“Suspect-Proof”? Paranoia, Suspicious Reading, and the Racial Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2022-03-20 02:02Z by Steven

“Suspect-Proof”? Paranoia, Suspicious Reading, and the Racial Passing Narrative

American Literary History
Volume 34, Issue 1, Spring 2022
pages 272–282
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajab089

Sinéad Moynihan, Associate Professor of English
University of Exeter

This short essay considers racial passing narratives in relation to the “postcritical turn,” highlighting the proliferating reappraisals of the practices of “suspicious” or “symptomatic” reading in literary studies and the extent to which passing narratives offer an opportunity to test some of the claims of this body of scholarship. The utility of the passing narrative for this critical project lies in its persistent, self-conscious foregrounding of reading practices. Revisiting passing narratives in light of postcritique reveals that symptomatic reading is not a monolithic practice; rather, there are multiple ways of reading suspiciously. Moreover, and more importantly, passing narratives disclose that what has now become an orthodoxy in postcritique—that attitudes such as “paranoia,” “suspicion,” and “vigilance” profoundly limit “the thickness and richness of our aesthetic attachments”—ignores contexts, like that of a passer in a white supremacist society, in which such strategies are not a choice but are essential for survival (Felski 17). The key question posed herein is: What forms of privilege enable a reader to relinquish her attachment to paranoia, suspicion, and vigilance; to opt for openness rather than guardedness, submission rather than aggression (21)? Narratives of racial passing provide one answer to that question.

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That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing by Julia S. Charles (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2022-03-08 23:31Z by Steven

That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing by Julia S. Charles (review)

Journal of Southern History
Volume 88, Number 1, February 2022
pages 164-165
DOI: 10.1353/soh.2022.0019

Tyler Sperrazza
University of New Haven, West Haven, Connecticut

That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing. By Julia S. Charles. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Pp. xviii, 224. Paper, $29.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-5957-2; cloth, $95.00, ISBN 978-1-4696-5956-5.)

The past decade has seen a tremendous growth in scholarly inquiry around the subject of racial passing. The context of the current historical moment coupled with viral discussions of cultural appropriation and “blackfishing” brings a sense of urgency to understanding the long history of passing and its function in the U.S. context. Julia S. Charles’s That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing offers a perspective on this phenomenon that places performance at the heart of the racial passing experience. Charles calls for a rejection of previous scholarly treatments of passing that foreground experiences of loss among those who pass and instead argues for a focus on the opportunities that performing race offered to certain mixed-race African American citizens. Charles presents a book of theory and philosophy on racial passing meant to inform the ways scholars of African American literature and media studies can make sense of mixed-race and passing characters throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature.

The title of Charles’s book also serves as its main theoretical construction. “That Middle World” is a location that Charles defines as an interstitial and metaphysical space occupied by mixed-race characters that becomes the “location of culture and identity for so-called mulattoes in African American fiction” (p. 22). This space both creates and destroys boundaries between Black and white and offers a means of interpreting passing African Americans’ experiences as a constant process of both making and crossing borders in a liminal space free of the “inadequate Black-white racial binary” (p. 40). Throughout the central chapters of the book, Charles adroitly moves between the historical lives and contexts of African American authors and the worlds their characters inhabit. Many of her subjects—Charles W. Chesnutt being central—were themselves mixed-race and able to navigate the boundaries of That Middle World in their everyday lives. Charles’s interweaving of the historical and the literary is a welcome addition to this growing field of passing studies…

Read or purchase the review here.

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That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing

Posted in Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2020-10-11 02:38Z by Steven

That Middle World: Race, Performance, and the Politics of Passing

University of North Carolina Press
October 2020
242 pages
6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 1 fig
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5957-2
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5956-5
eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5958-9

Julia S. Charles, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

In this study of racial passing literature, Julia S. Charles highlights how mixed-race subjects invent cultural spaces for themselves—a place she terms that middle world—and how they, through various performance strategies, make meaning in the interstices between the Black and white worlds. Focusing on the construction and performance of racial identity in works by writers from the antebellum period through Reconstruction, Charles creates a new discourse around racial passing to analyze mixed-race characters’ social objectives when crossing into other racialized spaces. To illustrate how this middle world and its attendant performativity still resonates in the present day, Charles connects contemporary figures, television, and film—including Rachel Dolezal and her Black-passing controversy, the FX show Atlanta, and the musical Show Boat—to a range of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary texts. Charles’s work offers a nuanced approach to African American passing literature and examines how mixed-race performers articulated their sense of selfhood and communal belonging.

