Images of Latin American mestizaje and the politics of comparison

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2010-01-20 22:03Z by Steven

Images of Latin American mestizaje and the politics of comparison

Bulletin of Latin American Research
Volume 23, Number 3 (2004)
pp. 355–366
DOI: 10.1111/j.0261-3050.2004.00113.x

Peter Wade, Professor of Social Anthropology
University of Manchester

In a presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, Gary Nash (1995) reveals ‘the hidden history of mestizo America’ (by which he in fact means North America). The emergence of what might have been ‘a mixed-race American republic’ was blocked by ‘prejudice and violence’ (1995: 945), but in particular situations, racial and cultural mixture existed, was recognised and even valued. Nash bemoans ‘today’s multicultural wars’ in which multiculturalism is often construed simply as ‘multiracialism’ leading towards ‘a definitional absolutism that has unwittingly defeated egalitarian and humanitarian goals by smothering inequalities of class and fuelling interethnic and interracial tensions that give more powerful groups opportunities to manipulate these divisions’ (1995: 961). He concludes that what is needed is a ‘pan-ethnic, pan-racial, antiracist sensibility’; he thinks that ‘only through hybridity—not only in physical race crossing but in our minds as a shared pride in and identity with hybridity—can our nation break the ‘‘stranglehold that racialist hermeneutics has over cultural identity’’’ (1995: 962, citing Klor de Alva).

Nash uses Latin America as an explicit counterpoint in his argument, stating that in Spanish America there were ‘no prohibitions against interracial contact and interracial marriage’ (1995: 951)—which is in fact quite wrong (Martinez-Alier, 1974; Morner, 1967). Still, he cautions it would be ‘foolish to overromanticize this mixing of blood’ (1995: 952) and recognises the existence of racism in the casta paintings of eighteenth century Mexico that depicted mixed-race types. Yet he also sees mestizaje (he uses the Spanish word for racial and cultural mixture) as the enemy of ‘racial absolutism’ (1995: 961) and states that ‘racial blending is undermining the master idea that race is an irreducible marker among diverse peoples’ (1995: 960).

Others have also recently invoked Latin American mestizaje (or mesticagem in Portuguese) as an antidote to US-style logics of racial categorisation. Some of this comes from the literature (much of it US-based) on mixed-race people, which shares with Nash a desire to reassess and relocate mixture in US society (Root, 1992, 1996; Spickard, 1989, 2001; Zack, 1995). Fernandez, for example, while acknowledging that racism exists in some form in Mexico and Brazil, nevertheless contends that ‘customary forms of discrimination based on actual ancestry have been rendered impotent’ by centuries of mixture (Fernandez, 1992: 132). As a result, Mexicans in the USA may be able to disrupt and even ‘neutralize’ the US racial system by affirming their own mixed racial identities. Indeed, ‘mestizaje. . .as a social norm. . .can free us all from the limits of ethnocentrism’ (Fernandez, 1992: 139, 140). Alcoff does not go so far as to claim that mestizo identity might neutralise racial categories, but she does invoke Latin American history and experience as an example of the development of identities not based on concepts of purity (Alcoff, 1995). Anzaldua’s well-known work is also part of this trend, with an even more explicit valorisation of mestizaje as a positive force for the future in terms reminiscent of José Vasconcelos’s invocation of the raza cosmica (Anzaldu´a, 1987; Vasconcelos, 1997 [1925]).

Latin America has often served as a counterpoint in comparative ponderings about race, especially in the Americas. The hoary notion of a Latin American ‘racial democracy’ has been subject to devastating critique, yet we see that Latin American mestizaje is still, amazingly, being held up by some as an example from which the rest of the world (particularly the USA) could learn. This trend is linked to a broader postcolonialist interest in processes of mixture and hybridity, which casts Latin American processes of mestizaje in a positive light. It should be clear that over-optimistic assessments of hybridity need to learn from the Latin American experience, and overoptimistic assessments of Latin American mestizaje need reminding of some home truths about racism in Latin America.

