Searching for the authentic Red-Black self: Depictions of African-Native subjectivity in literature, visual art, and film

Searching for the authentic Red-Black self: Depictions of African-Native subjectivity in literature, visual art, and film

University of California, Berkeley
235 pages
AAT 3186996
ISBN: 9780542292071

Sarita Nyasha Cannon, Associate Professor of English
San Francisco State University

In this dissertation, I explore representations of a largely invisible multiracial group: people of Native American and African-American descent. Relying upon the two theoretical frameworks of cultural studies and multiculturalism outlined in Chapter 1, I analyze texts from various genres in order to understand the construction of Black-Red subjectivity. In Chapter 2, I examine the 1848 slave narrative/native autobiography The Life of Dr. Okah Tubbee. Written by a mulatto who passed as the son of a Choctaw chief in order to escape the slavery, this text exemplifies the performative possibilities of autobiography as well as Tubbee’s simultaneous rejection of Blackness and embrace of stereotypical ideas of Indian-ness. In Chapter 3, I look at another figure that straddles African American and Native American cultures, the fictional character of Rayona in Michael Dorris’ 1988 novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Like Tubbee, Rayona negotiates various identities. However, rather than being a somewhat tragic trickster figure who rejects Blackness as Tubbee does, Rayona is able to embrace her multiple subject positions in a variety of contexts. In Chapter 4, I focus on visual representations of African-Native Americans in the sculpture of African-Chippewa artist Edmonia Lewis and in the portraits of African-Choctaw photographer Valena Broussard Dismukes. I argue that despite Lewis’ familiarity with Native culture, she deploys stereotypes about American Indians in an attempt to gain a mainstream audience. Dismukes, on the other hand, creates portraits of contemporary Black Indians who can express their mixed heritage on their own terms. Finally, in Chapter 5, I explore two contemporary documentary films that reflect two opposite narratives of the history of Black-Native subjectivity. Steven Rich Heape’s film Black Indians celebrates people with African-Native heritage and elevates them to a special status. On the other hand, Long Lance, a documentary about a mixed-race man’s rejection of the one-drop rule and his fabrication of various Native American identities, emphasizes the tragic nature of “passing.” Implicit within my exploration of these cultural representations of Black Indians is the elusive quest for racial or cultural “authenticity,” a problematic goal that often unconsciously panders to an essentialized notion of identity. In their attempts to render authentic images of Blacks, Native Americans, and Black-Native Americans, these authors and artists often reinscribe stereotypes about these groups and thus reinforce the very racial and social hierarchies they intend to question.

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