The Time of the Multiracial

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-09-03 17:25Z by Steven

The Time of the Multiracial

American Literary History
Volume 27, Number 3, Fall 2015
pages 549-556
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajv026

Habiba Ibrahim, Associate Professor of English
University of Washington, Seattle

Habiba Ibrahim is the author of  Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (2012). Her current book project, Oceanic Lifespans, examines how age and racial blackness have been mutually constituted.

These three recent studies all read how mixed racialism expresses and challenges the terms of US nationalism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Collectively, they account for a period when the nation developed as a global force through a series of racializing projects, implemented through intra- and international war, imperialist expansion and conquest, and the consolidation of the color line at home. Tropes such as miscegenation, tragic mulatta, and genres of mixedness such as the “racial romance” (Sheffer 3) reveal a key aspect of the cultural imagination during the turbulent era that led up to and inaugurated the “American Century.” Figures of deviant intimacy—interracial sex, incest, same-sex filiation—and figures of gender, such as the mulatto/a, and the tragic muse revealed the cultural outcomes of the unfinished project of nation building. All of these studies take racial mixedness and its correlating categories as key analytical starting points for unmasking the neutrality or invisibility of state power. Thus, they bring to mind the urgency of the current moment: what analytics can interrupt the post-ness—postracialism, postfeminism, and postidentitarianism—of the present?

1. Neoliberalism, Postidentity

Twenty years ago, mixed racialism first appealed to literary scholars because it offered a critical space in which to explore the era’s political contradictions and transitions. During the heyday of the so-called multiracial movement, key developments in the cultural politics of identity were well under way. The culture wars were still raging with neoconservative moralists and left-of-center liberals vying for influence over social and political life. At the same time, neoconservatives  and neoliberals converged around the erosion of identitarian categories as social tools for making political and historical critiques. By the neoliberal era of the 1980s and 1990s identity was increasingly viewed as the stuff of separatist and single-issue groupthink, rather than as an instrument through which to analyze the operations and historicity of power. Perhaps this explains the remarkably accelerating cultural and scholarly interest in multiracial identity by the mid-1990s. After all, what did the appearance of the multiracial indicate? Under the umbrella term “multiracialism,” subjects with competing social, political, and cultural views formulated clashing accounts of how to situate race in US discourse. As a diagnostic tool, multiracialism bore the potential to cut through the present.

2. Gender, Sexuality, Family

Twenty years later, interdisciplinary scholarship in philosophy, performance studies, literary, and cultural studies increasingly take multiracialism as a starting point for thinking historically about social identities and cultural production. Current literary scholarship retrieves unfamiliar, forgotten history in order to diagnose the present, or to reconsider our present-day relationship to the historical. Some scholars have started with how multiracialism is treated within current US discourse—as the balm of postracial transcendence on the one side, as another separatist identity on the other—to ask how we’ve arrived at these particular interpretations. This line of inquiry denaturalizes present-day meanings attached to the multiracial and clearly departs from work that vehemently argues one position or the other.

What stands out about more recent studies—Kimberly Snyder Manganelli’s Transatlantic Spectacles of Race (2012), Jolie A. Sheffer’s The Romance of Race (2013), and Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s Imperfect Unions (2012)—is the way they represent a decisive turn toward staunchly comparativist, even transnational approach to multiracial literary studies. Comparativism indicates that the field is broadening its spatial and analytical scope to pursue fuller explorations of the historical and historiographical. Such a broadened scope repositions interest in the cultural politics of gender, sexuality, and family as deep engagements with the modern.

Like Suzanne Bost’s Mulattas and Mestizas (2003), Teresa Zackodnik’s The Mulatta and the Politics of Race (2004), and Eve Allegra Raimon’s The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited (2004), Transatlantic Spectacles of Race, investigates early intersections between racial amalgamation and womanhood by exploring how the figurative feminization of racial mixedness has been instrumentalized to vie for various nationalist and counter-nationalist outcomes over the long nineteenth century. Manganelli’s unique contribution is to read the mixed-race “tragic mulatta” of the Americas alongside its heretofore-unacknowledged counterpart, the Jewish “tragic muse” of Victorian British literature, thereby positioning both blackness and Jewishness along the same…

Read or purchase the review of the three books here.

