“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2019-06-21 20:07Z by Steven

“Black Wimmin Who Pass, Pass into Damnation”: Race, Gender, and the Passing Tradition in Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life and Douglas Sirk’s Film Adaptation

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 49, Number 1, Winter 2019
pages 27-54
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2019.0001

Lauren Kuryloski, Assistant Professor of Teaching
State University of New York, Buffalo

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel Imitation of Life is ostensibly the story of Bea Pullman, an entrepreneurial, white, single mother who establishes a successful waffle-house restaurant chain with the help of her black maid and friend, Delilah. It is also a story of ‘passing,’ and Hurst’s only novel explicitly dealing with issues of race. The novel was later adapted into two films, with Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version the adaptation discussed here. While both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life were met with widespread commercial success, each treatment illustrates the narratological challenges of working with the passing trope, particularly when attempting to represent the relationship between black and white characters and acts of gender and race passing. Hurst’s and Sirk’s depictions of passing, and more specifically their employment of the ‘white passing’ narrative, reveals the irresolvable paradox of all such acts. To pass is to both subvert notions of fixed identity categories and cement them, a reality elucidated by the complicated representation of gender and race passing in novel and film.

Both literary and cinematic versions of Imitation of Life interrogate passing and its potential to destabilize existing social hierarchies. Although Sirk exercises significant artistic license in his adaptation, both versions of the story adhere to the same essential narrative arc. In each text the central white female protagonist, known as Bea in the novel and Lora in the film, accomplishes a gender pass, moving into the masculinized public sphere to secure financial stability for her family. Similarly, each version of the narrative features the light-skinned black daughter of the protagonist’s maid, known as Peola in the novel and Sarah Jane in the film, who performs the traditional racial pass in an attempt to enjoy the financial and social privileges associated with whiteness. Through the depiction of these double acts of passing, the narratives construct a commentary on the very real limitations that white and black female characters face in an unequal society. Moreover, the characters’ abilities to pass into different identities suggests the inherently performative nature of all identity categories, deconstructing essentialist notions of race and gender and revealing the subversive promise such performances hold. The passing trope’s allure resides in this ability to upend static conceptions of selfhood.

Yet despite the progressive potential to disrupt normative identity codes that passing appears to offer, Hurst’s and Sirk’s texts demonstrate the inherent internal conflict of all such narratives, as passing is often suggestive of subversion while in fact reifying the very same systems it purports to undermine. Although the passer may transgress established social boundaries and upset notions of fixed-identity categories, the move across identity lines simultaneously grants authority to binary constructions of identity. This paradox is at the heart of any act of passing and serves as the primary conflict in both novel and film. The characters in Imitation of Life may achieve varying degrees of financial or material success by passing, but their success is fleeting and mitigated by the system of narrative punishment that is doled out for their actions. While the texts toy with depicting race and gender identity as social constructions to be both challenged and performed at will, both the novel and film conclude that such performances are but imitations of real life, even when ‘real life’ is simply an adherence to essentialist race and gender roles. My work offers an analysis of this punishment and (occasional) reward system through a study of the way in which acts of racial passing are used in the service of moving the white female protagonist toward either her ultimate narrative chastisement (in the novel) or her redemption (in the film), demonstrating that passing relies on the maintenance of normative social hierarchies.

Both Hurst’s and Sirk’s versions of Imitation of Life have received significant critical attention, and the genre of passing has itself been the subject of sustained scholarly debate. However, while both the novel and film…

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From Paranoid to Reparative: Narratives of Cultural Identification in the Social Sciences

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science on 2012-10-22 05:45Z by Steven

From Paranoid to Reparative: Narratives of Cultural Identification in the Social Sciences

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2012
pages 193-211
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2012.0007

Ashley Barnwell, Ashworth Lecturer in Sociology
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

This article tries to draw out the complexity with which people collate their cultural identities. It takes genealogy research as a case study. Looking specifically at an episode of the popular television program Who Do You Think You Are? starring John Hurt, the paper asks whether the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ can fully capture the fluid, social, and often unconscious means by which people attempt to verify and position their life stories. It also uses the theory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to think about how we attribute an author’s motive.

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“Maneuvers of Silence and the Task of ‘New Negro’ Womanhood”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2012-10-22 05:33Z by Steven

“Maneuvers of Silence and the Task of ‘New Negro’ Womanhood”

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 1, Spring 2012
pages 46-68
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2012.0006

Emily M. Hinnov, Assistant Dean of Curriculum & Lecturer of English
Granite State College, Concord, New Hampshire

Yes, she has arrived. Like her white sister, she is the product of profound and vital changes in our economic mechanism, wrought mainly by the World War and its aftermath. Along the entire gamut of social, economic and political attitudes, the New Negro Woman, with her head erect and spirit undaunted is resolutely marching toward the liberation of her people in particular and the human race in general.

