Uncanny Compulsions: Automatism, Trauma, and Memory in Of One Blood

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-07-26 20:41Z by Steven

Uncanny Compulsions: Automatism, Trauma, and Memory in Of One Blood

Volume 39, Number 2, Spring 2016
pages 473-492
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2016.0076

Joshua Lam, Adjunct Professor, American Literature and Composition
State University of New York, Buffalo

In recent years, critics have begun to frame slavery in the United States in terms of haunting and trauma studies, directing us to consider the ways in which texts such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) “disturb our sense of historical time” (Tuhkanen 335). Yet as Mikko Tuhkanen suggests in his analysis of temporality in Hagar’s Daughter (1901–1902), Pauline Hopkins may well have been one of the first African American novelists to situate slavery in terms of trauma’s ghostly presence. Indeed, Hopkins’s turn-of-the-century fictions are filled with references to spirits and specters, and are overwhelmingly concerned with the continued effects of slavery on the post-slavery nation. Scholars have been especially attentive to the prevalence of racial passing in Hopkins’s narratives, focusing on the ways in which her novels expose the imbrication of slavery and miscegenation in order to combat the ideology of racial purity. Yet few scholars have discussed the connection between Hopkins’s ghostly depictions of slavery and the discourse of hysteria in French psychiatry and American psychology, especially evident in her novel Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self (1902–1903). This is perhaps because the novel is singular in its use of hysterical illness, historically the provenance of European and Anglo-American white women, to frame the traumas propagated by the legacy of slavery upon black bodies. Indeed, while feminist critiques of the discourse of hysteria are now well known, scholars have been less attentive to the ways in which this discourse intersects with turn-of-the-century racial ideologies. Yet as Of One Blood demonstrates, the nascent discourse of hysteria, with its genesis in nineteenth-century mesmerism and spiritualism, provides an uncanny lens through which the complex legacies of slavery, miscegenation, and historical trauma can be witnessed.

Drawing upon the vast network of associations linking hysterical “automatism” to double consciousness, automatic writing, and hypnosis, Of One Blood evokes a variety of discourses—psychological, psychical, spiritualistic, historical, romantic, occult—to interrogate the trauma and historical violence perpetrated against black bodies and psyches. The novel focuses upon two African American characters, Reuel Briggs and Dianthe Lusk, who both pass as white and suffer from different hysterical illnesses: Reuel from a neurasthenic melancholy, and Dianthe from “nervous shock” and what Reuel (a doctor) calls “a dual mesmeric trance” (Hopkins, Of One Blood 472). More than merely adopting a medical discourse that primarily applied to Anglo-Americans, however, the novel uses “automatism” to represent conflicted acts of ambiguous agency and volition. Throughout the novel, Reuel and Dianthe are shocked, silenced, moved, mesmerized, and manipulated by others—cast as living automatons. Indeed, Hopkins’s novel presents a decisive understanding of the ways in which automatism—hysterical, mesmeric, or traumatic—signals suspended agency, and Of One Blood is inseparable from the connections between these discourses and the legacy of racial violence in the United States.

Hopkins’s endeavor hinges upon its incompletion, however, for Of One Blood equally participates in a project of racial uplift in which individual will is subordinated to the will of a God who has made us “all of one blood.” Adopting popular pan-African themes in what Kevin Gaines identifies as a key strategy of racial uplift ideology, Hopkins “sought to make civilization a racially inclusive, universal concept by calling attention to its origins in African society” (111). In this context, the hysterical illnesses of black characters might even indicate a gesture of inclusion (e.g., non-whites, too, are susceptible to the travails of “civilization”). This inclusive view of “civilization” is in tension, however, with the mute figure of the black automaton, whose silence amid the vocal protestations of turn-of-the-century uplift movements indicates Hopkins’s critical awareness of the continued effects of slavery upon the present. Rather than reifying the silence of Hopkins’s passive characters, the trope of the black automaton critically links compromised agency to the wider historical and discursive systems that produce it, suggesting that critique and skepticism are crucial components of even the most utopian endeavors. This tension…

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Pensive in Prague: Examining Identity Abroad, June 20th

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Europe, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Passing on 2016-07-26 02:20Z by Steven

Pensive in Prague: Examining Identity Abroad, June 20th

The Harvard Independent

Gabby Aguirre

This is the second in a series of summer blog posts where the author reflects on her time as a first-generation Latina studying abroad in Prague. You can find the first blog post here.

