Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews on 2014-08-22 14:54Z by Steven

Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank by Kathleen Pfeiffer (review)

Callaloo
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 735-739
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0094

L. Lamar Wilson

Jean Toomer’s Cane remains one of the most enigmatic works that emerged during the last century. In the past three decades, critics have probed auto/biography, psychoanalysis, sociopolitical and theological discourse, gender studies, and Toomer’s own critical essays for answers to questions raised by his exploration of racial and national identity and dislocation, black male and female sexuality, and the metaphorical topoi of the United States North and South in the text. Nellie McKay, Robert B. Jones, Rudolph P. Byrd, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Karen Jackson Ford, Mark Whalan, and Kathleen Pfeiffer have unearthed insightful details about the circumstances surrounding Toomer’s formation of a complex racial identity, his life in the immediate years preceding Cane’s creation and publication, and the text’s impact on his subsequent writing and the Afro-modern and postmodern canons.

Whalan’s Letters of Jean Toomer: 1919–1924, published in 2006, and Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank, Pfeiffer’s 2010 response, have been particularly important. Letters gives scholars access to Toomer’s willingness to emphasize whatever aspects of his racial and cultural identity would appeal to black and white literati alike at any given moment during the years bookending Cane’s 1923 publication. Moreover, through Letters, Toomer’s co-dependency on Waldo Frank, his closest friend and mentor at the time, comes into fuller focus vis-à-vis impassioned declarations of artistic allegiance and filial devotion. With Brother Mine, Pfeiffer complicates critical notions of their relationship, offering a chronological collation of epistles between the two men. From Frank’s first letter to Toomer in October 1920, Pfeiffer implicates Frank in encouraging Toomer, who was initially reserved and professional, to open up to his input and affections and to the possibilities of publication available to him as a modernist “Negro” poet. In her introduction, Pfeiffer links the dissolution of their friendship to Toomer’s affair with Frank’s wife, art therapist Margaret Naumburg, and marks Toomer a turncoat. However, she discounts the betrayal Toomer expressed feeling in his autobiography of having been reduced to “a fraction of Negro blood” when, in fact, he desired to create “a synthesis in the matters of the mind and spirit analogous, perhaps, to the actual fact of at least six blood minglings” (qtd. in Pfeiffer 29). Ultimately, it would seem the strictures of America’s “one-drop rule” on the social status of one marked black was as much to blame.

What makes Brother Mine compelling, then, is that which made the earliest English and American readers fond of Pamela, The Power of Sympathy, and other epistolary novels: an intimate look at a complex love story. Readers see two men finding homosocial solidarity as they manipulate the constructs of race in the poetry that would become one of the New Negro Renaissance’s first critically acclaimed works. They also see Toomer offer Frank critical feedback on Holiday, Frank’s version of their trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina, which their letters often romanticize—while offering scant details. They read some of the most honest confessions in print of a white American man’s obsession with and hunger to embody blackness, and they witness Toomer deftly navigating his multiracial identity. As he and his beloved Jewish brother reach for a raceless identity neither can attain in America, readers watch them commit the ultimate crime: interracial love. Frank’s gleeful interest in the black American experience is palpable as he alludes to the pleasures and challenges he and Toomer encounter as they venture into the US South. Moreover, it is clear that Frank is living vicariously through Toomer’s relationships with his grandmother, best friend Ken, and on-again, off-again girlfriend Mae. What emerges from their dialogue is both men’s problematic conception of a kind of Lacanian jouissance subsumed in blackness, which Toomer calls a “soil [that] is a good rich brown” that “should yield splendidly to our plowing” in an August 3, 1922, letter in which he makes final plans for the pair’s Spartanburg excursion (59).

