stoddard makes no admission of the possibility of what Joel Williamson terms “invisible blackness” (103): the prospect of a “black” subject’s looking, and potentially passing as, “white.”

This debate appeared halfway through the four-year interval between the publication of two apparently unconnected novels: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). In Tom Buchanan, as several critics have noted, Fitzgerald creates a mouthpiece for the ideas of Lothrop Stoddard, especially those articulated in The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920), thinly disguised in The Great Gatsby as “The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard” (Gatsby 18). Meanwhile, Larsen was not only an exemplar of “the cultural flowering of Negro talent” that Locke identifies; she was also, being of Danish and African Caribbean ancestry, the embodiment of the “hybridization” Stoddard so feared (Locke and Stoddard 507, 514). Here I consider the tissue of connections suggested by this exchange between Locke and Stoddard: between the Harlem Renaissance, contemporaneous eugenicist discourses and racial passing and, ultimately, between The Great Gatsby and Passing. This article argues that in Passing Larsen responds to both Stoddard and Tom Buchanan, that Passing is in fact a “blackened” version of The Great Gatsby. Indeed, as Thadious Davis discovers, Larsen wrote to Carl Van Vechten in 1926 of the possibility of “blackening” Francisco de Quevedo-Villegas’s novel Pablo de Segovia (1595), and it was a similar kind of literary blackening that led to the plagiarism charge leveled at her in 1930 when readers of “Sanctuary” noted the remarkable similarities between this and a story published by British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith in The Century in 1922 (Davis 165–66, 351). In fact, “Sanctuary” appeared in The Forum and Larsen was the first black writer to place fiction there. It is therefore possible, indeed likely, that she read the exchange between Locke and Stoddard. While the plagiarism charge is not my primary concern, Larsen’s engagement with Fitzgerald’s text is so obviously critical and self-conscious as to raise questions about where we draw the line between what Linda Hutcheon would term a “critical reworking” of the literary past, and one that is more uncritically derivative (4)…

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A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review) [Cutter]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, United States on 2015-10-23 01:01Z by Steven

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review) [Cutter]

African American Review
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2015
pages 381-383

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

The historian Allyson Hobbs opens her book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life with an anecdote about a young child living on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1930s who is light enough to pass for white. Her parents (who are also light enough to pass) make the heart-wrenching decision to send her to live as a white person in Los Angeles, without them. She cries, pleads, and begs to stay with her parents, but they are adamant. Many years later when the father is dying the mother calls home the daughter, now a young woman who has married a white man and has had white children, but she refuses to return. This incident—sourced as “one of my family’s stories” (4)—seems an unusual way to begin a book titled A Chosen Exile, for the young girl’s exile is not chosen by any means. It is also a curiously ambiguous story. We may wonder (for example) why the parents do not go with the child, whether she has relatives in California to whom she is sent, and what age she is when this event occurs. This tantalizing story leaves a reader with more questions than it answers, and it belies the richness of Hobbs’s work in the book as a whole. Hobbs does not use this anecdote to elucidate some of the mysteries around passing or the difficulty of excavating the history of the racial passer, who disappears into whiteness. Instead, the story is deployed in support of the central argument of her book—that “racial passing is an exile” (4) and “the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from” (18). But how can we know that passing is “losing what you pass away from” based on this anecdote? In Hobbs’s book, the young girl is never heard from again. Perhaps she found freedom in her whiteness, or perhaps not. She might have had a permanent sense of exile, but this is never elucidated.

The use of this anecdote reflects a systemic flaw in Hobbs’s otherwise powerful and eloquent book. Her source material often opens up in provocative ways the can of worms that is racial passing, but then she sometimes forces those messy, squiggly worms back into a single “can”—the frame of family loss and exile. Hobbs makes the dubious claim that “historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white rather than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity” (11). To counter this tendency, she mines historical sources on passing “to discover a coherent and enduring narrative of loss” (24). At various points, she does acknowledge the shifting meaning of racial passing; for example, she states that “to pass as white varied and cannot be collapsed into a singular narrative” (15) and that “passing was by no means a static practice” (25). By the end of the book, her argument evolves into a more nuanced one: “Loss was a prerequisite of passing. But the losses that passing demanded were not all the same for those who passed. 
 For some, [passing] was undoubtedly a bitter bargain. But for others, the connection with oneself and one’s past had been lost long ago” (230). Hobbs here articulates some of the plural possibilities of passing—the way it can come to mean both conscription to a certain racial ideology and liberation from this very same ideology at one and the same time.

