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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“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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The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2018-03-16 01:58Z by Steven

The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom

University of Tennessee Press
2001-03-21
112 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1572331051
(Originally published in 1858)

William Wells Brown (1814-1884)

Edited by:

John Ernest, Judge Hugh M. Morris Professor of English
University of New Hampshire

A well-known nineteenth-century abolitionist and former slave, William Wells Brown was a prolific writer and lecturer who captivated audiences with readings of his drama The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858). The first published play by an African American writer, The Escape explored the complexities of American culture at a time when tensions between North and South were about to explode into the Civil War. This new volume presents the first-edition text of Brown’s play and features an extensive introduction that establishes the work’s continuing significance.

The Escape centers on the attempted sexual violation of a slave and involves many characters of mixed race, through which Brown commented on such themes as moral decay, white racism, and black self-determination. Rich in action and faithful in dialect, it raises issues relating not only to race but also to gender by including concepts of black and white masculinity and the culture of southern white and enslaved women. It portrays a world in which slavery provided a convenient means of distinguishing between the white North and the white South, allowing northerners to express moral sentiments without recognizing or addressing the racial prejudice pervasive among whites in both regions.

John Ernest’s introductory essay balances the play’s historical and literary contexts, including information on Brown and his career, as well as on slavery, abolitionism, and sectional politics. It also discusses the legends and realities of the Underground Railroad, examines the role of antebellum performance art—including blackface minstrelsy and stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—in the construction of race and national identity, and provides an introduction to theories of identity as performance.

A century and a half after its initial appearance, The Escape remains essential reading for students of African American literature. Ernest’s keen analysis of this classic play will enrich readers’ appreciation of both the drama itself and the era in which it appeared.

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‘William Wells Brown,’ by Ezra Greenspan

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2014-11-18 19:41Z by Steven

‘William Wells Brown,’ by Ezra Greenspan

The New York Times
Sunday Book Review
2014-11-14

Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita
Princeton University

Greenspan, Ezra, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)

If the publishing industry reflects the American zeitgeist, things have changed when it comes to black American historical figures. As a graduate student at Harvard decades ago, I came across William Wells Brown, the fugitive slave, abolitionist, lecturer, travelogue writer, novelist and performer whose wide-ranging intelligence turned a gaze on white people (for a change). Back then he was to be found in only one full-length biography, William Edward Farrison’s “William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer” (1969). Published by the University of Chicago Press in the twilight of the “second Reconstruction” and at the dawning of African-American studies, it depicted Brown as a representative black American. In the absence of the biographical scholarship coming after 1969, Brown’s colleagues remained ill defined. Farrison’s biography was reviewed only in publishing trade papers and a couple of history journals. What was the problem?

It wasn’t Brown’s lack of an interesting life: more on that momentarily. The main problem was that 20th-century American culture accommodated only one 19th-­century black man, a spot already taken by the monumental, best-selling Frederick Douglass. Another problem was theoretical: Farrison published his biography before the flowering of two other fields crucial to a full appreciation of Brown’s public life — the history of the book and performance art…

…The child who would be William Wells Brown was born enslaved in Kentucky, in about 1814, the son of his owner’s cousin. In St. Louis, given the job of tending a young charge also called William, his name was changed to Sandford with the carelessness characteristic of slave naming. As Sandford he worked in his owner’s medical office and on the Mississippi River’s ships and docks. After several unsuccessful attempts at escape, one with his mother, he finally fled St. Louis at about age 19. He retook his own name William and added Wells Brown in honor of the Quaker who had rescued him from starving and freezing in Ohio

Read the entire review here.

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William Wells Brown: An African American Life

Posted in Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2014-10-24 20:15Z by Steven

William Wells Brown: An African American Life

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
October 2014
624 pages
6.6 × 9.6 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-24090-0

Ezra Greenspan, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of English
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

A groundbreaking biography of the most pioneering and accomplished African-American writer of the nineteenth century.

