American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Barack Obama, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2012-07-13 01:37Z by Steven

American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South

Liverpool University Press
May 2012
256 pages
234 x 156 mm
Hardback ISBN: 9781846317538

Edited by:

Celia Britton, Professor of French and Francophone Studies
University College London

Martin Munro, Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Florida State University

The Francophone Caribbean and the American South are sites born of the plantation, the common matrix for the diverse nations and territories of the circum-Caribbean. This book takes as its premise that the basic configuration of the plantation, in terms of its physical layout and the social relations it created, was largely the same in the Caribbean and the American South. Essays written by leading authorities in the field examine the cultural, social, and historical affinities between the Francophone Caribbean and the American South, including Louisiana, which among the Southern states has had a quite particular attachment to France and the Francophone world. The essays focus on issues of history, language, politics and culture in various forms, notably literature, music and theatre. Considering figures as diverse as Barack Obama, Frantz Fanon, Miles Davis, James Brown, Édouard Glissant, William Faulkner, Maryse Condé and Lafcadio Hearn, the essays explore in innovative ways the notions of creole culture and creolization, terms rooted in and indicative of contact between European and African people and cultures in the Americas, and which are promoted here as some of the most productive ways for conceiving of the circum-Caribbean as a cultural and historical entity.


  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction – Martin Munro and Celia Britton
  • Creolizations
    • Lafcadio Hearn’s American Writings and the Creole Continuum – Mary Gallagher
    • Auguste Lussan’s La Famille creole: How Saint-Domingue Emigres Bcame Louisiana Creoles – Typhaine Leservot
    • Caribbean and Creole in New Orleans – Angle Adams Parham
    • Creolizing Barack Obama – Valerie Loichot
    • Richard Price or the Canadian from Petite-Anse: The Potential and the Limitations of a Hybrid Anthropology – Christina Kullberg
  • Music
    • ‘Fightin’ the Future’: Rhythm and Creolization in the Circum-Caribbean – Martin Munro
    • Leaving the South: Frantz Fanon, Modern Jazz, and the Rejection of Negritude – Jeremy F. Lane
    • The Sorcerer and the Quimboiseur: Poetic Intention in the Works of Miles Davis and Edourard Glissant – Jean-Luc Tamby
    • Creolizing Jazz, Jazzing the Tout-monde: Jazz, Gwoka and the Poetics of Relation – Jerome Camal
  • Intertextualities: Faulkner, Glissant, Conde
    • Go Slow Now: Saying the Unsayable in Edouard Glissant’s Reading of Faulkner – Michael Wiedorn
    • Edouard Glissant and the Test of Faulkner’s Modernism – Hugh Azerad
    • The Theme of the Ancestral Crime in the Novels of Faulkner, Glissant, and Conde – Celia Britton
    • An American Story – Yanick Lahen
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
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How William Faulkner Tackled Race — and Freed the South From Itself

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-06-28 17:27Z by Steven

How William Faulkner Tackled Race — and Freed the South From Itself

The New York Times

John Jeremiah Sullivan

A poll of well over a hundred writers and critics, taken a few years back by Oxford American magazine, named William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!” the “greatest Southern novel ever written,” by a decisive margin — and the poll was conducted while looking back on a century in which a disproportionate number of the best American books were Southern — so to say that this novel requires no introduction is just to speak plainly.

Of course, it’s the kind of book a person would put first in a poll like that. You can feel reasonably confident, in voting for it, that nobody quite fathoms it enough to question its achievement. Self-consciously ambitious and structurally complex (unintelligible, a subset of not unsophisticated readers has always maintained), “Absalom, Absalom!” partakes of what the critic Irving Howe called “a fearful impressiveness,” the sort that “comes when a writer has driven his vision to an extreme.” It may represent the closest American literature came to producing an analog for “Ulysses,” which influenced it deeply — each in its way is a provincial Modernist novel about a young man trying to awaken from history — and like “Ulysses,” it lives as a book more praised than read, or more esteemed than enjoyed.

But good writers don’t look for impressedness in their readers — it’s at best another layer of distortion — and “greatness” can leave a book isolated in much the way it can a human being. (Surely a reason so many have turned away from “Ulysses” over the last near-hundred years is that they can’t read it without a suffocating sense of each word’s cultural importance and their duty to respond, a shame in that case, given how often Joyce was trying to be amusing.) A good writer wants from us — or has no right to ask more than — intelligence, good faith and time. A legitimate question to ask is, What happens with “Absalom, Absalom!” if we set aside its laurels and apply those things instead? What has Faulkner left us?

