“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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“Black Matters”: Race and Literary History in Mat Johnson’s Pym

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2017-12-23 03:35Z by Steven

“Black Matters”: Race and Literary History in Mat Johnson’s Pym

European Journal of American Studies
11-1 | 2016 : Special Issue: Intimate Frictions: History and Literature in the United States from the 19th to the 21st Century

Jennifer M. Wilks, Associate Professor of English
University of Texas, Austin

After being denied tenure for expanding his teaching of race and literary history beyond exclusively African American texts, Chris Jaynes, the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s novel Pym (2011), sets out to retrace the voyage from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This essay examines how Johnson uses Jaynes’ own shipwreck—he and his crew are stranded in Antarctica—to posit the history of race in the United States as a national disaster that overdetermines contemporary social dynamics. Using intertextuality and satire, Johnson follows Toni Morrison’s precedent in depicting blackness and whiteness as constructs that are inextricably bound and that cannot be understood one without the other. Central to this claim are Johnson’s mirroring of the progressive, 21st-century African American Jaynes with his narrative foil: the pickled, ancient Anglo American Arthur Gordon Pym. I contend that Johnson not only revisits Morrison’s argument but also expands upon it; for, as Jaynes and his fellow characters confront the thorny legacy of race and racism in the United States, they must also face a future in which the country’s changing demographics will render questions of identity more, rather than less, complicated.

Read the entire article here.

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On the First Asian-American President

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Barack Obama, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2016-12-26 22:16Z by Steven

On the First Asian-American President

Vogue
2016-12-21

Eric Chang

Given the poise with which Barack Obama has taken on his role as president (measured here at minimum by the absence of personal scandal, gaffes, or brushes with death via pretzel), it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to imagine a figure even approximately like him, prior to 2004. The concept of a black president was once a rhetorical construct used to highlight unlikelihood, if not outright impossibility, up there with winged pigs and a frozen inferno. So entrenched was the hegemony of white male leadership in America that in 1998, Toni Morrison wrote the following of then-President Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (to no terrific protest): “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”

Much has been made of this designation. It’s been frequently misattributed to Morrison alone, when by her own account she was reporting a thesis aggregated from several different conversations (those “murmurs,” collected from her community). It’s also been decontextualized to insidious effect, often in attempts to bolster Bill Clinton’s bona fides as a champion of black Americans…

…The visceral recognition I and Asian-Americans like me see in President Obama rests on a similar foundation, and so I frame my argument as an intentional parallel to Morrison’s: Black skin notwithstanding, this is our first Asian-American president…

Read the entire article here.

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Opinion: “White spaces” are everywhere – including ARC

Posted in Articles, Campus Life, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-09-28 00:03Z by Steven

Opinion: “White spaces” are everywhere – including ARC

The American River Current
Sacramento, California
2016-09-26

Shiavon Chatman

Imagine being alone in a place where there was no one who looked like you or understood your experiences.

Imagine having a conversation with someone who assumed the actions and behaviors of people who looked like you and made predictions about the way you conducted yourself.

Being a person of color in a predominantly “white space” is similar to this.

Author Toni Morrison addresses this very idea of oppression and loneliness that comes with being racially stereotyped in her first novel entitled “The Bluest Eye.”

In her novel, the main character Pecola is “(the) little black girl who want(s) to rise up out of her pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.”

The idea of “colorblindness” doesn’t exist. No matter how progressive and accepting a person is, they will see color.

Recognizing color, or rather, race and ethnicity, is being consciously aware of the social injustices and stereotypes that people of color experience.

American River College [(ARC)] student Alyssa Senna said “I feel like there’s a stereotype for all people of color and that’s how white people see us.”…

…The stigma of being a person of color in predominantly white spaces has the same level of intensity for mixed people.

“I feel almost like an alien at times,” said ARC student, Sade Butler, “because I’m black, white, and Filipino and I’m of a medium complexion, (so) a lot of people don’t see me as a person of color.”

Mixed people typically experience more privilege, referred to as “passing”, than non-mixed people of color, except in predominantly “white spaces.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity

Posted in Books, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Monographs, Philosophy, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2016-02-03 03:26Z by Steven

Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity

Baylor University Press
February 2016
190 pages
9in x 6in
Hardback ISBN: 9781602587342

Sheldon George, Professor of English
Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts

African American identity is racialized. And this racialized identity has animated and shaped political resistance to racism. Hidden, though, are the psychological implications of rooting identity in race, especially because American history is inseparable from the trauma of slavery.

