Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-01-09 22:27Z by Steven

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Journal of Southern History
The Southern Historical Association
Volume 84, Number 3, August 2018
pages 787-789
DOI: 10.1353/soh.2018.0230

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. By Alisha Gaines. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 213. Paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3283-4; cloth, $80.00, 978-1-4696-3282-7.)

For many years, we have been told that passing is passĂ©. Yet the recent media frenzy surrounding Rachel Dolezal proves that U.S. culture is still vehemently invested in defining the boundaries of whiteness and blackness. When I flashed a PowerPoint slide of Dolezal last spring in my African American literature class, students broke into a cacophony of groans, shouts, and exclamations of “she’s not black!” I was surprised that all but one of my students instantly recognized Dolezal’s image and that virtually everyone had an opinion about her. The plethora of recent books on racial passing—both on African Americans who pass as white and Anglo Americans who pass as black—further demonstrates this topic’s great fascination. Despite postmodern views that race is a construct, scholars often want to pin a racial passer into one category, usually as either a seeker of freedom from racial codes or a betrayer of his or her “true” race. Yet few have considered what passing tells us about our own investments in racial binaries.

I therefore turned with pleasure to Alisha Gaines’s thoughtful book, Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy, which joins a slim list of studies of “‘passing, in reverse'”: the phenomenon of white people who pass for and sometimes claim to become black (p. 17). Other books on this subject include Baz Dreisinger’s Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (Amherst, Mass., 2008) and some chapters in Julie Cary Nerad’s edited collection, Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010 (Albany, N.Y., 2014). Gaines mentions only one of these works, although I trust that she has consulted both of them.

Gaines’s book is well written and compelling. Her argument that white people’s attempts at “cross-racial empathy” and identification often fail because of their refusal to consider the larger structural and institutional causes of racism is certainly sound (p. 8). Moreover, her use of archival sources is exemplary. I have written about white-to-black passing, yet I still learned much factual information about the passers she studies, including Ray Sprigle, a journalist who published In the Land of Jim Crow (1949); John Howard Griffin, whose book Black Like Me (1961) eclipsed the accounts of all other would-be white passers; Grace Halsell, a white woman and a journalist who took on Griffin’s mantle and published Soul Sister (1969); and finally, the families who switched races in the six-episode television series Black. White. (2006). The book concludes with a short examination of Rachel Dolezal, whom Gaines refuses to consider as “transracial” because the theorization of this term “falls apart” (p. 170). She explains that “blackness becomes the space of racial play, performance, and affect, whereas whiteness does not” (p. 170). This ignores that some light-skinned African Americans did play with whiteness (Jean Toomer, for example) and that some white people crossed over into blackness never to come back (Clarence King and Mezz Mezzrow, for instance). Gaines focuses on creating a genealogy of “temporary black individuals operating under the alibi of racial empathy” in order to illustrate the frequent failure of cross-racial empathy and intimacy (p. 8). Still, I found myself wondering what conclusions Gaines might have reached had she looked at less famous individuals who passed permanently into blackness.

As I have argued elsewhere, passing is a slippery term with roots in deceit and disguise, magic and transformation. The examples Gaines has chosen to include support her argument that temporary assumptions of blackness cannot lead to structural or institutional change. The book might have benefited from a deeper excavation of previous scholarship on white-to-black passing and empathy, but even so, Gaines offers a valuable assessment of how white people problematically inhabit the…

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Redrawing the Historical Past: History, Memory, and Multiethnic Graphic Novels

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2018-04-27 01:53Z by Steven

Redrawing the Historical Past: History, Memory, and Multiethnic Graphic Novels

University of Georgia Press
2018-04-01
368 pages
79 b&w images
Trim size: 6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-8203-5201-5
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8203-5200-8

Edited by:

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Professor of English and Asian American Studies
University of Connecticut

An innovative collection that explores how multiethnic graphic novels investigate and remake U.S. history

Redrawing the Historical Past examines how multiethnic graphic novels portray and revise U.S. history. This is the first collection to focus exclusively on the interplay of history and memory in multiethnic graphic novels. Such interplay enables a new understanding of the past. The twelve essays explore Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro, Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, GB Tran’s Vietnamerica, Scott McCloud’s The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, Art Spiegelman’s post-Maus work, and G. Neri and Randy DuBurke’s Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, among many others.