More fundamentally, I argue that there is an essential element to ideas about mixture which means that it can never simply be put in a relation of opposition to racial absolutes, or portrayed as necessarily destabilising them. Mestizaje, while it appears to erase origins and primordial categories of race and culture, actually continually reconstructs them. It depends on the idea of original or parent races and cultures to constitute the very possibility of mixture. All identities are constituted relationally and depend on others to exist, and mestizo identities are no exception.  They may be deployed to different effects in different contexts, but to exist at all, they must invoke origins. The reconstitution of racial origins is an inherent part of mestizaje. Blackness, whiteness and indigenousness are constantly being recreated as, in a real sense, racial absolutes with primordial origins. Mixture can not be simply set against original and essential identities. Instead, it recreates them and redeploys them and, in doing so, re-establishes the basis for racism. The recreation of blackness does not automatically mean that anti-black racism will be directed against that category, but the former is a necessary condition for the latter, if not a sufficient one.  In short, to see mixture and hybridisation as inherently opposed to racial absolutism and essentialism is quite wrong…

Read or purchase the article here.

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Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage

Posted in Books, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science on 2009-12-15 03:13Z by Steven

Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage

Temple University Press
January 2001
240 pages
3 tables 1 figure
Paper: EAN: 978-1-56639-826-8; ISBN: 1-56639-826-6
Cloth: EAN: 978-1-56639-825-1; ISBN: 1-56639-825-8

Maria P. P. Root

When the Baby Boom generation was in college, the last miscegenation laws were declared unconstitutional, but interracial romances retained an aura of taboo. Since 1960 the number of mixed race marriages has doubled every decade. Today, the trend toward intermarriage continues, and the growing presence of interracial couples in the media, on college campuses, in the shopping malls and other public places draws little notice.

Love’s Revolution traces the social changes that account for the growth of intermarriage as well as the lingering prejudices and false beliefs that oppress racially mixed families. For this book author Maria P.P. Root, a clinical psychologist, interviewed some 200 people from a wide spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Speaking out about their views and experiences, these partners, family members, and children of mixed race marriages confirm that the barriers are gradually eroding; but they also testify to the heartache caused by family opposition and disapproving strangers.

Root traces race prejudice to the various institutions that were structured to maintain white privilege, but the heart of the book is her analysis of what happens when people of different races decide to marry. Developing an analogy between families and types of businesses, she shows how both positive and negative reactions to such marriages are largely a matter of shared concepts of family rather than individual feelings about race. She probes into the identity issues that multiracial children confront and draws on her clinical experience to offer child-rearing recommendations for multiracial families. Root’s “Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” is a document that at once empowers multiracial people and educates those who ominously ask, “What about the children?”

Love’s Revolution paints an optimistic but not idealized picture of contemporary relationships. The “Ten Truths about Interracial Marriage” that close the book acknowledge that mixed race couples experience the same stresses as everyone else in addition to those arising from other people’s prejudice or curiosity. Their divorce rates are only slightly higher than those of single race couples, which suggests that their success or failure at marriage is not necessarily a racial issue. And that is a revolutionary idea!

Read an exceprt from Chapter 1 here.

Table of Contents

1. Love and Revolution
2. Love and Fear
3. Sex, Race, and Love
4. The Business of Families
5. Open and Closed Families
6. The Life Cycle and Interracial Marriage
7. Parents, Children, and Race
8. Ten Truths of Interracial Marriage

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Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance

Posted in Books, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2009-12-09 18:46Z by Steven

Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance

The University of Chicago Press
232 pages
6 x 9
Paper ISBN: 9780226536637

Rachel F. Moran, Michael J. Connell Distinguished Professor of Law
University of California, Los Angeles

