“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-08-29 01:46Z by Steven

“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
May 2015
275 pages
DOI: 10.7282/T38G8NJG

Donavan L. Ramon

Ph.D. Dissertation

Instead of concurring with most critics that racial passing literature reached its apex during the Harlem Renaissance, this project highlights its persistence, as evidenced in the texts examined from 1900 to 2014. Using psychoanalysis, this dissertation recovers non-canonical and white-authored narratives that critics overlook, thus reconceptualizing the genre of passing literature to forge a new genealogy for this tradition. This new genealogy includes novels, life writings, and short stories. In arguing for the genre’s continued relevance and production, this project offers a rejoinder to critics who contend that racial passing literature is obsolete. Part one of this dissertation complicates the notion that characters pass only in response to witnessing a lynching or to improve their socioeconomic status, by asserting that racial passing begins in the classroom for male characters and at home for their female counterparts. It thus precedes the threat of violence or middle class aspirations. Whereas the first half of this project is preoccupied with the gendered beginnings of racial passing, the second half examines its effects, on both writing and death. This project explores racial passing in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929), Vera Caspary’s The White Girl (1929), Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s The Stones of the Village (1988), Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), Bliss Broyard’s One Drop (2003) and Anita Reynolds’ American Cocktail (2014).

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350:445 Revisiting Racial Passing in the 21st Century

Posted in Course Offerings, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-11-01 04:01Z by Steven

350:445 Revisiting Racial Passing in the 21st Century

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Summer 2013

This is a course on racial passing, which many people wrongly believe is an antiquated phenomenon. Passing has historically referred to light-skinned African Americans who use their phenotypes to pretend to be white and enjoy the privileges of whiteness. As we will discuss in our seminar, today people pass in a variety of ways, and not just racially. For example, folks regularly pass economically, religiously, and/or through gender. In discussing contemporary passing, we will begin with President Barack Obama, who some have argued has engaged in a form of passing by having black skin yet “white politics.”

We will read primary and secondary material on this literary genre, to determine the tropes, images, themes, and formal elements that comprise “the passing narrative.” We will also consider the ways in which it has been expanded in this “post-race” era.

Primary texts will include:

Films will include: “Imitation of Life” (1934 & 1959) and “The Human Stain” (2003).

For more information, click here.

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Carnival, Convents, and the Cult of St. Rocque: Cultural Subterfuge in the Work of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Louisiana, Media Archive, United States on 2012-11-18 17:36Z by Steven

Carnival, Convents, and the Cult of St. Rocque: Cultural Subterfuge in the Work of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Georgia State University
57 pages

Sibongile B. N. Lynch

A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences Georgia State University 2012

In the work of Alice Dunbar-Nelson the city and culture of 19th century New Orleans figures prominently, and is a major character affecting the lives of her protagonists. While race, class, and gender are among the focuses of many scholars the eccentricity and cultural history of the most exotic American city, and its impact on Dunbar-Nelson’s writing is unmistakable. This essay will discuss how the diverse cultural environment of New Orleans in the 19th century allowed Alice Dunbar Nelson to create narratives which allowed her short stories to speak to the shifting identities of women and the social uncertainty of African Americans in the Jim Crow south. A consideration of New Orleans’ cultural history is important when reading Dunbar-Nelson’s work, whose significance has often been disregarded because of what some considered its lack of racial markers.

Read the entire thesis here.


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The Stones of the Village

Posted in Books, Chapter, Novels on 2012-03-10 19:32Z by Steven

The Stones of the Village

The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Current copyright holder unknown. Due diligence has been exercised by the National Humanities Center to identify the copyright holder.
ca. 1900-1910
19 pages

Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Victor Grabért strode down the one, wide, tree-shaded street of the village, his heart throbbing with a bitterness and anger that seemed too great to bear. So often had he gone home in the same spirit, however, that it had grown nearly second nature to him—this dull, sullen resentment, flaming out now and then into almost murderous vindictiveness. Behind him there floated derisive laughs and shouts, the taunts of little brutes, boys of his own age.

He reached the tumble down cottage at the farther end of the street and flung himself on the battered step. Grandmére* Grabért sat rocking herself to and fro, crooning a bit of song brought over from the West Indies years ago; but when the boy sat silent, his head bowed in his hands she paused in the midst of a line and regarded him with keen, piercing eyes.

Eh, Victor?—she asked. That was all, but he understood. He raised his head and waved a hand angrily down the street towards the lighted square that marked the village center…

Read the entire short story here.