A prose of exceptional vividness, for one thing. The same few passages, in the very first pages, remind me of this — they’re markings on an entryway — sudden bursts of bristly adjective clusters. The September afternoon on which the book opens in a “dim hot airless” room is described as “long still hot weary dead.” If you’ve ever taken a creative-writing workshop, you’ve been warned never to do this, pile up adjectives, interpose descriptive terms between the reader’s imagination and the scene. But here something’s different. Faulkner’s choices are so precise, and his juxtaposition of the words so careful in conditioning our sense reception, that he doesn’t so much solve as overpower the problem. The sparrows flying into the window trellis beat their wings with a sound that’s “dry vivid dusty,” each syllable a note in a chord he’s forming. The Civil War ghosts that haunt the room are “garrulous outraged baffled.”…

…No book that tries to dissect the South’s psyche like that can overlook its founding obsession: miscegenation. There we reach the novel’s deepest concern, the fixed point around which the storm of its language revolves. After Sutpen ran off to Haiti as a young man — it emerges that a humiliating boyhood experience, of hearing a black slave tell him to use the back door of a big house (he wasn’t good enough for the front), had produced a shock that propelled him to flee — he married a girl there and fathered a son with her. Soon, however, he discovered that she had black blood, and that his son was therefore mixed, so he renounced them both. He sailed back to the South to become a planter. A plausible thing for a white Southern male to have done in the early 19th century. But what Faulkner doesn’t forget, and doesn’t want us to, is the radical amorality of the breach. On the basis of pure social abstraction, Sutpen has spurned his own child, his first son.

He remarries in Mississippi, with Miss Rosa’s older sister. They have two children, a boy and a girl. Now Sutpen has land, a mansion and progeny. He is almost there, almost a baron. We’re not absurd to think of Gatsby here; one of the most perceptive recent statements on “Absalom, Absalom!” was made by the scholar Fred C. Hobson in 2003, a simple-seeming statement and somehow one of the strangest things a person could say about the book, that it is “a novel about the American dream.”

As in any good book of that type, the past hunts Sutpen and finds him: His son, Henry, goes off to the fledgling University of Mississippi, where he befriends another man, Charles Bon. On a holiday visit to Sutpen’s Hundred, Bon meets Henry’s sister, Judith, and falls in love with her — or makes up his mind to possess her. What Henry and Judith don’t know is that Bon is Sutpen’s abandoned Haitian son, come to Mississippi via New Orleans, evidently in a sort of half-conscious, all but sleepwalking quest to find his father. Charles Bon is thus both half-black and Judith’s half-brother…

Read the entire essay here.

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The Language Trap: U.S. Passing Fiction and its Paradox

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-04-16 01:32Z by Steven

The Language Trap: U.S. Passing Fiction and its Paradox

University of Kansas
181 pages

Masami Sugimori, Instructor of English
University of South Alabama

Submitted to the graduate degree program in English and the Graduate Faculty of the University of Kansas in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

Through exploration of William Faulkner’s, James Weldon Johnson’s and Nella Larsen’spassing novels,” this dissertation points out that narrative representation of racial passing facilitates and compromises the authors’ challenge to the white-dominant ideology of early-twentieth-century America. I reveal that, due to their inevitable dependence on language, these authors draw paradoxically on the white-dominant ideology that they aim to question, especially its system of binary racial categorization. While the “white” body of a “passing” character serves the novelists as a subversive force in white-supremacist society (which depends on the racial other to define “whiteness”), language, which is essentially ideological, traps the writers in racial binary and continually suggests that, while the character looks white, s/he is really black. Accordingly, the authors have to write under the constraints of the problem that American discourse of race must and, for the most part, does systematically suppress its own essential fictiveness.

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: The Passing Paradox: Representing Racial Chaos within the Symbolic Order
  • Chapter 1: Racial Mixture, Racial Passing, and White Subjectivity in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
  • Chapter 2: Signifying, Ordering, and Containing the Chaos: Whiteness, Ideology, and Language in William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust
  • Chapter 3: Narrative Order and Racial Hierarchy: James Weldon Johnson’s Double-Consciousness and “White” Subjectivity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Along This Way
  • Chapter 4: Ordering the Racial Chaos, Chaoticizing the Racial Order: Nella Larsen’s Narrative of Indeterminacy and Invisibility in Passing
  • Conclusion: Toward a Language for the Real, Chaotic and Unnamable
  • Notes
  • Works Cited

Read the entire dissertation here.

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Absalom, Absalom!

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels on 2011-12-22 04:34Z by Steven

Absalom, Absalom!

