Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature by Diana Adesola Mafe (review)

Posted in Africa, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, South Africa, United States on 2015-05-26 01:30Z by Steven

Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature by Diana Adesola Mafe (review)

Research in African Literatures
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 2015
pages 166-168

Tru Leverette, Associate Professor of English
University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida

Mafe, Diana Adesola, Mixed Race Stereotypes in South African and American Literature: Coloring Outside the (Black and White) Lines (New York, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

In her recently published study, Diana Adesola Mafe explores the literary trope of the tragic mulatto through a comparative analysis of American and South African novels. Her work is both useful and timely, filling a gap in the literary study of colouredness and the transnational study of mixed race literature. Through this transnational lens, Mafe argues that the advent of the “age of Obama” and the renewed celebration of race mixture in the United States coincide with South Africa’s post-apartheid efforts to imagine itself as a Rainbow Nation. This celebration in both nations, however, overlooks important historical realities that are often explored through the literary figure of the tragic mulatto. Acknowledging that mulattos have often been “called upon to embody historic national moments” (1), Mafe asserts “a reading of South African fictions alongside American counterparts reveals the ongoing relevance of the tragic mulatto, which functions not only as a dated cliché and cautionary tale but also as a radical embodiment of possibility and a vehicle for social critique” (2). Indeed, Mafe illustrates through her analysis that the tragic mulatto has long functioned as a trope through which American and South African writers have critiqued race, identity, national belonging, and state-sanctioned racism.

Mafe begins her study with the introduction “Tainted Blood: The ‘Tragic Mulatto’ Tradition,” wherein she introduces the celebration of mixture within the contemporary sociopolitical contexts of the United States and South Africa. She also begins to address the tragic mulatto as a historical type. Acknowledging that, in the United States, the tragic mulatto trope developed as an abolitionist tool, Mafe briefly explores its origins in antebellum and postbellum literature. Additionally, she presents a justification for her comparative study, arguing “the tragic mulatto is a provocative keystone for analyzing these American and South African texts, which might otherwise have little else in common. When read alongside each other, these fictions expose mutual histories of stigmatization and marginalization for the mulatto figure” (14).

In chapter one, “God’s Stepchildren: The ‘Tragedy of Being a Halfbreed’ in South African Literature,” Mafe offers a history of miscegenation in South Africa and the United States, allowing her to trace the origins of the coloured and mulatto populations, respectively, in each nation. Having delineated this history, Mafe then turns her attention to the use of colouredness in South African fiction, which, she asserts, was not offered in-depth characterization until the twentieth century: “This development is inextricable from the emergence of colouredness as a ‘new’ social identity, mounting national interest in race categorization, and a literary shift from exploring Anglo-Boer relations to exploring black-white relations” (34). Through analyses of Sarah Gertrude Millin’s eugenicist novel God’s Step-Children and Peter Abrahams’s The Path of Thunder, Mafe establishes the literary origins and original uses of the tragic mulatto trope in South African literature. Throughout, she draws parallels with and highlights divergences from the use of the trope in American literature, in particular Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

In her next chapter, “‘An Unlovely Woman’: Bessie Head’s Mulatta (Re) Vision,” Mafe turns her analysis to the life and work of South African writer Bessie Head, specifically her novel A Question of Power, arguing “this text is a startling conceptualization of the mulatta that parallels but also challenges the efforts of earlier American writers” (59). Mafe explores the stereotype of the beautiful tragic mulatta and Head’s inversion of it through the presentation of an ugly protagonist, simultaneously exploring the novel’s ironic use of madness and its presentation of female sexuality. Since depictions of the tragic mulatta typically position her between the demands of white female respectability and the stereotype of black female passion, Head’s protagonist “destabilizes the exotic and erotic iconography of the mulatta, which is remarkably consistent in the American tradition” (63).

