Caroline H. Yang, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, English
University of Illinois, Chicago
Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937, by Julia H. Lee. New York: New York University Press, 2011. xi + 219 pp. ISBN: 9780814752555.
That 1896 is a defining year in the history of segregation and unequal citizenship in the United States is obviously common knowledge in critical race studies. What Julia Lee teaches us about the moment in Interracial Encounters is probably not: that the Chinese figured significantly in Plessy v. Ferguson as a crucial component in both the majority and dissenting opinions on whether or not segregation based on race—specifically, blackness—was constitutional. According to Lee, the discourse of what it meant to be Chinese was influential to the definition of what it meant to be black, as both opinions adjudicated the placement of black bodies on a black–white racial binary through the figure of the Chinese. Naming the Plessy case as “the document that most dramatically reveals the ways that the figure of the Negro and the Asiatic were intertwined in this period” (42), Lee suggests in the rest of her book that 1896 was significant in not only instituting segregation but also inaugurating a particular brand of misreading. And this common misreading about the Plessy case has glossed over and continues to make invisible what she calls “encounters” between African Americans and Asians during this time, encounters wrought by the complexities of the historical moment following black emancipation and enfranchisement, as well as labor migrations from Asia.
Interracial Encounters demonstrates that not accounting for the significance of Chineseness in how blackness was defined in the Plessy case had a critical role in how race was understood in the United States for much of the twentieth century. In this way, Lee’s close reading of the Plessy case speaks to her book’s methodological interventions. It shows the importance of literary studies in not just historical analyses of texts that have been read heretofore as concerning only blacks and whites but also Afro-Asian critique. As part of a vibrant and rising field of study that teases out Afro-Asian connections and disconnections, Lee’s book makes clear why many of its proponents are Asian Americanists whose approach to critical race studies is shaped by their understanding of the vicissitudes and contradictions of the Asian racial form in the United States. Quite simply, the reading practice developed in Lee’s book is original and insightful, and it brings to light figures and forms in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literatures that have often been rendered as insignificant nonpresence unrelated to other racialized figures.
With a deep interest in writing a “historicizing project” (9), Lee points to a wide-ranging archive of minstrel show sheet music, political cartoons, and films, as well as literature, to explain that African Americans and Asians were the most rampantly compared minority groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also writes that the process of racializing the two groups was mutually constitutive and essential in the creation of the “fantasy of modern American identity” (21). Despite this, Lee argues that if and when they are remembered together in this period, they are seen as either antagonistic opposites or natural allies bonded together in solidarity based on shared experience of discrimination, violence, and exclusion. Against this way of thinking, Lee argues that we need to study not just the hegemonic ways in which blackness and Asianness became meaningful but also the ways in which African American and Asian American literatures contributed to and challenged the process of racial meaning making.
As such, save for one substantive chapter that explores the representations of African Americans and Asians in dominant popular culture from the Reconstruction period to the early twentieth century, all of the book’s chapters call attention to the formal strategies of literary texts by wide-ranging authors of color such as Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Nella Larsen, Edith Eaton, Winnifred Eaton, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Younghill Kang. Lee’s focus on these texts and authors decenters whiteness as ostensibly the a priori authentic embodiment of citizenship into which minority groups were trying to assimilate. In turn, the texts decenter the nation as a privileged site of identification as they underscore the “multilateral nature of racial encounters” (43).
Certain parts of the book illustrate just how complex and ambitious Lee…