The collection represents an original body of criticism about recently published works that have received scant scholarly attention. The chapters confront issues of history and memory in contemporary multiethnic graphic novels, employing diverse methodologies and approaches while adhering to three main guidelines. First, using a global lens, contributors reconsider the concept of history and how it is manifest in their chosen texts. Second, contributors consider the ways in which graphic novels, as a distinct genre, can formally renovate or intervene in notions of the historical past. Third, contributors take seriously the possibilities and limitations of these historical revisions with regard to envisioning new, different, or even more positive versions of both the present and future. As a whole, the volume demonstrates that graphic novelists use the open and flexible space of the graphic narrative page—in which readers can move not only forward but also backward, upward, downward, and in several other directions—to present history as an open realm of struggle that is continually being revised.

Contributors: Frederick Luis Aldama, Julie Buckner Armstrong, Katharine Capshaw, Monica Chiu, Jennifer Glaser, Taylor Hagood, Caroline Kyungah Hong, Angela Lafien, Catherine H. Nguyen, Jeffrey Santa Ana, and Jorge Santos.

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Neo-Passing: Performing Identity after Jim Crow

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-03-14 16:57Z by Steven

Neo-Passing: Performing Identity after Jim Crow

University of Illinois Press
March 2018
296 pages
6 x 9 in.
11 black & white photographs
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-252-04158-7
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-08323-5
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-252-05024-4

Edited by:

Mollie Godfrey, Assistant Professor of English
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Vershawn Ashanti Young, Associate Professor of Drama and Speech Communication
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Crossing old boundaries to create new identities

African Americans once passed as whites to escape the pains of racism. Today’s neo-passing has pushed the old idea of passing in extraordinary new directions. A white author uses an Asian pen name; heterosexuals live “out” as gay; and, irony of ironies, whites try to pass as black.

Mollie Godfrey and Vershawn Ashanti Young present essays that explore practices, performances, and texts of neo-passing in our supposedly postracial moment. The authors move from the postracial imagery of Angry Black White Boy and the issues of sexual orientation and race in ZZ Packer’s short fiction to the politics of Dave Chappelle’s skits as a black President George W. Bush. Together, the works reveal that the questions raised by neo-passing—questions about performing and contesting identity in relation to social norms—remain as relevant today as in the past.

Gale Wald offers a foreword and Michele Elam an afterword.

Contributors: Derek Adams, Christopher M. Brown, Martha J. Cutter, Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Alisha Gaines, Jennifer Glaser, Allyson Hobbs, Brandon J. Manning, Loran Marsan, Lara Narcisi, Eden Osucha, and Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

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Black Like Malcolm: Rewriting of Black Like Me (1961) in Soul Sister (1969)

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-04-06 02:01Z by Steven

Black Like Malcolm: Rewriting of Black Like Me (1961) in Soul Sister (1969)

Criticism
Volume 58, Number 1, Winter 2016
pages 35-58

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Many students and scholars of American literature and history have heard of, if not read, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), the autobiographical account of a white reporter who takes medication to darken his skin and pass for black in the Jim Crow South in the late 1950s in order to investigate racial prejudice. When first published, Black Like Me was lauded as a powerful text about racial injustice and employed as a standard part of some high school curricula; the work also eventually was translated into fourteen languages, hit the best-seller list in England and France, and became a multimillion-copy best seller in the United States. Black Like Me has since fallen into critical disfavor and is rarely taught in high schools, yet some of my students still know the title and can recount the plot, and contemporary African American artists such as Glenn Ligon nevertheless make overt reference to it. Very few students and scholars are familiar with Grace Halsell’s underexamined and now out-of-print memoir Soul Sister (1969), a sort of sequel to Griffin’s more famous text, in which a white female reporter undergoes the same sort of transformation to pass for black. Yet Halsell’s text does more than parallel Griffin’s process of racial transformation—it also rewrites it. Griffin has been critiqued by (among others) literary critics such as Gayle Wald for portraying himself as the white protagonist of his own civil rights drama; according to Wald, Griffin’s book “largely fails to represent black people acting as social and political agents.” Through examination of the historical context in which both texts were written—the emergence of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements—this essay demonstrates that Halsell attempts to revise Black Like Me’s focus on a portrait of black powerlessness, pathos, and lack of voice; she also uses her narrative to articulate a plural construct of black subjectivity that cannot be contained by her own experience of blackness, by her own racial passing.

