What Racial Hybridity? Sexual Politics of Mixed-Race Identities in the Caribbean and the Performance of Blackness

What Racial Hybridity? Sexual Politics of Mixed-Race Identities in the Caribbean and the Performance of Blackness

The School of English Studies of The College of The Bahamas’ Journal of Caribbean and Postcolonial Criticism and Creative Work
Volume 1 (2008)
pages 90-105

Papers from the 26th West Indian Literature Conference, March 8-10, 2007

Angelique V. Nixon, Assistant Professor in Residence of Woman’s Studies
University of Connecticut

for our blood, mixed
soon with their passion in sport,
in indifference, in anger,
will create new soils, new souls, new
ancestors; will flow like this tide fixed
to the star by which this ship floats
to new worlds, new waters, new
harbours, the pride of our ancestors mixed
with the wind and the water
the flesh and the flies, the whips and the fixed
fear of pain in this chained and welcoming port.

~ Kamau Brathwaite “New World A-Comin’”

The authenticity of “Blackness” has continuously been challenged in the debates over identity politics, specifically within Black Cultural Studies, Black feminisms, African American Studies, and Postcolonial Theory. The meaning of the word “Black” often depends upon the social, historical, cultural, and geographical context, but it is almost invariably political. In the United States, Black refers to African Americans (including mixed people of African descent because of the “one drop” rule), while in Britain, the term Black politically generally categorizes all non-white people—Asians, Africans, and Afro-Caribbeans (Kanneh 86). In the Caribbean, the word “Black” is usually used to describe people of African descent, but its history remains complex given the array of reactions to racial mixing by different colonial powers (meaning the development of racial categories determined by blood and coded by law). Each European colony had legal codes and categories for mixed race identities, which created different “classes” of people determined by skin color. Today, the word “Black” has different political and social meanings, but at the same time, we cannot deny the realities of race and racism for Black people and other people of color around the world. Furthermore, mixed-race Black identities continue to have a major affect on how we think about race and identity. And considering the different political and social connotations of the word “Black” and the massive consumption of Black culture, “Blackness” as a signifier remains elusive and subject to appropriation and commodification; hence, Blackness has been and continues to be constructed and commodified by all kinds of people and places.

Therefore, any essential notion of ‘the Black subject or experience’ has been contested by a number of theorists; however, Stuart Hall argues for a “new politics of representation” that engages in difference and recognizes Black experience as Diaspora experience (170). In essence, he argues that we must remain committed to engaging in the politics of Black representation, while simultaneously recognizing the differences within our difference. The challenges to “identity politics, recent debates over ‘mixed race’ identities, forms of racism, and class complicate the broad terrain of ‘racial difference’ on which ‘Blackness’ is identified” (Kanneth 94). In these debates, postmodernism has been helpful to Black Cultural Studies insomuch as it allows for multiple Black identities, but as bell hooks recognizes in “Postmodern Blackness,” the postmodern critique of identity appears at first glance to threaten any opportunity for those who have suffered from oppression, domination, or colonization (hooks 23). But hooks argues that a postmodern critique of essentialism is useful in opening up constricting notions of Blackness, and this would be a radical and serious challenge to racist discourse that uses the notion of a Black authentic experience (28). She asserts that “such a critique allows us to affirm multiple Black identities, varied Black experience. It also challenges colonial imperialist paradigms of Black identity which represent Blackness one-dimensionally in ways that reinforce and sustain white supremacy” (28). While hooks does posit that we critique and abandon essentialist notions of Blackness, at the same time, she says that we must still “struggle for radical Black subjectivity”—where the lived and diverse experiences of Black people complicate our sense of identity (29). Although hooks does not specifically discuss mixed-race identities, I use her insights to discuss the possibilities around the signification of “Blackness.”

Given the recent media attention on mixed-race and bi-racial identities (including Tiger Woods, Barack Obama, Kamora Lee [Kimora Lee Simons], Alicia Keys, and others) and the historical fetishization of “exotic” women of color, I am interested in how racial performance and performativity operates in a mixed-race body, and most specifically, how these complicate the signification of Blackness. Thus, how is the Blackness of a mixed-race person embodied? What does this embodiment of Blackness mean for a mixed-race person? Are mixed-race Black identities normalized through choosing a race, passing, or legal codes that regulate race? How is mixed race situated in the discourse of racism? When a racially mixed person claims or asserts Blackness through performance or a speech act utterance (I am Black, but I’m mixed, or I’m mixed and Black, or I identify as Black) does this destabilize racism or essentialist notions of race? In this project, I offer a theoretical framework about what I call the sexual politics of mixed-race identities and performance of Blackness in the Caribbean context, which I argue through using both personal narrative and literary representations….

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