In Trauma and Race author Sheldon George begins with the fact that African American racial identity is shaped by factors both historical and psychical. Employing the work of Jacques Lacan, George demonstrates how slavery is a psychic event repeated through the agencies of racism and inscribed in racial identity itself. The trauma of this past confronts the psychic lack that African American racial identity both conceals and traumatically unveils for the African American subject.

Trauma and Race investigates the vexed, ambivalent attachment of African Americans to their racial identity, exploring the ways in which such attachment is driven by traumatic, psychical urgencies that often compound or even exceed the political exigencies called forth by racism.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Race Today, or Alterity and Jouissance
  • 1. Race and Slavery: Theorizing Agencies beyond the Symbolic
  • 2. Conserving Race, Conserving Trauma: The Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • 3. Approaching the Thing of Slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  • 4. The Oedipal Complex and the Mythic Structure of Race: Ellison’s Juneteenth and Invisible Man
  • Conclusion: Beyond Race, or The Exaltation of Personality
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A course originally called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ returns to Arizona State

Posted in Articles, Campus Life, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2015-11-13 21:47Z by Steven

A course originally called ‘The Problem of Whiteness’ returns to Arizona State

The Washington Post
2015-11-12

Yanan Wang

Freedom of speech. Racial inequality. Student activism. Safe spaces.

These are the phrases that have been lobbied about over the past week, in tones both fervent and contemptuous, as University of Missouri students successfully campaigned for the resignation of their system president.

Mizzou is, of course, just the most prominent example. As The Washington Post’s Michael Miller pointed out Tuesday, similar debates are being had and protests held across the country, for instance at Yale University and Ithaca College.

At the center of all these debates is another word: whiteness.

At some universities, there are classes dedicated to understanding the notions of whiteness, white supremacy and what the field’s proponents see as the quiet racism of white people. The professor of one such “whiteness studies” course, Lee Bebout of Arizona State University, announced recently that he would be teaching for the second time a course originally called U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness.

The syllabus described Critical Whiteness Studies as a field “concerned with dismantling white supremacy in part by understanding how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced.” Readings included works by Toni Morrison, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (“Racism without Racists”) and Jane H. Hill (“The Everyday Language of White Racism”)…

Read the entire article here.

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Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-03-10 15:20Z by Steven

Signifying without Specifying: Racial Discourse in the Age of Obama

Rutgers University Press
2011-11-01
218 Pages
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-5143-2
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-5144-9
eBook ISBN: 978-0-8135-5210-1

Stephanie Li, Professor of English
Indiana University, Bloomington

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama faced a difficult task—rallying African American voters while resisting his opponents’ attempts to frame him as “too black” to govern the nation as a whole. Obama’s solution was to employ what Toni Morrison calls “race-specific, race-free language,” avoiding open discussions of racial issues while using terms and references that carried a specific cultural resonance for African American voters.

Stephanie Li argues that American politicians and writers are using a new kind of language to speak about race. Challenging the notion that we have moved into a “post-racial” era, she suggests that we are in an uneasy moment where American public discourse demands that race be seen, but not heard. Analyzing contemporary political speech with nuanced readings of works by such authors as Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Colson Whitehead, Li investigates how Americans of color have negotiated these tensions, inventing new ways to signal racial affiliations without violating taboos against open discussions of race.

Table Of Contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Violence and Toni Morrison’s Racist House
  • 2. Hiding the Invisble Hurt of Race
  • 3. The Unspeakable Language of Race and Fantasy in the Stories of Jhumpa Lahiri
  • 4. Performing Intimacy: “Race-Specific, Race-Free Language” in Political Discourse
  • Conclusion: The Demands of Precious
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Sweetness

