The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-03-25 13:16Z by Steven

The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2015

Julia S. Charles, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

This dissertation mines the intersection of racial performance and the history of the so-called “tragic mulatto” figure in American fiction. I propose that while many white writers depicted the “mulatto” character as inherently flawed because of some tainted “black blood,” many black writers’ depictions of mixed-race characters imagine solutions to the race problem. Many black writers critiqued some of America’s most egregious sins by demonstrating linkages between major shifts in American history and the mixed-race figure. Landmark legislation such as, Fugitive Slave Act 1850 and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) are often plotlines in African American passing literature, thus demonstrating the failure of America to acknowledge its wrongdoings against people of color. While this project surveys passing narratives collectively, it pays careful consideration to those novelists whose presentations of the mixed-race figure challenge previously conceived notions of the “tragic mulatto” figure. I investigate how the writers each illuminate elements of the history of slavery and its aftermath in order to remark on black disenfranchisement at the turn of the century. Ultimately, however, I argue for the importance of the mixed-race figure as a potent symbol for imagined resolution between the larger narrative of American freedom and enslavement of blacks in the United States.

I examine several works of African American racial passing literature: William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African American writer. It explores the complexities of American culture at a time when tensions between North and South were about to explode into the Civil War. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), tells the true story of the mixed-race Ellen Craft and her husband who escaped to freedom through various racial performances. Nella Larsen sets her novella Passing (1929) in Harlem in the 1920s. The story centers on two childhood friends reunited, but each dealing with their mixed-race ancestry in different ways. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928) and The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” (1900). endeavors to depict a better class of blacks through her examination of the fair-skinned bourgeois-striver Angela Murray. Each of these stories address American legacies of racism and representation beginning with the Civil War.

I investigate how these authors use the mixed-race figure (mostly) following the Civil War to mark the continuing impact that its legacy has had on black Americans through the New Negro Harlem Renaissance, but also to gesture to the mythic moment of freedom symbolized by successfully crossing the so-called color line. In addition to cataloguing an era of migration, the African American passing narrative represents the moment in which we shift from only seeing characters in terms of monoracial identities. These writers suggest that new performative modes of racial affiliation are necessary to achieve freedom. Reminding us that characters of mixed status practiced race in ways that enabled them to build shared identity despite an often disparate cultural heritage, these works suggest that identities like blackness are always constituted through performance. I argue that racial passing facilitated the “performance” of whiteness together with, an acknowledgment of what is accepted as blackness.

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What is Racial Passing?

Posted in Economics, History, Law, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, Passing, Slavery, United States, Videos on 2019-03-03 03:59Z by Steven

What is Racial Passing?

Digital Studios: Origin of Everything
PBS Digital Studios
Public Broadcasting Service
Season 2, Episode 13 (First Aired: 2019-02-27)

Danielle Bainbridge, Host, Writer, and Postdoctoral Fellow
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

What motivates someone to disguise their race, gender, religion, etc.? Today Danielle explores the complicated history of passing in the United States.

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Nella Larsen’s Etiquette Lesson: Small Talk, Racial Passing, and the Novel of Manners

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-02-04 15:19Z by Steven

Nella Larsen’s Etiquette Lesson: Small Talk, Racial Passing, and the Novel of Manners

Novel: A Forum on Fiction
Volume 51, Issue 1 (2018-05-01)
pages 1-16
DOI: 10.1215/00295132-4357365

Matthew Krumholtz
Department of English
Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Issue Cover

This essay explores how novelists of the Harlem Renaissance deploy small talk to disrupt racial identification. Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) serves as a case study showing that small talk magnifies a strange intimacy between passing narratives and etiquette manuals in the early twentieth century. While critics have tended to view small talk under the rubric of gossip, writers of the Harlem Renaissance call attention to the way that small talk enables racial passing by keeping dialogue on neutral and impersonal grounds. Nella Larsen makes peculiarly pronounced use of small talk, which emerges in her fiction as a self-accenting style of racial embodiment and a bold revision to the American novel of manners and to early twentieth-century etiquette manuals. Drawing on sociolinguistics and microsociology, this essay argues that Larsen unsettles the cultural tendency to equate passing with self-denial, converting small talk to an equivocal medium for passing that, paradoxically, makes audible a protest against racial segregation and social regulation.

