Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in “Quicksand” and “Passing”

Posted in Articles, Gay & Lesbian, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2016-02-26 21:10Z by Steven

Nella Larsen Reconsidered: The Trouble with Desire in Quicksand and Passing

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 41, Number 1, Negotiating Trauma and Affect (Spring 2016)
Published 2016-01-25
pages 165-192
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv083

Rafael Walker, Assistant Professor of English
Baruch College, City University of New York

Winner of MLA’s 2016 Crompton-Noll Award for Best Essay in LGBTQ Studies.

This paper challenges the pervasive tendency to treat Larsen’s work as explorations of black women’s lives and examines the distinctly biracial perspective that her fiction attempts to elaborate. I argue that her novels employ narratives of frustrated desire in order to show the impossibility of the racially liminal subject in a society that thinks in black and white. In developing this argument, the essay explains the aesthetic and theoretical implications that ensue from taking this biracial perspective seriously. For instance, it shows how each novel mobilizes a distinct ontology of biracial identity—biraciality as synthesis in one case (Quicksand [1928]) and biraciality as oscillation in the other (Passing [1929]). In its discussion of the aesthetics of Larsen’s fiction, the essay demonstrates how this shift in racial perspective enables us to reassess her endings, which vexed critics in her day and continue to vex readers in ours (including the scholar arguably most responsible for Larsen’s current prominence, Deborah E. McDowell). Aware that aversion to the essentialist “tragic mulatta” trope has been one of the primary impediments to concentrating on biraciality in Larsen’s work, I offer ways of understanding Larsen’s focus on biraciality as more—rather than less—subversive of American racial ideology than previous studies suggest.

The fictions of Nella Larsen have long been understood as daring explorations of black women’s sexuality and subjectivity. Deborah E. McDowell is one of the earliest and most influential exponents of this idea, suggesting that Larsen portrays “black female sexuality in a literary era that often sensationalized it and pandered to the stereotype of the primitive exotic” (xvi). According to Hazel V. Carby, Helga Crane in Quicksand (1928) is “the first explicitly sexual black heroine in black women’s fiction” (“It” 471). Similarly, Cheryl A. Wall claims: “Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood” (89). The association between Larsen’s work and black women’s subjectivity was so entrenched by the time that Judith Butler wrote on Passing (1929) that she hesitates before applying psychoanalysis to the novel: “There are clearly risks in trying to think in psychoanalytic terms about Larsen’s story, which, after all, published in 1929, belongs to the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, and ought properly to be read in the context of that cultural and social world” (173). (It becomes clear from Butler’s subsequent remarks that the “context” she has in mind is primarily racial, particularly in her claim that “both stories revolve on the impossibility of sexual freedom for black women” [178].) More recent studies have maintained this view of Larsen’s fiction, bearing such titles as “Queering Helga Crane: Black Nativism in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2011) and “The New Negro Flâneuse in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand” (2008).1

I mention but a few of the many examples of the critical tendency to take for granted that Larsen was chiefly concerned with black women, but they suffice to reveal what strikes me as an “elephant in the room” in Larsen studies: that all of her heroines are racially ambiguous, if not explicitly biracial. In numerous ways, Larsen takes pains to show that something about her major women characters significantly sets them apart from the less ambiguously black women around them, whether it be that they can pass for white or that they have a white parent.2 If Larsen had intended to explore the experiences, psychology, or sexuality of black women specifically, it seems odd that she should have chosen to do so, in both novels she wrote, through such ambiguously raced women. Why did she not concentrate instead on a woman like Felise Freeland, a spirited…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , ,

Ghosts of Camptown

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2014-07-13 06:41Z by Steven

Ghosts of Camptown

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Volume 39, Issue 3 (Fall 2014)
pages 49-67
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu025

Grace Kyungwon Hong, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies
University of California, Los Angeles

This essay engages the deployment of form in Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996), focusing in particular on its strategy of embedding fantastical stories within its narrative structure and on the ways in which the mystical or magical tone of these stories pervades the narrative, establishing a frame seemingly incongruous with the memoir’s setting within a military camptown in South Korea. If a classically realist tone and linear narrative arc are the formal expressions of nationalist culture, the autobiographical novel’s departure from these formal strategies, I argue, is necessary to convey the complex juridical status of the camptown. Through a curious excess of state sovereignty, because they are simultaneously under both US and South Korean sovereignty, the camptown and its residents are subject to abandonment by both nation-states, producing a heightened vulnerability to death. Accordingly, such complex relationships to sovereignty demand a narrative form organized around a complex and divided subject unlike the possessive individual at the center of traditional autobiographies, a divided subject formed around an ethics in which no one is blameless and everyone is complicit.

