Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-07-13 20:00Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Black]

TDR: The Drama Review
Volume 59, Number 2, Summer 2015 (T226)
pages 178-180

Alex W. Black
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 336 pages.

Imperfect Unions is Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s award-winning study of “the symbolic and material implications of interracial unions” in the United States from the Civil War to World War I (3). During this period, interracial sex was often “the black-white headliner that overwrote stories featuring other intersecting relationships,” including those of gender and class (xvi). For example: In her 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors, Ida B. Wells demonstrated that black men were lynched in the postbellum South not because they were a sexual threat to white women, but because they were an economic threat to white men. Paulin calls the process through which miscegenation came to stand in for such conflict “demographic distillation” for the way it “elided other types of power relations” (x, xiii). Interpreting drama and fiction to investigate “the contours of the color line,” Paulin argues that “the black-white encounter overshadows the complex” identities of, and relations between, all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity (xi, ix).

Paulin’s “miscegenated reading practices” draw on performance studies and literary history to examine formally hybrid productions like Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman, which he adapted from his own novel, and Pauline Hopkins’s Winona, which she began as a play but rewrote as a novel (xiii). If the name Paulin gives to her method is provocative (one may argue how parallel the lines of color and of scholarship are), the method itself is productive. Her approach is consistent with the objects of study, which often make their arguments in theatrical terms — many are filled with spectacular enactments of identity — and with their creators, who worked in multiple media. More than viewing performance as a metaphor, these writers saw their texts as “mediating between the imagined world and the realities of everyday experience” (3): Louisa May Alcott based “M.L.” on the well-known case of a black male professor eloping with a white female student (30); Charles Chesnutt sent a copy of The Marrow of Tradition to Congress (104); James Weldon Johnson wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man while serving as an American consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua (206).

In the first chapter, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates,” Paulin shows that miscegenation was viewed as a threat to the family and the nation it represented. In the Civil War era, America was figured as a divided house and as a mixed race. The title character of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon embodies and inspires transgression: the other characters respond to her resistance to classification by revolting against their own classes — and races and genders (13, 10). Both of Alcott’s 1863 short stories, “M.L.” and “My Contraband,” feature white women who desire mixed-race men and their own liberation from patriarchal society (32, 44).

In the book’s second chapter, “Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy,” Paulin describes how Americans dramatized national issues on an international stage. In the period between Reconstruction and Plessy v. Ferguson, they imagined Europe as a place where miscegenation originated or where it could settle and be resolved. The ambiguous racial status of the heroines of Bartley Campbell’s 1882 play The White Slave and William Dean Howells’s 1892 novel An Imperative Duty are resolved through marriage. In the former, a man declares his granddaughter (fathered by a foreigner and born abroad) to be his slave’s daughter to hide her illegitimate birth; her whiteness and their property are redeemed when she marries her grandfather’s adopted son (70–71). In the latter, a woman who learns that her mother was an octoroon chooses marriage to a white man and emigration to Europe over the cause of black uplift (87).

In chapter 3, “Staging the Unspoken Terror,” Paulin finds that Americans at the turn of the century connected the future of the nation’s government to the issue of miscegenation (102). This is the first chapter to present texts by a black writer and a white writer who take opposing positions, even if they foresee the same outcome: In Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, a white woman is killed (and rumored to have been…

Read or purchase the review here.

Tags: , , ,

Before Rachel Dolezal, there was Walter White

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-16 17:24Z by Steven

Before Rachel Dolezal, there was Walter White

The Christian Science Monitor

Randy Dotinga

The man known as ‘Mr. NAACP’ was blonde, blue-eyed and 5/32nd black, all of which provoked an outcry similar to that over contemporary NAACP official Rachel Dolezal.

Walter White, known as “Mr. NAACP,” didn’t look black. He had blue eyes and blonde hair, and his enemies sought to smear him as an opportunist who lied about his race and couldn’t possibly understand the black experience. But the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People persevered through much of the 20th century and left a stunning if tarnished legacy.

White energized the refined halls of the NAACP, brought together literary stars of the Harlem Renaissance, and helped craft the partial demise of segregation. He battled lynching, convinced politicians to kill the Supreme Court nomination of a racist and hobnobbed with the famous. Sixty years after his death, White is eclipsed in modern memory by other civil-rights leaders. Few know about his remarkable struggle to be seen as the genuine article by other African-Americans, and his vicious battles with fellow leaders like W. E. B. DuBois.

