Who’s Your Mama? “White” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom

Who’s Your Mama? “White” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom

American Literary History
Volume 14, Number 3 (Fall 2002)
DOI: 10.1093/alh/14.3.505
pages 505-359

P. Gabrielle Foreman, Professor of English and American Studies
Occidental College

Partus sequitur ventrem.
The child follows the condition of the mother.

US slave law and custom

If we shift from a politics of substance to a politics of optics, identity itself no longer possesses the reassuring signs of ontological distinction that we are accustomed to reading.
Amy Robinson

The right to see and be seen, in one’s own way and under one’s own terms, has been the point of contention.
Laura Wexler

1. Passing For or Passing Through?

“Passing” for white, and the representational strategies some phenotypically indeterminate African-American women used to claim privileges granted to whites, name phenomena as different as night and day. Examination of the assumptions about racial aspirations that occupy the space between the two illuminates how paradigms that trump expressed and expressive black female will and agency circulate both in the nineteenth century and in current literary criticism. Mulatto/a-ness as a representational trope often designates a discursive mobility and simultaneity that can raise questions of racial epistemology, while it also functions as a juridical term that constrains citizenship by ante- and postbellum law and force. The women I examine in this essay use their own bodies to challenge such constraints by expressing a desire, not for whiteness, but for familial and juridical relations in which partus sequitur ventrem produces freedom rather than enslavement for African Americans, light and dark.

Many contemporary scholars, however, deploy “white mulatto/a genealogies,” a term I use not to describe the lighter shades of a politically determined African-American racial classification but to highlight an overemphasis on patrilineal descent and an identification with and projection of white desire that continually revisits the paternal and the patriarchal, the phallic and juridical Law of the (white) Father. Russ Castronovo exemplifies such configurations in Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom (1995) when he asserts “texts by ex-slaves prohibit the restoration of any genealogical line, suggesting that only in the discontinuity and disorder of bastard histories does remembering properly construct freedom” (193); he goes on to assert that “the slave’s genealogy–both as personal history and as national critique—. . . recontextualizes freedom from plenitude and promise to a narrative of lack and deferral” (200). Others, like Lauren Berlant, offer considerations of undifferentiated “mulatta genealogies” that examine racial mixtures in unspecified and unsituated ways. Eric Sundquist’s important To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993) enacts a more explicit erasure of black female agency by offering a (masculinist) nationalist paradigm that enacts and encourages readings of race in the nineteenth century as if women did not have a voice…

Read the entire article and view the illustrations here.

Tags: , , , , ,