“The Force, the Fire and the Artistic Touch”of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-03-10 04:11Z by Steven

“The Force, the Fire and the Artistic Touch”of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village”

Journal of the Short Story in English
Number 54, Spring 2010

Michael Tritt
Department of English
Marianopolis College, Montréal

Ambiguous of race they stand,
By one disowned, scorned of another,
Not knowing where to stretch a hand,
And cry, ‘My sister’ or ‘My brother.’
(“Near White,” Countee Cullen)

The Stones of the Village” details the successful negotiation of the color line by Victor Grabért, a Louisiana Creole who has Negro ancestry and yet manages, through a combination of luck and subterfuge, to hide his lineage and climb to the highest rung of the social ladder. In developing the narrative of Grabért’s life, Alice Dunbar-Nelson engages a powerful social critique, portraying realistically the endemic color prejudice of white and black alike in New Orleans and its environs toward the beginning of the nineteenth century. Written between 1900 and 1910, yet published posthumously only in 1988, “The Stones of the Village” has been gaining well-deserved recognition ever since as a story of considerable force, especially as a narrative dramatizing the phenomenon of passing. Indeed, since its publication the tale has been included in six different anthologies of short stories, has been dramatized by the Public Media Foundation of Northeastern University on a popular website for teachers and students, and has been made widely available on the Internet through the auspices of the National Humanities Centre. Moreover, recent literary histories and source books related to Southern literature by women, to local color fiction, to Afro-American (and Afro-American women’s) literature explicitly recognize Dunbar-Nelson’s contribution in this specific story. By and large, however, critical commentary has been relatively brief, limited to a focus generally upon theme and various associated autobiographical dimensions of the fiction, as these relate to the author’s ancestry and to the prejudice Dunbar-Nelson herself experienced. There has been, to date, little concentration upon—and certainly no detailed exposition of—the author’s impressive literary technique in the tale. Such a detailed exposition is all the more necessary in the context of apologetic reservations about Dunbar-Nelson’s lack of skill as a short story writer. In her careful foregrounding of early incidents in Victor’s childhood, her masterful use of point of view and other particulars to counterpoint the protagonist’s social accomplishment with his psychological anguish, her notable orchestration of characterization, imagery, symbolism and especially allusion, and through a variety of other means, Dunbar-Nelson renders a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the way emotional conflict determines the tragic course of life for a black Creole in search of a viable identity.

Dunbar-Nelson skillfully structures her tale so as to highlight the childhood turmoil which underlies Victor’s tormented—and lifelong—struggle to control his emotions and to fit into society. Crucial to this portrait of Victor’s early experience is the extent to which the protagonist (and his fellow playmates) are victim to culturally-created prejudices which destroy what Dunbar-Nelson depicts as a type of childhood innocence of color and background.

Several pages into the text, the narrator provides a crucial flashback to Victor’s earliest memory, when, as a mere toddler, he receives a whipping at the hands of his grandmother, the result of his straying from home to play with a group of “black and yellow boys of his own age” (5). Although it is no doubt true, as Jordan Stouck (281) and Marylynne Diggs (13) suggest, that because of the protagonist’s background he does not fit into any of the culturally defined racial categories of his village, nonetheless in this early scene he is pictured: “sitting contentedly in the center of the group in the dusty street, all of them gravely scooping up handfuls of gravelly dirt and trickling it down their chubby bare legs” (5). Clearly, Victor is accepted by the toddlers, included in the narrative description of “all of them” at play. Neither he nor the other children, it seems, yet recognize socially-defined racial and ethnic categories. To be sure, it is the prejudicial action of Victor’s grandmother, (herself imbued with widespread exclusionary social/cultural attitudes) that initially precipitates her grandson’s isolation and exclusion. When she “snatched at him fiercely” and “hissed” at him: “‘What you mean playin’ in the strit wid dose niggers?’” (5), Grandmére Grabért creates resentment (and self-consciousness) in Victor himself and no doubt in the other children as well. In truth, she initiates a tragic reaction, for learning of the incident, the parents of the toddlers with whom Victor was playing “sternly bade [their children] have nothing more to do with Victor” (5). Making matters worse, Grandmére Grabért forbids him to converse in his native Créole patois, forcing him to learn English. As a result, the young boy struggles all the more, speaking a “confused jumble which is no language at all” (5), further alienating him from the “black and yellow boys” and from the white ones as well, intensifying his isolation, confusion and crisis of identity…

Read the entire article in HTML or PDF format.

