White Womanhood Revised

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-16 02:08Z by Steven

White Womanhood Revised

Avidly: A Los Angeles Review of Books Channel
2015-06-15

Brigitte Fielder, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Whatever else we might say about it, let’s not forget this: Rachel Dolezal’s story is a decidedly American one. Here, I refer not only to story of Dolezal’s racial passing, but also to how Dolezal’s story triggers and reveals America’s racial fascinations. Whatever Dolezal’s motives or ethics, our scrutiny of Dolezal’s race echoes a long history of parsing race in the United States more generally.

Much of the conversation about Dolezal proceeds within long-standing US assumptions about how race “works”: if her biological parents are “really” white people, then so is she, and therefore she cannot be black. While Dolezal is a member of an interracial family, she seems to have no mixed-race African American genealogy, and this is the single deciding factor about her own race. In effect, these assumptions tell us that there is no way for a woman who was born white (i.e., to white parents) to become black. For her to claim blackness, then, is a conscious act of deception.

But for all the clarity these assumptions provide, they are not the only American story about race and womanhood. Even as Americans want race to be simple and essentialist, American racial ideologies rarely allows it to be. Race, Dolezal’s story reminds us, is connected to the history of racial justice work and interracial collaboration, and complicated by relations of power and privilege. Her story also reminds us how race is connected to not only biological relationships, but also to social relationships. For a scholar of race and nineteenth-century literature like myself, Dolezal’s complex (and confusing) story calls to mind other stories of white womanhood revised.

Consider how Dolezal’s American Story aligns with this fictional one: Kate Chopin’s 1893 short story, “DĂ©sirĂ©e’s Baby.” In the story, DĂ©sirĂ©e, a woman of unknown parentage, is adopted into a respectable white family and marries the wealthy son of slaveholders, Armand Aubigny. When DĂ©sirĂ©e and Armand’’s baby begins to show signs of being mixed-race, Armand argues that, because the baby does not look white, it is not white. The appearance of DĂ©sirĂ©e’s baby calls DĂ©sirĂ©e’s race into question…

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Visualizing Racial Mixture and Movement: Music, Notation, Illustration

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-04-23 00:40Z by Steven

Visualizing Racial Mixture and Movement: Music, Notation, Illustration

J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists
Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2015
pages 146-155
DOI: 10.1353/jnc.2015.0009

Brigitte Fielder, Assistant Professor of English
University of Wisconsin, Madison

The archive of nineteenth-century visual culture abounds with illustrations of racial difference reflect anxieties about racial mixture and movement. Race extends beyond visual expression and detection, but racialized bodies have been continually represented by images meant to convey racial difference, often via racist caricatures. The piece I discuss here adds, to the depiction of racial difference, mixture and movement conveyed through the representation of sound, in written music (fig. 1). Layering illustrations of figures in dance atop the symbolic notation of the aural, the music conveys its narrative of race via musical rather than literary genres: the waltz and the march. In this brief essay I will begin to unpack this particular representation of racialized bodies as visualized in a remarkable, and remarkably little-known, piece of sheet music distributed by George P. Reed, a Boston music store owner and seller of musical instruments, instruction books, and sheet music during the 1830s and 1840s.

Racial representation has often been confined by the media used to depict its complexity—from language that describes race via metaphors of color to the technology of racial representation in black-and-white that obscures nondualistic racial gradation. Written music, like the written word, is a technology of representation. The visual representation of music and the visual representation of race are similar in that they are not mimetic but symbolic. Just as quarter and half notes stand in for certain pitches and durations that might be interpreted through variations such as instrumentation and style, the presence and absence of black ink represents racial difference that in reality is nuanced by gradations in complexion, historical contexts, and cultural resonances of racialization.

Music here implies the aural, but also the movement of dance; the waltz and the march produce bodies in motion. The movement of racialized bodies through geopolitical spaces and with relation to one another hints at race’s fluidity. In the two genres on this single sheet, we see what might be understood as different methodological frames for understanding their respective narratives of race. The waltz’s male and female pairing of partners suggests heterosexuality. The march denotes a different kind of movement, not simply interpersonal but movement through geopolitical spaces and in militaristic endeavors.

The limitations of the musical form for representing race correspond to other limitations of racial representation in metaphors of color, racialized value, and racial distinctions that forgo complexity in favor of legibility. The extent to which race becomes legible through musical notation is admittedly limited. This sheet music is, in many ways, difficult to read. The stick-figure drawings crowd the notes, making one wonder at the practicality of playing the musical annotation. In this respect, the sheet is poised to function less as legible musical notation and more as a visual showpiece. Notwithstanding its visuality, the flatness of stick-figure characters obscures the political import that is clearer in other racial/racist caricatures. Nevertheless, these juxtapositions of the movement of racialized bodies and the movement of music thematize relations of race within musical form, marking race as always in motion, unfixed, and progressing through a specific, readable generic narrative.