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. [Cannon]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2014-07-11 06:58Z by Steven

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. [Cannon]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Volume 39, Issue 3 (Fall 2014)
pages 207-209
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu028

Sarita Cannon, Associate Professor of English Language and Literature
San Francisco State University

Transcending Blackness: From the New Millennium Mulatta to the Exceptional Multiracial. Ralina L. Joseph. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 248 pages. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

Ralina L. Joseph’s timely book about representations of multiracial black women in popular culture makes a significant contribution to the growing field of critical mixed-race studies. Drawing on research in various fields, Joseph closely reads four texts produced between 1998 and 2008: Showtime’s television series The L Word (2004-09), Danzy Senna’s coming-of-age novel Caucasia (1998), Alison Swan’s independent film Mixing Nia (1998), and the reality competition show America’s Next Top Model (2003-present). Joseph examines representations of black mixed-race subjectivity in these texts through two tropes: the new millennium mulatta and the exceptional multiracial. These two very different archetypes of multiracial identity are nonetheless linked by a common desire to transcend blackness, a proposition that Joseph argues is deeply troubling in twenty-first-century America, where, although many proclaim that affirmative action is no longer necessary, structural inequalities between blacks and whites remain entrenched.

One of Joseph’s central claims in Transcending Blackness is that popular representations of black mixed-race women fall into one of two categories. The new millennium mulatta is, in many ways, a revision of the tragic mulatta figure, made popular in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Imitation of Life (1959). According to Joseph, the new…

Read or purchase the review here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. [Orihuela]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-06-09 02:25Z by Steven

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. [Orihuela]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic LIterature of the United States
Published Online: 2014-06-05
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlu027

Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, Assistant Professor of English
University of Maryland

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013. 224 pages. $65.00 cloth; $24.50 paper; $65.00 electronic.

Colleen C. O’Brien’s Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century examines American rebel-romances written in the era of reform (1835-70) that engage with concepts as broad and contentious as race, gender, and rights in nineteenth-century America. In part, this project is indebted to the close relationship O’Brien sees between romanticism, with its ideals of freedom and emancipation, and rebellion, the necessary political outcome of a quest for freedom. Such rebellion is transfigured into the romances O’Brien studies, since a number of novels she examines center on transcendent affective relationships with liberatory outcomes. New world romances, she suggests, envision the expansion of rights and freedom to a range of different populations and respond to the changing geopolitical climate ushered in by colonial expansion. O’Brien thus directs her attention to cross-racial romances as existing in dialogic relation to the “myths of revolutionary origin in the United States and Haiti and the definitions of freedom each created” (xi).

For O’Brien, these myths of revolutionary origin or rebellion allude to the revolutionary fights for freedom in the American and Haitian contexts, as well as to the rejection of patriarchal authority. However, as demonstrated in her first chapter, American rebellion is also used to justify the white supremacist backlash that resulted from increasing demands for rights across the Americas. Rebellion thus addresses possibility as much as anxiety about national expansion and possible incorporation. O’Brien examines amalgamation—taken to mean both literary and geographical expansion—as well as the literary representations of cross-racial love and “the amalgamation of abolition and suffrage interests through the expansion of citizenship rights.”…

Tags: , , , ,

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930 [Joseph Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-01-28 07:42Z by Steven

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930 [Joseph Review]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Published online: 2014-01-26
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt079

Ralina L. Joseph, Associate Professor of Communication
University of Washington

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930. Jolie A. Sheffer. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2013. 248 pages. $72.00 cloth; $24.95 paper; $24.95 electronic.

Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century multiracial characters in US popular culture almost always have been dismissed by critics as tragic. They are the torn victims of race crossing whose inevitably dismal fates result from their race-infringing parents and are exacerbated by their own romantic adventures across racial lines. Mixed-race characters bear epithets such as the tragic mulatto, the half-caste, and the half-breed; their downfall is unchangeable presumably because of the incompatible white and minority bloods that flow within their veins. Stories about multiracial characters function in US culture as barometers of race relations. Tragic mixed-race tales illuminate the white nation’s pathological fear of the deepest and most permanent form of integration: miscegenation.