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Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books
2020-03-26

Darryl Pinckney


Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

Read the entire review here.

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Mixed Race-Politics and Homi Bhabha’s Third Space Theory in Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “The Sheriff’s Children”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-07-28 23:30Z by Steven

Mixed Race-Politics and Homi Bhabha’s Third Space Theory in Charles Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “The Sheriff’s Children”

The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English
Volume 20, Issue 1 (2018)
Article 6 (pages 37-50)

Gabrielle Sanford
Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia

Tru Leverette, a Mixed race professor of African American and Mixed race literature, explains that people of mixed ancestry have a difficult and confusing racial path: “I, like many other persons born to parents of different races, sometimes think of myself as moving in the space that unites the two, as traveling from one shore to another . . . and other times as sailing the river that forms the meridian between two shores” (“Traveling” 79). And while there has been progress in how America regards biracial people today, Mixed race people are often marginalized in society, literature, and politics through underrepresentation and a lack of acknowledgment of their culture and characteristics. There is very little space for Mixed race people to have their own identities because they are neither seen as a separate race nor accepted into the races that form their racial identity. They are only seen as a combination of two or more races that needs to fit into a predetermined racial mold. This blindness sidelines biracial and multiracial groups and leaves them without legal status.

Charles Chesnutt, a post-Reconstruction Mixed race author, presents Mixed race issues in his short stories “The Wife of His Youth” (1899) and “The Sheriff’s Children” (1889). Chesnutt’s characters, however, do not want representation for their Mixed race to be the final goal in the changing social structure of America, but rather want to be a part of White society and leave behind their Black heritage. This is seen in “The Wife of His Youth” when Ryder seeks to leave his Blackness in his past and embrace an upward climb to White status by being a part of the Blue Vein Society. The same is seen in “The Sheriff’s Children” when Tom grieves over the unfairness of his life due to being Mixed race. Notwithstanding the feelings of these characters, though, Chesnutt encourages a third space for Mixed race representation and a social acceptance of hybridity; he also, to be sure, recognizes that this third space has the potential to marginalize Blacks and biracial people even further…

Read the entire article here.

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Light, Bright and Damn Near White: Black Leaders Created by the One-Drop Rule

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, Religion, Slavery, Social Justice, United States on 2019-07-20 23:29Z by Steven

Light, Bright and Damn Near White: Black Leaders Created by the One-Drop Rule

JacksonScribe Publishing Company
2014-09-24
418 pages
6 x 1 x 9 inches
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0985351205

Michelle Gordon Jackson
Foreword by: Adam Clayton Powell IV

Picture

During the 19th and 20th centuries, a powerhouse of Black American leaders emerged, consisting primarily of men and women with “an apparent mix of Caucasoid features.” The face of the African warrior, brought to America centuries prior from the Ivory Coast had changed, due to perpetual miscegenation (race-mixing) and the application of the One-Drop Rule, a racial marker exclusive to the United States, in which a person was considered Black if he or she had any African ancestry.

No other country in the world has historically defined race in the same manner. Accepted socially and legally since slavery, this “rule,” as well as its strict enforcement, created a dynamic leadership pool of Light, Bright and Damn Near White revolutionaries, embraced by the Black community as some of its most vocal and active leaders.

This book features these unsung Black heroes and heroines (covering the Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights eras). Some born slaves and some born free, these men and women were on the forefront of civil rights, innovation, and social reform. Their personal contributions are woven within the very fabric of American culture and policy.

The continued acceptance of the One-Drop Rule is apparent, in America’s embracing of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the United States, and not the first bi-racial president, despite his mother’s race (White).

This informative book is about history . . . American History and African-American History.

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The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-03-25 13:16Z by Steven

The (Dis)Ability of Color; or, That Middle World: Toward A New Understanding of 19th and 20th Century Passing Narratives

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2015

Julia S. Charles, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

This dissertation mines the intersection of racial performance and the history of the so-called “tragic mulatto” figure in American fiction. I propose that while many white writers depicted the “mulatto” character as inherently flawed because of some tainted “black blood,” many black writers’ depictions of mixed-race characters imagine solutions to the race problem. Many black writers critiqued some of America’s most egregious sins by demonstrating linkages between major shifts in American history and the mixed-race figure. Landmark legislation such as, Fugitive Slave Act 1850 and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) are often plotlines in African American passing literature, thus demonstrating the failure of America to acknowledge its wrongdoings against people of color. While this project surveys passing narratives collectively, it pays careful consideration to those novelists whose presentations of the mixed-race figure challenge previously conceived notions of the “tragic mulatto” figure. I investigate how the writers each illuminate elements of the history of slavery and its aftermath in order to remark on black disenfranchisement at the turn of the century. Ultimately, however, I argue for the importance of the mixed-race figure as a potent symbol for imagined resolution between the larger narrative of American freedom and enslavement of blacks in the United States.