Of course, eight years separate the publication of these texts, watershed years in which black political movements became both more prominent and more radicalized, especially after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Halsell (writing in 1969) inserts a political context of social activism, civil rights, and ultimately black power. Yet both reporters mobilize political context (or a lack of political context) to further certain narrative goals that in the end result in divergent approaches to the concept of black political struggle, as well as the function and meaning of white racial passing. Griffin evacuates political context to focus on a portrait of black misery; in so doing, he forwards a static, monolithic conception of black identity as one of unchanging abjection. Halsell, on the other hand, fills her text with political debate and contradictory black political positions; she thus presents a multivalent representation of black political engagement while also probing racial formation itself. Each text therefore seeks to use the genre of the white-passing narrative to motivate readers toward social change, but this change is grounded in different subject positions articulated for the reader. Griffin’s narrative attempts to move his readers to action by portraying a picture of black victimization and misery, whereas Halsell’s endeavors to revolutionize her readers by depicting her own transition into black militancy. And while Griffin’s narrative invokes a mode of social activism present from the earliest days of the Abolition Movement—pity and supplication—Halsell portrays a mode of political activism in which the oppressed seize power and become agents of social change.

Most importantly, Halsell also portrays a white failure—ultimately—to speak for African Americans or even fully comprehend their struggle; at key junctures, her text instead turns back onto itself as an exploration of white racial privilege and power. Wald has noted that racial passing, in addition to signifying a manner of being seen “according to the technologies of vision…

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Skinship: Dialectical Passing Plots in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery on 2016-05-24 00:32Z by Steven

Skinship: Dialectical Passing Plots in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative

American Literary Realism
Volume 46, Number 2, Winter 2014
pages 116-136

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Racial definitions were in crisis within the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century, with the country moving closer and closer to a Civil War in which the legal basis for enslavement and other forms of discrimination might be abolished. Therefore, historians and legal scholars such as Daniel Sharfstein and Joel Williamson have argued that the time period of 1830-1860, rather than that of the early twentieth-century, should be regarded as the era of the rise of the “one-drop” rule; laws regarding racial purity were passed amid the emergence of the plantation economy in the 1830s to provide a reliable source of labor and prevent what Sharfstein has termed “racial migration.” As Sharfstein has argued, “The one-drop rule’s transformation from ideological current to legal bright line and presumed social reality is in essence a story of freedom. [During] the thirty years preceding the Civil War . . . [t]he prospect of freedom for people of African descent hastened the one-drop rule’s rise as whites attempted to preserve social hierarchies and property relations in the absence of slavery.” Legal and scientific discourse from these decades further attempted to stabilize ideas of racial purity, even in the face of evidence that racial migration was an on-going fact of the U.S’s very existence.

How did racial passing texts from this time period respond to this attempt to stabilize the meaning of blackness and whiteness? Some texts endorse the attempt to stabilize race by portraying passing characters whose migration from blackness to whiteness or vice versa is figured as an invalidation of a “true” or “authentic” racial identity. For example, in Mary Langdon’s abolitionist passing novel Ida May (1854), a white child is stained brown and sold into slavery; but no one ever actually believes that the eponymous [End Page 116] heroine is anything but white, so the passing plot in fact supports racial difference and the idea that there is a “true” white race that somehow can be separated physically from the black race.

Other racial passing texts from this time period are more multivalent, in that they invoke the idea that race is physical (a matter of “one drop” of blood), only to transgress this idea through the manipulation of racialized identities based in performance, legal structures, and circumstances. Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) at times invokes blood-based ideologies of race; Emily Garie’s hair, for example, is described as being “a little more wavy than is customary in persons of entire white blood” (emphasis added). Yet the novel often undercuts this rhetoric of racial blood through scenes in which race is shown to be more performative than biological. William Wells Brown’s Clotel (1853) similarly at times invokes what AdĂ©lĂ©ke AdéèkĂł has called “hemocentric imageries.” Brown implies at one point, for example, that “The infusion of Anglo-Saxon with African blood has created an insurrectionary feeling among the slaves of America hitherto unknown” (emphasis added). The text as a whole, however, shows race to be based in performance, legal discourse, and power relations, rather than in anything biological. For example, Clotel’s “black” daughter Althesa is said to be “as white as most white women in a southern clime.” The “somatic indecipherability” of the “white negro,” as Guilia Fabi phrases it, here emphasize that race is a sociohistorical construct, rather than a matter of blood or physical essence.