— Editorial, The Messenger’s “New Negro Woman” issue (1923)
But I have no civilized articulation for the things I hate. I proudly love being a Negro woman; [it’s] so involved and interesting. We are the PROBLEM—the great national game of TABOO.

— Anne Spencer, qtd. in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (1927)
Here is a woman who tried to be decisive in extremis. She “spoke,” but women did not, do not, “hear” her. Thus she can be defined as a “subaltern”—a person without lines of social mobility.

— Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Given the primitivist stereotypes projected upon African American women as oversexed, exotic creatures during the Harlem Renaissance era, contemporaneous poet Anne Spencer’s statement suggests that women writers’ doubly conscious performance of self must have been challenging (to say the least). With her comment about the state of “New Negro Womanhood” in mind, we might ask: to what extent were women writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance successful in critiquing representations of race or gender within the context of that male-dominated literary and cultural movement? Forthright literary depictions of race, gender, and mobility in now canonical Harlem Renaissance works by Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston allow expression of varied facets of the African American woman’s experience during the early part of the twentieth century. Hurston’s women (and Hurston herself) refuse to be “tragically colored” and instead embrace the power inherent in their female sexuality—even using it, in part, remain perpetually mobile. For Larsen, however, the triple bind of double-consciousness, female sexuality, and white supremacy eventually disallows any true mobility for her fictional characters. When Larsen was accused of plagiarism in 1930, there were no legal charges, but her career never recovered from this blow. It seemed that “in America, whites might borrow from blacks with impunity, but Negro use of white materials is always suspect” (Douglas 105). As Ann Douglas writes, “The New Negro was a figure with few claims on mainline America’s attention, interest, or sympathy. If he insulted or displeased, he could be cut off, erased, without thought or regret” (106). It is difficult to determine how much mutuality between black and white artists and audiences could have existed in light of Larsen’s fate. She was “cut off” from what has developed into the African American literary canon essentially because she was a black female artist working within the confines of a racist and sexist culture. Thankfully, Larsen’s rediscovery in the 1980s, and the subsequent inclusion of her work in high school, college, and graduate school classrooms, enabled Larsen’s legacy to resist such erasure. Larsen and Hurston’s work has triumphantly evaded the threat of removal from the literary canon thanks to the gynocritical efforts of many feminist scholars, while other writers of the era still languish on the critical precipice of silence.

In this essay, I am especially interested in the ways in which two still largely ignored Harlem Renaissance women writers, Elise Johnson McDougald, in her more straightforward essay “The Task of Negro Womanhood,” and Marita O. Bonner, in her multigenred, haltingly-titled “On Being Young—a Woman—and Colored,” use silence as a means to maneuver among the various identity positions that comprise the interstices of “New Negro Womanhood.” Placing them within the context of more widely known writers of their era such as Hurston and Larsen is edifying,…

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Narrative Miscegenation: “Absalom, Absalom!” as Naturalist Novel, Auto/Biography, and African-American Oral Story

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-19 15:53Z by Steven

Narrative Miscegenation: “Absalom, Absalom!” as Naturalist Novel, Auto/Biography, and African-American Oral Story

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 31, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 155-179
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2011.0080

Alex Vernon, Associate Professor of English
Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, especially as disseminated by Herbert Spencer, profoundly affected literary criticism at the end of the nineteenth century, with genres treated like biological species to the degree that at least one critic wrote about “a struggle for existence among genres” (Pizer 82). A century later, in “The Law of Genre,” Jacques Derrida repeatedly expresses this law—that “genres are not to be mixed” (51)—in naturalist terms. He remarks that genres have been treated in a system akin to “race, familial membership, [and] classificatory genealogy” whereby to mix genres is, by convention, to “risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity” (57, 53). It is to commit a kind of miscegenation. Yet his essay finally finds such intermixing inevitable, an inevitability he calls “the law of the law of genre” (55).

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! also employs naturalistic language in its various accountings of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. While the story turns on the historical Southern taboo of racial intermixing, Faulkner artfully incorporates generic miscegenation into the novel’s structure. The narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! can be viewed as a “cross-breed” of several literary forms, including (among others) the naturalist novel, biography, autobiography, and the oral tale largely associated…

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