Turning from the tragic mulatta, in chapter three Mafe analyzes presentations of the mulatto man’s sexuality, again torn between “‘white’ propriety and ‘black’ passion” (86) and his filial relationship to his white father. In “‘A Little Yellow Bastard Boy’: Arthur Nortje’s Mulatto Manhood,” Mafe reads the father-son dynamic in…

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That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia by Arica L. Coleman (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States, Virginia on 2015-05-19 01:21Z by Steven

That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia by Arica L. Coleman (review)

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume 46, Number 1, Summer 2015
pages 126-127

Kirt von Daacke, Professor of History
University of Virginia

Coleman, Arica L., That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013)

This provocative new study engages history, anthropology, ethnic studies, and English literature as it charts “the history and legacy of Virginia’s effort to maintain racial purity and the consequences of this almost four hundred-year effort for African American–Native American relations and kinship bonds” (xv). The first four chapters attempt to set the 400-year history of Native American–black interaction in the context of the development of a racist ideology privileging white over black. The final three chapters conduct three case studies of twentieth- and twenty-first century events “regarding the social interactions of Black–Indian peoples and the ways in which Virginia Indians of African descent negotiate[d] the complex terrain of race and identity” (15).

Coleman’s interdisciplinary approach provides distinctly uneven results. She never convincingly connects that pre-1865 history with the ugly period after the passage of the Racial Integrity Act in 1924. The problems arise early. For example, Coleman claims that free people of color from the West Indies emigrated to Virginia in the wake of the start of the Haitian Revolution, but she offers no evidence other than a single citation in a secondary source about a white Virginian’s complaint that slaves became more restive after interacting with the slaves of white Haitian refugees (32). How can Armstrong Archer’s 1844 antislavery pamphlet, containing second-hand recollections about his father’s experiences in the eighteenth century, provide any sort of “exceptional insights into seventeenth century Indian–White relations from the perspective of the indigenous population” (36)? Coleman also rather uncritically accepts Archer’s pamphlet as the voice of a person who self-identified first as a Native American (36).

The second chapter focuses on the “changing state of Black–Indian relations in the nineteenth century,” using Omi and Winant’s post–Civil Rights era racial-formation theory as the foundation for its argument (64). Coleman never addresses why a theoretical model explaining the process of racial formation in the late twentieth century remains an appropriate model for understanding events of the nineteenth century. This chapter is also built upon a thin evidentiary base. It may well be that “Indians continued to be bought and sold” in Virginia after 1682, but interpreting a handful of notices stating that a runaway slave “ha[d] much the look of an Indian,” that another was “attempting to inveigle away a number of negroes to the new or Indian country,” or that yet another “had on him a new Indian blanket” as clear evidence of Native Americans on the slave market remains unconvincing (75–76). Coleman cites only five judicial cases from 1772 to 1827 in arguing that in the nineteenth century, “It became increasingly difficult to sue for freedom using the American Indian ancestress defense” (77). Furthermore, citing only two Works Progress Administration interviews from a single state remains insufficient proof that “numerous slave narratives bear witness to American Indian slavery” (79).

That weak evidentiary base resurfaces frequently when Coleman references pre-1900 Virginia or when in the midst of a provocative condemnation of the Virginia Council on Indians (VCI). For example, free people of color may have often noted Indian ancestry in claiming free status, but this assertion goes completely uncited (192). Later, Coleman asserts that Nottoway tribal members in 2007 “were well aware of the VCI’s unwritten criteria of racial purity,” but she provides no compelling evidence of the unwritten criteria and no evidence about what the Nottoway tribe might have known (219).