Random House
432 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-679-73218-1

William Faulkner

First published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! is William Faulkner’s ninth novel and one of his most admired. It tells the story of Thomas Sutpen and his ruthless, single-minded attempt to forge a dynasty in Jefferson, Mississippi, in 1830. Although his grand design is ultimately destroyed by his own sons, a century later the figure of Sutpen continues to haunt young Quentin Compson, who is obsessed with his family legacy and that of the Old South. “Faulkner’s novels have the quality of being lived, absorbed, remembered rather than merely observed,” noted Malcolm Cowley. “Absalom, Absalom! is structurally the soundest of all the novels in the Yoknapatawpha series—and it gains power in retrospect.” This edition follows the text of Absalom, Absalom! as corrected in 1986 under the direction of Faulkner expert Noel Polk and features a new Foreword by John Jeremiah Sullivan.


Narrative Miscegenation: “Absalom, Absalom!” as Naturalist Novel, Auto/Biography, and African-American Oral Story

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-19 15:53Z by Steven

Narrative Miscegenation: “Absalom, Absalom!” as Naturalist Novel, Auto/Biography, and African-American Oral Story

Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 31, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 155-179
DOI: 10.1353/jnt.2011.0080

Alex Vernon, Associate Professor of English
Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas

Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, especially as disseminated by Herbert Spencer, profoundly affected literary criticism at the end of the nineteenth century, with genres treated like biological species to the degree that at least one critic wrote about “a struggle for existence among genres” (Pizer 82). A century later, in “The Law of Genre,” Jacques Derrida repeatedly expresses this law—that “genres are not to be mixed” (51)—in naturalist terms. He remarks that genres have been treated in a system akin to “race, familial membership, [and] classificatory genealogy” whereby to mix genres is, by convention, to “risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity” (57, 53). It is to commit a kind of miscegenation. Yet his essay finally finds such intermixing inevitable, an inevitability he calls “the law of the law of genre” (55).

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! also employs naturalistic language in its various accountings of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. While the story turns on the historical Southern taboo of racial intermixing, Faulkner artfully incorporates generic miscegenation into the novel’s structure. The narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! can be viewed as a “cross-breed” of several literary forms, including (among others) the naturalist novel, biography, autobiography, and the oral tale largely associated…

Read or purchase article here.

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Carothers McCaslin’s Progeny Tracing the Theme of Redemption Chronologically Through the Multiracial McCaslins

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, United States on 2011-12-15 22:48Z by Steven

Carothers McCaslin’s Progeny Tracing the Theme of Redemption Chronologically Through the Multiracial McCaslins

Honors College Capstone Experience/Thesis Projects
Paper 211
pages 38-50

Christine Reiss
Western Kentucky University

William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942) is a novel that depicts the complicated family history of the McCaslins. There are primarily three branches of the family: the white, male-descended McCaslins, the white, female-descended Edmondses, and the multiracial, male-descended Beauchamps. The multiracial line of the family, the Beauchamps, are the progeny of the original McCaslin patriarch, old Carothers McCaslin. His act of miscegenation with one of his slaves produces a daughter, on whom he then fathers a son. This act of miscegenation and incest sets in motion a family line that struggles with the weight of its father’s sin. The individuals seek to live the most liberated lives that they can, given the various social constraints with which they come into contact, and by the end of the novel, they accomplish a fair measure of freedom, perhaps even redemption, from their father’s sin.

Read the entire paper here.

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Joe Christmas and the Chamber of Secrets – The Black/ White Dilemma in William Faulkner’s Light in August

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-10-06 01:57Z by Steven

Joe Christmas and the Chamber of Secrets – The Black/ White Dilemma in William Faulkner’s Light in August

Africa Resource
21 paragraphs

Isabel Adonis, Writer and Artist

I read William Faulkner’s Light in August in my early teens and I scarcely understood it.  But I understood something and many years later a woman at a party mentioned that she had read the same novel at college.  For a while she talked about miscegenation and on my return home I decided that this was something that I wanted to look into.  I wandered down to the little second hand bookstore in Bethesda where I used to live and it was the first book that I found there, as if it had been waiting for me to claim it. I am mixed race, my mother was Welsh and my father was from the Caribbean.  Many people treat me as if I am black, an exotic, and a foreigner. But I have lived a life like the character in the book, lonely isolated and forever going round in circles searching for my authentic self. And just as in Faulkner’s deep south I live in a society which is determined to make me bad, determined to make me take the role of scapegoat, to make me ‘the other’ of themselves.

