“Self-Portrait in Black and White” doesn’t meaningfully engage with centuries of work from black-identifying scholars who wrote accessibly about their backgrounds, especially those with mixed-race ancestry.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-10-27 17:15Z by Steven

Nor is he [Thomas Chatterton Williams] the first thinker to ponder how multiracial people navigate a world so obsessed with the minutiae of race. Self-Portrait in Black and White doesn’t meaningfully engage with centuries of work from black-identifying scholars who wrote accessibly about their backgrounds, especially those with mixed-race ancestry. Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, was published nearly a century ago; the former NAACP leader Walter White published his memoir, A Man Called White, in 1948. Upon his death in 1955, The New York Times wrote that the fair-skinned White “could easily have joined the 12,000 Negroes who pass the color-line and disappear into the white majority every year in this country. But he deliberately sacrificed his comfort to publicize himself as a Negro and to devote his entire adult life to completing the emancipation of his people.” Absent from Williams’s memoir is any critical analysis of texts written by White or even by major figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, or Malcolm X.

Hannah Giorgis, “A Simplistic View of a Mixed-ish America,” The Atlantic, October 26, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/mixed-ish-thomas-chatterton-williams-race/600679/.

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Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing: An Exploration of Performed Identity

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, United States on 2019-10-24 16:38Z by Steven

Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing: An Exploration of Performed Identity

President’s Writing Awards (2019)
Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
2019

Aly Sebright

Author in hoodie.
Aly Sebright

Currently in its 37th year, the President’s Writing Awards contest honors undergraduate writing at Boise State.

My name is Alyson Sebright. I was born in Boise and grew up in Nampa, where I still reside. I’m currently a Junior majoring in English with an emphasis in Literature here at Boise State, with plans to study abroad in Stirling, Scotland this coming Fall of 2019. I chose to study literature because of my deep passion for storytelling, not only in telling my own stories but better understanding those of others. I believe wholeheartedly that sharing stories can change the world and for that reason I study literature with the intention of one day working in the publishing field as a developmental fiction editor. After graduation I am planning to pursue a graduate degree, either through a Fulbright program or a graduate school here in the States. When I’m not studying, I can usually be found loitering around the Writing Center with my coworkers, doing photography around town, or working on my latest creative writing project.

Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, centers around the experience of two biracial women whose identities are primarily performative as they navigate life with the privilege of “passing” as White. Through this narrative, Larsen suggests that both racial and gender/sexual identities are as largely performative as they are inherent. Passing explores the ideas of both these identities as they exist in a world where passing is possible. Larsen calls into question the very nature of such concepts and their intersections: how identity shapes the experiences of individuals, and how those individuals shape those identities in turn.

The novel evaluates racial identity in several ways, but centers upon the socially-enforced performative nature of biracialism. In one of the opening scenes, Irene is waited upon in a rooftop cafe where she is passing as White in order to exist within the space and receive the service she desires. Larsen explains of Irene: “Never, when she was alone, had they [White people] even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro” (Larsen 8). This is one of the first moments in which the reader sees Irene engage in the activity of “passing”, and it emphasizes the nature of race as a performative identity in the case of “mulatto” or lighter skinned Black individuals, whose biracial identity is largely ignored, forcing such individuals to “choose” to perform one race or another. As one scholar explains: “the act of passing both subverts racial categories and reinforces them, employing the logic that people of mixed ancestry are ‘really’ black but pretend to be white” (Nisetich 350). In this moment, Irene’s choice to pass, while it does afford her the desired effect of being treated as a White citizen, necessitates her to temporarily deny her racial identity. This choice is inherently ironic, as Irene becomes obsessed with the idea of racial “loyalty” as the novel continues, in relation to her perceptions of Clare’s decision to pass as White…

Read the entire essay here.

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Passing, in Moments

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-07-29 00:07Z by Steven

Passing, in Moments

Topic Magazine
Issue No. 25, Journeys
July 2019

Mat Johnson

The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white.

When I was 12, my Aunt Margaret told me, “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them.”

Aunt Margaret was black, but if you said “black” and not “colored,” she would go off on you. I was black too—still am—but I look white. Or I look whitish; it depends on the viewer. My father’s white and my mother is black, but high yellow and racially ambiguous. Though my mom insisted I was black too, I found a strong argument against that every time I looked in the mirror. And I grew up cut off from my extended black family, which just added to that feeling of disconnection. Sometimes I’d tell other kids I was black, and until they saw my mom, they wouldn’t believe me.

One time I told Aunt Margaret, “Nobody at school knows I’m black—”

“Colored.”

“Nobody at school knows I’m colored.”

She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. That’s when she said it, holding one of my flaccid brown curls in her hand like it was a piece of gold. “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them!”

At 12 years old, I thought Aunt Margaret was confused. I thought her response was antiquated, ridiculously old-fashioned, like how she insisted on using the word “colored” instead of “black.” I thought it was cute. I thought it was funny.

At 19, radical as all undergraduates should be, I thought that, despite how much I loved Aunt Margaret, that she was a color-struck sellout for telling me to live my life as a white man. That, in essence, she was encouraging me to abandon my roots, to reject the black community, in exchange for complete access to white privilege.

At 49, I think she told me what she told me because she loved me. Because she’d been black in America for 80-some years and she didn’t want me to have to endure the way she did. That she wanted the safety of whiteness for me. That she wanted me to thrive, but also to have the full force of America’s wind at my back, instead of getting hit with it head-on.

That Aunt Margaret was expressing what generations of black mothers sometimes told white-appearing children, particularly boys: escape from blackness for your survival.

(And, also, she was color-struck.)…

Read the entire article here.

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“You’re Neither One Thing (N)or The Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and The Passing Trope

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-05-22 17:53Z by Steven

“You’re Neither One Thing (N)or The Other”: Nella Larsen, Philip Roth, and The Passing Trope

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 2012
pages 45-61

Donavan L. Ramon, Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies
Kentucky State University

Philip Roth has historically been situated in a male literary tradition, with critics assessing him alongside Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and more recently, Charles Chesnutt and Ralph Ellison. Because of his problematic portrayals of women characters, Roth is not often discussed alongside women writers. My paper goes beyond this by situating Roth alongside a black woman writer, Nella Larsen. In fact, Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Roth’s The Human Stain (2000) share several thematic and structural similarities, such as the tropes of belated race learning, double consciousness, anonymous letter writing, taboo sexualities, and ambiguous deaths. My essay argues that these tropes underlie passing narratives and reveal the development of twentieth century passing texts.

Read or purchase the article here.

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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.

Login to read the dissertation here.

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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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