The date is June 20th, and I’m just about physically adjusted to being several time-zones away from home.

However, in many ways being here is something I’m not sure I can ever get used to. To forward this, and something I should’ve mentioned in my first blog post, is that while I am a Latina, I am white-passing.

Passing as white grants me many privileges at home and abroad – and particularly in the Czech Republic – that many would not be afforded. For example, as I take a tram to Malostronské Náměstí (Malostronska Square for those of you still brushing up on your Czech), a graffiti that says “White Power,” would not have been painted with the intent of asserting dominance and instilling fear in someone who looks like me…

Read the entire article here.

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Biography: ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,’ by Karl Jacoby

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-22 18:41Z by Steven

Biography: ‘The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire,’ by Karl Jacoby

The Dallas Morning News

Karen M. Thomas, Professor of Journalism
Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

From all accounts, Guillermo Enrique Eliseo commanded attention. The elegantly dressed Mexican-born Wall Street baron in Gilded Age Manhattan was known for his gold watch, fine taste and ability to strike business deals on both sides of the border. He also had a huge secret.

Eliseo began life not on a Mexican hacienda but across the border on a Texas plantation where he was born into slavery as William Henry Ellis. How he transformed himself into Eliseo is the topic of The Strange Career of William Ellis.

Karl Jacoby is a stellar researcher, and the topic is fascinating. He ferrets out Ellis’ tale of reinvention from historical documents, news accounts and Ellis’ personal material, including letters to his family. Where records are scarce, such as for the years Ellis was a slave on a Victoria plantation, Jacoby instead turns to what is known about American slavery itself. He describes Texas’ role in trying to keep cotton as king and what life was like in Victoria, a town close to the U.S. and Mexican borders, in the 1800s. By doing so, Jacoby is able to extrapolate Ellis’ experience, motivation and preparation for ultimately redefining his personal racial boundaries

Read the entire review here.

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Across the Border

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-22 14:40Z by Steven

Across the Border

The Nation

Michael A. Elliott, Professor of English
Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

William Henry Ellis, (Photo courtesy of Fanny Johnson-Griffin)

A new biography of William Henry Ellis reminds us how much we still don’t know about the elusive history of racial subterfuge in America.

When, in 1912, James Weldon Johnson published his sly and searching novel of racial passing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, he did so anonymously, leaving readers to assume it was a factual account of a light-skinned African American crossing the color line to travel in the world of whiteness. In the aftermath of its publication, Johnson took pleasure in listening to others puzzle over its authorship. He even had “the rarer experience,” as he later described it, of being introduced to someone else claiming to have written the book. The story, it seems, was too good not to be true.

In the long era of Jim Crow, fact could be as strange, if not stranger, than fiction. At precisely the same moment that Johnson was enjoying his literary ruse, a fellow New Yorker calling himself Guillermo Enrique Eliseo was frantically trying to keep his financial interests in Mexico afloat as that country convulsed under wave after wave of political revolt. With each new regime, the businessman sought to curry favor and press for new investment opportunities, but the changes were so rapid that he struggled to find the proper currency in which to pay his taxes. Many of those who knew Eliseo presumed him to be a Mexican from near the US border (though others thought he was Cuban, or even Hawaiian), a well-traveled gentleman active in Latin America’s quest for modernization.