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Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse by Kimberly Snyder Manganelli (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2015-05-10 01:37Z by Steven

Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse by Kimberly Snyder Manganelli (review)

Callaloo
Volume 38, Number 2, Spring 2015
pages 405-408

Justin Rogers-Cooper, Associate Professor of English
LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York, Long Island City, New York

Manganellia, Kimberly S., Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012)

In her accessible and original book, Kimberly Synder Manganelli examines the circulation of two key figures in nineteenth-century culture and literature, the Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse, by following their evolution over the course of the nineteenth century. The book’s novelty arises from its insistence that these “two crucial literary types” should be compared across national boundaries, and should be understood as complimentary cultural archetypes (6). On both counts she succeeds, though her discussions about the life-choices possible for these figures reveal much of the text’s power. Victorianists will mark Manganelli’s transnational methodology, and literary scholars may enjoy her parallel analysis of African American and Jewish characters. Feminist and women’s studies scholars will note her attention to the sexual politics of erotic commodification linked to the commercial circulation of these genre types. The general reader will follow how “mixed-race” female protagonists won social mobility and confronted male exploitation as they maneuvered the auction block, the public stage, and the home.

Manganelli’s introduction provides a general context for her themes. She notes the transnational cult of true womanhood in the nineteenth century, and how the figures of the Tragic Muse and Tragic Mulatta intersected and diverged from it. Relying on scholars such as Shawn Michelle Smith, Manganelli asserts that these two types upset codes of ideal womanhood, an idea structured around white women, by creating a “crisis of visibility in the public sphere” (9). Many narratives revolved around the vulnerability of mixed-race women to male predation. For the enslaved Tragic Mulatta, this danger was particularly acute, and often reduced her choices to sexual submission or death. The Tragic Muse, on the other hand, functioned somewhat differently. Her artistic prowess and magnetic sexuality often allowed her other options. Transatlantic Spectacles of Race emphasizes how both types of heroines attempted “to resist the conventional narratives” (16).

In her first chapter, Manganelli looks to British, French, and American travel narratives from Jamaica and Saint-Domingue to examine how “contradictory images of white and mixed-race Creoles . . . created the Transnational Mulatta, an imperial figure who preceded the imperiled Tragic Mulatta in the eighteenth-century transatlantic imaginary” (18). The mixed-race West Indian woman inspired fears that cycled throughout the nineteenth century: she might “threaten the purity of English blood,” in this case through intermarriages by families seeking her wealth and property (26). In turn, Manganelli turns to texts such as Laurette Ravinet’s Mémoires d’une Créole du Port-au-Prince (1844) to elaborate on the ways colonial societies tried to differentiate mixed-race and white women. She argues the Transnational Mulatta morphed from mistress to heiress in novels such as the anonymously published The Woman of Color (1808) and Leonara Samsay’s Zelica, the Creole (1820), a development that would see wider reproduction decades later in novels such as Jane Eyre (1847). She argues that the Saint-Domingue Revolution altered the depiction of mixed-race West Indian women for British and American authors, from a voiceless body of anxiety and fantasy into a domestic dependent.

The second chapter extends Manganelli’s inquiry into the formation of the Tragic Mulatta by looking at the practice of plaçage in antebellum New Orleans, where free women of color could arrange financial and sexual relationships with wealthy men. Manganelli maps their transformation from “self-marketing and self-commodification to the stereotypical Tragic Mulatta, who had no sexual agency and possessed no ownership of her body” (38). As in West Indian travel narratives, some in New Orleans showed concern over segregating free women of color from white women, and therefore were upset by integrated dancehalls and by the public display of wealth by beautiful placĂ©es. In the abolitionist era, though, she tells that writers romanticized placĂ©es more frequently as “victims of interracial marriage laws” (42). Although the relative autonomy of the placĂ©es gave them “a purchase on whiteness and a certain degree of protection and economic freedom,” they remained exposed to the “racial peril” of enslavement: auctions for fair-skinned “fancy girls” brought high prices (55). Rendered both “virtuous and wanton,” the placĂ©es inspired Joseph Ingraham’s sensation novel The Quadroone, or, St. Michael’s Day

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