Despite these flaws, That the Blood Stay Pure represents a bold attempt to re-conceptualize how we think about Native American racial identity in the context of both a four-century history of racism and the modern era of tribal recognition and identity politics…

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The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Gay & Lesbian, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2015-05-18 16:52Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume 46, Number 1, Summer 2015
pages 109-111

Ruth Clifford Engs, Professor Emeritus of Applied Health Science
Indiana University, Bloomington

Sussman, Robert Wald, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Sussman’s stated purpose in the introduction to this book is to “describe the history of our myth of race and racism” (3). However, a few pages later, he admits that he has not done archival research himself but instead has “depended upon the published works of many historians, biographers, and philosophers” (9). In other words, he is basing his premises upon secondary sources that may have their own biases. He does not present a hypothesis or even a research question but boldly states what he is trying to find and backs up his thesis with interpretations that support it. This methodology could be considered historiographical research. However, rarely does he compare the interpretation of one historian with that of another in an objective manner or compare interpretations from one time period to those from another, as other historiographical researchers usually do. Researchers in the past, or present, who do not agree with his conclusions are considered “racists” or part of “the eugenic bigot brigade.” The research methods in Sussman’s work cannot be deemed historical precisely because it uses few primary sources.

Sussman suggests that for a number of years, most researchers in the fields of biology, anthropology, and genetics have agreed that biological “races” do not exist among modern humans and that race is a cultural construct, albeit with phenotypical differences among population groups. In this work, you “can’t tell a book by its cover” or, in this case, its title, since the book’s main emphasis is the evolution of the nineteenth-century hereditarian and early twentieth-century eugenics movements and its leaders and detractors into contemporary times. The book focuses on what Sussman perceives to be “racist” researchers and organizations—those who suggest the possibility of biological differences between human population groups. It glorifies the anthropological school of Franz Boas and discusses the hidden agenda of obscure philanthropic groups to re-institute immigration-restriction reform or rescind voting rights from minorities in contemporary American society.

Chapter I introduces two early concepts of race since the Middle Ages that recur throughout the book—the pre-Adamite (polygenism) and degenerate (monogenism) theories. The pre-Adamites believed that races, other than whites, were created before Adam and Eve and that they were biologically fixed. Degenerate theory suggested that environment influenced “racial” characteristics, and that all humans were created by God, though non-whites were inferiors who needed guidance from whites. The chapter discusses the many early eighteenth-and nineteenth-century scientists and thinkers who embraced these various theories, including John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Arthur de Gobineau, Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, and Francis Galton, among others.

Chapter 2 and 3 detail the early twentieth-century, American eugenics movement with a focus on various leaders, including Madison Grant, Charles Davenport, Henry Osborn, Harry Laughlin, and Henry Goddard, discussing their influence on the immigration-restriction movement, iq tests, and negative eugenics, characterized by sterilization. Sussman also covers such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the Galton Society, as well as international eugenic conferences and related issues. In his opinion, the entire eugenics movement amounts to “blatant racism” (85). He is silent about the fact that many aspects of the eugenics movement were intertwined with early twentieth-century public-health measures that sought to improve the health of the American people—regardless of ethnicity—by raising public awareness of tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and alcohol/drug abuse and by promoting exercise, clean water, good nutrition, personal hygiene, healthy children, immunization, etc.

Chapter 4, in which Sussman shows the interlinking of American with German eugenics, portrays the various leaders of the German eugenics movement, including Ernst Rüdin, Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Alfred Ploetz, and Otmar von Verschurer, through the end of Nazi Germany and World War II. Chapter 5 treats Boas’ development of the concept of culture and its effect on human populations. Chapter 6 goes into greater detail about cultural anthropology and covers the conflict between various schools of thought, each side accusing the other of not doing true science.

The remainder of the book examines the downfall of the eugenics movement in the United States and the acceptance of culture…

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Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse by Kimberly Snyder Manganelli (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2015-05-10 01:37Z by Steven

Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse by Kimberly Snyder Manganelli (review)

Volume 38, Number 2, Spring 2015
pages 405-408

Justin Rogers-Cooper, Associate Professor of English
LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York, Long Island City, New York

Manganellia, Kimberly S., Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012)

In her accessible and original book, Kimberly Synder Manganelli examines the circulation of two key figures in nineteenth-century culture and literature, the Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse, by following their evolution over the course of the nineteenth century. The book’s novelty arises from its insistence that these “two crucial literary types” should be compared across national boundaries, and should be understood as complimentary cultural archetypes (6). On both counts she succeeds, though her discussions about the life-choices possible for these figures reveal much of the text’s power. Victorianists will mark Manganelli’s transnational methodology, and literary scholars may enjoy her parallel analysis of African American and Jewish characters. Feminist and women’s studies scholars will note her attention to the sexual politics of erotic commodification linked to the commercial circulation of these genre types. The general reader will follow how “mixed-race” female protagonists won social mobility and confronted male exploitation as they maneuvered the auction block, the public stage, and the home.