Born into slavery in Kentucky, raised on the Western frontier on the farm adjacent to Daniel Boone’s, “rented” out in adolescence to a succession of steamboat captains on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the young man known as “Sandy” reinvented himself as “William Wells” Brown after escaping to freedom. He lifted himself out of illiteracy and soon became an innovative, widely admired, and hugely popular speaker on antislavery circuits (both American and British) and went on to write the earliest African American works in a plethora of genres: travelogue, novel (the now canonized Clotel), printed play, and history. He also practiced medicine, ran for office, and campaigned for black uplift, temperance, and civil rights.

Ezra Greenspan’s masterful work, elegantly written and rigorously researched, sets Brown’s life in the richly rendered context of his times, creating a fascinating portrait of an inventive writer who dared to challenge the racial orthodoxies and explore the racial complexities of nineteenth-century America.

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Clotel or, The President’s Daughter

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, United States on 2014-09-29 20:42Z by Steven

Clotel or, The President’s Daughter

Penguin Press
2003-12-30 (First published in December 1853)
320 Pages
Paperback ISBN: 9780142437728
ePub ISBN: 9781440626616

William Wells Brown (1814–1884)

Introduction by:

M. Giulia Fabi, Associate professor of American literature
University of Ferrara, Italy

First published in December 1853, Clotel was written amid then unconfirmed rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves. The story begins with the auction of his mistress, here called Currer, and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. The Virginian who buys Clotel falls in love with her, gets her pregnant, seems to promise marriage—then sells her. Escaping from the slave dealer, Clotel returns to Virginia disguised as a white man in order to rescue her daughter, Mary, a slave in her father’s house. A fast-paced and harrowing tale of slavery and freedom, of the hypocrisies of a nation founded on democratic principles, Clotel is more than a sensationalist novel. It is a founding text of the African American novelistic tradition, a brilliantly composed and richly detailed exploration of human relations in a new world in which race is a cultural construct.

  • First time in Penguin Classics
  • Published in time for African-American History Month
  • Includes appendices that show the different endings Brown created for the various later versions of Clotel, along with the author’s narrative of his “Life and Escape,” Introduction, suggested readings, and comprehensive explanatory notes
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William Wells Brown: A Reader

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Media Archive, Novels, United States on 2014-09-29 19:04Z by Steven

William Wells Brown: A Reader

University of Georgia Press
2008-12-15
488 pages
6 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8203-3223-9
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8203-3224-6
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8203-3634-3

William Wells Brown (1814–1884)

Edited by:

Ezra Greenspan, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of English
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

Born into slavery in Kentucky, William Wells Brown (1814–1884) was kept functionally illiterate until after his escape at the age of nineteen. Remarkably, he became the most widely published and versatile African American writer of the nineteenth century as well as an important leader in the abolitionist and temperance movements.

Brown wrote extensively as a journalist but was also a pioneer in other literary genres. His many groundbreaking works include Clotel, the first African American novel; The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom, the first published African American play; Three Years in Europe, the first African American European travelogue; and The Negro in the American Rebellion, the first history of African American military service in the Civil War. Brown also wrote one of the most important fugitive slave narratives and a striking array of subsequent self-narratives so inventively shifting in content, form, and textual presentation as to place him second only to Frederick Douglass among nineteenth-century African American autobiographers.

Ezra Greenspan has selected the best of Brown’s work in a range of fields including fiction, drama, history, politics, autobiography, and travel. The volume opens with an introductory essay that places Brown and his work in a cultural and political context. Each chapter begins with a detailed introductory headnote, and the contents are closely annotated; there is also a selected bibliography. This reader offers an introduction to the work of a major African American writer who was engaged in many of the important debates of his time.

