Blackness/Mixedness: Contestations over Crossing Signs

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-07-03 20:50Z by Steven

Blackness/Mixedness: Contestations over Crossing Signs

Cultural Critique
Number 54 (Spring, 2003)
pages 178-212

Naomi Pabst, Assistant Professor of African American Studies and American Studies
Yale University

While studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked. The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seem to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.

—George Hutchinson, “Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

In spite of rumors regarding the infinite privileges open to those of us with visible white ancestry, there is always, yes always, a great deal of pain that comes with this “privilege.” Our sufferings as Black [people] of different shades are not identical, and they aren’t even always equal, but they most certainly are mutual. And because my experience of racism as it is felt through this light skinned body is not the same as that experience which is felt through darker colored flesh does not mean that either of the two is any truer, more valid or authentic.

—Kristal Brent Zook, “Light-Skinned(ded) Naps”

Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the hybridity, the mixedness, of African-Americans. Indeed, the vast majority of black Americans have white, native, and sometimes other cultural and racial ancestry in addition to African. And the refrain is by now familiar, even if it still bears repeating: there are no pure races or cultures to begin with. At the same time, much has been made of the “one-drop rule,” the law of hypodescent, which denies black/white interracial persons a legitimate claim to whiteness and assigns them to a purportedly lower rung on the heritage hierarchy. Through this practice, black/white mixed persons have generally come to be classified as black, legally and in popular imaginaries. This essay will examine the links and rifts between blackness and mixedness, with an eye to what is at once a chiasmus and a truism, that black people are mixed and (black/white) mixed people are black.

Through an analysis of various literary and critical representations of racial hybridity, this essay will demonstrate that the blackness/mixedness paradox is and always was but the very beginning and by no means the end of the story of American racial classification within the black/white schema. Even the most vociferous proponent of the one-drop rule would have to concede that it does not require, nor has it ever required, much of a stretch of the imagination to make a commonsense distinction, even if a fraught, provisional one, between authentic blackness and black/white interraciality. To even state that a mixed-race subject is black or the reverse is to reference the joint realities of both mixedness and blackness. The one-drop rule itself suggests quite literally that one can at once be fully black and only one drop black. Moreover, the tendency to overstate the historical ineluctability of the one-drop rule elides the a priori crisis of classification mulattoes have long presented within American discursive and cultural imaginaries. As Werner Sollors underscores in the introduction to Interracialism, “contrary to many assertions, the so-called one-drop rule (according to which any African ancestry, no matter how far removed, made an American ‘black’) was never widely applied” (6). Rather, contestations over the “true” racial and cultural status of mixed-race subjects are ongoing and can be traced a long way back.

Endless and passionate debate on how to situate black/white interraciality has penetrated the realms of legal classification, census taking, and grassroots movements, as well as the domains this essay mainly concerns itself with, the discursive, the ideological, and the popular. I problematize rather than contribute to these debates, for what is more interesting to me is the extent to which interracial subjects elide a classification that can be agreed on. I recommend that…

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History, Trauma, and the Discursive Construction of “Race” in John Dominis Holt’s Waimea Summer

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2009-11-02 14:54Z by Steven

History, Trauma, and the Discursive Construction of “Race” in John Dominis Holt’s Waimea Summer

Cultural Critique
Number 47, Winter 2001
pages 167-214
DOI: 10.1353/cul.2001.0026

Susan Y. Najita, Associate Professor of English
University of Michigan

In contemporary discussions about the literature of Hawai’i and its decolonization, a central problematic resulting from on-going Euro-American imperialism is the tension between genealogical and racial definitions of Hawaiianness. Haunani-Kay Trask in “Decolonizing Hawaiian Literature” argues for a notion of “Hawaiian” that is based upon “[g]enealogical claims” of Hawaiians as the first people of Hawai’i,” a claim that establishes their status as indigene and Native (170). She argues, “It is the insistence that our Native people have a claim to nationhood on Hawaiian soil that generates the ignorant and ill-intentioned response that Hawaiian nationalists are racists. In truth, Hawaiians are the only people who can claim Hawai’i as their lahui, or nation” (170). I quote this passage to show how Trask suggests the way in which genealogical claims, when viewed from more Western perspectives of family descent and pedigree, can be taken to imply a more racialized idea of ancestry.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui has aptly noted the difference between pedigree and genealogy in the contemporary Hawaiian sovereignty struggle. The Hawai’i State Constitution and the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 define “native Hawaiian” in terms of blood quantum, specifically, 50 percent Hawaiian blood. Kauanui argues that this notion of pedigree is based upon the assumption of racial purity and the suggestion that as racial mixing and intermarriage continue, “Hawaiians,” as defined by blood quantum, will be bred out of existence, will “vanish.” She advocates a turn toward a genealogical definition that valorizes multiple interpersonal relations more reflective of the Hawaiian sense of group belonging. Such [End Page 167] an approach implies impurity and mixing that is not a “dilution” but a reterritorialization, reflecting the complex relations between ethnic groups in Hawai’i.

In his novel Waimea Summer, Native Hawaiian writer John Dominis Holt [1919-1993] vividly depicts the conflict between identities based, on the one hand, upon racializing notions such as eugenics and pedigree that imply purity, and on the other hand, upon genealogy that implies relations between people and a sense of the past that guides future action. For Holt, genealogy and history guide nationalist struggle, and so in order to chart a decolonized future, he must first address one of the legacies of colonialism, the way in which racial constructions have interfered with genealogy in structuring identity.  Holt’s novel depicts how this oppositional and racialized notion of pedigree is one of the causes of his protagonist’s traumatic acting out in the novel; it prevents him from wholly accepting the nationalistic claims that his genealogy makes upon him.

The novel tells the semiautobiographical story of a hapa haole (part-Hawaiian, part-white) youth, Mark Hull, who visits his paniolo uncle, Fred Andrews, in the ranching town of Waimea on the island of Hawaici. Amid the financial and social decline of his extended family, Mark attempts to understand what it means to be Hawaiian as he is introduced to various cultural practices of his rural relations in Waimea and Waipio Valley. During his stay, he attempts to keep his uncle’s family together and to save the life of his young cousin Puna.  At the novel’s end, the protagonist is familiarized with his genealogical ties to his ancestor, Kamehameha I, the first chief to unite the islands under a single ruler. The central problem with which Mark struggles is the oppositional way missionary discourse and eugenics structures hapa haole identity along the construction of race and racial mixing in contrast to the Hawaiian emphasis on genealogy, which implies a connection to ancestral history that guides future action…

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