Manganelli’s introduction provides a general context for her themes. She notes the transnational cult of true womanhood in the nineteenth century, and how the figures of the Tragic Muse and Tragic Mulatta intersected and diverged from it. Relying on scholars such as Shawn Michelle Smith, Manganelli asserts that these two types upset codes of ideal womanhood, an idea structured around white women, by creating a “crisis of visibility in the public sphere” (9). Many narratives revolved around the vulnerability of mixed-race women to male predation. For the enslaved Tragic Mulatta, this danger was particularly acute, and often reduced her choices to sexual submission or death. The Tragic Muse, on the other hand, functioned somewhat differently. Her artistic prowess and magnetic sexuality often allowed her other options. Transatlantic Spectacles of Race emphasizes how both types of heroines attempted “to resist the conventional narratives” (16).

In her first chapter, Manganelli looks to British, French, and American travel narratives from Jamaica and Saint-Domingue to examine how “contradictory images of white and mixed-race Creoles . . . created the Transnational Mulatta, an imperial figure who preceded the imperiled Tragic Mulatta in the eighteenth-century transatlantic imaginary” (18). The mixed-race West Indian woman inspired fears that cycled throughout the nineteenth century: she might “threaten the purity of English blood,” in this case through intermarriages by families seeking her wealth and property (26). In turn, Manganelli turns to texts such as Laurette Ravinet’s Mémoires d’une Créole du Port-au-Prince (1844) to elaborate on the ways colonial societies tried to differentiate mixed-race and white women. She argues the Transnational Mulatta morphed from mistress to heiress in novels such as the anonymously published The Woman of Color (1808) and Leonara Samsay’s Zelica, the Creole (1820), a development that would see wider reproduction decades later in novels such as Jane Eyre (1847). She argues that the Saint-Domingue Revolution altered the depiction of mixed-race West Indian women for British and American authors, from a voiceless body of anxiety and fantasy into a domestic dependent.

The second chapter extends Manganelli’s inquiry into the formation of the Tragic Mulatta by looking at the practice of plaçage in antebellum New Orleans, where free women of color could arrange financial and sexual relationships with wealthy men. Manganelli maps their transformation from “self-marketing and self-commodification to the stereotypical Tragic Mulatta, who had no sexual agency and possessed no ownership of her body” (38). As in West Indian travel narratives, some in New Orleans showed concern over segregating free women of color from white women, and therefore were upset by integrated dancehalls and by the public display of wealth by beautiful placées. In the abolitionist era, though, she tells that writers romanticized placées more frequently as “victims of interracial marriage laws” (42). Although the relative autonomy of the placées gave them “a purchase on whiteness and a certain degree of protection and economic freedom,” they remained exposed to the “racial peril” of enslavement: auctions for fair-skinned “fancy girls” brought high prices (55). Rendered both “virtuous and wanton,” the placées inspired Joseph Ingraham’s sensation novel The Quadroone, or, St. Michael’s Day

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An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2015-05-08 01:55Z by Steven

