Contested Identities: Racial Indeterminacy and Law in the American Novel, 1900-1942

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-01-27 03:14Z by Steven

Contested Identities: Racial Indeterminacy and Law in the American Novel, 1900-1942

University of Connecticut

Rebecca S. Nisetich

In Contested Identities, I chart the path of the legal and literary discourses on racial identity, codified by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and culturally ascendant in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, a group of American writers produced fiction that implicitly challenged this legal and cultural discourse. My project explores the literary productions of Charles W. Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner—three writers who undermine, question, and critique the legal and social practices that seek to define and contain individual identities in binary terms. Specifically, in Contested Identities I explore why Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner create characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable, and why they intentionally position these figures in relation to the law.

At the center of each of these texts there remains a void where racial information might be clearly articulated, defined, or corroborated, but isn’t. This enables Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner to underscore an unresolved tension between what must be true and what cannot be known, a dynamic which throws into relief the maddening complexity of human experience in opposition to cut-and-dry legal and popular definitions of “race,” which operate under the assumption that blood proportions are easily known, and that specific blood proportions determine identity. I argue that it is racial indeterminacy that animates these writers’ explorations of identity, and that it is the fundamental theme that binds these characters and texts together. The law treats race as a matter of identity; my dissertation argues that the law is instead a crucial factor in the formation of the racial identity of individual characters.

Available for download here on or after 2024-05-01.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-08-09 22:48Z by Steven

Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case

African American Review
Voluume 46, Numbers 2-3, Summer/Fall 2013
pages 345-361
DOI: 10.1353/afa.2013.0076

Rebecca Nisetich, Assistant Director, Honors Program
University of Southern Maine

Toward the end of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), the protagonist Irene Redfield imagines how her friend Clare Kendry’s racist husband might react if he discovers his wife’s “true” racial identity: “What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case.” This essay argues that what seems like a casual reference to a contemporary event actually underscores a central theme of the novel: the Rhinelander case and Passing both illustrate the problematic ways Americans sought to categorize mixed-race individuals in the 1920s, but while the Rhinelander verdict denies the existence of a middle ground between racial absolutes, the novel affirms it. Larsen directly references the Rhinelander case only once, but its themes echo throughout the text of Passing, which challenges the visibility of race and the conception of racial identity as intimately connected to one’s essential self. Irene’s reference calls to mind a very public trial that forced Americans to question their understanding of racial difference. In Passing, Larsen explores the conceptions of race as a real physical fact and as an imagined social construct, and challenges the logic of “common knowledge” and visibility in assigning racial identity to individuals.

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,