Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-03-10 15:20Z by Steven

Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Rutgers University Press
2011-11-01
218 Pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-5143-2
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-5144-9
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8135-5210-1

Stephanie Li, Professor of English
Indiana University, Bloomington

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama faced a difficult task—rallying African American voters while resisting his opponents’ attempts to frame him as “too black” to govern the nation as a whole. Obama’s solution was to employ what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language,” avoiding open discussions of racial issues while using terms and references that carried a specific cultural resonance for African American voters.

Stephanie Li argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a “post-racial” era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.

Table Of Contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Violence and Toni Morrison’s Racist House
  • 2. Hiding the Invisble Hurt of Race
  • 3. The Unspeakable Language of Race and Fantasy in the Stories of Jhumpa Lahiri
  • 4. Performing Intimacy: “Race-Specific, Race-Free Language” in Political Discourse
  • Conclusion: The Demands of Precious
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-10-08 21:15Z by Steven

Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2013
pages 99-103
DOI: 10.1353/prs.2013.0024

Donavan L. Ramon
Rutgers University

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012, vxi + 229 pp.

Michele Elam, The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011, xxiii + 277 pp.

According to W.E.B. DuBois’s prophetic theory articulated in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (221). Myriad critical and popular pieces over the past several years suggest that this theory has run its course: the celebration of mixed race people putatively implies the “end” of race. Certainly the election of the first biracial president has been touted as the epitome of post-race life in America. Yet as recent critical interventions by Michele Elam and Marcia Alesan Dawkins remind us, race remains prevalent because of biracial people, not in spite of it.

The continuities between DuBois’s theory and Elam’s are underscored by the title of the latter’s monograph. In The Souls of Mixed Folk, the Stanford University English Professor asserts that the notion of post-Black art being apolitical is a complete fiction, much like the idea that post-Civil Rights politics are in decline. By examining the images of mixed race subjects in a wide range of artistic forms, Elam argues that these venues are the newer locations that “engage issues of civil rights and social change” (16). To accept this belief, she begins her book by convincing readers that the increased interest in mixed race deludes many people into believing that race no longer exists. If this is truly the case, then why do fictional representations of biracial people continue to represent anxiety across a multitude of genres? More specifically, why has the last several years seen a resurgence in narratives of racial passing—such as Philip Roth’s The Human Stain?

Elam explores these questions across five thoroughly researched and well-written chapters. The first traces the history of mixed race studies in curricula across the nation while raising related yet ignored issues. For instance she problematizes the focus of heteronormative depictions of mixed race families at the expense of homosexual ones, while also reminding us that mixed Americans have historically been the result of sexual violation. She believes we must be mindful of considering the product of these unions as representatives of racial progress without understanding the nuances of slavery and violence inflicted on black bodies by whites.

Chapter two changes the focus from history to contemporary comic strips by Aaron McGruder and Nate Creekmore. In their works, Elam rightly sees racial identity as “a matter of public negotiation, social location, cultural affirmation, political commitment, and historical homage” (58). In chapter four, Elam situates the traditional European bildungsroman against the “mixed race bildungsroman”. The former focuses on the “social incorporation of the individual” (125) whereas protagonists in the latter are not “incorporated into the society or the social progress that they are supposed to represent . . . [and they] challenge the popular image of the ‘modern minority’” (126). She applies her theory of the “mixed race bildungsroman” to Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter (1997) and Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic (2004). Elam’s last chapter examines performances of mixed race in Carl Hancock Rux’s play Talk and “The Racial Draft” skit from Dave Chappelle’s defunct late-night comedy show. Her argument here is that in both performances, there is a “re-visioning and a re-membering of the national order” (161).

The middle chapter is the one that is most germane to this journal, as it examines racial passing in Danzy Senna’s Causcasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (2000). Despite research to the contrary, Elam begins this chapter by arguing that racial passing literature is far from being an obsolete genre, as these novels attest. Despite living in a post-race era, these narratives collectively argue for the rebirth of racial passing as a “social inquiry” (98). Explaining further, the novels addressed here force readers to reconsider “the performative, iterative nature of racial identity as a rich social heuristic” (98).

This is nowhere more evident than in The Human Stain , where racial passing acts as a “reactionary vehicle to critique political correctness”—particularly because it is set during President Clinton’s sex scandal (98). In this regard, “performance,” can have multiple meanings in the novel: one referring…

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The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs on 2013-03-24 18:51Z by Steven

The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium

Stanford University Press
February 2011
312 pages
23 illustrations
Cloth ISBN-10: 0804756295; ISBN-13: 9780804756297
Paper ISBN-10: 0804756309; ISBN-13: 9780804756303

Michele Elam, Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of English and Olivier Nomellini Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education
Stanford University, Stanford, California

Cover Photo: “Baby Halfie Brown Head”, from artist Lezley Saar’s, Mulatto Nation (2003) art installation.

The Souls of Mixed Folk examines representations of mixed race in literature and the arts that redefine new millennial aesthetics and politics. Focusing on black-white mixes, Elam analyzes expressive works—novels, drama, graphic narrative, late-night television, art installations—as artistic rejoinders to the perception that post-Civil Rights politics are bereft and post-Black art is apolitical. Reorienting attention to the cultural invention of mixed race from the social sciences to the humanities, Elam considers the creative work of Lezley Saar, Aaron McGruder, Nate Creekmore, Danzy Senna, Colson Whitehead, Emily Raboteau, Carl Hancock Rux, and Dave Chappelle. All these writers and artists address mixed race as both an aesthetic challenge and a social concern, and together, they gesture toward a poetics of social justice for the “mulatto millennium.”

The Souls of Mixed Folk seeks a middle way between competing hagiographic and apocalyptic impulses in mixed race scholarship, between those who proselytize mixed race as the great hallelujah to the “race problem” and those who can only hear the alarmist bells of civil rights destruction. Both approaches can obscure some of the more critically astute engagements with new millennial iterations of mixed race by the multi-generic cohort of contemporary writers, artists, and performers discussed in this book. The Souls of Mixed Folk offers case studies of their creative work in an effort to expand the contemporary idiom about mixed race in the so-called post-race moment, asking how might new millennial expressive forms suggest an aesthetics of mixed race? And how might such an aesthetics productively reimagine the relations between race, art, and social equity in the twenty-first century?

Read an excerpt of “Obama’s Mixed Race Politics” here.

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