An Overlooked Classic About the Comedy of Race

The New Yorker

Danzy Senna

Illustration by Roman Muradov

The first time I read Fran Ross’s hilarious, badass novel, “Oreo,” I was living on Fort Greene Place, in Brooklyn, in a community of people I thought of as “the dreadlocked élite.” It was the late nineteen-nineties, and the artisanal cheese shops and organic juice bars had not yet fully arrived in the boroughs, though there were hints of what was to come. Poor people and artists could still afford to live there. We were young and black, and we’d moved to the neighborhood armed with graduate degrees and creative ambitions. There was a quiet storm of what the musician and writer Greg Tate described as “Black Genius” brewing in our midst. Spike Lee had set up a production studio inside the old firehouse on DeKalb Avenue. Around the corner, on Lafayette Street, was Kokobar, a black-owned espresso shop decorated with Basquiat-inspired paintings; there were whispers that Tracy Chapman and Alice Walker were investors. Around the corner, on Elliott Street, Lisa Price, a.k.a. Carol’s Daughter, sold organic hair oils and creams for kinky-curly hair out of a brownstone storefront.

Years earlier, I had read Trey Ellis’s seminal essay “The New Black Aesthetic” in my West Coast dorm room, curled beside my dreadlocked, half-Jewish boyfriend. We saw glimmers of ourselves in his description of a new generation of black artists. We, too, had been born post-civil-rights movement, post-Loving, post-soul, post-everything. We were suspicious of militancy, black or otherwise; suspicious of claims to authenticity, racial and otherwise. We were culturally hybrid—“cultural mulattos,” as Ellis put it—whether we had one white parent or not.

Now, in nineties Fort Greene, we had arrived. Many of the black kids in our midst were recovering oreos: they had grown up listening to the Clash, not Public Enemy, playing hacky-sack, not basketball. They were all too accustomed to, as my friend Jake Lamar once put it, being the only black person at the dinner party.

Only now we were throwing our own dinner party. We were demi-teint—half-tone—a shade of blackness that had been formed in a clash of disparate symbols and signifiers; there was nothing pure about us. We were authentically nothing. Each of us had experienced a degree of alienation growing up—too black to be white, or too white to be black, or too mixed to be anything—and somehow, at the same moment in time, we’d all moved into the same ten-block radius of Brooklyn.

“Oreo” came to me in this context like a strange, uncanny dream about a future that was really the past. That is, it read like a novel not from 1974 but from the near future—a book whose appearance I was still waiting for. I stared at the author photo of the woman wearing the peasant smock and her hair in an Afro and could easily imagine her moving through the streets of Fort Greene. She belonged to our world. Her blackness was our blackness…

Read the entire article here.

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Three Unmissable Books That Can Help Us Honor Our Past

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2015-05-05 14:58Z by Steven

Three Unmissable Books That Can Help Us Honor Our Past

Pacific Citizen: The National Newspaper of the JACL

Ryan Kenji Kuramitsu, JACL MDC Youth Representative

‘It was books,” wrote social critic James Baldwin, “that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

As Japanese Americans, our history and experiences offer far greater lessons than simple condemnations of the racism, war hysteria and failure of political leadership that led to our mass incarceration. Rather than trapping us in ancient history, our community’s unique moral perspective can advantage us to speak into a number of modern social struggles, connecting us with all people who are alive.

In this vein, here are three unmissable books that can help us honor our past as we continue to draw fresh connections to present challenges…

…3.  “Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World” — In her debut work, sociologist and critical mixed-race theorist Sharon H. Chang brings years of research and writing experience to the project of aiding multiracial Asian American families navigate critical conversations on multiracial identity. Chang’s holistic and intersectional work delves into intensive interviews with 68 parents of mixed-race children, providing readers with invaluable insight and practical observations on the labor of raising multiracial Asian children in a “post-racial” society forever fixated on a black-white racial binary…

Read the entire retive here.

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Racial Reflections

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-23 00:28Z by Steven

Racial Reflections

American Book Review
Volume 36, Number 2, January/February 2015
page 13
DOI: 10.1353/abr.2015.0007

Ben Railton, Associate Professor of English
Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Even without a back-cover blurb from Isabel Wilkerson, it seems inevitable that Allyson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America would be compared to Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Both books focus on an American history with which we’re all vaguely familiar but know far too little of its specifics and complexities. Both works use the individual, intimate stories of American lives, families, and communities to consider these sweeping cultural and historical issues. And both are entirely successful in bringing their readers into those stories and histories, helping them understand American identities and communities in a way that perhaps no prior work has accomplished.