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To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur…

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2011-12-20 03:58Z by Steven

To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur [people of color]. Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely-guarded distinctions: “griffes, briques, mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, each term meaning one degree’s further transfiguration toward the Caucasian standard of physical perfection.”1

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “People of Color in Lousiana: Part I,” The Journal of Negro History, Volume 1, Number 4 (October 1916): 361.

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People of Color in Lousiana: Part I

Posted in Articles, History, Louisiana, Slavery, United States on 2011-12-19 17:54Z by Steven

People of Color in Lousiana: Part I

The Journal of Negro History
Volume 1, Noumber 4 (October, 1916)
pages 361-376

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)



The title of a possible discussion of the Negro in Louisiana presents difficulties, for there is no such word as Negro permissible in speaking of this State. The history of the State is filled with attempts to define, sometimes at the point of the sword, oftenest in civil or criminal courts, the meaning of the word Negro. By common consent, it came to mean in Louisiana, prior to 1865, slave, and after the war, those whose complexions were noticeably dark. As Grace King so delightfully puts it, “The pure-blooded African was never called colored, but always Negro.” The gens de couleur, colored people, were always a class apart, separated from and superior to the Negroes, ennobled were it only by one drop of white blood in their veins. The caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves. To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur. Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely-guarded distinctions: “griffes, briques, mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, each term meaning one degree’s further transfiguration toward the Caucasian standard of physical perfection.”

Negro slavery in Louisiana seems to have been early influenced by the policy of the Spanish colonies. De las Casas, an apostle to the Indians, exclaimed against the slavery of the Indians and finding his efforts of no avail proposed to Charles V in 1517 the slavery of the Africans as a substitute.  The Spaniards refused at first to import slaves from Africa, but later agreed to the proposition and employed other nations to traffic in them. Louisiana learned from the Spanish colonies her lessons of this traffic, took over certain parts of the slave regulations and imported bondmen from the Spanish West Indies. Others brought thither were Congo, Banbara, Yaloff, and Mandingo slaves.

People of color were introduced into Louisiana early in the eighteenth century. In 1708, according to the historian, Gayarré, the little colony of Louisiana, at the point on the Gulf of Mexico now known as Biloxi, in the present State of Mississippi, had been in existence nine years. In 1708, the population of the colony did not exceed 279 persons. The land about this region is particularly sterile, and the colonists were little disposed to undertake the laborious task of tilling the soil. Indian slavery was attempted but found unprofitable and exceedingly precarious. So Bienville, lacking the sympathy of De las Casas for the Indians, wrote his government to obtain the authorization of exchanging Negroes for Indians with the French West Indian islands. “We shall give,” he said, “three Indians for two Negroes. The Indians, when in the islands, will not be able to run away, the country being unknown to them, and the Negroes will not dare to become fugitives in Louisiana, because the Indians would kill them.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The Discourse of Interracial and Multicultural Identity in 19th and 20th Century American Literature

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-10-31 04:07Z by Steven

The Discourse of Interracial and Multicultural Identity in 19th and 20th Century American Literature

Indiana University of Pennsylvania
May 2007
373 pages
AAT 3257969

Dale M. Taylor

A Dissertation Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies and Research In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy

The narratives of and about mixed-race people have provided a varied and rich artistic canvas. Using various literary works as tools for investigation, this project explores a discourse for mixed-race people and determines to what extent that discourse shapes conceptions about them. In addition, it examines to what extent subjects of mixed-racial heritage and identity establish and form new cultures, struggle for the validity of their existence in spite of racial binaries, affirm their experiences and to some degree question the validity of race itself. A discourse of mixed-race subjects is related to a discourse about race. Issues of hybridity, creolization and mestizaje have affected postcolonial subjects and Americans throughout the Diaspora. The project will consider people of mixed Native American, African, Latin, Asian, European descent and others. Literature involving and about mixed-raced subjects is their history—whether fiction or nonfiction—a history that has been silenced by political, economic and racial ideology. Mixed-racial and mixed-cultural subjects exist in the “between” spaces of racial binaries. They are “called into place” by self and others through discourse to define and negotiate power. Among the writers and works used are: Gigantic, by Marc Nesbitt, The Human Stain by Philip Roth, “Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin, “Stones of the Village” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “After Many Days,” by Fannie Barrier Williams, Passing by Nella Larsen, “The Downward Path To Wisdom” by Katherine Anne Porter, “The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, “Origami” by Susan K. Ito, and poetry by Derek Walcott, Walt Whitman and others.