Jolie A. Sheffer warns that this is not the full story. In The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930, Sheffer imagines mixed-race subjects in turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature and their women of color (often mixed-race) authors as not just the embodiment of tragedy but the active agents of resistance and change. Sheffer writes that while stories of miscegenation and incest, which she terms racial romances, serve the function of “reveal[ing] a history of exploitation of racialized…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Detecting Winnifred Eaton

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2014-01-19 04:33Z by Steven

Detecting Winnifred Eaton

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Published online: 2014-01-16
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt078

Jinny Huh, Assistant Professor of English
University of Vermont

In her recent introduction to Winnifred Eaton’s Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model (1916), Karen E. H. Skinazi explores the relationship between racial ambiguity—that of both the anonymous author and the heroines in Marion and its predecessor, Me: A Book of Remembrance (1915)—and the audience’s ability to detect racial coding. “Me’s success,” Skinazi states, “has been predicated on a mystery that allowed each reader the chance to become a literary Sherlock Holmes, cracking the codes of its vault of shocking secrets” (xvii). Later, Skinazi writes that a New York Times reviewer, playing detective, solves Eaton’s racial passing utilizing the science of detection à la Edgar Allan Poe (xxi-xxii). Skinazi’s allusions to the art of detection, although brief, are astute, leading to this essay’s rereading of Eaton’s legacy through the lens of detection and the anxieties produced by its failures, especially the threat of racial passing. It is no coincidence that Eaton published her fiction at a time when both classic detective fiction and African American passing tales were at the peak of their popularity.

Few critics have examined Eaton’s role in the detective genre. This essay responds to this oversight by arguing that Eaton’s reliance on a trope of racial and ethnic passing, both in her choice of pseudonym and in her Japanese romances, cannot be fully appreciated without situating her within the context of the panic about detecting passing that swept America during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The unique lens of detective fiction allows us further to conceptualize Eaton’s role as a founding figure of Asian American fiction. This essay also highlights Eaton’s familiarity with rules of genre, particularly detective fiction and African American passing narratives, and her participation in the construction of racial epistemologies that were then being codified by…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , ,

Chesnutt’s Genuine Blacks and Future Americans

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-12-19 09:06Z by Steven

Chesnutt’s Genuine Blacks and Future Americans

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 15, Number 3, Discovery: Research and Interpretation (Autumn, 1988)
pages 109-119

SallyAnn H. Ferguson, Professor of English
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Scholarship on novelist and short story writer Charles W. Chesnutt stagnates in recent years because his critics have failed to address substantively the controversial issues raised by his essays. Indeed, many scholars either minimize or ignore the fact that these writings complement his fiction and, more importantly, that they often reveal unflattering aspects of Chesnutt the social reformer and artist. In a much-quoted journal entry of 16 March 1880, Chesnutt himself explicitly links his literary art with social reform, saying he would write for a “high, holy purpose,” “not so much [for] the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites/’ Using the most sophisticated artistic skills at his command, he ultimately hopes to expose the latter to a variety of positive and non-stereotypic images of the “colored people” and thereby mitigate white racism. As he remarks in a 29 May 1880 entry, “it is the province of literature to open the way for him [the colored person] to get it [equality]—to accustom the public mind to the idea; and while amusing them [whites], to lead people out, imperceptibly, unconsciously, step by step, to the desired state of feeling.” Throughout his entire literary career, Chesnutt never strays far from these basic reasons for writing, in fiction and nonfiction alike.

It is in his essays, however, that Chesnutt most clearly reveals the limited nature of his social and literary goals. Armed with such familiar journal passages as those cited above, scholars have incorrectly presumed that this writer seeks to use literature primarily as a means for alleviating white color prejudice against all black people in this country. But, while the critics romantically hail him as a black artist championing the cause of his people, Chesnutt, as his essays show, is essentially a social and literary accommodationist who pointedly and repeatedly confines his reformist impulses to the “colored people”—a term that he almost always applies either to color-line blacks or those of mixed races. This self-imposed limitation probably stems from the fact that he wrote during a time of intense color hatred in America,…

Tags: , , , , , ,

Witnessing Charles Chesnutt: The Contexts of “The Dumb Witness”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-12-18 14:43Z by Steven

Witnessing Charles Chesnutt: The Contexts of “The Dumb Witness”

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 38, Issue 4 (December 2013)
pages 103-121
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt045

Benjamin S. Lawson
Florida State University

The silence and silencing of the character Viney in Charles Chesnutt’s short story, “The Dumb Witness” (c. 1897), artfully addresses the issue of exploitation related to race, gender, and slavery. Viney has no voice, no speaking, and no say-so; however, she employs this voicelessness for her own subversive ends. The story’s technique of embedded narratives problematizes issues of identity and consequent uses of power. Who is exploiting whom? Chesnutt’s narrator is a sympathetic white outsider who gains knowledge of the rural South by quizzing a slave, Uncle Julius. Yet Uncle Julius solidifies his own status by being a story-telling virtuoso who knows and narrates the tale of the mixed-race Viney and her cruel master. The suggestiveness of this theme expands beyond the story’s borders, for scholars have posited that Chesnutt himself was a black voice censored and exploited by his white publisher. Or was Chesnutt actually using his publisher to promote his own reputation? Decades later, African American studies appropriated Chesnutt as a primarily black rather than Southern writer. Mainstream and African American academic institutions and publishers promote him variously to express their own perspectives. We as readers continue to dictate the parameters of his realities—to manipulate his voice—as we use him for our own academic and political purposes. We forget that Chesnutt himself was immensely complex and conflicted as an Ohio-born and mostly-white man. Just as we witness Charles Chesnutt, he witnesses us: he interrogates our motives.