In the novel we learn that Joe Christmas’ skin tone is “parchment” and that he doesn’t know his parents though he suspects one of them was black.  He was left on the steps of an orphanage on Christmas day, hence his name.  In the book he is aged thirty-three so we know that he has a Christ-like persona: he has come to redeem our sins. As a little boy in the orphanage he is fond of making his way to the dietician’s  room where he likes to suck on her toothpaste.  On one particular afternoon he has taken the toothpaste from the sink when he hears her returning to her room with the interne from the local hospital.  For safety, he hides behind a cloth curtain and witnesses her making love.  Because of his anxiety he eats too much toothpaste and is sick.  As a result, he is caught by the dietician…

Read the entire essay here.

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The Antisocial Escape of William Faulkner’s Tragic Mulattoes

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-10-01 21:01Z by Steven

The Antisocial Escape of William Faulkner’s Tragic Mulattoes

University of Georgia
34 pages

Courtney Thomas

A Thesis Submitted to the Honors Council of the University of Georgia in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree BACHELOR OF ARTS in ENGLISH with HONORS

With the characters of Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) and Joe Christmas in Light in August (1932), William Faulkner constructs two masculine versions of the traditionally female tragic mulatto narrative concerning the plight of a mixed-race individual. Ostensibly, the philandering Charles Bon and the violent Joe Christmas exemplify the “strong and silent” ultra-masculine stereotype and thus have no connection with the vulnerable and sensitive tragic mulatto female. However, Bon and Christmas are connected to this usually female archetype because both men are troubled by the internal conflict of identity that is central to the tragic mulatto myth. The men likewise fear the tragic mulatto’s fates of societal isolation and loneliness. Yet unlike the passive female who exercises little to no agency in preventing her tragic fate, Bon and Joe actively resist their prescribed fates through the manifestation of qualities indicative of antisocial personality disorder. In this thesis, I will explore the factors that lead to the development of antisocial qualities in these two characters, how the men utilize these qualities as methods of combating the confinements of the tragic mulatto myth, and how the two characters’ attempts to escape their stereotypical fates ultimately prove to be futile.


      • The Elusive Father
      • A Life Without Connection
      • The Seduction of the Sutpens
      • The Two Joes
      • Male Revenge
      • The Sutpen Curse
      • The Fear of Family
      • The Failure to Escape the Myth

Read the entire thesis here.

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Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United Kingdom on 2011-09-18 04:40Z by Steven

Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction

New York University Press
280 pages
ISBN-10: 0814709966; ISBN-13: 978-0814709962
9 x 6 x 1 inches

This book is out of print.

Judith R. Berzon

The mulatto character has captured the imagination of American novelist in every period of our literature.  For American writers, the mulatto has long signified a “marginal man,” caught between two cultures and between the boundaries of the American caste system. As such, the mulatto’s biological and psychological responses to his status—attraction and repulsion to both the white an non-white castes—have frequently been fictionalized.

Neither White Nor Black is the first comprehensive study of the mulatto character in American fiction.  It is interdisciplinary in approach, drawing from literature, history, sociology, psychology and biology, and assessing the influence of racist ideology, social mythology and historical reality upon the portrayal of the mulatto character.  Dr. Berzon examines how the self-concepts of mixed-blood characters are affected by black-white mythology and explores the roles mulattoes have played in American culture.  Among the 19th an 20th-century black and white authors examined here are Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren and John A. Williams.

In Part I of the book, Dr. Berzon provides an introduction to the historical, sociological and scientific backgrounds of the fiction; an overview of the novels; and a discussion of the most prevalent sterotype—“the tragic mulatto.”  Part II defines and illustrates the forms of adjustment to marginality.  Each chapter is organized around a specific mode of adjustment—passing for white, becoming a member of the black bourgeosie, working as leader of his/her race, and failing to achieve identification with either the white or black group.  In the Postscript, Dr. Berzon examines three novels of the 1970s by important black authors—John A. Williams, Ernest J. Gaines, and John Oliver Killens.  Her study is enriched by the recently published but crucial historical scholarship such as Roll, Jordan Roll by Eguene Genovese, White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan, an The Black Image in the White Mind by George Fredrickson, as well as the earlier work by Addison Gayle Jr., The Black Aesthetic.

In Neither White Nor Black, Dr. Berzon reveals the recurring themes in the portrayal of the mulatto character throughout several periods of the 19th and 20th-century American history.  Central to the portrayal of the mulatto during all these periods is the quest for identity, and Dr. Berzon, through her illuminating analysis, provides her readers, whether students of Black studies, American studies, Southern history, literature, or intellectual history, with an essential understanding of that quest and of the role of the mulatto in American society.

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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…

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