Amalgamation Waltz

In nineteenth-century America, the image of a racially integrated dance was a popular site for American anxieties about race relations. Illustrations of integrated dances appeared throughout the antebellum period, in Amalgamation Waltz from Edward Williams Clay’s 1839 “Practical Amalgamation” series of lithographs, his 1845 Amalgamation Polka, and the 1864 political caricature The Miscegenation Ball. The underlying movement of music composes a compelling backdrop for understanding popular depictions of and reactions to racial mixture in nineteenth-century America. Illustrations of dance, movement, and music signal the similarly fluid notions of race that permeated antebellum discourse. While Clay’s Amalgamation Waltz is emphatic in its illustrated pairings of black men and white women, the musical notation of Reed’s music literalizes these juxtapositions of racial integration within the music itself. The three-beat measure of the waltz is composed of stick-figure illustrations, mostly of pairings of black men and white…

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“Almost Eliza”: Genre, Racialization, and Reading Mary King as the Mixed-Race Heroine of William G. Allen’s The American Prejudice Against Color

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-04-23 00:06Z by Steven

“Almost Eliza”: Genre, Racialization, and Reading Mary King as the Mixed-Race Heroine of William G. Allen’s The American Prejudice Against Color

Studies in American Fiction
Volume 40, Issue 1, Spring 2013
pages 1-25

Brigitte Nicole Fielder, Assistant Professor of English
University of Wisconsin, Madison

In 1853, Mary King, the white daughter of abolitionists, was engaged to marry William G. Allen, the “Coloured Professor” of New York Central College at McGrawville. The engagement stirred their upstate New York community into a popular controversy, inciting letters of family disapproval, newspaper commentary, and mob violence leading to their forced, though temporary, separation. Alongside his personal account of their engagement and marriage, in The American Prejudice Against Color: An Authentic Narrative, Showing How Easily the Nation Got into an Uproar (1853), Allen also reprinted various letters and newspaper articles both in support of and in opposition to his and King’s marriage. This array of accounts show how Mary King’s white womanhood becomes a function of genre: in the various stories of her relation to Allen, King’s race and sexuality are constructed according to the practices of reading her as either the white damsel of the captivity narrative or the mixed-race heroine of abolitionist fiction.

In a letter to Mary King written during the week before she and William Allen were secretly married, the couple’s friend John Porter wrote, “Your flight is a flight for freedom, and I can almost call you Eliza,” referencing the well-known mixed-race heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unlike Stowe’s Eliza, Allen and King were not fleeing literal enslavement, but the racial prejudice of people who had attempted to prevent their marriage. Thus, Porter’s evocation of abolitionist literature to explain King’s situation is intriguing not only because it refuses to perform the more obvious slippage of simply relegating prejudice against the African American William Allen (who was born to a free mixed-race woman and was never enslaved) to the discourse of slavery, but because it chooses the white woman as its subject and re-figures her in one of abolitionism’s most popular tropes of enslavement, the mixed-race heroine. Not merely an equation of all race-related persecution with slavery, Porter’s comparison of Mary King to Stowe’s Eliza Harris displaces the racist rhetoric of the couple’s forced separation, by which some newspaper commentators rendered King a “damsel” in need of white male protection from Allen, which the mob purported to give her. Instead, Porter’s reading of King places her in the abolitionist literary tradition, where her and Allen’s story reads as a narrative of African American fugitivity rather than white captivity. Moreover, Porter’s characterization of King as “almost . . . Eliza” emphasizes a close generic proximity to the figure of the mixed-race heroine, recognizing the interracial allegiance of King and Allen’s proposed kinship, and a re-racialization of the figure of the white woman along lines of her participation in interracial sexual relations and reproduction.

My analysis takes up Porter’s comparison of Mary King to Eliza Harris and reads King as the mixed-race heroine of The American Prejudice Against Color. In the private and public discourse surrounding Allen and King’s engagement and marriage, I examine themes of “amalgamation” and fugitivity in order to discuss how Mary King is figured according to different generic constructions of racialized womanhood in the two primary versions of the story Allen reproduces—that told by Allen, King, and their allies, and the version supporting the racist mob that separated the couple. First, I discuss the racist rhetorics by which Mary King is read in the tradition of what I call “anti-amalgamation” literature—a sub-genre of the body of writing that emerges in response to abolitionist literature, which has its roots in the American captivity narrative.

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