Central to the poetic re-envisioning of Cane that emerges in Brother Mine is the homo-social desire that permeates every page. As Pfeiffer notes, the almost…

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The De(con)struction of Black/White Binaries: Critiques of Passing in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and Other Stories of the Color Line

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-08-12 14:05Z by Steven

The De(con)struction of Black/White Binaries: Critiques of Passing in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and Other Stories of the Color Line

Callaloo
Volume 37, Number 3, Summer 2014
pages 676-691
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0106

Tanfer Emin Tunç, Professor of American Culture and Literature
Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey

When asked to elaborate on the “Negro Problem,” or the co-existence of racial inequality and democracy in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, African American historian W. E. B. Du Bois conveyed that the “’Negro problem’ of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Kelly Miller, his contemporary and fellow National Association for the Advancement of Colored People activist, proposed a radical solution to this American dilemma: the “Negro must get along, get white, or get out” (qtd. in Brown 275). Thus the official word that African Americans received from the NAACP, arguably the most influential civil rights organization of the early-twentieth century, was that the color line, or the divide along racial lines (usually black and white), would dominate the lives of African Americans for the next hundred years. Moreover, only three solutions existed: “get along” (accommodate); “get white” (assimilate); or “get out” (leave the United States), which many individuals, including artists such as Josephine Baker, eventually did. Miller’s second solution to the Negro problem—”get white”—caused the greatest controversy within the black intellectual community for obvious reasons. Many activists, including Marcus Garvey and his supporters, believed that the future of African Americans lay not in their ability to disappear into the white race, but in their blackness—that is, their ability to resist “miscegenation” and the dominant racial hegemony of the United States.

The battle that emerged along the color line during the turn of the twentieth century was chronicled in American literature, specifically through the works of writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt who devoted his entire career to the “Negro problem” (See Wright and Glass). Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1858, but raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Euro-American in appearance but of African American heritage, Chesnutt straddled multiple worlds: North, South, black, and white. Early on in his life, he developed a double consciousness which shaped his career as a fiction writer, essayist, pedagogue, political commentator, lawyer, and legal stenographer at a time when African Americans could not even serve on juries or testify on their own behalf. This double consciousness also influenced his personal life, which he spent in the interstices of the black and white worlds (Ferguson, Introduction 2–3). Chesnutt maintained that because of the intractable racism of American society, the solution to the “Negro problem” lay not in one of Miller’s three solutions, but in the hands of middle class, educated, progressive “color line” blacks such as himself—individuals who transcended categorization by straddling the racial and cultural divide, especially between urban whites and rural blacks (Ferguson, Introduction 5; Ferguson, “Chesnutt’s Genuine Blacks” 113). Moreover, “Chesnutt’s recognition of, and emphasis on, these interstices, the in-between-ness of race, disturb[ed] turn-of-the-century race science; they exposed the color line as flexible and mutable, a barrier with real social consequences, but nevertheless a biological fiction” (Toth 77).

In essays such as “What Is a White Man?” and “The Future American,” Chesnutt describes race as “a modern invention of white people to perpetuate the color line.” He believed that racial fusion or “amalgamation” would eventually (when racist legal restrictions on interracial marriage were revoked) bring an end to race as a category of identity by creating a mestizo, all-inclusive, “future American ethnic type” who defied boundaries: “there would be no inferior race to domineer over; there would be no superior race to oppress those who differed from them in racial externals” (qtd. in McElrath, Leitz, and Crisler 125, 232). Because, as he argued, whiteness was a cultural fiction (“black and Indian blood” already flowed in the veins of many Southern whites), Chesnutt’s utopic vision of American race relations, and plan for the elimination of prejudice and “racial discord,” hinged not on peoples of color assimilating into the dominant white race, which he believed was already “impure,” but in the flexibility and adaptability of hybridity (McElrath, Leitz, and Crisler 125, 232; Fleischmann 466). For Chesnutt, the “future American” would be an “admixture” of races, ethnicities, and consciousnesses.

Although Chesnutt was proud of his black heritage, he understood why some individuals who lived along the color line perceived…

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Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the Making of the African Diaspora in Europe by Tina M. Campt (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive on 2014-03-25 18:10Z by Steven

Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the Making of the African Diaspora in Europe by Tina M. Campt (review)

Callaloo
Volume 37, Number 1, Winter 2014
pages 169-171
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2014.0006

Nicosia Shakes
Brown University

Campt, Tina M., Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012)

In Image Matters, Tina Campt uses a remarkable archive of vernacular photography to analyze processes of black subjectivity in early-twentieth-century Europe. Defined by the author as a genre of “everyday image-making” (7), vernacular photography is considered an important archival resource for understanding how blacks have historically constructed self-images that affirm their worth in societies that devalue their humanity (see also Brian Wallis and Deborah Willis, African American Vernacular Photography 2006). Campt’s reading of the photographs centers on three main registers through which they interact with the viewer: the visual, the haptic, and the sonic. Blending her analysis of these registers with historical research and the findings from her fieldwork in Germany and England, Campt treats these images as more than historical objects. They are “statements that express how ordinary individuals envisioned their sense of self, their subjectivity, and their social status” (7).