Had Johnson known Eliseo, he might have nodded in recognition. Eliseo had been born as an African-American slave on a South Texas cotton plantation in 1864, just as the entire social order of the region was being transformed by the conclusion of the Civil War. Over the course of a lifetime, Eliseo—or, as he was more commonly known, William Henry Ellis—built both elaborate fictions and an impressive network of business interests that spanned North America and beyond. His biography is the subject of a new book by historian Karl Jacoby, with a title that gives away its story: The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire. Ellis’s life and Jacoby’s reconstruction of it remind us how much we still don’t know about the elusive history of racial subterfuge in America…

Read the entire article here.

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An Interview with Danzy Senna

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, United States, Women on 2016-07-21 00:43Z by Steven

An Interview with Danzy Senna

Volume 25, Number 2 (Spring, 2002)
pages 447-452
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2002.0092

Claudia M. Milian Arias

More than a coming of age story, Danzy Senna’s first novel, Caucasia (Riverhead Books, 1998) addresses themes of coming into consciousness within the U.S. ethnoracial landscape. Clearly in dialogue with Nella Larsen’s Passing as well as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Caucasia is a first person narrative where anything that happens to the protagonist, Birdie Lee, relates to the rest of the nation. Caucasia interrogates, displaces, and transforms the normative meanings of whiteness, and by extension, Americanness. The multiracial protagonist disappears into America “without a name, without a record. With only the body I traveled in. And a memory of something lost.” As Birdie becomes a transient subject, she undoubtedly echoes a critical question posed by Meena Alexander in The Shock of Arrival. That is: “Does passing mean being granted free passage?”

Birdie’s painful, but transformative, realities thus shift our focus into her reconceptualization of the multiple Americas within America. The larger function of the narrative is to recover and remap America as racially mixed, where multiple memories, or an inventory of memories, are used to identify, catalogue, access, and interrelate thematic histories of displacement. Birdie’s multiraciality critiques the black and white binary not so much by going “beyond” it. Rather, she investigates these polar oppositions from within that binary—incisively demonstrating new identities and discourses that emerge from the continuous examination of not only being racially marked and ranked, but also of being positioned to live as a racialized subject.

Senna was born in Boston in 1970. She holds a B. A. from Stanford University and a M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine. In addition, Senna is the author of the anthologized essays, “The Color of Love,” in The Beacon Best of 2001: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures (Beacon Press, 2001), and “The Mulatto Millennium,” in Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural (Pantheon, 1998).

MILIAN ARIAS: At the beginning of Caucasia, there is a scene where Deck tells Ronnie: “Welcome to the land of miscegenation.” Caucasia follows up on this theme, since the novel functions, to a certain extent, as both a testimony of the lived experiences of being multiracial and a critique of the rigidity of racial categories in the United States. At a time when race relations are constructed, if not understood, in binary and bipolar extremes of black and white, how do you see multiraciality fitting within these strict categories? What is your take on the proposed multiracial category for the U.S. Census?

SENNA: America has always been “the land of miscegenation.” The history of our country is one of disparate groups clashing and commingling. We’ve only recently begun to acknowledge this fact, and lately to celebrate rather than deny mixture. Of course, in many ways I think this recognition is a good thing, but I’m also wary of the way multiraciality has become fetishized in the media and in the popular discussion on race. In particular, I worry when multiracial pride is used to uphold an ahistorical and depoliticized vision of race in America. I’m suspicious of adding a new category to the Census for a lot of reasons. I think the idea of a separate multiracial category in many ways upholds a simplistic, scientific vision of race: If you mix a white and a black, you get a biracial. If you mix a Chicano and an Asian, you get a Chic-Asian, as if race were simply like mixing colors in a paint box. I’m not so much interested in categorizing further, or adding new groups, so much as I am interested in deconstructing the premise of race itself. My hope is that the addition of this new category will spur a debate on the idea of race. But I also wonder if we’re becoming more like Brazil, where complexion rather than race is the predominant system of identification. In Brazil, racism is able to function within a “land of miscegenation”—so we should see that as a warning, perhaps.