As late as the 1960s, states could legally punish minorities who either had sex with or married persons outside of their racial groups. In this first comprehensive study of the legal regulation of interracial relationships, Rachel Moran grapples with the consequences of that history, candidly confronting its profound effects on not only conceptions of race and identity, but on ideas about sex, marriage, and family.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • 1. Insights from Interracial Intimacy
  • 2. Antimiscegenation Laws and the Enforcement of Racial Boundaries
  • 3. Subverting Racial Boundaries: Identity, Ambiguity, and Interracial Intimacy
  • 4. Antimiscegenation Laws and Norms of Sexual and Marital Propriety
  • 5. Judicial Review of Antimiscegenation Laws: The Long Road to Loving
  • 6. Race and Romanticism: The Persistence of Racial Endogamy after Loving
  • 7. Race and the Family: The Best Interest of the Child in Interracial Custody and Adoption Disputes
  • 8. Race and Identity: The New Multiracialism
  • 9. The Lessons of Interracial Intimacy
  • Notes
  • Index
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Love and Race Caught in the Public Eye

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2009-12-05 05:23Z by Steven

Love and Race Caught in the Public Eye

ND Newswire
University of Notre Dame

Heidi Ardizzone, Assistant Professor of American Studies
University of Notre Dame

Earl Lewis, Provost
Emory University

Lovers seek to create a place that they can inhabit together against the obstacles of the world. Marriage promises that they will live in that place forever. What happens, though, when love cannot keep out the world’s strictures? What happens when the bond severs, and the nation serves as a witness to marital separation? And what happens when a culture’s notions about love and romance come into conflict with the lines dividing races and classes?

In 1925 Alice Beatrice Jones and Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander found themselves painfully trapped in this conflict between love and family, desire and social standing. Their marriage had the trappings of a fairy tale — wealthy New York scion marries humble girl from New Rochelle — yet the events that led to their estrangement provide an unusual window into the nation’s attitudes about race, class, and sexuality. Their sensational annulment trial scandalized 1920’s America and opened their private life to public scrutiny, amid cultural conflicts over racial definitions, class propriety, proper courtship and sexual behavior, and racial mixing.

As a Rhinelander, Leonard was descended from several of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families. Had he followed in the family tradition, Leonard might have attended Columbia University, joined the Rhinelander Real Estate Company, and made his mark on New York society through philanthropy and support of the arts.

By contrast, Alice’s parents immigrated in 1891 to the United States from England, where they had both worked as servants. George Jones had had some success in his adopted country; he eventually owned a fleet of taxicabs and several small properties. Alice, her sisters, and their husbands worked primarily as domestics and servants — solid members of the working class.

Despite this pronounced class difference, Alice and Leonard met and began dating in 1921. Their love deepened over the next three years, tested by months and years of separation as Leonard’s father tried to keep them apart. Philip Rhinelander’s efforts were in vain, however.  From 1921 to 1924 the lovers exchanged hundreds of letters and visited when possible. As soon as Leonard turned 21 and received money from a trust fund, he left school and returned to Alice. In the fall of 1924, they quietly married in a civil ceremony at the New Rochelle City Hall.

Had reporters from the New Rochelle Standard Star ignored the entry in the City Hall records, the couple might have lived their lives away from the public spotlight. They did not. Someone eventually realized that a Rhinelander had married a local woman, and it was news. And once they discovered who Alice Jones was, it was big news. The first story appeared one month after their wedding, announcing to the world that the son of a Rhinelander had married the daughter of a colored man.

Or had he? Well, at least he had married the daughter of a working-class man, and that was enough to start a tremor of gossip throughout New York. Reporters rushed to sift through the legal documents and contradictory accounts of and by the Joneses and the newlyweds. Despite the confidence of the first announcement, there was confusion for quite some time as to George Jones’s — and therefore Alice’s — precise racial identity…

Read the entire article here.

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Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Religion, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-24 18:05Z by Steven

Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred after Brown

The Journal of American History
Volume 91, No. 1
June 2004
pp. 119–144

Jane Dailey, Associate Professor of American History
University of Chicago

The religious history of the civil rights movement is strangely one-sided. “God was on our side,” the activists have said, and scholars have tended to agree. But the opponents of civil rights also used religion in their cause. Jane Dailey argues that historians have underestimated the role of religion in supporting segregation as well as in dismantling it. Viewing the civil rights movement as a contest over Christian orthodoxy helps explain the arguments made by both sides and the strategic actions they took. Dailey examines the connections among antimiscegenation anxiety, politics, and religion to reveal how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregation ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow.