But this month, the ever-bubbling issue of blackness – who has it, who doesn’t, and why it matters – is on tongues across the country amid the roaring debate over Rachel Dolezal, a NAACP official in Spokane, Wash. White’s story resonates as Dolezal, who may not be black as she’s claimed, faces a national storm.

Here are 5 Things to Know about Walter White and Racial Identity, gleaned from his crisply written 1948 memoir A Man Called White and author Thomas Dyja’s perceptive and often-critical 2008 biography Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

‘Mislaid,’ by Nell Zink

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-12 21:45Z by Steven

‘Mislaid,’ by Nell Zink

Sunday Book Review
The New York Times

Walter Kirn

Agata Nowicka

Zink, Nell, Mislaid: A Novel (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015). 242 pages.

Toward the middle of Nell Zink’sMislaid,” a screwball comic novel of identity, Karen, a Southern white girl whose lesbian mother has raised her as black for complicated reasons, innocently asks a new friend, as though she were inquiring about her major: “What minority are you?”

“Hispanic,” her friend replies. “We’ve never done the genealogy, but you can tell by my name.”

In context, this is a laugh line, since the book has already answered, in a hundred ways, the question of what exactly is in a name: Nothing. Names mean nothing. They are labels stamped on mysteries, absurdly reductive and misleading. The same goes for racial and gender designations, which, in the book, are infallibly irrelevant to the highly individual business of living and loving according to our instincts rather than larger, social expectations. In “Mislaid” everyone is a minority — of one…

…When Peggy finally leaves her husband, afraid that he’ll commit her to a psych ward for various acts of dramatic exasperation (including driving their car into the lake), she takes their daughter but leaves their son behind, setting the stage for a latter-day fairy tale thick with misunderstandings and coincidences, concealments and revelations. Rigging up the machinery of this plot consumes a lot of narrative energy and asks us to suspend our disbelief to greater and greater degrees, changing the book from a comedy of manners into an outright comedy of errors. Peggy moves into an abandoned house in a historically black rural settlement and gets her hands on a dead child’s birth certificate, which she uses to conceal her daughter’s past. She renames herself Meg and her daughter becomes “Karen,” who, per the stolen certificate, is black. “Maybe you have to be from the South to get your head around blond black people,” the helpful narrator chimes in by way of quieting readers’ skepticism. “Virginia was settled before slavery began, and it was diverse. There were tawny black people with hazel eyes. Black people with auburn hair, skin like butter and eyes of deep blue green. Blond, blue-eyed black people resembling a recent chairman of the N.A.A.C.P. The only way to tell white from colored for purposes of segregation was the one-drop rule: If one of your ancestors was black — ever in the history of the world, all the way back to Noah’s son Ham — so were you.”…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

‘Loving Day,’ by Mat Johnson

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2015-06-08 01:18Z by Steven

‘Loving Day,’ by Mat Johnson

Sunday Book Review
The New York Times

Baz Dreisinger, Associate Professor of English
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln declared in his 1858 speech presaging the Civil War. Such a house sits at the heart of Mat Johnson’s ribald, incisive novel “Loving Day.” Bequeathed to the narrator, Warren Duffy, by his deceased father, it’s a roofless, ramshackle mansion in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia: “I look at the buckling floors. I look at the cracks in all the walls, the evidence of a foundation crumbling beneath us. I smell the char of the fire, the sweet reek of mold, the insult of mouse urine. I see a million things that have to be fixed, restored, corrected, each one impossible and each task mandatory for me to escape again.”

The house is haunted. There are ghosts, mostly of neighborhood crackheads — that is, if we take Warren’s word for it; our narrator’s psyche is as wrecked as his inheritance. An “inept” comic book artist — “My work is too realistic, too sober” — he has moved back to America from Wales after a failed business and broken marriage. He’s wrecked, too, by his liminal ­racial status: His father was an Irishman, his mother was black and he comfortably claims neither — call him a man divided against himself. “I am a racial optical illusion,” he says.

Warren lives and breathes what W. E. B. Du Bois called double consciousness, by which the American black person is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others. . . . One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Except Warren’s body is white, making things even thornier; he’s perpetually performing a black identity that isn’t written all over his face — as when he describes “letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.”…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

Review: Mat Johnson’s ‘Loving Day’ Takes a Satirical Slant on Racial Identities

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2015-06-08 01:06Z by Steven

Review: Mat Johnson’s ‘Loving Day’ Takes a Satirical Slant on Racial Identities

The New York Times

Dwight Garner, Senior writer and book critic

Mat Johnson’s new novel, “Loving Day,” takes its title from an unofficial holiday, one his narrator likens to “Mulatto Christmas.” It’s the observance of the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which in 1967 decriminalized interracial marriage in America.