However, Hobbs’s most fundamental choice to structure each of her chapters around a different time period differentiates her book from Wilkerson’s in an important way. That is, most of the collective narratives of passing have focused on the same late nineteenth–through mid–twentieth–century time period that comprised the Great Migration—the period between, let’s say, Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and the 1950s version of the film Imitation of Life (1959; a remake of the 1934 original), with James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) marking significant stages along the way. Hobbs’s third and fourth chapters also focus on this period, but through her extended attention to all the aforementioned works and figures and many others (such as the pioneering turn of the century sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who both analyzed and experienced these issues of identity; or the Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Jean Toomer, whose writings and life complement each other to provide a rounded picture of passing in 1920s and 1930s), she urges the reader to better understand breadth and depth of the era.

But by the time Hobbs brings her readers to those chapters and that new look at a somewhat familiar time period, she has already provided an even more striking shift in our perspectives on passing through her first and second chapters. In those chapters, she narrates and analyzes the far different yet still interconnected histories and stories of passing in the pre-Civil War and Reconstruction periods, convincingly portraying the issue as one that has persisted and evolved alongside American society and culture throughout the centuries. Indeed, these earlier chapters expanded and challenged some of my most basic understandings of passing: it’s impossible to think of it as simply a choice between different possible identities and communities, for example, when considering the case of William and Ellen Craft, the fugitive slaves who used both racial and gender passing as a conjoined strategy to gain their freedom. Is passing a choice if it is necessary for freedom and even survival? If not, might that also help us see the necessities and even at times inevitabilities of twentieth-century acts of passing as well? Such are the kinds of questions prompted by Hobbs’s Chapter 1 investigation of antebellum passing.

These striking earlier chapters have another, corollary effect: they also force us to reexamine the time periods under consideration through the new lens provided by the issue of passing. Ever since Frederick Douglass highlighted in the first chapter of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) the prevalence of master-slave rape and thus miscegenation on plantations, we’ve had at least some collective sense of how arbitrary the racial categories and definitions by which the slave system was divided were—of why Douglass was defined as an African American slave while his father’s other children were free white men and women. But what Hobbs’s stories and analyses remind us is that, thanks to such racial mixing as well as many other factors, race was also a slippery, liminal category in the era—one that could be manipulated and altered in the right moments and circumstances. Successful manipulations were, no doubt, as rare as escapes such as Douglass’s, but, still, the existence of slave passing at all underscores the instability of race and other identity markers in…

Read the entire review here.

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Color Blindness and Racial Politics in the Era of Obama

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-04-21 01:46Z by Steven

Color Blindness and Racial Politics in the Era of Obama

Books & Ideas

Andrew J. Diamond, Professor of American History and Civilization
Université Paris-Sorbonne, France

At a time when a supposedly “post-racial” America is becoming increasingly polarized over its first black president, historian Thomas Sugrue proposes a badly needed perspective on Obama’s attempts to negotiate between color blindness and race consciousness. Despite the depth of his historical perspective, he understates how destructive Obama’s religious moralism is for the cause of racial progress.

Reviewed: Thomas J. Sugrue, Not Even Past. Barack Obama and the Burden of Race, Princeton University Press, 2010, 178p., $24.95

Thomas J. Sugrue’s Not Even Past is one of the latest contributions to the exploding field of Obama studies. Sugrue discloses in the opening pages that he voted for Barack Obama, made a small financial contribution to his campaign, and even worked on the candidate’s urban advisory committee, but his objective in his own rendering of Obama’s breathtaking rise to the White House is “balance”. In a moment when the United States is becoming increasingly polarized over its first black president, with a rising crescendo of criticism on both the right and left of the American political spectrum, this is an ambitious project to say the least. But Sugrue, an eminent Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the new urban historiography of race and power in the postwar American metropolis, is just the guy for the job, even if, in the final analysis, Obama’s detractors will no doubt have more complaints with the book than his supporters. And yet, if one gets the sense that Sugrue is at times pulling punches, he ultimately manages to produce an even-handed and illuminating analysis of the Obama story.