As an aside, I recently saw a poster on a wall in New York. It may have been an ad for Benetton—I can’t remember. It showed a very pretty light-skinned girl with brown curly hair who looked to be part black and part white. She held a sign that read: “I’m a mulatto. I can’t be racist.” The sign was bizarre for many reasons, not the least of which was the use of the word “mulatto.” (I thought I was the only one still using that outdated term!) But also, the idea that someone mixed cannot be racist due to their mixed heritage revealed an illusion people seem to have: The idea that race mixture somehow neutralizes the problem of racism. Furthermore, the sign implied that black and white were the only two races in existence. Isn’t it possible that this mulatto could be racist against groups outside of those she is a part of: for instance, Latinos or Asians? Couldn’t she be xenophobic? And isn’t it possible to be racist against your own group(s)?

The poster revealed to me the invisibility of groups who don’t fit into the black-white paradigm. Based on appearance, the girl in the poster could have easily been Puerto Rican, or Dominican, two racially mixed groups, but these identities aren’t as palatable in the American imagination, since they tend to signify “outsider, poverty, non-white, un-American” whereas the mulatto represents assimilation, the end of blackness, and the end of the discussion on racism. These other “mixed” groups, Latino, in particular, threaten the idea of American hegemony in a way that the blissful black-white mulatto in the picture doesn’t.

Mulatto pride can fit in neatly with the black-white paradigm. And mulattos can be racist. And race mixing can exist and has existed happily within a racist and racialized structure. I’m wary of sanctifying any group based on race, or romanticizing the so-called mulatto…

Read or purchase the interview here.

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A Tale of Racial Passing and the U.S.-Mexico Border

Posted in Articles, Biography, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico, Passing, Texas, United States on 2016-07-20 21:18Z by Steven

A Tale of Racial Passing and the U.S.-Mexico Border

The New Yorker

Jonathan Blitzer

The African-American businessman William Ellis, pictured here around the year 1900, frequently passed as Mexican.

Some people knew him as William Ellis, and others as Guillermo Eliseo. He could be Mexican, Cuban, or even Hawaiian, depending on whom you asked. Everyone seemed to agree that he was spectacularly wealthy and successful. In the dime-store Who’s Who books that were popular at the turn of the twentieth century, his name, in one form or another, appeared regularly. He was a “Banker, Broker, and Miner,” who came to New York from the “Mexican frontier,” an exemplar of the self-made man.

It was one of his life’s many ironies that the pedigreed gatekeepers of American high commerce celebrated his origin story without knowing a thing about his actual origins. William Ellis was born a slave, in Texas, in the eighteen-sixties. Like at least some of his siblings, he was light-skinned, but with a key difference: on the city census that recorded blackness with a “c” (for “colored”), Ellis was somehow spared the label. In his early twenties, he got into the cotton trade after a brief apprenticeship with a white local businessman, shuttling back and forth to the cities in northern Mexico. He started telling people that he was Mexican, and that he had anglicized his name for their convenience, as Karl Jacoby recounts in his fascinating new book, “The Strange Career of William Ellis.” Having grown up just south of San Antonio, along the border, Ellis came to speak fluent Spanish. He quickly grasped the possibilities of bilingualism in the race-riven landscape of the Reconstruction-era South…

Read the entire article here.

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Lost kin

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-07-20 02:26Z by Steven

Lost kin

University of Chicago Magazine
May/June 2015

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History
Stanford University

Excerpt from A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Allyson Hobbs. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Going as white” permanently created confusion as some family members disappeared across the color line, creating gaps in family genealogy. One woman explained, “My father’s people, half of them pass for white so naturally I know nothing about hardly any of them.”

For others, embarrassment and shame prevented an open discussion of family history: “Not much has been disclosed about the Patterson family. It is our guess that there were too many blood mixtures of which the immediate family is not any too proud to relate. … That this family has many skeletons is without a doubt true.” Merthilda C. Duhe wrote that her father used passing as a strategy to create a new life for himself; she knew little about him or his family because he left New Orleans and “deserted the family while they were very young and went over to the white side in Chicago.”