Campt engages mainly with the field of Black/African Diaspora Studies in three ways. Firstly, she departs from the prevailing “roots versus routes” conceptualizations that tend to focus on dispersion from a homeland and transnational interactions. Instead, she emphasizes black people’s inscription of themselves into their adopted countries. Secondly, by focusing on Afro-Germans and Afro-Caribbean British immigrants—two very distinct groups—Campt underscores the importance of viewing the African Diaspora as diverse, rather than as a homogenous group. Thirdly, she engages with the question of how the construction of the archives affects the conceptualization of the Diaspora. Here, the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who Campt references, is very relevant. In his influential text Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), Trouillot discusses the omissions that occur in various stages of archive construction, which ultimately affect how history is written. Campt infers that the history of the African Diaspora has been affected by silences within the visual archives. As such, the existence of certain diasporic groups such as Afro-Germans appears as an interruption in the mainstream narrative.

The book is divided into two sections, with three chapters bridged by two “interstitial” essays. Part 1, “Family Matters: Sight, Sense, Touch,” focuses on the biracial offspring of African men and German women, and builds on the research in Campt’s previous book, Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich (2005). The first chapter, “Family Touches” focuses primarily on Hans Hauck and to a lesser extent, the brothers, Mandenga, Manga, and Ekwin Ngando. There are multiple photographs of Hauck posing with his white German family as a child, and many of him as a soldier in the German army. These are juxtaposed with similar images of the Ngando brothers. The military images are shocking considering the popular conceptualization of the Third Reich military as an Aryan space commensurate with the doctrine of Aryan superiority. The fact that non-Aryans participated in the army speaks volumes about the nuances in the German state’s performance of Aryan superiority, even while subjecting non-Aryans to violent repression (see also Bryan Mark Rigg, Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers 2002). Hauck was sterilized as a child along with many other non-Aryans in a secret campaign carried out by the Gestapo; yet, he was allowed to join the Hitler Youth as a boy and later, the army. Like the Ngandos, he was denied full citizenship rights even while being required to perform military responsibilities for the state. Campt highlights an important point regarding the tension between how the images register and divergent historical facts. For example, the fact that Hauck’s grandmother was the one who gave the Gestapo permission to sterilize him troubles our reading of the image depicting loving family embraces between the two. Also, though the experiences of the Ngando brothers were similar to Hauck’s, the specificities of their lives cautions against a general narrative of black penalization in Germany. For example, Manga had a child with a white woman, Hertha Pilisch, in 1943, and later married her after the fall of the Nazi regime. Thus, unlike Hauck, Manga was not sterilized, and violated one of the fundamental rules of Nazism without detection for several years.

Hans Hauck will probably stand…

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The Limits of Literary Realism: Of One Blood’s Post-Racial Fantasy by Pauline Hopkins

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, New Media, United States on 2013-05-20 17:31Z by Steven

The Limits of Literary Realism: Of One Blood’s Post-Racial Fantasy by Pauline Hopkins

Callaloo
Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
pages 158-177
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0049

Melissa Asher Daniels, Assistant Professor of English (Starting in Fall 2013)
University of Alabama, Birmingham

Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs—€”religious, political and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us; we must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history, and, as yet, unrecognized by writers of the Anglo-Saxon race.

Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces

In the preface to her first novel, an excerpt of which appears above, Pauline Hopkins offers a critical assessment of the cultural stakes of fiction. According to the prolific writer and editor, fiction and history should serve mutual ends: the uplifting of the race. Pointing to the artistic and archival merits of both disciplines, Hopkins implores her fellow African Americans to take up the pen. As Hopkins seems to suggest, fiction’s primary power lies in its pedagogical potential. Fiction has the ability to educate literate African Americans about their rich and painful past, and this past can in turn enrich literary production, as it is replete with material that might easily be adapted for the sake of artistic development and political agitation. Addressing African Americans specifically, Hopkins indicates that it is the responsibility of the race to produce the writers who will narrate this past “with all the fire and romance” that it deserves. Calling for a fiction of mimetic detail and romantic affect, Hopkins echoes white writer Albion Tourgée’s claim, made some several years before, that realism alone cannot convey “the grand truth which makes up the continued story of every life” (411).

In Of One Blood; or, the Hidden Self (1902-1903), Hopkins advances her views on the limitations of literary realism and puts her ideas about the aesthetic virtues of romantic fiction into practice. Published serially in the Colored American Magazine, the episodic novel blends realism with romance to explore issues of ancestry, miscegenation, and tangled kinship. In this respect, the novel is generically and thematically akin to much of nineteenth-century African American writing. But in some fundamental ways, Of One Blood is one of the most intricate, if not bewildering texts. Indeed, critics often describe it as “unruly”—taking their cue from the title of an anthology edited by John Cullen Gruesser. To be sure, the novel draws from several romantic traditions—the gothic, adventure, utopian genres—€”and adopts a bifurcated plot line—one American, one African—€”that splits the novel into two separate narratives. The text begins in America, focusing on Reuel’s racial passing, and culminates in Africa with his discovery of a hidden city that doubles as a metaphor for his hidden identity. Together, both the American and African sequences form a “realistic” and “romantic” meditation on blood, genealogy, and fantasies of racial difference circulating in the United States imaginary during the nadir.

Critics, however, have a tendency to overlook the novel’s realism or to under assess its romantic value. Some, following Eric Sundquist’s cue, read the book as “patently escapist” (569); while others, such as Adenike Marie Davidson and Yogita Goyal, more recently, situate it within a constellation of black nationalist and Pan-Africanist discourses advocating emigrationism. My trouble with these readings is twofold: first, critical assessments that describe the novel as “escapist” come off sounding slightly condemnatory; such readings carry a pejorative connotation that seem to suggest that the novel evades pressing political concerns confronting black Americans at the turn of the century or that it disavows literary realism (which it does not); second, analyses that take the novel’s “back to Africa” plot at face value are too literal, neglecting the novel’s fantastic and allegorical qualities in the service of advancing emigrationist readings. And while the novel is clearly in conversation with such discourses, it is more interested in promoting black consciousness and cultural distinctiveness than in advocating actual repatriation. An imaginative take on the problem of American racism,…

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A Conversation with Lawrence Hill

Posted in Articles, Canada, History, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, New Media, Slavery on 2013-05-20 04:57Z by Steven

A Conversation with Lawrence Hill

Callaloo
Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
pages 5-26
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0072

Winfried Siemerling, Professor of English
University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

When Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic offered an alternative account of modernity that placed transnational, black transatlantic lives and cultures at the center, Canada was not on his map. Slavery, however, did not stop at the borders first of New France and then the Canada’s until it was abolished in the British Empire in 1834, and the Underground Railroad made Canada an important site of black writing especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. To be fair, the current surge of impressively strong African Canadian writing, heralded by some authors and anthologies since the 1960s and 1970s, was still gathering steam in the early 1990s.