Not Even Past, which consists of three essays adapted from a series of lectures the author presented at Princeton University in 2009, stands out among the recent works on what Barack Obama means to the United States, in part, because Sugrue remains true to his métier. Joining a field crowded with works of a somewhat polemical and journalistic bent, Sugrue delivers a rich, lucid, and badly needed account of the historical events, political movements, and ideological currents that shaped the ground upon which Obama negotiated his racial identity, developed his political views, and positioned himself for an improbable run for the presidency. Yet, this is as much a story about the world that made the man than it is about the man himself. “It is the story”, Sugrue writes, “of a journey through one of the most contentious periods of America’s racial history, through America’s post-1960s multicultural turn, into the syncretic black urban politics of the late twentieth century, onto the contested intellectual and cultural terrain of race and ‘identity politics’ in the late 1980s and 1990s, and finally to a moment in the early twenty-first century when America still lived in the shadow of the unfinished civil rights struggles of the previous century while influential journalists, politicians, and scholars hailed the emergence of a post-racial order” (p. 16). These were treacherous waters indeed for black politicians and white liberals alike, both of whom had to navigate a course through the ideological cross-currents of color blindness and race consciousness. These conditions had the Democratic Party lost at sea for the good part of three decades. Obama’s journey to political and racial self-discovery is also the story of how the Democrats rediscovered their bearings in a country drifting ineluctably rightward…

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Race and Republicanism

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2015-04-20 18:34Z by Steven

Race and Republicanism

Books & Ideas
2015-02-23 (Originally published in laviedesidees.fr on February 17, 2014.)

Dominique Schnapper, Director of Studies
École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, France

Translated by (with the support of the Florence Gould Foundation):

Michael C. Behrent

Though race is socially constructed, it nonetheless really exists: consequently, Magali Bessone argues, the concept of race must be taken into consideration when fighting racism. But what positive content can be given to the “critical republicanism” she advocates?

Reviewed: Magali Bessone, Sans distinction de race ? Une analyse critique du concept de race et de ses effets pratiques, [Without Race Distinctions? A Critical Analysis of the Concept of Race and its Practical Effects] Paris, Vrin, “Philosophie concrète”, 2013. 240 p., 24 €.

On a topic that might seem rather overdone, Magali Bessone has written a remarkable book, one that sparkles with intelligence and culture. She seeks to deconstruct a concept that has become taboo in France, though it is commonly used by English-speaking scholars and statisticians. With great flair, she proposes an analysis that can be summed up in several propositions encompassing the very core of her arguments.

  1. Biologists have now established that racial categories (not to be confused with racism, despite complex affinities with it), which became systematic following the encounter with the Other during the Age of Discovery and the eighteenth-century attempt to classify species, do not exist. There are no homogeneous populations groups that can be defined once and for all, and which are different from and unequal to others. Skin color, which for a long time was used to distinguish human races (depending on the author, there were four, five, or seven races, thus proving that race is not self-evident), is but one marker of geographic and historical affiliation among others. Essentialist ways of thinking, which attribute specific and final characteristics to particular population groups, have no biological basis. Differences between individuals are greater than differences between groups, and the boundaries between human groups are porous. “There is no racial essence that can be defined coherently from a biological point of view” (p. 71).
  2. As a result of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of certain races’ claims to superiority, the French have generally replaced the term “race” with “ethnicity” or “culture.” Scholars are afraid that they will be accused of believing race exists if they use a term that, as biologists have shown, lacks any scientific basis and, as historians have demonstrated, was used to justify colonialism and genocide. Yet, as Pierre-André Taguieff has already argued, these terms are not immune to the criticisms directed against race, since ethnicity and culture are characterized by permanent and inherited traits. Consequently, this strategy does not lead to the abandonment of essentialist ways of thinking, which are constitutive of racial thinking. This is the reason I proposed getting beyond the American sociological debate over the validity of the concepts of “racial” or “ethnic group” by proposing that of “historical collectivity.”…