Others expressed uncertainty about the racial backgrounds of their ancestors. One man questioned his grandfather’s race and explained, “Father was always sensitive about that side of his family.” When asked whether her relatives in Detroit “go for colored or do they go for white,” Mrs. Clemens responded, “I don’t know, and I don’t know what I am. We are 100 per cent American and that is all we can say.” Raymond Brownbow did not know much about his maternal grandmother, a mixed- race house servant who was “described as being very nearly white.” As he explained, “I know very little about her, because it seems that my mother was and is a bit reluctant to discuss her. I remember my mother once telling me that she couldn’t stand the remarks that people would make upon learning of her mother’s mixed blood, and for that reason she refrained from talking much about her.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The Daughter of Union County

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, United States on 2016-07-16 14:35Z by Steven

The Daughter of Union County

Lake Union Publishing
August 2016
432 pages
5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
Paperback ISBN: 978-1503937321

Francine Thomas Howard

Fourteen years after the end of slavery, Lord Henry Hardin and his wife, Lady Bertha, enjoy an entitled life in Union County, Arkansas. Until he faces a devastating reality: Bertha is unable to bear children. If Henry doesn’t produce an heir, the American branch of his family name will die out. So Henry, desperate to preserve his aristocratic family lineage, does the unthinkable.

When Salome, a former slave and Henry’s mistress, gives birth to a white-skinned, blue-eyed daughter, Henry orders a reluctant Lady Bertha to claim the child as their own…allowing young Margaret to pass into the white world of privilege.

As Margaret grows older, unaware of her true parentage, devastating circumstances threaten to shroud her in pain and shame…but then, ultimately, in revelation. Despite rumors about Margaret’s true identity, Salome is determined to transform her daughter’s bitter past into her secure future while Henry goes to extraordinary lengths to protect his legacy. Spanning decades and generations, marked by tragedy and redemption, this unforgettable saga illuminates a family’s fight for their name, for survival, and for true freedom.

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Making Jokes and History in An Octoroon

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-15 01:23Z by Steven

Making Jokes and History in An Octoroon

African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)

Christopher Bonner, Assistant Professor of History
University of Maryland

Last weekend I saw a performance of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins‘ play An Octoroon, which is a reimagining of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, a popular 1859 melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. There is a kind of humor inherent in using pieces of The Octoroon, with its excessive melodrama and absurd stereotypes, such as the moments when Zoe, the titular octoroon, wallows in the tragedy of her “mulattoness.” But what I found most interesting about the play are the ways that Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins finds and creates humor for his enslaved characters, especially Dido and Minnie, a mismatched pair of enslaved women who are truly the stars of An Octoroon. By imagining these women’s stories, Jacobs-Jenkins transforms a racist play with a minor critique of southern justice into an exploration of enduring problems of racism and injustice and the misremembering of American slavery…

Read the entire article here.

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My mixed-race sons look white, but that doesn’t mean racism stays away

Posted in Articles, Family/Parenting, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-07-10 20:05Z by Steven

My mixed-race sons look white, but that doesn’t mean racism stays away

She Knows

Fahmida Rashid

My mixed-race sons can ‘pass’ for white, and that creates its own pile of issues

The first time was when Jake was in kindergarten. He was showing off the drawing of our family: father, mother, baby brother and himself. He’d even drawn the cat. I was perplexed that he’d colored three of the stick figures brown and one pink. I pointed to one, ignoring the names he’d written over each, and asked, “Who is that?”

“That’s me!” he said, with that mix of exasperation and long-suffering that only 6-year-olds can pull off and still be adorable.

“But why are you brown?” I pressed, ignoring his father’s “don’t go there” look.

Jake and his brother Sam are light-skinned. Not as pale as their father, who hails from the South and can his trace ancestry back to Colonial America, but still light enough that they get asked if they are Greek or Italian. Nothing close to my brown, the one who hails from the subcontinent, the land of spice and tropical sun. Yet he’d colored all three of us the same brown and couldn’t figure out why his mother was asking dumb questions…

Read the entire article here.

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