Lawrence Hill, a novelist and nonfiction writer whose parents immigrated to Canada from the United States after WWII, has become one of the most important contributors to black culture here. His first novel, Some Great Thing (1992), was followed by Any Known Blood (1997), a multi-generational border-crossing novel in which the allusively named Langston Cane V explores his own mixed race and family. In the process, he uncovers a forebear’s slave narrative that recounts his involvement in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Hill’s third novel, The Book of Negroes (2007), is a neo-slave narrative in its entirety that redraws the map of Gilroy’s black Atlantic. The protagonist Aminata, abducted in West Africa, flees first from slavery in South Carolina, then from Americans taking control of New York in 1783, and finally from Nova Scotia to return to Africa. She travels to Sierra Leone in 1792, and from there sails to London to support the abolition of the slave trade. In Hill’s transfiguration of these historical events, Aminata herself becomes a scribe of Guy Carleton’s “Book of Negroes,” recording the 1783 black exodus from New York. The use of the word “Negroes” in Hill’s title, although taken from that historical document, has proven controversial, and the novel appeared in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia as Someone Knows My Name. A breakthrough for Hill internationally, the novel won among other awards the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Hill’s work offers United States readers an especially inviting entrance into contemporary black Canadian literature, not only because of his fiction’s frequent transborder thematic but also since his nonfiction—€”for example Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada—often speaks to issues of race from a United States-Canadian comparative perspective. The following interview conversation, though concentrating on the novels, seeks to provide an introduction to his entire career, including his formative travels in Africa. It is divided by short subtitles for orientation and ease of reading.

Early Writing and Travels in Africa

Siemerling:

In your last novel, The Book of Negroes (named after a historical document but published in the United States as Someone Knows My Name), you thematize the back-to-Africa journey of 1,200 people from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792, and you talk about the fact that it is the first one historically. We also know that for many people still today it is a very emotional and important event, to “go back” to Africa.

Hill:

Yes, and many people of African American or African Canadian origin are seeking some sort of validation from or connection with the motherland. It’s a connection with one’s extended family, metaphorically. Of course, why should a typical African who is selling coffee in his street stand in Niamey, Niger, look at some kid from Toronto and say “hey, here’s my brother.” Sorry, that’s just not going to happen, especially with the way I look, which to many of them was white. Many African Americans and African Canadians have observed this kind of rocky reception that they received. When I went there, I wanted to be welcomed as one of the race and have my blackness celebrated. I wanted to be brought into the arms of my people, in a way. And it’s a natural thing for a twenty-two-year-old to…

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The Place in Between: An Interview with Esi Edugyan

Posted in Articles, Europe, Interviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, New Media on 2013-05-20 04:42Z by Steven

The Place in Between: An Interview with Esi Edugyan

Callaloo
Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
pages 46-51
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0070

Maaza Mengiste

Esi Edugyan’s 2011 Man Booker Prize finalist, Half-Blood Blues, opens with the lines, “Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil.” It is 1940 in Nazi-occupied Paris and the “boys” include Afro-German, Jewish, and African-American members of a jazz band who have recently fled an increasingly dangerous Berlin. They are living under a terrifying regime, trapped as much by the color of their skin as the curfews and constant presence of the Gestapo. Told from the perspective of Sid, an African-American bassist who left pre-civil rights era Baltimore to escape racial segregation, it is Hiero, the incomparably gifted trumpeter player, who holds the band together. But Half-Blood Blues is more than a book about music. Edugyan illuminates one of the forgotten victims of Nazi Germany’s ruthless quest for a racially “pure” state: the “Rhineland Bastards,” mixed-race Germans whose stories were lost when they went into hiding, fled, or disappeared into concentration camps. Hiero is one of those “mischlings,” and through him, we begin to understand how encompassing a denied history can be. But perhaps more than anything, this is a story about friendship, betrayal, loyalty, and the possibility of redemption through music. To read Half-Blood Blues is to hear jazz and the ache of regret through prose. Garnering nominations and awards internationally, the book has kept Edugyan on a busy, hectic schedule. It was my honor to have the chance to catch her in a quiet moment to talk about her book.

Mengiste:

I want to just jump right in and talk a little bit about the book’s setting and its characters. Part of the story takes place in 1940 Paris and Nazi Germany. What was your motivation for writing about this moment in history? What got you really interested in it, and these characters?

Edugyan:

I think I’ve always had a fascination with that period of history. It was such an extreme time in terms of what was happening everywhere, but especially in Europe, in those initial months when the Third Reich came to power. It was very fascinating for me. I had been living in Germany for about a year and a half, over two separate periods. The first time I was there for about thirteen months, learning German and really trying to immerse myself in the culture. And being a black woman living in Southern Germany, I started to wonder about the history of black people in Europe in general, but specifically in Germany. And so I did some research and discovered the story about the Rhineland Bastards—or the so-called “Rhineland Bastards.” That’s how I came to focus on this period that I had done quite a bit of reading on over my lifetime. It was interesting to me.