Hobbs’s book might have put forward from its start, then, a slightly more nuanced overarching framework. But in many ways this book is a very valuable resource for scholars interested in the history of passing, as well as students who may need a broad overview of the phenomenon. It examines the more-than-250-year history of passing in the United States, reaching back to the time of the American Revolution and forward to our current so-called “mulatto millennium,” or “Generation E.A.”—“ethnically ambiguous” (276). Most unique about the book is the wealth of source materials (much of which is…

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Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial by Ralina L. Joseph (review) [Ardizzone]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-10-29 00:25Z by Steven

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial by Ralina L. Joseph (review) [Ardizzone]

African American Review
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2013
pages 787-790
DOI: 10.1353/afa.2013.0105

Heidi Ardizzone, Assistant Professor of American Studies
Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri

Joseph, Ralina L., Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012)

Ralina Joseph begins Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial with a personal story. Her own engagement with ongoing debates over identity, ancestry, authenticity, and race mirrored political and cultural shifts in perceptions of people of mixed ancestry at the time. As a college student in the 1990s, Joseph quickly embraced the term multiracial to describe her own “race story,” becoming a leader of Brown (University’s) Organization of Multi- and Biracial Students (BOMBS). Being multiracial became, she says, a “full blown preoccupation” (xv), resulting in her undergraduate thesis on cultural depictions of black-white women. Transcending Blackness continues this project, identifying two related images, the millennial mulatta, and the exceptional multiracial, which operate in a dialectic cultural relationship as a “two-sided stereotype” (5). Joseph defines both representations in relationship to blackness: Millennials are punished for their attempts to identify as black; exceptionals are rewarded for transcending blackness or even race itself. Rather than demonstrating that blackness might be embraced “in messy, hybridized, multiracial forms” in the cultural texts Joseph examines, blackness is the thing that “must be risen above, surpassed, or truly transcended” (4). However, Joseph also introduces a third potential option: multiracial blackness, identifying positively and simultaneously as mixed and as black or African American. While she embraces this option for herself and claims it as a dominant identity, the authors whose works she analyzes never display it in their fictional depictions of this black-unite figure. So multiracial blackness forms a third point in a now triangulated relationship that crosses the line between social experience and cultural representation.

Transcending Blackness follows a familiar literary and media studies format: The Preface, Introduction, and Conclusion bracket four chapters, each focusing on a particular genre, work, and multiracial or black-white female character. Joseph’s Introduction lays out her terms and framework, while providing a clear and concise history of people of mixed ancestry, of their treatment and categorization, and of the attitudes toward and circumstances of interracial unions. She also provides a selective trajectory of literary and media depictions of the black-white figure covering roughly a century prior to her target years of 1998-2008. This decade spans the first inclusion of the “pick one or more” option under the federal census’ racial categories, and the election of the first U.S. president who could have—but publically didn’t—exercise that option. Like the twenty years that preceded it, the 1998-2008 decade falls squarely in the overlapping postracial and postfeminist eras that Joseph identifies as key to understanding the shifting meaning of the representations of black-white women. However, her decade is a static one: Her chapters are not chronological, but organized around her analytic positioning of each text and character within her framework.

One result of this is that the four main chapters operate in some ways more as related essays than as an integrated argument. But there is a consistent analytical thread. In the first two chapters Joseph presents two examples of the new millennium mulatta to show “how blackness is cause and effect of sadness and pain for the multiracial African American figure.” The last two chapters then argue that for the exceptional multiracial “blackness is an irrelevant entity” (6). And the first chapter sets up Joseph’s argument, not just for the new millennium mulatta, but also for the absence of the multiracial blackness that Joseph is looking for but doesn’t find—at least not in the form in which she desires it to be…

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Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-08-09 22:48Z by Steven

Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case

African American Review
Voluume 46, Numbers 2-3, Summer/Fall 2013
pages 345-361
DOI: 10.1353/afa.2013.0076

Rebecca Nisetich, Assistant Director, Honors Program
University of Southern Maine

Toward the end of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), the protagonist Irene Redfield imagines how her friend Clare Kendry’s racist husband might react if he discovers his wife’s “true” racial identity: “What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case.” This essay argues that what seems like a casual reference to a contemporary event actually underscores a central theme of the novel: the Rhinelander case and Passing both illustrate the problematic ways Americans sought to categorize mixed-race individuals in the 1920s, but while the Rhinelander verdict denies the existence of a middle ground between racial absolutes, the novel affirms it. Larsen directly references the Rhinelander case only once, but its themes echo throughout the text of Passing, which challenges the visibility of race and the conception of racial identity as intimately connected to one’s essential self. Irene’s reference calls to mind a very public trial that forced Americans to question their understanding of racial difference. In Passing, Larsen explores the conceptions of race as a real physical fact and as an imagined social construct, and challenges the logic of “common knowledge” and visibility in assigning racial identity to individuals.

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Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-03-20 21:33Z by Steven

Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

African American Review
Volume 35, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 205-217

Juda Bennett, Associate Professor of English
The College of New Jersey

Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison.