Posted in Articles, Media Archive on 2015-02-07 02:18Z by Steven

Sweetness

The New Yorker
2015-02-09 Issue

Toni Morrison

It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color. Tar is the closest I can think of, yet her hair don’t go with the skin. It’s different—straight but curly, like the hair on those naked tribes in Australia. You might think she’s a throwback, but a throwback to what? You should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white, married a white man, and never said another word to any one of her children. Any letter she got from my mother or my aunts she sent right back, unopened. Finally they got the message of no message and let her be. Almost all mulatto types and quadroons did that back in the day—if they had the right kind of hair, that is. Can you imagine how many white folks have Negro blood hiding in their veins? Guess. Twenty per cent, I heard. My own mother, Lula Mae, could have passed easy, but she chose not to. She told me the price she paid for that decision. When she and my father went to the courthouse to get married, there were two Bibles, and they had to put their hands on the one reserved for Negroes. The other one was for white people’s hands. The Bible! Can you beat it? My mother was a housekeeper for a rich white couple. They ate every meal she cooked and insisted she scrub their backs while they sat in the tub, and God knows what other intimate things they made her do, but no touching of the same Bible.

Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can we avoid being spit on in a drugstore, elbowed at the bus stop, having to walk in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, being charged a nickel at the grocer’s for a paper bag that’s free to white shoppers? Let alone all the name-calling. I heard about all of that and much, much more. But because of my mother’s skin color she wasn’t stopped from trying on hats or using the ladies’ room in the department stores. And my father could try on shoes in the front part of the shoe store, not in a back room. Neither one of them would let themselves drink from a “Colored Only” fountain, even if they were dying of thirst…

Read the entire short story here.

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Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-03-20 21:33Z by Steven

Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative

African American Review
Volume 35, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 205-217

Juda Bennett, Associate Professor of English
The College of New Jersey

Passing for white, a phenomenon that once captivated writers as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, and Mark Twain, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists. The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century, which includes canonical writers like William Faulkner and forgotten stars like Edna Ferber, is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity. In considering the relative disappearance of the passing figure from contemporary literature, this essay begins with neither a clear and substantial presence nor a complete absence of passing in the work of one of our most important novelists, Toni Morrison.

In each of her seven novels and in her sole short story, Toni Morrison invokes the passing myth, sometimes in only one or two paragraphs and often with indirection. The Bluest Eye, for example, features a dark-skinned child who cannot possibly pass for white, yet Pecola ignores biology and becomes (if only to herself) a blue-eyed Shirley Temple. Although some might consider Pecola’s delusion a weak or perhaps specious representation of passing for white, The Bluest Eye artfully reinforces its interest in racial passing by alluding to Peola, the passing figure in Imitation of Life. This intertextual play effectively evokes the myth without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way
Morrison decenters and deforms the traditional passing figure. Why?

It is my hope that this overview, although focused on Morrison, will be suggestive of larger shifts in culture, politics, and aesthetics. Why, for example, has the passing figure, after holding a central place in the imaginations of early-twentieth-century writers, been consigned to the margins of late-twentieth-century novels concerned with race? Why did Nella Larsen and Langston Hughes address the subject directly, even entitling works Passing and “Who’s Passing for Who?” while Morrison approaches the subject indirectly and often in a subplot or through an allusion? Are there certain stories that are considered embarrassing, passe, or even dangerous? Are there stories, furthermore, that simply cannot be told or, rather, cannot be told simply?…

Read the entire article here.

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English 4640G: Construction of Racial Identity in Post Civil War America

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-01-16 15:29Z by Steven

English 4640G: Construction of Racial Identity in Post Civil War America

Huron University College at Western University
London, Ontario, Canada
Winter 2013

Neil Brooks, Associate Professor, English

Course Description: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination argues that the canonical American literary tradition can only be understood after recognizing the presence of an often silenced, but almost ubiquitous Africanist persona. This persona served as a negative stereotype against which the dominant American identity could define itself. However, even Morrison’s groundbreaking work re-inscribes the binary between Black and White in America and fails to theorize adequately the ways in which bi-racial and multi-racial identity have complicated the ideologies she discusses. This course will begin with Morrison’s analysis and then look at several novels and stories which the explore the instability of any color line between Black and White in America.

Course Objectives: This course addresses the examination of how racial identity, particularly mixed race identity, is constructed in America through close engagement with selected literary works written by Americans since the end of the Civil War. By the end of the course students should have improved their critical reading and writing in ways which will enable their success in a wide variety of University courses. Further, students will have learned American historical background, feminist literary theory, patterns of racial construction, theories of performativity, and skills in analyzing artistic achievement within the works. Finally, the course aims to provide the framework for applying these skills and knowledge in engaging with the narratives students will encounter and create outside the classroom.

Course Material:

For more information, click here.

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