Mengiste:

When you were researching these Rhineland Bastards, these children born to black soldiers and German mothers in the period following WWI, what guided your decision to make your characters musicians?

Edugyan:

I have a very strong interest in music and grew up with a very strong interest in music even though I was never able to play the instruments very well. So, I’d been working on a project about a different kind of musician, a classical musician. And when I was in Germany, I started putting that aside and turning my sights to jazz musicians. And this was, in large part, because I quite love jazz. I’m not a huge expert on it, I’ll admit that, but what I’ve heard I really like. But also because I knew that Germany had gone through a big jazz age in the twenties, you know, there was a big avant-garde time after the First World War. So then you start to think about “well, what would happen to all of those musicians once the Third Reich took power?” And, you know, it was something that I certainly didn’t know anything about, so I just had to do…

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Obama’s mixed ancestry generates some of the new uncertainty about blackness…

Posted in Barack Obama, Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-03-25 19:43Z by Steven

Obama’s mixed ancestry generates some of the new uncertainty about blackness. The white part of his genetic inheritance is not socially hidden, as it often is for “light-skinned blacks” who descend from black women sexually exploited by white slaveholders and other white males. Rather, Obama’s white ancestry is right there in the open, visible in the form of the white woman who, as a single mother, raised Obama after his black father left the family to return to his native Kenya. Press accounts of Obama’s life, as well as Obama’s own autobiographical writings, render Obama’s whiteness hard to miss. No public figure, not even Tiger Woods, has done as much as Obama to make Americans of every education level and social surrounding aware of color-mixing in general and that most of the “black” population of the United States, in particular, are partially white. The “one-drop rule” which denies that color is a two-way street is far from dead, but not since the era of its legal and social consolidation in the early 1920s has the ordinance of this rule been so subject to challenge.

David A. Hollinger, “Obama, The Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future,” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters, Volume 31, Number 4 (2008): 1033-1037. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cal.0.0282.

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Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, New Media, Passing on 2012-10-01 18:43Z by Steven

Toward a Narratology of Passing: Epistemology, Race, and Misrecognition in Nella Larsen’s Passing

Callaloo
Volume 35, Number 3, Summer 2012
pages 778-794
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2012.0078

Gabrielle McIntire, Professor of English
Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

In one of his posthumously published essays Georges Bataille poses a question that we might borrow to consider the narratological and epistemological quandaries at the heart of Nella Larsen’s telling of racial unbelonging in her 1929 novella, Passing. Bataille writes, “why must there be what I know? Why is it a necessity? . . . In this question is hidden—it doesn’t appear at first—an extreme rupture, so deep that only the silence of ecstasy answers it” (109). Bataille queries the necessary binding of ontology and epistemology—that mysterious and what he calls “divine” strangeness that what and how we know, and the language we use to conceptualize the world, inevitably condition our ways of being. I want to suggest that Larsen’s novella works its way toward some similar questions. What happens in 1920s Harlem when one’s skin color does not announce a clearly decipherable racial genealogy? How does one know how to belong to a “race” when race itself is inordinately prone to the mutable semiotics of skin and the prejudices of its (always racially traversed) readers? How does “race” bind communities and ban its outlaws? Further, how do we discover the truth content of a story concerned with racial, sexual, and familial belonging whose heroine/anti-heroine, Irene Redfield—the figure with whom the omniscient narrator is most identified—develops relationships with both her husband, Brian, and her childhood friend, Clare Kendry, in conjunction with a severely limited (and possibly paranoid) epistemological frame? Must what Irene knows function as the limit of what we, as readers, know? In seeking to answer these questions, I want to propose that Passing still takes us to the largely inarticulable limits of both race and desire—how they mean, and how they function together—by performatively embedding confusions about the legibilities of race and desire within a commensurately riddled narration where none of its plot-lines or dominant preoccupations (with the ethics and allures of passing, with anxieties about an extramarital affair, or with the lesbian-erotic subtext) submit to a definitive reading. Instead, all of these polyvalent concerns co-exist in a matrix of meaning which suggestively proposes that an echolalic symmetry exists between broken sexual and racial epistemes and the tasks of their telling.
 