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , ,

Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-12-18 14:20Z by Steven

Creating Multiracial Identities in the Work of Rebecca Walker and Kip Fulbeck: A Collective Critique of American Liberal Multiculturalism

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 38, Issue 4 (December 2013)
pages 171-190
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt053

Gino Michael Pellegrini, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English
Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California

Americans of multiracial descent recently have become noticeable, respectable, marketable, and, in the case of Barack Obama, presidential. In the last two decades, a growing body of creative and critical work about multiracial lives and issues has materialized. This social and historical development has become an ideological battleground for advocates, politicians, scholars, journalists, and marketers who have appropriated and interpreted its products and personalities in relation to their own beliefs, objectives, and commitments. According to many popular and political accounts, the growing number of interracial marriages and self-identified multiracials indicates that American society quickly is becoming post-racial. Scholars of this development, however, have been mostly skeptical of accounts that claim or assume that race-mixing leads to post-racial societies. Among scholars, there is ongoing debate over the precise impact that the emergent self-identified multiracial population is having on race, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy. Many scholars agree with G. Reginald Daniel, who claims that self-identified multiracials challenge race and racial hierarchy. However, Rainier Spencer and others argue the opposite: self-identified multiracials maintain racial hierarchy and reproduce race insofar as they rely on established racial categories to articulate their experiences and identities. Hence, this debate is at an impasse.

One way to negotiate this impasse is to shift the focus of the debate from the impact that self-identified multiracials have had on race and racial hierarchy to the conditions that have made mixed-race individuals possible in ethno-racial combinations besides black and white. Of course, scholars who analyze this development through a black/white framework will likely object to this move on the grounds that all other ethno-racial categories must fall between black and white in the racial hierarchy, thus orienting multiracial identities, old and new, toward whiteness and away from blackness. Their objection, however, presumes stable racial categories, groups, and ways…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Caballeros and Indians: Mexican American Whiteness, Hegemonic Mestizaje, and Ambivalent Indigeneity in Proto-Chicana/o Autobiographical Discourse, 1858–2008

Posted in Articles, Latino Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-11-11 23:29Z by Steven

Caballeros and Indians: Mexican American Whiteness, Hegemonic Mestizaje, and Ambivalent Indigeneity in Proto-Chicana/o Autobiographical Discourse, 1858–2008

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 38, Issue 1 (March 2013)
pages 30-49
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mls010

B. V. Olguín, Associate Professor of English
University of Texas, San Antonio

In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal gringo invasion of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare that the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, and our inevitable destiny.
Alurista

I got up close with one of the enemy and after having pulled out lots of arrows he shot into me, I was able to fire a shot into his back, straight through from one side to the other. The Indian fell face down. Upon seeing this, Comelso Hernandez, who was close to me, ran towards the Indian saying “Now I’ll take away your fire!,” but since he was close, the Indian arose suddenly, fired an arrow shot hitting him below the Adam’s Apple, and going all the way through, the arrow stuck—the Indian, who perhaps had used his last bit of energy in this attack, fell dead, on his back—Hernandez, so terribly wounded as he was, dragged himself towards the corpse, took out a battle knife he carried and tried to stick it through his ribs, but it broke—Regardless, with the piece that remained he was able to make a big wound, and at the same time he was cutting towards the heart with his piece of knife, he said, as if the cadaver could hear: “I forgive you brother; I forgive you brother.”
—Juan Bernal (16-17)

The evening a diminutive twenty-two-year-old dark brown man with black hair and goatee read “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán” at the National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference in Denver on March 30, 1969 (excerpted as  the first epigraph), Chicana/o indigeneity was transformed into a central trope in Chicana/o literature, historiography, and related social movements. The reader, Alberto Baltazar Urista Heredia—who took the penname Alurista—would become renowned for his Nahuatl glosses, white cotton frock, and calf-length pants characteristic of indigenous dress in southern Mexico. Such neo-indigenous performances became commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s cultural nationalist spectacles that punctuated the political mobilizations collectively known as the Chicano Movement. One half-century after Alurista’s performance and the subsequent reification of Chicana/o indigeneity in a multiplicity…

Read or purchase the article here.

Tags: , , , , , ,