This article explores how religion served as a vessel for one particular language crucial to racial segregation in the South: the language of miscegenation. It was through sex that racial segregation in the South moved from being a local social practice to a part of the divine plan for the world. It was thus through sex that segregation assumed, for the believing Christian, cosmological significance. Focusing on the theological arguments wielded by segregation’s champions reveals how deeply interwoven Christian theology was in the segregationist ideology that supported the discriminatory world of Jim Crow. It also demonstrates that religion played a central role in articulating not only the challenge that the civil rights movement offered Jim Crow but the resistance to that challenge…

…Although rebutted at the time and later, Ariel’s argument remained current through the middle of the twentieth century, buttressed along the way by such widely read books as Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast (1900) and The Tempter of Eve (1902), both of which considered miscegenation the greatest of sins. Denounced for its acceptance of separate creations, The Negro a Beast was nonetheless enormously influential. Recalling the door-to-door sales campaign that brought the book to the notice of whites across the South, a historian of religion lamented in 1909 that “during the opening years of the twentieth century it has become the Scripture of tens of thousands of poor whites, and its doctrine is maintained with an appalling stubbornness and persistence.” In this tradition, miscegenation—or, more commonly, amalgamation or mongrelization—was the original sin, the root of all corruption in humankind.

The expulsion from Paradise did not solve the problem of miscegenation. By the time of Noah race mixing was so prevalent that, in the words of one civil rights–era pamphleteer, “God destroyed ‘all flesh’ in that part of the world for that one sin. Only Noah was ‘perfect in his generation’ … so God saved him and his family to rebuild the Adamic Race.” That perfection did not last long, however; according to some traditions, the cursed son of Ham, already doomed to a life of servitude, mixed his blood with “pre-Adamite negroes” in the Land of Nod. Again and again God’s wrath is aroused by the sin of miscegenation, and the people feel the awful weight of his punishment: Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for this sin, as was the Tower of Babel, where, in a failed effort to protect racial purity, God dispersed the peoples across the globe. King Solomon, “reputed to be the wisest of men, with a kingdom of matchless splendor and wealth was ruined as a direct result of his marrying women of many different races,” and the “physical mixing of races” that occurred between the Israelites and the Egyptians who accompanied Moses into the wilderness “resulted in social and spiritual weakness,” leading God to sentence the Exodus generation to die before reaching the Promised Land. For evidence that the God of Noah remained as adamantly opposed to racial mixing as ever, white southern believers could look back a mere fifteen years to the Holocaust. The liquidation of six million people was caused, D. B. Red explained in his pamphlet Race Mixing a Religious Fraud (c. 1959), by the sexual “mingling” of the Jews, who suffered what Red represents as God’s final solution to the miscegenation problem: “Totally destroy the people involved.” Here, surely, was proof that segregation was “divine law, enacted for the defense of society and civilization…

Read the entire article here.

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Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-19 02:02Z by Steven

Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

University of Virginia Press
January 2009
144 pages
5 1/2x 81/4
Cloth ISBN 0-8139-2777-0

Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History
University of California, Davis

The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question of “Did they or didn’t they?” But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize. Mongrel Nation seeks to uncover this complexity, as well as the reasons it is so often obscured.

Clarence Walker contends that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship was not unusual or aberrant but was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization, because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and reexamine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.

More than many other societies—and despite our obvious mixed-race population—our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic. In a country where, as early as 1662, interracial sex was already punishable by law, an understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship has consistently met with resistance. From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied—or remained oblivious to—the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA findings of 1998 to persuade many (although, to this day, doubters remain).

The refusal to admit the likelihood of this union between master and slave stems, of course, from Jefferson’s symbolic significance as a Founding Father. The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs—and the often alarming demands of those beliefs—than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals, the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions both of race and of our nation.

