All the parts of myself…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2013-11-09 15:10Z by Steven

For similar reasons, The Boondocks also critiques one of the mainstays of mixed race representation: the obligatory rehearsal of one’s multiracial family tree. Replacing calls for social justice or racial equity, the most often repeated goal of  “mixed race rights” is merely to “name all the parts of myself.” The rhetorical or graphic display of the family tree (almost de rigueur in the growing genre of mixed race narratives) participates in a racial gaze that can interrupt political reflection. For Jazmine and her family, description has come to stand in for politics, genealogy substituting for political discussions of the body politic. The family tree is paraded as revelatory and socially transforming fact. It has come to serve as proxy for social change, in which representing one’s family tree has become a political end in itself. The exercise of those rights often amounts to making identity a category of genealogical documentation, documentation which, to the extent that it is complacently represented as an end in itself whose social good is somehow self-evident, obscures identity as social index and mode of analysis. When Huey asks Jazmine, “OK… if you’re not black, then what are you, hmmm?” she responds dutifully with a list documenting down to the fraction her ethnic racial portfolio: “My mother is one-quarter Irish, one-quarter Swedish, and one-half German, and on my father’s side is part Cherokee, and my grandfather is mostly French, I think, because he’s originally from Louisiana, and his father was from Haiti I believe, which makes me…” Huey intervenes: “Which makes you as black as Richard Roundtree in ‘Shaft in Africa’” (A Right to Be Hostile 15).  Huey disparages not so much her mixed genealogy as the idea that a recapitulation of ethnic and national descent really says anything meaningful about racial identity. At the very least, he suggests, her genealogy is neither progressive nor has sufficient explanatory force. Rather, her accounting retroactively ratifies the idea of racially homogeneous categories and national identities by suggesting that each parent’s race or ethnicity is unitary.

Her laundry list also collapses blood and nation and then fractionalizes both—how else can the notion of “one-quarter Swedish” make sense—and looks less like the new millennial model of post-race and more like an uncritical revival of classic nineteenth-century positivist racialism. Huey interrupts her—and the discourse itself—by insisting instead on the political nature of racial identity: he teases her by saying, “I understand, Jazmine. I’m mixed too.” We see an up-close shot of her face, which lights up as she says hopefully, “You are?” only to have him sarcastically claim, much to her disappointment, to be “part Black, part African, part Negro, and part colored.” Significantly, his designations do not pretend to be descriptive; they all carry heavy historical and political implication. He then walks off wailing, “Poor me. I just don’t know where I fit in,” as she cries after him (again): “You’re making fun of me!” (16). Of course, Huey is making fun of Jazmine in this exchange. However, his send-up is social critique to the degree that it does not concede the reduction of racial identity to the sum of one’s parts; he thinks of race not in terms of  blood but in relation to representation. Shaft in Africa, after all, is late in the series of 1970s campy sex-and-adventure Blaxploitation films. Huey’s invocation of the hyper-blackness represented in the Blaxploitation genre of film is a spoof of them—he is concerned not with black authenticity but with cultural figurations of blackness. Race, for McGruder, is always cast as a matter of historical consciousness, social play, and political engagement. This perspective is reinforced in his comments on the racial status of  Barack Obama, when he notes, “We all share the common experiences of being Black in America today—we do not all share a common history.” In such scenes, The Boondocks replaces mere optic confirmation of race with black cultural performance and historical citation as more useful markers of racial identity. His coherent sense of “Black” is historically informed, historically evolving, and historically heterogeneous in both community composition and cultural practice.

Michele Elam, The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011), 69-70.

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Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-10-08 21:15Z by Steven

Clearly Invisible Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, and: The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (review)

Philip Roth Studies
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2013
pages 99-103
DOI: 10.1353/prs.2013.0024

Donavan L. Ramon
Rutgers University

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012, vxi + 229 pp.

Michele Elam, The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011, xxiii + 277 pp.

According to W.E.B. DuBois’s prophetic theory articulated in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (221). Myriad critical and popular pieces over the past several years suggest that this theory has run its course: the celebration of mixed race people putatively implies the “end” of race. Certainly the election of the first biracial president has been touted as the epitome of post-race life in America. Yet as recent critical interventions by Michele Elam and Marcia Alesan Dawkins remind us, race remains prevalent because of biracial people, not in spite of it.