I examine several works of African American racial passing literature: William Wells Brown’s The Escape; Or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African American writer. It explores the complexities of American culture at a time when tensions between North and South were about to explode into the Civil War. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), tells the true story of the mixed-race Ellen Craft and her husband who escaped to freedom through various racial performances. Nella Larsen sets her novella Passing (1929) in Harlem in the 1920s. The story centers on two childhood friends reunited, but each dealing with their mixed-race ancestry in different ways. Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928) and The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” and “A Matter of Principle” (1900). endeavors to depict a better class of blacks through her examination of the fair-skinned bourgeois-striver Angela Murray. Each of these stories address American legacies of racism and representation beginning with the Civil War.

I investigate how these authors use the mixed-race figure (mostly) following the Civil War to mark the continuing impact that its legacy has had on black Americans through the New Negro Harlem Renaissance, but also to gesture to the mythic moment of freedom symbolized by successfully crossing the so-called color line. In addition to cataloguing an era of migration, the African American passing narrative represents the moment in which we shift from only seeing characters in terms of monoracial identities. These writers suggest that new performative modes of racial affiliation are necessary to achieve freedom. Reminding us that characters of mixed status practiced race in ways that enabled them to build shared identity despite an often disparate cultural heritage, these works suggest that identities like blackness are always constituted through performance. I argue that racial passing facilitated the “performance” of whiteness together with, an acknowledgment of what is accepted as blackness.

Login to read the dissertation here.

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“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2018-08-22 04:27Z by Steven

“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

University of Sheffield
October 2015

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

Ph.D. Dissertation

This thesis critiques the prevailing assumption that passing is passé in contemporary African American women’s literature.

By re-examining the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy West, Alice Walker, and Barbara Neely, I argue that these writers signify on canonical passing narratives – Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Clotelle (1867), Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) – in order to confront and redress both the historical roots and contemporary contexts of colourism.

As well bridging this historiographic gap, I make a case for reading passing as a multivalent trope that facilitates this very process of cultural interrogation. Rather than focussing on literal episodes of passing, I consider moments of symbolic, textual, and narrative passing, as well as the genealogical and intertextual processes at play in each text which account for the spectral hauntings of the passing-for-white figure in post-civil rights literature.

In Chapter 1, I examine the relationship between passing and embodiments of beauty in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Bambara’s “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (1974) and Neely’s Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

In Chapter 2, I discuss passing, class, and capital in Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).

In Chapter 3, I suggest that Walker and Morrison revisit Larsen’s Passing in their short stories “Source” (1982) and “Recitatif” (1983).

Finally, I conclude this project with a discussion of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) in order to demonstrate the continued centrality of the passing trope for authors interested in colourism, genealogy, and black women’s experiences.

Embargoed here until October 2020.

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White Supremacy and the Dangerous Discourse of Liberal Tolerance

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Justice, United States on 2018-02-15 02:06Z by Steven

White Supremacy and the Dangerous Discourse of Liberal Tolerance

The Paris Review
2018-02-13

Ismail Muhammad
Oakland, California


A scene at the race disturbance in Wilmington, North Carolina. Originally published in Colliers Weekly, November 26, 1898.

Watching Donald Trump speak about the violent white-supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville last summer was a surreal experience. Not the first press conference where he referred to neo-Nazi protestors as “very fine people.” I mean the second time, when he repudiated those fine people. “Racism,” he intoned, clearly reading from a teleprompter, “is evil … white supremacists and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Nobody could mistake his droning boredom for actual investment in the words he was speaking: his attempt to embrace the decorous discourse of liberal tolerance was baldly hypocritical.

As the summer ended and the fall semester began at U.C. Berkeley, where I study literature, far-right agitators descended along with the cool weather. A succession of activists and pundits—Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, and their ilk—made their way to campus. They brought the far-right protestors and threats of violence along with them, all the while invoking the language of tolerance and free speech. Berkeley’s former chancellor Nicholas Dirks even cited the campus community’s “values of tolerance” in defending Yiannopoulos’s appearance. The myriad ways in which people were deploying the word tolerance managed to drain the already-insufficient term of its content. All that was left was am empty concept that could accommodate any agenda. It was more clear than ever that the language of tolerance had become ineffective, just a mask behind which antipluralist demagogues could hide.