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Louisa May Alcott On Race, Sex, And Slavery

Posted in Anthologies, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-11-14 05:19Z by Steven

Louisa May Alcott On Race, Sex, And Slavery

Northeastern University Press
University Press of New England
160 pages
EAN: 978-1-55553-307-6

Louisa May Alcott

Edited by

Sarah Elbert, Professor Emerita of History
The State University of New York, Binghamton

The passionate supporter of abolition and women’s rights speaks out on the most controversial issues of the day.

Louisa May Alcott championed women’s causes in gothic tales of interracial romance and in newspaper articles published during the Civil War. Drawn from her service as a nurse in a Union hospital as well as from her radical abolitionist activities, these writings allow Alcott to comment boldly on unstable racial identities, interracial sex and marriage, armed slave rebellion, war, and the links between the bondage of slaves and the conditions of white womanhood. A comprehensive introduction situates Alcott and her family within the network of antebellum reformers and unmasks her personal and literary struggles with the boundaries of race, sex, and class.

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Aisha Khan Lecture – New York University Professor Aisha Khan Speaks on Multiculturalism

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Social Science, United States, Women on 2009-11-06 20:37Z by Steven

Aisha Khan Lecture – New York University Professor Aisha Khan Speaks on Multiculturalism

St. Augustine News – STAN
University of the West Indies
July-September 2006
Page 24

Alake Pilgrim

[Article copied in full for readability.  To read in original print layout version (with photographs), click here.]

On the surface of things, Professor Aisha Khan, lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at New York University, might seem like a poster-child for multiculturalism. Born in Bangladesh and raised in California, her research originally took her among the Garifuna people of Honduras.  Her first visit to Trinidad was in 1984, and from 1987 to 1989 she conducted research among Trinidadians of East Indian descent in agricultural communities in the southern part of the island to which she has returned several times over the years.

However, Professor Khan, whose research is concerned with religious identity, race relations, social stratification and migration histories, took a very critical perspective on multiculturalism in her lecture. She questioned the extent to which this “slippery term”, which calls for the equal recognition of different “cultures” and “races”, can meaningfully foster greater harmony and equality in society.

Understanding the multiple meanings of multiculturalism requires an analysis of the changing definitions of culture, nationality, religion, race and colour in different contexts. As part of this process, Profesor Khan examined three models of multiculturalism – in the United States (US), Brazil and Trinidad.

In the US, she argued, the multicultural alternative to the “one-drop rule” of non-white inferiority and the assimilationist melting-pot narrative, proposes celebrating the multiple cultures (often referred to as “races”) that make up US society.  This trend is evident in articles featuring photos of “mixed race” celebrities like Jessica Alba and Vin Diesel as the new faces of beauty. But does this concept of multiculturalism really unseat the reigning Euro-American, middle-class ideal? To paraphrase Professor Khan, does making difference “cool” actually address structural inequality in societies, such as unequal access to resources like income, housing and education?

She took that question to Brazil, where the idea that miscegenation (a “mixed race” population) and non-racialism (deemphasizing the role of race in the society) had brought about a unified Brazilian nationalism, is currently being critiqued as myth. Contentious issues of affirmative action and a political quota system are now being debated in the public sphere. Paradoxically, Professor Khan stated, the affirmative action approach to multiculturalism both undermines and reinforces the foundations of social inequality, in that it pushes toward more fixed definitions of racial categories supporting faulty race-based assumptions. In addition, such an initiative continues to make race – a biological fallacy and social variable – one of the most central aspects of human identification.

On the other hand, she opined, trying to simply eliminate race as a category of identification doesn’t work either, because the historical, legal, social and economic systems of power built on concepts of race, persist throughout the world today.

She then turned to Trinidad, which she described as being structured under colonialism according to the hierarchy of plantation society, in which black people of African descent occupied the lowest tier of the social pyramid. Independence society, she stated, was built on Afro-Euro foundations, with the attempt by some to have a multi-cultural, multi-racial “rainbow” society that was quintessentially Trinbagonian. At the same time, the society faced the conundrum of a perceived deep-seated duality and supposed hostility between people of African and East Indian descent, which was encouraged by the colonial masters and entrenched by post-independence partisan politics. This conflict centres around competition for equal resources, as well as the question of what really constitutes equal representation.