The passing plots of Hannah Crafts’ recently rediscovered novel The Bond-woman’s Narrative, written sometime after 1853, enter squarely within these complex questions by at times endorsing the idea that there is something physical to race (a drop of blood, a curl of hair, a tint in the eye) even as the narrative as a whole proffers a more flexible theorization of racial identity based not in racial blood, but in kinship, or rather what I call skinship. In the overt plot of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, as in The Garies and Their Friends and Clotel, blackness is…

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“As White as Most White Women”: Racial Passing in Advertisements for Runaway Slaves and the Origins of a Multivalent Term

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, History, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2016-03-23 18:29Z by Steven

“As White as Most White Women”: Racial Passing in Advertisements for Runaway Slaves and the Origins of a Multivalent Term

American Studies
Volume 54, Number 4, 2016
pages 73-97

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

In 1731 a man named Gideon Gibson, along with several of his relatives, emigrated from Virginia to South Carolina. At first it was reported with consternation that Gibson was a free black man married to a white wife. However, when the South Carolina House of Assembly took up an investigation of Gibson, then governor Robert Johnson concluded that the Gibson family were “not Negroes nor Slave but Free people.” The Gibsons were allowed to remain in the colony, and they prospered, eventually purchasing 450 acres of prime South Carolina land; Gibson owned black slaves, and his sister married a wealthy planter. Gideon Gibson’s son married a white woman and himself became the owner of at least seven slaves. It would be forty-five more years before the colonies declared independence from Britain, but it seems the Gibsons had already declared themselves free from the social, legal, or ideological codes that would construct them as black, Negro, or mulatto. Another investigation in 1768 revealed that Gideon Gibson, Jr., “escaped the penalties of the negro law by producing upon comparison more red and white in his face than could be discovered in the faces of half the descendants of … [the House of Assembly].” Gideon Gibson, Jr., was judged to have been passing for white; he was in actuality a very light-skinned black man with black ancestors. Yet he was also a slave owner and a prosperous member of South Carolinian society.

On May 15, 1845, an enslaved black woman named Fanny ran away from her Alabama owner. Since Fanny could read and write, her owner speculates in an advertisement posted in the Alabama Beacon (June 14, 1845) that she might forge a pass for herself. But Fanny’s master also comments that “she is as white as most white women, with straight light hair, and blue eyes, and can pass herself for a white woman.” Fanny can pass for white, but indeed one wonders what her owner means when he says that she is “as white as most white women.” Are many “white women” not quite “pure” white? And yet they are not subject to perpetual enslavement, as Fanny is. Fanny is also described as “very pious” and “very intelligent.” This valuable piece of “property,” it is implied, in other ways is no different from a white woman. She is religious, rational, and light-skinned. In what ways is she not, the advertisement seems to wonder, a “white woman”? The advertisement appears to grant Fanny humanity as more than property, even as it seeks to re-enslave her. Her owner seems to know that nothing but “a fiction of law and custom”—to borrow Mark Twain’s words in Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)—keeps her enslaved.

Although some scholars argue that racial passing began in earnest in the mid- to late nineteenth century, reached its pinnacle in the early twentieth century, and then abated or became “passé” by the 1930s, these two incidents and many others discussed in this essay indicate that, as both a word and a behavior, passing has a longer and more extensive early history and genealogy. Moreover, its meaning is unstable and changes based on historical context. When Gideon Gibson passed for white in 1731, he did so to migrate into a category of identity that empowered him in a period in which such racial migration was somewhat acceptable because ideologies of black racial inferiority had not yet solidified. That he owned slaves himself indicates that he did not see his passing as a challenge to the codes of law that allowed the perpetual possession of black human property; for Gibson slaveholding might have been a sign of his wealth, status, and power, rather than a racially inflected behavior. Fanny’s owner, on the other hand, manifests a more convoluted attitude toward passing and race, because by 1845 the ideology of African American physical and mental inferiority was entrenched and often used to rationalize the fact that blacks were the only group of individuals who could legally be held in perpetual enslavement in the United States. Matthew Frye Jacobson argues that in the United States, “whiteness” denoted “not only color but degree of freedom (as against…

