Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2014-08-18 02:28Z by Steven

Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010

State University of New York Press
July 2014
352 pages
Hardcover ISBN13: 978-1-4384-5227-2
Electronic ISBN13: 978-1-4384-5229-6

Edited by:

Julie Cary Nerad, Associate Professor of American Literature
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Explores how the trope of racial passing continues to serve as a touchstone for gauging public beliefs and anxieties about race in this multiracial era.

The first volume to focus on the trope of racial passing in novels, memoirs, television, and films published or produced between 1990 and 2010, Passing Interest takes the scholarly conversation on passing into the twenty-first century. With contributors working in the fields of African American studies, American studies, cultural studies, film studies, literature, and media studies, this book offers a rich, interdisciplinary survey of critical approaches to a broad range of contemporary passing texts. Contributors frame recent passing texts with a wide array of cultural discourses, including immigration law, the Post-Soul Aesthetic, contemporary political satire, affirmative action, the paradoxes of “colorblindness,” and the rhetoric of “post-racialism.” Many explore whether “one drop” of blood still governs our sense of racial identity, or to what extent contemporary American culture allows for the racially indeterminate individual. Some essays open the scholarly conversation to focus on “ethnic” passers—individuals who complicate the traditional black-white binary—while others explore the slippage between traditional racial passing and related forms of racial performance, including blackface minstrelsy and racial masquerade.

Table of Contents

  • Preface: The “Posts” of Passing / Gayle Wald
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: The (Not So) New Face of America / Julie Cary Nerad
  • 2. On the Margins of Movement: Passing in Three Contemporary Memoirs / Irina Negrea
  • 3. “A Cousin to Blackness”: Race and Identity in Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life / Lynn Washington and Julie Cary Nerad
  • 4. Can One Really Choose? Passing and Self-Identification at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century / Jené Schoenfeld
  • 5. Passing in Blackface: The Intimate Drama of Post-Racialism on Black. White / Eden Osucha
  • 6. Broke Right in Half: Passing of/in Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone / Julie Cary Nerad
  • 7. Passing for Chicano, Passing for White: Negotiating Filipino American Identity in Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son / Amanda Page
  • 8. Race in the Marketplace: Postmodern Passing and Ali G / Ana Cristina Mendes
  • 9. Passing for Black, White, and Jewish: Mixed-Race Identity in Rebecca Walker and Danzy Senna / Lori Harrison-Kahan
  • 10. Smiling Faces: Chameleon Street, Racial Passing/Performativity, and Film Blackness / Michael B. Gillespie
  • 11. Consuming Performances: Race, Media, and the Failure of the Cultural Mulatto in Bamboozled and Erasure / Meredith McCarroll
  • Bibliography
  • Contributor Biographies
  • Index
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ENGL 487: The Mulatto in American Fiction

Posted in Course Offerings, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-11-23 04:05Z by Steven

ENGL 487: The Mulatto in American Fiction

Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio
Fall 2004

Jené Schoenfeld, Assistant Professor of English

The mulatto balances precariously on the razor-thin edge of the color line between black and white. In the antebellum era, the mulatto’s proximity to whiteness made the mulatto an attractive object for Abolitionist sympathy. In the Jim Crow era, that proximity made the mulatto a threat to the security of white privilege. In our present moment, this figure has all but disappeared, though it seems to be re-emerging in a new form with Tiger Woods, Cablinasian, and Vin Diesel, “multiracial movie star.” This course will explore representations of the mulatto in American fiction and culture. In addition to reading some great works of literature, by authors such as William Faulkner, Nella Larsen, Charles Chesnutt, and Mark Twain (to name only a few), we will use our discussions about the trope of the mulatto to consider some of the more perplexing theoretical issues concerning race in America. We’ll begin with concerns generated specifically by the mulatto, such as: passing (the “problem” of the racially ambiguous body), racial allegiance, biological determinism (nature/nurture), hybrid degeneracy, and the mulatto’s “tragic” marginality. From there, we’ll move to the big questions, including, but not limited to: What is race? What is its determining factor: physical features, ancestry, culture? Can it be chosen or rejected? The course will concentrate on fiction of the Jim Crow era, a period of particularly intense struggle over the significance of race, but may also draw on other disciplines, such as science and law, and other historical moments. This course fulfills the post-1900 requirement. It can be used to fulfill requirements in African Diaspora Studies. Prerequisite: permission of instructor.

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Into the box and out of the picture: The rhetorical management of the mulatto in the Jim Crow era

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2011-08-24 03:41Z by Steven

Into the box and out of the picture: The rhetorical management of the mulatto in the Jim Crow era

Duke University
573 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3250085

Jené Lee Schoenfeld

Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English in the Graduate School of Duke University

Contemporary conventional wisdom maintains that anyone who has any trace of black ancestry is black. This precept, known as the “one drop rule,” was not always so widely accepted; in fact, from 1850 to 1920 an intermediate racial category—mulattoappeared on the United States Census. Visibly “both/and” in a society of “either/or,” the ambiguous body of the mulatto had the potential to obscure the color line and thus the system of racial hierarchy predicated on the division it marks. Therefore, the limited tolerance under slavery of an intermediate racial status became untenable during Jim Crow. In my dissertation, I argue that the fiction of the Jim Crow era helped the one drop rule gain hegemonic status.