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola’s delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way
Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and “Who’s Passing for Who?” while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?…

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Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-10-04 03:59Z by Steven

Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

African American Review
Volume 30, Number 3 (Autumn, 1996)  
pages 403-419

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

The title character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man embodies the paradox of race and color because he is both legally black and visibly white. The Ex-Colored Man’s response to this paradox defies his audience’s expectations: He believes that it’s possible for blacks to aspire and succeed in America, yet he decides to seize his own opportunity for success by passing as white. Passing in general and the Ex-Colored Man’s narrative in particular have long been viewed as instances of racial self-hatred or disloyalty. Both are predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing blackness—an “authentic” identity—in favor of whiteness, an “opportunistic” one. These previous interpretations have insisted on a “racially correct” way of reading the text. However, such readings try to categorize a character who often resists categories. Must the Ex-Colored Man’s embrace of the potential for success to which his white skin avails him be seen simply as his co-optation by a culture founded on “white” values? Must passing necessarily indicate a denial of “blackness,” or racial self-hatred and nothing more?

When we look at the Ex-Colored Man as a person who values individualism, who is idiosyncratic, undisciplined, and inclined towards improvisation, we invite a much richer and more complex reading. When we recognize that the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates ambivalence about whiteness as well as blackness, we avail ourselves of the novel’s more complicated nuances. Not strictly fiction, yet not entirely autobiographical, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man reveals the instability of generic distinctions in much the same way that the Ex-Colored Man’s passing reveals the instability of racial distinctions. A textual changeling, the book is taxonomically slippery, encoding into its very pages the sort of disarray and ambivalence which passing evokes; the book’s own stubborn resistance to easy categorization thus suggests the constructed nature of distinctions separating texts as well as races. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, like the ideology of segregation, incorporates fundamentally contradictory attitudes. In turn, the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates the degree to which this segregation logic permeates our most deeply embedded beliefs about identity, race, and the U.S.A.

Because the book first appeared anonymously in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was, understandably, construed by its initial readers as the genuine autobiography of a light-skinned black man who had successfully passed into white society. It was, in fact, a fictional account written by James Weldon Johnson. The narrative’s opening paragraphs offer contradictory motives for the document that follows. At once a divulger of secrets, a confidence man, a trickster figure, and a confes-…

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Neither Fish, Flesh, nor Fowl: Race and Region in the Writings of Charles W. Chesnutt

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-05-29 17:56Z by Steven

Neither Fish, Flesh, nor Fowl: Race and Region in the Writings of Charles W. Chesnutt

African American Review
Volume 34, Number 3 (Autumn, 2000)
pages 461-473

Anne Fleischmann

The Supreme Court’s decision in The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case is notorious for having sewn racial segregation into the fabric of American society. One of the decision’s less obvious results was that it gave official sanction to the “one-drop” rule. That is, the Plessy ruling held that individual states could decide whether and how to classify citizens by race, and states which were so inclined could assert that any person with one black ancestor counted as black and was therefore subject to second-class citizenship. At its root, the Plessy decision was concerned with racial “purity”; between the Emancipation and 1896 the legal hierarchy that had elevated masters over slaves during slavery had been obliterated, and the “composite” race and attendant worries about “invisible blackness” threatened the South’s de facto caste system, which elevated whites over blacks. The supremacist Plessy holding put mixed-race citizens back “in their place.” Though biracial identity had long been used by whites and blacks alike as the basis for local discriminations, Plessy defined for the nation a way of conceiving race that has persisted to this day.

Ironically, the Plessy legacy has, up to now, affected the ways in which we have read and interpreted African American literature. In spite of our awareness of its absurdity, the one-drop rule has saturated our readings of African American authors and has contributed a nagging ahistorical quality to the project. In other words, we have been reading turn-of-the-century African American texts as if “race” has always been defined as it was by the justices who defined whiteness as inherently different and separate from blackness when they ruled on Plessy. The Court’s dichotomizing move might be explained by Abdul R. JanMohamed, who has argued that “colonialist fiction is generated predominantly by the ideological machinery of the manichean allegory” (JanMohamed 102), the impermeable dichotomy between blackness and whiteness which spawns the racial stereotypes that make possible ideologies like “separate but equal.” Recent post-colonial theoretical formulations can help us consider what biracial identity meant to the culture upon which the Plessy verdict was leveled; indeed, it is clear that we must reexamine racial classification as a problem to which turn-of-the-century authors, like Charles Chesnutt, were responding.

Virtually all of Chesnutt’s works involve characters of mixed racial ancestry. While he was by no means the only author of his day to speculate on biracial existence, Chesnutt’s ethnographic profiles of biracial communities invite us to consider the mixed-race character in an original light, as a new term in the discussion of African American literature. Previous interpretations of Chesnutt’s work have largely misread the significance of his…

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