Critics, though, often want to insist that Passing can be read to produce very particular (often hierarchized) answers about the relative importance of its homoerotic, racial, and psychological concerns. Instead of pursuing a line of inquiry that would propose another variant on the ambiguities of the story, I want to suggest that part of why this novella continues to fascinate is because of its mise en abîme structure of indecipherability. The story draws us in so powerfully because Larsen’s palimpsestic layering of race with desire’s own signal unknowability approximates the enigmatic bind between knowledge and power that animates the projects of both reading and telling. As if it were a detective story, just as we think we have discovered and joined all the pieces of its puzzle, Passing surprises us and asks us to double back and look again. The proliferation of interpretive possibilities within this short narration mimics the stress lines at play in twentieth- and twenty-first century American culture around what it means to inhabit African American-ness, or to know race, with Larsen insisting that sexual, racial, and psychic un-narratability together provoke us and draw us into a maze of epistemological unrest. Ultimately Larsen shows us that the vagaries of narration and interpretation are as prone to misrecognitions and mistakes as are race and desire; in other words, she reveals that race and desire are structured as forms of narration and are thus replete with potentially hazardous misreadings. In the process, Larsen offers a book that seems to “pass” for a readable document and yet ceaselessly withholds resolution on multiple levels at once.
 
Part of what Larsen achieves in her interrogation of modes of passing is a warning against sealed epistemologies or…

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Liberating Blackness: The Theme of Whitening in Two Colombian Short Stories

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-08-07 22:02Z by Steven

Liberating Blackness: The Theme of Whitening in Two Colombian Short Stories

Callaloo
Volume 35, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 475-493
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2012.0074

Laurence E. Prescott, Professor
Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese
Pennsylvania State University

Hablaré del físico de los negros, casi como de carrera. Tienen dos cosas repugnantes para no gustar, el color negro y el mal olor. . . .

Pbro. Felipe Salvador Gilii

The convert may have found spiritual salvation in the White Man’s faith; he may have acquired the White Man’s culture and learnt to speak his language with the tongue of an angel; he may have become adept in the White Man’s economic technique, and yet it profits him nothing if he has not changed his skin.

Arnold Toynbee

The premium placed by many Negroes on a light shade of skin, straight hair, and Caucasian features, are all indicative of severely injured self-esteem and of the inferiority assumed in things Negro.

Peter Loewenberg

And above all, the author must believe in black folk, and in the beauty of black as a color of human skin.

W. E. B. Du Bois

In Black Skin, White Masks, a probing psychological exploration of the dynamics of racism and its effects on both Blacks and Whites, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes: “In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his body schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. The body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty” (110–111). As Fanon goes on to say, the equating of blackness with evil and ugliness stimulated white scientists to seek a means of removing “the burden of that corporeal malediction” (111). Simultaneously, that same malevolent identification prompted black people to go to extraordinary lengths to free themselves from their blackness, the alleged source of their discontent. Skin lighteners, hair straighteners, miscegenation, and “passing” are some of the more common methods that have been tried over the years. These preoccupations have not gone unnoticed by creative writers. In 1931 African American journalist and writer George S. Schuyler (1895–1977) published the humorously satirical novel Black No More, in which a black doctor discovers a process that changes black skin to white and transforms Negroid features to Caucasian in a matter of hours, thereby disrupting the racial status quo, bolstering the defenders of white racial purity and supremacy, and ruining black businesses and civil rights organizations.