Through sustained close readings of texts by Frances Harper, Thomas Dixon, Nella Larsen, Charles Chesnutt, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner, I argue that the biological determinism of the one drop rule is inadequate to explain what makes their characters—who are often physically, culturally, and even socially aligned with whiteness—”truly” black and suggest that in mulatto fiction, self-identification emerges as the fundamental basis of racial identity. I argue that fiction facilitated the containment of racial indeterminacy by “rhetorically managing” the mulatto into choosing blackness for herself through characterizations of those who remained racially liminal as tragically marginal and generally despicable, and contrasting characterizations of those who chose to identify as black as noble, privileged, and supported by the embrace of their families and their communities. The possibility of choosing one’s racial identification, however, undermines racial ideology’s essentialist pretense to racial authenticity. Therefore, choice must be supplemented by demonstrations of racial allegiance, such as “intraracial” marriage, which preserves at least the illusion of biological and cultural racial continuity, and seamless performances, of blackness or whiteness. Finally, I examine the relative authority—asymmetrical because of the construction of whiteness as pure and exclusive—of self-identification with respect to whiteness and blackness, and the near impossibility of self-identification outside this binary.

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • 1. “What are you?” And why it matters
  • 2. “Genocidal Images” or “Imagined Community”: Converting the Marginal Mulatto into a Light-Skinned Elite Black
  • 3. Keeping Race in the Family: Marriage as Racial Pledge of Allegiance
  • 4. Indeterminacy on the Loose! Invisible Blackness and the Permeability of the Color Line
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Biography


The mulatto figure in American fiction is too often treated by critics as though she is static, both within individual texts and over the course of American literary history. Critics tend to assume that the most famous version of the mulatto figure—the antebellum tragic mulatto, whose near-whiteness was used to evoke white readers’ sympathy for the abolitionist cause is the only significant template for the mulatto figure. Moreover, they take for granted the mulatto’s essential blackness, explaining away her apparent whiteness as solely a concession to white racism. My dissertation models an approach to the mulatto figure that is attentive to the figure’s development.

On the scale of American literary history, I argue that the representation of the mulatto is inextricably bound up with the (United States’) political context. Though I am also interested in the way that racial indeterminacy is represented in contemporary texts, in what I think of as the post-mulatto moment, I decided quite early on that this was better saved for a future project. I focus instead on representations of the mulatto during the Jim Crow era and how those representations differ from antebellum representations of the mulatto. At its heart, this project is fundamentally a literary one, but as I sought to explain why the mulatto was represented differently in the Jim Crow era, I became interested in the relationship between those representations and a broader social and political context.

Accordingly, I offer an interdisciplinary hypothesis that literature concerning the mulatto—what I call “mulatto fiction”—was instrumental in facilitating an historical shift in the racial structure of the United States from an antebellum racial system with some possibility of a third racial category (labeled “mulatto”) to a system that is much more rigidly a binary of black and white. The effect of this historical shift was that the mulatto “became” black. While I believe that this may be true, I want to qualify this as a provisional claim. I can and do offer (mostly in chapter one) concrete evidence that such a historical shift occurred. For example, “mulatto” appeared as a category on the United States’ census from 1850 to 1920, but from 1930 onward, mulattoes were moved into the box marked “Negro,” and thus rendered invisible as mulattoes. It is to this shift that my title, “Into the Box and Out of the Picture,” refers. To establish the causal relationship between mulatto fiction and the historical shift that I describe, at this stage I can only offer a theory about why other, more obvious, forms of racial discipline, such as the law, might have had limited power to control the mulatto’s racial identification.

I would also qualify my related claim that mulatto fiction is invested in facilitating the development of the binary racial system through the disappearance of the mulatto. Additional research into authorial biography would allow me to make that claim more forcefully, however, I stand by that claim as a description of a trend in fiction of the early Jim Crow era (in the years shortly after Reconstruction). Some of the most interesting works of mulatto fiction—those by Faulkner and Larsen, for example—are critical of the binary racial schema. Those texts, however, tend to appear later in the Jim Crow era, when the binary is already well-established. Even in those texts, as I argue at length in the body of my dissertation, the critiques are limited by the existing terms of the discourse. In Quicksand, for example, Larsen locates the “problem” of the mulatto in the system—not in her mulatto protagonist, Helga—yet she cannot imagine any positive resolution to the situation. Though Helga eventually marries a black man and settles in the most apparently “authentic” black setting—among the folk of the rural South—almost as soon as she arrives, Helga is (as usual) looking for a way out. Despite Larsen’s critique of the racial system that so confines Helga, there is no way out for her. As in earlier works of mulatto fiction, Helga must fully embrace a black racial identity or die.