Read or purchase the article here.

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Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-11-12 23:30Z by Steven

Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts

5 University Gardens
Room 101
University of Glasgow
Glasgow, United Kingdom
Tuesday, 2018-11-20, 17:15Z

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature
York St John University York, United Kingdom

JBradbury170802-Staff-Profile.jpg

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr. Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Life brought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

For more information, click here.

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“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2018-08-22 04:27Z by Steven

“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

University of Sheffield
October 2015

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

Ph.D. Dissertation

This thesis critiques the prevailing assumption that passing is passé in contemporary African American women’s literature.

By re-examining the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy West, Alice Walker, and Barbara Neely, I argue that these writers signify on canonical passing narratives – Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Clotelle (1867), Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) – in order to confront and redress both the historical roots and contemporary contexts of colourism.

As well bridging this historiographic gap, I make a case for reading passing as a multivalent trope that facilitates this very process of cultural interrogation. Rather than focussing on literal episodes of passing, I consider moments of symbolic, textual, and narrative passing, as well as the genealogical and intertextual processes at play in each text which account for the spectral hauntings of the passing-for-white figure in post-civil rights literature.

In Chapter 1, I examine the relationship between passing and embodiments of beauty in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Bambara’s “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (1974) and Neely’s Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

In Chapter 2, I discuss passing, class, and capital in Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).

In Chapter 3, I suggest that Walker and Morrison revisit Larsen’s Passing in their short stories “Source” (1982) and “Recitatif” (1983).

Finally, I conclude this project with a discussion of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) in order to demonstrate the continued centrality of the passing trope for authors interested in colourism, genealogy, and black women’s experiences.

Embargoed here until October 2020.

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‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-08-22 00:48Z by Steven

‘Passing for white’: how a taboo film genre is being revived to expose racial privilege

The Guardian
2018-08-20

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

SUSAN KOHNER and JUANITA MOORE in Imitation of Life
Crossing the colour line … Susan Kohner and Juanita Moore as daughter and mother in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

Rebecca Hall’sdirectorial debut is an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, a theme little seen since the likes of Show Boat and Pinky

Hollywood once loved films about passing. The genre was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when segregation was rife and the “one-drop rule” – which deemed anybody with even a trace of African ancestry to be black – prevailed. Box-office hits included Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949) and George Sidney’s musical Show Boat (1951), which featured light-skinned, mixed-race characters who passed for white in the hopes of enjoying the privileges whiteness confers. The secrets, the scandal and the sheer sensationalism of it all made for excellent melodrama.

Now Rebecca Hall, the star of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Red Riding, is revisiting the genre with her directorial debut, an adaptation of Nella Larsen’s seminal 1929 novel Passing. Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga will feature in the project, which tells the story of childhood friends, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, who are both light-skinned enough to pass for white but choose to live on opposite sides of the colour line…

…How will Hall negotiate the tricky history of the genre? Even though it was a real-life phenomenon, most films about passing, including Pinky and Show Boat, have literary roots. William Wells Brown’s 1853 anti-slavery novel Clotel, which imagines the fate of Thomas Jefferson’s mixed race progeny, is perhaps the first American passing novel. Brown used passing to expose the arbitrary nature of white privilege. His mixed-race characters were a manifest symbol of the reality that many powerful, supposedly God-fearing white slaveholding men were coercing and raping enslaved black women and condemning their own children to a life in bondage (although, as Beyoncé recently revealed, not all unions were of this nature)…

Read the entire article here.

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Rebecca Hall To Make Directorial Debut With ‘Passing’; Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga Star In Adaptation Of 1920s Novel

Posted in Articles, Arts, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-08-07 03:40Z by Steven

Rebecca Hall To Make Directorial Debut With ‘Passing’; Tessa Thompson & Ruth Negga Star In Adaptation Of 1920s Novel

Deadline Hollywood
2018-08-06

Amanda N’Duka

Rebecca Hall Tessa Thompson Ruth Negga
Shutterstock

EXCLUSIVE: Rebecca Hall has set up Passing, an adaptation based on Nella Larsen’s 1920s Harlem Renaissance novel that explores the practice of racial passing, a term used for a person classified as a member of one racial group who seeks to be accepted by a different racial group. Hall has penned the script and will direct in her feature helming debut, with Westworld star Tessa Thompson and Oscar nominee Ruth Negga attached to star in the film.