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Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-04-03 19:37Z by Steven

Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun (review)

Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2015
pages 127-130
DOI: 10.1353/con.2015.0000

Lindsey Andrews, Visiting Scholar of English
Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Braun, Lundy, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Lundy Braun’s account of the ongoing and often invisible implementation of race-correction in pulmonary medicine is as much about the absence of the spirometer—a machine developed to measure lung function with accuracy—as it is about its presence. Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics asks how it is possible that, well into the twenty-first century, doctors continue to use technologies that “correct” for racial differences in lung function despite no existing physiological difference. How did buttons establishing separate norms based on race and sex come to be a surreptitious, yet pervasive feature of diagnostic machinery? The answer lies in a much larger story about the desirability, across multiple domains and professions, of a technically precise means for measuring the elusive quality that physicians, scientists, and insurance companies came to think of as “vital capacity” or “fitness.” Building explicitly on Keith Wailoo’s Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America (1997) and contributing to a growing body of literature on race in science and technology, Braun’s study “examine[s] the complex and contradictory historical processes by which differences such as race, class, and gender actually get embedded into the very architecture of scientific instruments” (p. xxi).

Braun tracks the proliferation of spirometric uses, from the machine’s earliest emergence as a tool for monitoring laborers’ fitness in the middle of the nineteenth century, through its development as a medical diagnostic tool in the twentieth century, to its contemporary role in adjudicating worker’s compensation claims. One of the most intriguing aspects of Braun’s book—and at times its most challenging feature—is its attempt to account for the ways in which the spirometer’s flexibility (rather than its specificity) as a precision tool and its unclear object of measurement (vital capacity) made it, in fact, such a powerful tool that would come to play a crucial global role in health- and insurance-policy decisions. What Braun ultimately shows is that separate though related epistemological problems regarding vital capacity emerged across multiple fields—including labor surveillance, fitness culture, and diagnostic medicine—to which precision and numeracy appeared to be the answer. The spirometer provided both. As Braun notes, spirometry was not central to any one discipline, but instead found myriad uses in physical education, military testing and training, and insurance assessment. “As its epistemological relevance faded in one domain,” she writes, “it was taken up, adapted, and investigated in another” (p. xxv). Whether shoring up Anglo-Saxon masculinity by establishing the superiority of upper-class white lungs in nineteenth-century physical culture or enforcing anti-black workers’ compensation policies that required blacks to demonstrate even lower lung functioning than similarly positioned white workers in order to receive remuneration, the capacity of the spirometer to produce numeric data was both its appeal in terms of authority and simultaneously its most easily racialized feature—a feature made invisible in the apparent “value neutrality” of a scientific virtue (a concept that Braun draws from Lorainne Daston and Peter Galison) like precision.

Tracing the international and professional border-crossing of the spirometer is one of the book’s primary accomplishments, but also one of its challenges for readers. In the course of seven chapters, Braun is tasked with moving back and forth from the twenty-first to the early nineteenth century, and from Wales, to the US South, to South Africa, negotiating a narrative that is neither straightforward nor linear, although always following a through-line in which assessment of the laboring body and management of the laboring class drive spirometric racialization. Early chapters cover the stabilization of whiteness as a meaning of lung-capacity measurements. In the first chapter, Braun shows how John Hutchinson, a Victorian scientist and early developer of the spirometer, reconfigured pulmonary studies in terms of physiological functioning rather than anatomical construction, thus tapping into growing investments in scientific experimentalism and the “quantifying spirit” of the Victorian era by adapting the spirometer’s use to large-scale population studies. Chapter 1 thus lays the groundwork for the third and fourth chapters, which also detail the ways in which lung-capacity measurements, along with anthropometry

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