Another way in which my dissertation seeks to broaden the context in which we interpret the mulatto figure is by expanding the scope of the texts we might include. I argue for the consideration of what I call “mulatto discourse,” which, in addition to literary texts, includes representations of the mulatto in such fields as law and (pseudo)science. The mulatto, especially in the Jim Crow era, is a site of contestation over the establishment and location of the color line. That is to say, the mulatto figures centrally in arguments about where whiteness (along with “legitimate” access to white privilege) ends and blackness begins. Indeed, this is a question explored in the literature I discuss, but it is a battle fought in other contexts as well. Regarding the literature, I argue that authors on both sides of the color line, and from both racist and antiracist perspectives, are invested in the racial identification of the mulatto figure. The motivation behind such an investment differs; racists, obviously, are interested in supporting racial hierarchy, whereas antiracists may hope that a strategic cssentialism will create a richer base from which to mount challenges to that hierarchy. Similarly, racists and antiracists represent the mulatto differently with respect to the question of racial identity. Racists tend to emphasize the mulatto’s degeneracy, thereby suggesting that the mulatto should not exist. Antiracists tend to push the mulatto away from racial liminality by representing the tragically marginal mulatto negatively, while drawing the mulatto into blackness by representing the “light-skinned” member of the black elite positively. Despite these variations, these approaches are part of a common discourse. What all of the fictional texts under analysis in my dissertation have in common is an interest in the possibilities (in some cases, even the necessity) and the limits of self- identification for the mulatto.

Self-identification is particularly important in mulatto discourse because of the difficulty of using the external evidence of the mulatto’s phenotype to assign the mulatto a racial classification in accord with the rules established by racial ideology, in particular, the one drop rule, which dictates that anyone with a trace of black ancestry is to be considered as unequivocally black. My work focuses on the mulatto figure, exemplified by Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, whose phenotype suggests a white racial identity; the most “problematic” figure from the perspective of those invested in racial hierarchy. (I deliberately do not say “who could pass for white,” because then I, too, would be assuming the mulatto’s essential blackness, which I do not.) This mulatto’s apparent whiteness often contradicts her legal status as a black. (I say “often” because in some cases the mulatto is not legally black.) Racial ideology developed and deployed a set of narratives in various fields to support its insistence on the mulatto’s essential blackness despite the potentially contradictory “evidence” of phenotype, legal status, or even social acceptance in white communities. Though some texts in mulatto discourse frame their exploration of the contradiction embodied by the mulatto as a critique of the “logic” of racial ideology, the driving force of mulatto discourse during the Jim Crow era seems to be an impulse toward containment of racial ambiguity.

The ramifications for Jim Crow of the problem of the mulatto’s ambiguous body were both practical and ideological. The mulatto presented a practical problem for segregation because she could move out of the places designated for her without being detected. In other words, she could access white privilege without (according to racial ideology) being legitimately entitled to it. Furthermore, the mulatto—whose body is a concrete reminder of intimate relationships between blacks and whites—presented an ideological problem for segregation, a form of racial hierarchy that sought to institute maximum distance between the races.

Because the mulatto’s blackness does not register visually, I argue that agency assumes a greater role in the mulatto’s racial identification than it otherwise might. Racism is implicated in the stakes of how the mulatto identifies racially, but because she is not visually identifiable as black, she may not be personally subjected to racism unless she identifies as black and publicly expresses this identification. For example, in Iola Leroy, set shortly after the Civil War, Iola takes a job in a Northern white establishment as salesperson. She informs the manager that she is “colored,” and he hires her, but cautions her not to tell her fellow employees. Iola does promise this, but she does not go out of her way to broadcast her racial identification either. Then one day, a coworker is where I go.” Confused by her own reluctance to make the connection between Iola’s church attendance and her racial identification—thereby admitting that she has been working with a “colored” woman without knowing it—the other salesperson asks why Iola attends a colored church. Iola finally makes her meaning plain: “Because I wished to be with my own people” Comprehending at last, the (presumably “legitimately”) white salesperson “looked surprised and pained, and almost instinctively moved a little farther from her.” By the end of the day, the entire staff knows about Iola’s racial identification and they insist that Iola be fired, which she is. This is a very clear example of the way in which agency plays a unique role in the apparently white mulatto’s racial identification and attendant experience (or lack thereof) of racism. If she had been characterized by more obvious phenotypic cues suggesting blackness, Iola would probably never have been hired, not even by the manager inclined to give a colored girl a chance. Yet if Iola had simply lied about her church (and other personal details that may have come up), the salespeople and their customers would have continued to assume that she was “legitimately” white, and she would not have been fired…

 Purchase the dissertation here.

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