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The Cry of Black Rage in African American Literature from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-12-22 04:26Z by Steven

The Cry of Black Rage in African American Literature from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright

Edwin Mellen Press
2013
176 pages
ISBN10: 0-7734-4077-1; ISBN13: 978-0-7734-4077-7

Steven Troy Moore, Assistant Professor of Language and Literature
Abilene Christian University, Abilene Texas

This book examines the contrasting experiences of black rage that is exhibited in the writings of male and female African American authors. It boldly captures the compelling theme of the white silence and the black rage that battled each other from the early days of slavery up to the pre-Civil Rights Movement. It exposes the birth of black rage and the African American experience through such writers as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs. Next, it gives a painful glimpse into the complicated experience of the biracial in the post-Reconstruction era through the eyes of Charles Chesnutt and Nella Larsen. Finally, this study concludes with an astounding view of the modern state of black rage through the controversial writings of Richard Wright and Ann Petry. Currently, many studies present a one-dimensional analysis of black rage; however, this book provides a comprehensive examination of this phenomenon. From the viewpoint of African American authors, it traces the gender differences of black rage that span one hundred years and includes valuable insights from such brilliant scholars as bell hooks, Cornel West, Barbara Christian, Martha J. Cutter, Deborah E. McDowell, and James Baldwin.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Maureen Honey
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • “Get Over It”
  • Chapter 1: Examining a Century of Silence and Rage in African American Literature, 1865-1946
    • Introduction
    • Literature Review
    • The Duality of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Ann Jacobs
    • The Biracial Worlds of Charles Chesnutt and Nella Larsen
    • Richard Wright’s Explosive Rage
  • Chapter 2: Silent Trees: Personal Reflections on Silence and Rage
    • The Silence
    • Silence and Rage
    • Mark
    • Blackness: Silence and Identity
    • Words from bell hooks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X
  • Chapter 3: Witnessing the Birth of Black Rage in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Ann Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
    • The Enduring Pain of Slavery
    • The Autobiographical Rage of Frederick Douglass
    • Impotent Rage
    • Black Female Rage in Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
    • The Slave Girl and the Sexual Predator
    • The Female Slave’s Alternative Retribution
    • Lasting Blow: The Lingering Influences of Slavery
  • Chapter 4: The Phenomenon of Biracial Rage in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929)
    • The Biracial Identity
    • The White Mask in The House Behind Cedars Chesnutt’s Biracial Female
    • Black Female Rage in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand A Place to Belong: Location and Helga’s Biracial Identity
    • The Biracial Female in Passing Differed Rage
  • Chapter 5: Exploring the Explosive Urban Rage in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946)
    • Brutal Clarity
    • “Like a Red-Hot Iron”: Bigger Thomas’s Burning Rage
    • The White Cat and the Black Rat
    • Native Son’s Perpetuating Rage
    • The Furious Hell of Ann Petry’s The Street
    • The White Heaven: Petry’s Contrasting Spaces
    • The White Ideal and the Black Other
    • Blackness and Claustrophobic Spaces
    • Explosive Black Female Rage
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review) [Cutter]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, United States on 2015-10-23 01:01Z by Steven

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review) [Cutter]

African American Review
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2015
pages 381-383