Admitting that Trump and the far right are capable of surprising me makes me feel unforgivably naive. At this point, to be surprised feels like a luxury, and I find myself bored with the chorus of outraged liberal critics who sound the alarm every time Trump breaks another democratic norm. But it’s worth inquiring why white supremacy continues to surprise us when white-race hatred is such an intractable aspect of American society. And how our shock perpetuates that violence.

In Charlottesville’s aftermath, I turned to Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel, The Marrow of Tradition. In his novel, Chesnutt—an impossibly industrious author, activist, lawyer, and educator—looks back at the wreckage of post-Reconstruction racial politics and attempts to answer these questions via historical fiction. Marrow is, among other things, an examination of how the genteel language of tolerance obscures and enables antiblack violence. In his focus on historical calamity—the Wilmington massacre narrowly and the collapse of Reconstruction more broadly—Chesnutt uses the form of the novel to examine how our shared language reinforces white supremacy’s grip on American society…

Read the entire article here.

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No Exit: Mixed-Race Characters and the Racial Binary in Charles Chesnutt and Ernest J. Gaines

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-07-11 01:14Z by Steven

No Exit: Mixed-Race Characters and the Racial Binary in Charles Chesnutt and Ernest J. Gaines

Studies in the Literary Imagination
Volume 49, Number 1, Summer 2016
pages 33-48
DOI: 10.1353/sli.2016.0003

Keith Byerman, Professor
Department of English
Indiana State University

While Ernest J. Gaines has generally emphasized the importance of white writers rather than black ones in his career, he shares with Charles Chesnutt an interest in the role of mixed-race characters in narrative. Repeatedly in his brief fiction-writing career, Chesnutt engaged with both the passing tradition and the status of those who were marked as black though they clearly had white ancestry. Similarly, Gaines, in both novels and short stories, depicted the social and racial pressures on light-skinned characters.1 The focus of this essay will be on narratives of those who have been clearly labeled black regardless of ancestry. While Gaines shows little interest in stories of passing, he shares with Chesnutt a concern for Black Creoles and for those who choose or are compelled to identify as black. The texts I will be examining are Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F. M. C. and “The Wife of His Youth” and Gaines’s Catherine Carmier and “Bloodline.” The two novels treat Creole characters and their status within multiracial and multiethnic societies, while the two stories focus on light-skinned men and their relationships to other blacks as well as whites.

Each of these works in one way or another signifies on the tradition of the tragic mulatto/a. For example, there is no deceit or confusion on the part of the central characters about their racial category, as there is in Chesnutt’s House Behind the Cedars. Nor is there the angst of white and mulatto romance such as we see between Robert and Mary Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Instead, we find a free man of color who turns out to be white, a “black” man who has the arrogance and racial superiority of his white father, a family of Black Creoles who are the only members of the community who define themselves as different from blacks, and a light-skinned man who at the end of the story may or may not identify with his black past.

Both authors, in effect, depict complex performances of race along the socially constructed boundary that constitutes the color line. Thus, each of them rejects straightforward ideas of essentialism, but does so in the context of his particular historical moment. For Chesnutt, this moment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the time of retrenchment in civil rights, white racial terrorism, and the development of a racial “science” that sought to give a biological, social, and anthropological basis for essentialist thinking and policies. Gaines’s moment came at the high point of the civil right movement, with the emergence of black nationalism and a reversed claim of essentialism that asserted black moral superiority. Thus, it can be argued that each writer uses mixed-race characters to subvert fixed notions of race while acknowledging the power of such notions in shaping the lives of their characters.

It is also worth noting that all four works involve some moral violation that extends beyond white supremacy (which both writers see as a fixed aspect of the societies they depict) and the violations of black women’s bodies that produced the mixed-race characters that are their subjects. Thus, the texts create an implicit link between such figures and the moral failure that is the nation’s racial ideology.

In “The Wife of His Youth,” Chesnutt can be seen as critiquing if not satirizing the pretensions of northern, middle-class, light-skinned blacks. It is worth noting that this is Chesnutt’s own social category, so the story may be read as self-criticism. The central character, Mr. Ryder, has become the leader of the Blue Vein Society, so called because its members are assumed to be light enough to have visibly blue veins. While the group denies such an exclusionary requirement, Ryder himself, though slightly darker than others, establishes a standard:

“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race…

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