Mr. Johnson, whose previous novels include the excellent “Pym” (2011), is himself the product of such a marriage — his mother is black, his father not just white but Irish white — and the politics of his own racial mix is a topic he’s written about with discernment and a rumbling wit.

In The New York Times Magazine recently, he described learning from a DNA test that he is 26 percent African. “I wasn’t a mustefino,” he said, as if paging through a field guide. “(Who has even heard of a mustefino?) I surpassed octoroon status, too; I was a quadroon with a percentage point to spare.”

“Loving Day” is about being blackish in America, a subject about which Mr. Johnson has emerged as satirist, historian, spy, social media trickster (follow him on Twitter) and demon-fingered blues guitarist.

The novel is about a man in early middle age named Warren Duffy, who loosely resembles Mr. Johnson. That is, he’s a culturally sophisticated black man who can just about pass for white. He considers himself “black, with an asterisk,” adding, “The asterisk is my whole body.”…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

The Time of the Multiracial

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-06-01 22:20Z by Steven

The Time of the Multiracial

American Literary History
Published Online: 2015-06-01
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajv026

Habiba Ibrahim, Associate Professor of English
University of Washington, Seattle

Habiba Ibrahim is the author of  Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (2012). Her current book project, Oceanic Lifespans, examines how age and racial blackness have been mutually constituted.

These three recent studies all read how mixed racialism expresses and challenges the terms of US nationalism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Collectively, they account for a period when the nation developed as a global force through a series of racializing projects, implemented through intra- and international war, imperialist expansion and conquest, and the consolidation of the color line at home. Tropes such as miscegenation, tragic mulatta, and genres of mixedness such as the “racial romance” (Sheffer 3) reveal a key aspect of the cultural imagination during the turbulent era that led up to and inaugurated the “American Century.” Figures of deviant intimacy—interracial sex, incest, same-sex filiation—and figures of gender, such as the mulatto/a, and the tragic muse revealed the cultural outcomes of the unfinished project of nation building. All of these studies take racial mixedness and its correlating categories as key analytical starting points for unmasking the neutrality or invisibility of state power. Thus, they bring to mind the urgency of the current moment: what analytics can interrupt the post-ness—postracialism, postfeminism, and postidentitarianism—of the present?

1. Neoliberalism, Postidentity

Twenty years ago, mixed racialism first appealed to literary scholars because it offered a critical space in which to explore the era’s political contradictions and transitions. During the heyday of the so-called multiracial movement, key developments in the cultural politics of identity were well under way. The culture wars were still raging with neoconservative moralists and left-of-center liberals vying for influence over social and political life. At the same time, neoconservatives…

Read or purchase the review of the three books here.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

On The Cherokee Rose, Historical Fiction, and Silences in the Archives

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2015-05-27 01:44Z by Steven

On The Cherokee Rose, Historical Fiction, and Silences in the Archives

Process: a blog for american history

Martha S. Jones, Arthur F Thurnau Professor, Associate Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies
University of Michigan

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan on the faculties in Afroamerican and African studies, history, and law. She is also a codirector of the university’s Program in Race, Law, and History. The author of the forthcoming Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America and a coeditor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), she is at work on a new book entitled “Riding the Atlantic World Circuit: Slavery and Law after the Haitian Revolution.” She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

The Cherokee Rose, the debut novel by historian Tiya Miles, caught me in the middle of a longstanding argument. I had pre-ordered the book from its publisher John F. Blair, and so it arrived unexpectedly, as if unsummoned. It was March, a busy moment in the term. Still, I stole time that Saturday, reading it nearly cover-to-cover in one sitting. I left the last chapter until the next day, just to savor the experience. Miles is my colleague at the University of Michigan, and that hints at why I’d let my email pile up just to read a work of fiction. Generally, I’m the sort that lets a stack of books accumulate for later summer reading. But there was more. As I said, I was trying to settle an argument and thought The Cherokee Rose might help.

Many of us know Miles for her award-winning works of history: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family (University of California Press, 2006), The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), and Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (also coming from UNC Press this fall). Miles’ insight into the intimate dynamics of slavery at the crossroads of Native American and African American experience has won her professional accolades and an eager readership. In this sense, while The Cherokee Rose is fiction, it is no sharp departure. Miles builds upon what she had already taught us, including her exploration of Georgia’s Chief Vann House, to provide a new vantage point from which to explain the past…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

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…

Tags: , , , ,

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…

Tags: , , ,

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…

Tags: , , , ,