Schuyler’s novel is probably the best-known African American work of fiction that deals with a physical transformation of black people to bring about group liberation and a “happy” resolution of “the race problem.” The theme and pursuit of whitening, however, is not confined to North American society and literature. It is also present in the cultures and literary and non-literary works of Latin America. Indeed, in the nation of Colombia, South America, whose citizens of African descent constitute a significant portion of the total population, both journalists and creative writers have shown a continuing interest in the physical whitening of black peoples. As early as 1883, for example, there appeared in the “Folletines” supplement of the Bogotá newspaper La Luz, a notice titled “No más negros” ‘No more Blacks,’ which reported on a doctor in South Carolina who was experimenting with “una agua milagrosa que da á la piel de los negros la blancura de la nieve” ‘a miraculous water which gives to Negroes’ skin the whiteness of snow.’ Lacking official confirmation of the extraordinary liquid, the authors of the note, associating the word “anti-negro” with “antidote,” wryly concluded: “Hasta que así sea y sepamos á qué atenernos, confesamos que el anti-negro nos parece un white lie” ‘Until it is so and we know on what to rely, we confess that the anti-black seems to us a white lie.’ Noteworthy, too, is the presence in both nineteenth- and twentieth-century publications of advertisements directed at women for products that lighten—and (thus) allegedly…

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The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Latino Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2012-08-06 22:52Z by Steven

The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (review)

Callaloo
Volume 35, Number 2, Spring 2012
pages 548-551
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2012.0030

Daynali Flores-Rodriguez, Adjunct Professor of Spanish
Inter-American University of Puerto Rico

Jiménez Román, Miriam, and Juan Flores, eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Published a year before the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, takes a deeper look into the complex world of ethnic and race relations in America. Miriam Jiménez Román, the executive director of Afro-Latino Forum, a research and resource center for Black Latinos in the US, and Juan Flores, Director of Latino Studies at NYU, engage Afro-Latin@s as a population that “bridge various communities even as they constitute a community in their own right” (xiii). Similar to Henry Louis Gates’s Black in Latin America (2011) a four-part documentary series shown earlier this year on PBS that explores the influence of African descent in Latin America, The Afro-Latin@ Reader focuses “on the strategically important but still largely understudied United States context of Afro-Latin@ experience” (3). Both are proof of an emerging interest in transnational relations of race as a way to challenge the homogenizing effects of national and regional constructs of identity.

The complex history of ethnic and racial movements in the United States is traditionally framed within a socially-progressive agenda intended to reveal and denounce hidden histories of racialization, colonization, exploitation and social mobilization still experienced by many. In their zeal to be acknowledged and recognized as equals in mainstream society, ethnic and racial groups often articulate identity in terms that foster the same practices of cultural disenfranchisement these groups were denouncing in the first place.

Likewise, in Latin America, the myth of racial democracy based on “mestizaje” or mixed race, is still touted as one of the most defining traits of a pan-ethnic cultural identity. Since slavery was a systematic practice brought upon Latin America by European colonizers and later adopted and asserted by the United States (considered the ideological and practical heir of Europe), racial discrimination and prejudice is considered a foreign problem that attests to the immorality of imperialist and colonial practices and a strategic attempt to distract and divide Latin Americans from their common goal to resist these advances. Indigenous and black identities are accepted (in that order) as long as they do not compromise the traditional discourse of racial harmony that makes Latin Americans stand strong against the neocolonial threat, represented by the United States.

The editors of The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States make a compelling effort to reveal the subtle and complex negotiations of social identity that take place when these two paradigms clash. While oral narratives and testimonies are a common point of departure for historians and social scientists alike, the material included in the collection demonstrates an innovative approach that encourages readers to keep reflecting on the contributions made by Afro-Latin@s, far beyond the strict academic setting that so strongly divides experience from theory. Voices of the past acquire a new meaning for our own times. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s plea for the establishment of a Chair of Negro History in 1913 demonstrates his relevance as a pioneer for Black Studies and resonates stronger nowadays, where ethnic studies (specifically Latin@ and Chican@ studies) are threatened amidst accusations of reverse racism and/or the false premises of a post-racial America heightened by Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The essays by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and Evelyne Laurent-Perrault not only describe the world of tense racial coalitions and segregation Schomburg inhabited but how his legacy is kept alive and still facilitates the conversation about what it means to be an Afro-Latin@.

The strength of this collection is the diverse array of materials suitable for those reflecting comparatively on issues of race, ethnicity, and identity, whether for the first time or for the hundredth. The Afro-Latin@ Reader uses academic essays, memoirs, poetry, literature, interviews, Census statistics, short stories, music, film, and popular culture to establish a much needed conversation on the social othering of Latin@s…

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