While very real divisions exist, Professor Khan expressed the view that this version of irresolvable conflict between people of African and East Indian descent, denied the reality that people in Trinidad have been living, loving, working and struggling together practically from the moment they set foot on the island.

So, in light of these case studies, what was Professor Khan’s conclusion regarding multiculturalism’s potential to bring about greater equality? Not an overly favourable one… She suggested an alternative treatment of “race” and “culture” that addressed their social significance, without freezing people into fixed racial and cultural categories. And spoke firmly against using multiculturalism and other celebrations of diversity, as a way of denying ongoing discrimination, or de-emphasizing the importance of providing equal access to resources for the underprivileged and excluded members of society. Professor Khan’s most recent book is Callaloo Nation: Metaphors of Race and Religious Identity among South Asians in Trinidad.

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‘But most of all mi love me browning’: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Social Science, Women on 2009-11-06 19:09Z by Steven

‘But most of all mi love me browning’: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired

Feminist Review(on-Line)
Volume 65, Issue 1
June 2000
pages 22 – 48
DOI: 10.1080/014177800406921

Patricia Mohammed, Head and Lecturer
Centre for Gender and Development Studies, Mona Unit
University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica

One of the most common threads in the Caribbean tapestry races which have populated the region over the last five centuries largely through forced or voluntary migration, is that there have emerged mixtures of the different racial groups. A large proportion of Caribbean women and men are referred to euphemistically as ‘mixed race’. The terms used to describe people of mixed race vary by territory and have been incrementally added to or changed over time. The original nomenclatures such as sambo, musteephino, mulatto, creole, etc. have been replaced at present to include terms like brown skin, mulatto, clear skin, light skin, red-nigger, dougla and browning. The title of the article comes from a contemporary dancehall song in Jamaica in which the black singer, Buju Banton, unwittingly echoes an unspoken yet shared notion of female desirability in the Caribbean: a preference for ‘brown’ as opposed to black women or unmixed women. In the ongoing constructions of femininity in the region, class and skin colour have intersected with race to produce hierarchies and stereotypes of femininity based on racial mixing. Drawing on some of the historical data available, particularly that of the pioneering research in this area produced by Lucille Mathurin [1924-2009] in 1974, this article interrogates some aspects of miscegenation in the Jamaican past, to configure these with gender, race and class relations in the present. The article does not attempt to arrive at conclusive findings but to contribute to the ongoing process in the region, and elsewhere, of differentiating the category ‘woman’ in historiography and sociology.

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“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Racial Marking and Embodiment in Pinky

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2009-11-03 00:28Z by Steven

“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Racial Marking and Embodiment in Pinky

Camera Obscura
43 (Volume 15, Number 1),
pp. 94-121

Elspeth Kydd

Look at my fingers, are not the nails of a bluish tinge . . . that is the ineffaceable curse of Cain . . .
Dion Boucicault, The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana

The 1949 film Pinky presents a central mulatto character as a method for focusing attention on issues of race and racism.  As one of a series of liberal films released shortly after the Second World War, Pinky approaches issues of race and racism as “social problems.” Yet this film, as do others of this movement, demonstrates more ambiguities around racial categorizations than it offers solutions for dealing with postwar racial tensions.  Made during the Hays Code‘s ban on the representation of miscegenation, Pinky confronts the issue of interracial relations more overtly than many other films of its time by focusing its narrative on the difficulties experienced by a mixed-race woman. The character of Pinky faces crises over passing, as she is torn between her “birthright” and the “mess of pottage”  that she would gain by identifying as white.

Pinky uses the mulatto character to gain audience sympathies, exploring the effects of Southern racism by subjecting the almost-white main character to racially motivated degradations.  Significantly, the film embodies the mulatto through a white actress, producing an ambiguous interplay of audience identifications.  The film engages multiple deployments of the mulatto character: Through the actress, through the social context of the Hays Code, through the visual conventions it deploys, and through its narrative, which draws on…

Read or purchase the entire article here.

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