The continuities between DuBois’s theory and Elam’s are underscored by the title of the latter’s monograph. In The Souls of Mixed Folk, the Stanford University English Professor asserts that the notion of post-Black art being apolitical is a complete fiction, much like the idea that post-Civil Rights politics are in decline. By examining the images of mixed race subjects in a wide range of artistic forms, Elam argues that these venues are the newer locations that “engage issues of civil rights and social change” (16). To accept this belief, she begins her book by convincing readers that the increased interest in mixed race deludes many people into believing that race no longer exists. If this is truly the case, then why do fictional representations of biracial people continue to represent anxiety across a multitude of genres? More specifically, why has the last several years seen a resurgence in narratives of racial passing—such as Philip Roth’s The Human Stain?

Elam explores these questions across five thoroughly researched and well-written chapters. The first traces the history of mixed race studies in curricula across the nation while raising related yet ignored issues. For instance she problematizes the focus of heteronormative depictions of mixed race families at the expense of homosexual ones, while also reminding us that mixed Americans have historically been the result of sexual violation. She believes we must be mindful of considering the product of these unions as representatives of racial progress without understanding the nuances of slavery and violence inflicted on black bodies by whites.

Chapter two changes the focus from history to contemporary comic strips by Aaron McGruder and Nate Creekmore. In their works, Elam rightly sees racial identity as “a matter of public negotiation, social location, cultural affirmation, political commitment, and historical homage” (58). In chapter four, Elam situates the traditional European bildungsroman against the “mixed race bildungsroman”. The former focuses on the “social incorporation of the individual” (125) whereas protagonists in the latter are not “incorporated into the society or the social progress that they are supposed to represent . . . [and they] challenge the popular image of the ‘modern minority’” (126). She applies her theory of the “mixed race bildungsroman” to Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter (1997) and Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic (2004). Elam’s last chapter examines performances of mixed race in Carl Hancock Rux’s play Talk and “The Racial Draft” skit from Dave Chappelle’s defunct late-night comedy show. Her argument here is that in both performances, there is a “re-visioning and a re-membering of the national order” (161).

The middle chapter is the one that is most germane to this journal, as it examines racial passing in Danzy Senna’s Causcasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist (2000). Despite research to the contrary, Elam begins this chapter by arguing that racial passing literature is far from being an obsolete genre, as these novels attest. Despite living in a post-race era, these narratives collectively argue for the rebirth of racial passing as a “social inquiry” (98). Explaining further, the novels addressed here force readers to reconsider “the performative, iterative nature of racial identity as a rich social heuristic” (98).

This is nowhere more evident than in The Human Stain , where racial passing acts as a “reactionary vehicle to critique political correctness”—particularly because it is set during President Clinton’s sex scandal (98). In this regard, “performance,” can have multiple meanings in the novel: one referring…

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The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs on 2013-03-24 18:51Z by Steven

The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium

Stanford University Press
February 2011
312 pages
23 illustrations
Cloth ISBN-10: 0804756295; ISBN-13: 9780804756297
Paper ISBN-10: 0804756309; ISBN-13: 9780804756303

Michele Elam, Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of English and Olivier Nomellini Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education
Stanford University, Stanford, California

Cover Photo: “Baby Halfie Brown Head”, from artist Lezley Saar’s, Mulatto Nation (2003) art installation.

The Souls of Mixed Folk examines representations of mixed race in literature and the arts that redefine new millennial aesthetics and politics. Focusing on black-white mixes, Elam analyzes expressive works—novels, drama, graphic narrative, late-night television, art installations—as artistic rejoinders to the perception that post-Civil Rights politics are bereft and post-Black art is apolitical. Reorienting attention to the cultural invention of mixed race from the social sciences to the humanities, Elam considers the creative work of Lezley Saar, Aaron McGruder, Nate Creekmore, Danzy Senna, Colson Whitehead, Emily Raboteau, Carl Hancock Rux, and Dave Chappelle. All these writers and artists address mixed race as both an aesthetic challenge and a social concern, and together, they gesture toward a poetics of social justice for the “mulatto millennium.”

The Souls of Mixed Folk seeks a middle way between competing hagiographic and apocalyptic impulses in mixed race scholarship, between those who proselytize mixed race as the great hallelujah to the “race problem” and those who can only hear the alarmist bells of civil rights destruction. Both approaches can obscure some of the more critically astute engagements with new millennial iterations of mixed race by the multi-generic cohort of contemporary writers, artists, and performers discussed in this book. The Souls of Mixed Folk offers case studies of their creative work in an effort to expand the contemporary idiom about mixed race in the so-called post-race moment, asking how might new millennial expressive forms suggest an aesthetics of mixed race? And how might such an aesthetics productively reimagine the relations between race, art, and social equity in the twenty-first century?

Read an excerpt of “Obama’s Mixed Race Politics” here.

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