Margot Hand of Picture Films and Oren Moverman of Sight Unseen are producing, with Angela Robinson serving as executive producer.

First published in 1929, Passing follows the unexpected reunion of two high school friends, Clare Kendry (Negga) and Irene Redfield (Thompson), whose renewed acquaintance ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities…

Read the entire article here.

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What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2018-02-25 23:47Z by Steven

What do Meghan Markle and Chicago woman who wrote ‘Passing’ have in common?

The Chicago Tribune
2018-02-23

Christopher Borrelli


Nella Larsen, author of “Passing.” (Carl Van Vechten)

Nella Larsen was a mystery in life, and a mystery after her death in 1964. According to biographers, when she died her half sister inherited the $35,000 that remained in Larsen’s savings, then said she didn’t know she had a half sister.

Which wasn’t true.

Yet, in many ways, it’s the response you expect.

Nella Larsen was born Nellie Walker in 1891, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nella Larsen, 1892, in Chicago.

Or Nella Larsen was born Nellye Larson, 1893, in Chicago.

Biographers have run across a few possibilities, and the agreed-upon details are this: Nella Larsen was born in 1891, in Chicago, as Nellie Walker. Larsen fudged her vitals on occasion, depending on who was asking and what form she was completing. She lived her life at times with a sort of concentrated vagueness — “in the shadows,” wrote George Hutchinson, one of her biographers. Just as her career was taking off, she broke ties with her closest friends, and she spent her last three decades working as a nurse, living in a relative, self-imposed anonymity. Which sounds melodramatic, yet Larsen — who had been a major star of the Harlem Renaissance after leaving Chicago (but never quite cast aside the rejection that she felt here) — lived a life that could fuel melodramas.

As it happens, she left great ones, slim novels that amount to 250 pages, combined. Indeed, “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929) constitute most of her published work. Yet both are portraits of Chicago women who, like Larsen, navigated the blurriest of racial lines in the early 20th century, having been born to one black parent and one white parent. Both novels are about women who “passed” — that is, they presented themselves, day to day, as white. Her biographers say it’s unlikely Larsen herself did this, yet her protagonists are haunted by identity, frozen out by the black bourgeois, not at ease in white society, torn by the task of self-identifying in a binary-minded country…

Read the entire article here.

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The Skyscraper’s Unseeing Eyes: Louis Sullivan, Nella Larsen, and Racial Formalism

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-11-25 02:26Z by Steven

The Skyscraper’s Unseeing Eyes: Louis Sullivan, Nella Larsen, and Racial Formalism

American Literature
Volume 89, Issue 3
2017-09-01
DOI: 10.1215/00029831-4160846

Sue Shon

Since its inception, the skyscraper has served as an icon of American innovation, modernity, and freedom. Upholding this image has erased the racial thinking and racist practices foundational to this born-and-bred American architectural form. This essay restores the import of race to the skyscraper by reading formalist theories by the father of modern architecture, Louis Sullivan, alongside a work of African American modernist fiction, Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). Reading Sullivan alongside Larsen explains how skyscrapers and blackness together have defined what gets seen as modern. The unexpected pairing reveals the visual racial logics built into skyscraper aesthetics and adds an architectural thread to the well-established scholarship on Larsen’s novel.

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SAS Researchers Probe Racial Passing, Identity Based on Two Novels

Posted in Africa, Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-05-11 01:18Z by Steven

SAS Researchers Probe Racial Passing, Identity Based on Two Novels

American University of Nigeria
2017-05-01

Nelly Ating

The modern-day issues of “racial passing” and “identity,” dominated the April 20 SAS research seminar presented by Dr. Agatha Ukata and Dr. Brian Reed of the English & Literature department.

The duo’s research probes the phenomenon in “Being and Not Being:  How Society Negotiates Humanity.”  This is a study based on Nella Larsen, and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, and on Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name.

This work will be presented at the African Literature Association conference at Yale University in June.

Leading the discussion, Dr Ukata said that despite disparity in the years of publication of the novels, it is astonishing to see the recurrence of “racial passing” in this era…

Read the entire article here.

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