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“A Very Different Looking Class of People”: Racial Passing, Tragedy, and the Mulatto Citizen in American Literature

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-08-05 04:53Z by Steven

“A Very Different Looking Class of People”: Racial Passing, Tragedy, and the Mulatto Citizen in American Literature

University of Southern Mississippi
2013-02-18
81 pages

Stephanie S. Rambo

Honors Prospectus Submitted to the Honors College of The University of Southern Mississippi In Fulfillment Bachelors of Arts In the Department of English

This project explores the mulatto citizen as one who prevails against tragedy, uses passing as an escape route to freedom and equality, and establishes a fixed racial identity in a color struck world. In nineteenth-century American literature, the mulatto penetrates a seemingly solid world of color to reveal racial anxieties of the time. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lonely (1852), William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853), Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857) and Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted depict these mulatto characters as agents of social change. Each of these texts present the figure of the mulatto in a historical context, as a slave in the South and free/freedman in the antebellum North. Considering these various genres (esp. the blending of fiction and nonfiction at times), this study examines how different authors take a political stance by using the mulatto figure to define U.S. citizenship.

Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a foundational text due to the political response during Abraham Lincoln’s administration and from abolitionists worldwide. Stowe represents those minorities excluded from the democratic process, namely African Americans and women who were both disenfranchised. I examine political fiction by Brown, Webb, and Harper due to their depictions of the laws of slavery and African Americans’ civil rights struggles throughout the nineteenth century. Most of these American writers were excluded themselves from the political process. Therefore, I consider these writers most capable to present the voice of the marginal, mulatto citizen.

Read the entire thesis here.

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Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing on 2012-05-18 21:04Z by Steven

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

University of Illinois Press
2001
208 pages
6 x 9 in.
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-07248-2

M. Giulia Fabi, Associate professor of American literature
University of Ferrara, Italy

Revealing the role of light-skinned black characters passing for white in African American literature

A CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2003

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel restores to its rightful place a body of American literature that has long been overlooked, dismissed, or misjudged. This insightful reconsideration of nineteenth-century African American fiction uncovers the literary artistry and ideological complexity of a body of work that laid the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance and changed the course of American letters.

Focusing on the trope of passing—black characters lightskinned enough to pass for white—M. Giulia Fabi shows how early African American authors such as William Wells Brown, Frank J. Webb, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, Frances E. W. Harper, Edward A. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson transformed traditional representations of blackness and moved beyond the tragic mulatto motif. Challenging the myths of racial purity and the color line, these authors used passing to celebrate a distinctive, African American history, culture, and worldview.

Fabi examines how early black writers adapted existing literary forms, including the sentimental romance, the domestic novel, and the utopian novel, to express their convictions and concerns about slavery, segregation, and racism. Chesnutt used passing as both a structural and a thematic element, while James Weldon Johnson innovated by parodying the earlier novels of passing and presenting the decision to pass as the result, rather than the cause, of cultural alienation. Fabi also gives a historical overview of the canon-making enterprises of African American critics from the 1850s to the 1990s and considers how their concerns about promoting the canonization of African American literature affected their perceptions of nineteenth-century black fiction.

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Le Mélange of Francophone Culture in William Wells Brown’s Clotel

Posted in Articles, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-05-07 21:36Z by Steven

Le Mélange of Francophone Culture in William Wells Brown’s Clotel

The Undergraduate Review
Volume 7, Issue 1 (2011)
pages 8-11

Sandra Andrade
Bridgewater State University, Bridgewater, Massachusetts

In Clotel; Or, The President’s Daughter, William Wells Brown argues that for fugitive African American slaves France represented freedom. This connection between African Americans and France that is familiar to many Americans in the twentieth century was existent at the time of Brown’s own escape. The Francophone culture became a major motivator in the author’s personal life and also in his writings. This project covers many themes, including the “tragic mulatta”, American identity, American freedom and slavery, and explores readings from Anna Brickhouse’s Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere, and Eve A. Raimon’s The Tragic Mulatta Revisited. Brown questions not only the impossibility of being accepted in the American society as a person of mixed race but argues that the French are better interpreters of the Declaration of Independence than the Americans. In France, Brown found a secure home among French elites and his positive experience with francophone culture helped shape his most well-known work of literature, the novel Clotel. In this sentimental novel, Brown creates a character whose hope for freedom is based upon the author’s experiences in France. Being the first western European nation to abolish slavery in its colonies, France provided hope to many African Americans.

Read the entire article here.

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