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

The historian Allyson Hobbs opens her book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life with an anecdote about a young child living on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1930s who is light enough to pass for white. Her parents (who are also light enough to pass) make the heart-wrenching decision to send her to live as a white person in Los Angeles, without them. She cries, pleads, and begs to stay with her parents, but they are adamant. Many years later when the father is dying the mother calls home the daughter, now a young woman who has married a white man and has had white children, but she refuses to return. This incident—sourced as “one of my family’s stories” (4)—seems an unusual way to begin a book titled A Chosen Exile, for the young girl’s exile is not chosen by any means. It is also a curiously ambiguous story. We may wonder (for example) why the parents do not go with the child, whether she has relatives in California to whom she is sent, and what age she is when this event occurs. This tantalizing story leaves a reader with more questions than it answers, and it belies the richness of Hobbs’s work in the book as a whole. Hobbs does not use this anecdote to elucidate some of the mysteries around passing or the difficulty of excavating the history of the racial passer, who disappears into whiteness. Instead, the story is deployed in support of the central argument of her book—that “racial passing is an exile” (4) and “the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from” (18). But how can we know that passing is “losing what you pass away from” based on this anecdote? In Hobbs’s book, the young girl is never heard from again. Perhaps she found freedom in her whiteness, or perhaps not. She might have had a permanent sense of exile, but this is never elucidated.

The use of this anecdote reflects a systemic flaw in Hobbs’s otherwise powerful and eloquent book. Her source material often opens up in provocative ways the can of worms that is racial passing, but then she sometimes forces those messy, squiggly worms back into a single “can”—the frame of family loss and exile. Hobbs makes the dubious claim that “historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white rather than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity” (11). To counter this tendency, she mines historical sources on passing “to discover a coherent and enduring narrative of loss” (24). At various points, she does acknowledge the shifting meaning of racial passing; for example, she states that “to pass as white varied and cannot be collapsed into a singular narrative” (15) and that “passing was by no means a static practice” (25). By the end of the book, her argument evolves into a more nuanced one: “Loss was a prerequisite of passing. But the losses that passing demanded were not all the same for those who passed. … For some, [passing] was undoubtedly a bitter bargain. But for others, the connection with oneself and one’s past had been lost long ago” (230). Hobbs here articulates some of the plural possibilities of passing—the way it can come to mean both conscription to a certain racial ideology and liberation from this very same ideology at one and the same time.

Hobbs’s book might have put forward from its start, then, a slightly more nuanced overarching framework. But in many ways this book is a very valuable resource for scholars interested in the history of passing, as well as students who may need a broad overview of the phenomenon. It examines the more-than-250-year history of passing in the United States, reaching back to the time of the American Revolution and forward to our current so-called “mulatto millennium,” or “Generation E.A.”—“ethnically ambiguous” (276). Most unique about the book is the wealth of source materials (much of which is…

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Passing in the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2010-02-19 21:32Z by Steven

Passing in the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt

University Press of Mississippi
March 2010
160 pages (approx.)
6 x 9 inches, introduction, index
Printed casebinding: 978-1-60473-416-4
Ebook: 978-1-60473-418-8

Edited by

Susan Prothro Wright, Associate Professor of American and British Literature
Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia

and

Ernestine Pickens Glass, Professor Emerita of English
Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia

An exploration of a great American writer’s abiding concern with the color line

Essays by Margaret D. Bauer, Keith Byerman, Martha J. Cutter, SallyAnn H. Ferguson, Donald B. Gibson, Scott Thomas Gibson, Aaron Ritzenberg,Werner Sollors, and Susan Prothro Wright.

Passing in the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt is a collection that reevaluates Chesnutt‘s deft manipulation of the “passing” theme to expand understanding of the author’s fiction and nonfiction. Nine contributors apply a variety of theories–including intertextual, signifying/discourse analysis, narratological, formal, psychoanalytical, new historical, reader response, and performative frameworks–to add richness to readings of Chesnutt’s works. Together the essays provide convincing evidence that “passing” is an intricate, essential part of Chesnutt’s writing, and that it appears in all the genres he wielded: journal entries, speeches, essays, and short and long fiction.

The essays engage with each other to display the continuum in Chesnutt’s thinking as he began his writing career and established his sense of social activism, as evidenced in his early journal entries. Collectively, the essays follow Chesnutt’s works as he proceeded through the Jim Crow era, honing his ability to manipulate his mostly white audience through the astute, though apparently self-effacing, narrator, Uncle Julius, of his popular conjure tales. Chesnutt’s ability to subvert audience expectations is equally noticeable in the subtle irony of his short stories. Several of the collection’s essays address Chesnutt’s novels, including Paul Marchand, F.M.C., Mandy Oxendine, The House Behind the Cedars, and Evelyn’s Husband. The volume opens up new paths of inquiry into a major African American writer’s oeuvre.

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