    • Introduction
    • Introduction
    • “Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
    • “Stones of the Village” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
    • “After Many Days: A Christmas Story” by Fannie Barrier Williams
    • Closing Remarks For Chapter Two
    • Introduction
    • “The Downward Path To Wisdom” by K.A. Porter
    • “The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor
    • Passing by Nella Larsen
    • Closing Remarks For Chapter Three
    • Introduction
    • Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith
    • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
    • Gigantic: “The Ones Who May Kill You In The Morning” by Marc Nesbitt
    • Closing Remarks For Chapter Four
    • Conclusion
    • Appendix A – Permissions Letter Professor Natasha Trethewey
    • Appendix B – Permissions Letter Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture The New York Public Library

Purchase the dissertation here.

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Brass Ankles Speak

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2011-01-27 03:09Z by Steven

Brass Ankles Speak

Essays by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
circa 1929

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Prefatory Note by Gloria T. Hull

Entitled “Brass Ankles Speaks” (Vol. 2, WADN), it is an outspoken denunciation of darker skinned black people’s prejudice against light-skinned blacks told by a “brass ankles,” a black person “white enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.” This brass ankles recalls her “miserable” childhood in “a far Southern city” where other schoolchildren taunted and plagued her because she was a “light nigger, with straight hair!” This kind of rebuff and persecution continued into a Northern college and her first teaching job:

Small wonder, then, that the few lighter persons in the community drew together; we were literally thrown upon each other, whether we liked or not. But when we began going about together and spending time in each other’s society, a howl went up. We were organizing a “blue vein” society. We were mistresses of white men. We were Lesbians. We hated black folk and plotted against them. As a matter of fact, we had no other recourse but to cling together.

And she states further that “To complain would be only to bring upon themselves another storm of abuse and fury.”

This essay was as close as Dunbar-Nelson ever got to revealing feelings about her own racial status as a “yaller nigger.” She tried to publish it, but would not or could not do so under her own name, and the magazine editor refused to print it pseudonymously.

Brass Ankles Speaks (circa 1929)

The “Race” question is paramount. A cloud of books, articles and pronunciamentos on the subject of the white man or girl who “passes” over to the other side of the racial fence, and either entirely forsakes his or her own race, to live in terror or misery all their days, or else come crawling back to do uplift work among their own people, hovers on the literary horizon. On the other hand, there is an increasing interest and sentimentality concerning the poor, pitiful black girl, whose life is a torment among her own people, because of their “blue vein” proclivities. It seems but fair and just now for some of the neglected light-skinned colored people, who have not “passed” to rise and speak a word in self-defense.

I am of the latter class, what E. C. Adams in “Nigger to Nigger” immortalizes in the poem, “Brass Ankles.” White enough to pass for white, but with a darker family background, a real love for the mother race, and no desire to be numbered among the white race.

My earliest recollections are miserable ones. I was born in a far Southern city, where complexion did, in a manner of speaking, determine one’s social status. However, the family being poor, I was sent to the public school. It was a heterogeneous mass of children which greeted my frightened eyes on that fateful morning in September, when I timidly took my place in the first grade. There were not enough seats for all the squirming mass of little ones, so the harassed young, teacher—I have reason to believe now that this was her first school—put me on the platform at her feet. I was so little and scared and homesick that it made no impression on me at the time. But at the luncheon hour I was assailed with shouts of derision—“Yah! Teacher’s pet! Yah! Just cause she’s yaller!” Thus at once was I initiated into the class of the disgraced, which has haunted and tormented my whole life— “Light nigger, with straight hair!”

This was the beginning of what was for nearly six years a life of terror, horror and torment. For in this monster public school, which daily disgorged about 2,500 children, there were all shades and tints and degrees of complexions from velvet black to blonde white. And the line of demarcation was rigidly drawn—not by the fairer children, but by the darker ones. I had no color sense. In my family we never spoke of it. Indian browns and cafe au laits, were mingled with pale bronze and blonde yellows all in one group of cousins and uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. For so peculiarly does the Mendelian law work in mixed bloods, that four children of two parents may show four different degrees of mixture, brown, yellow, tan, blonde.

In the school, therefore, I felt at first the same freedom concerning color. So I essayed friendship with Esther. Esther was velvet dark, with great liquid eyes. She could sing, knew lots of forbidden lore, and brought lovely cakes for luncheon. Therefore I loved Esther, and would have been an intimate friend of hers. But she repulsed me with ribald laughter—“Half white nigger! Go on wid ya kind!”, and drew up a solid phalanx of little dark girls, who thumbed noses at me and chased me away from their ring game on the school playground…

Read the entire essay here.

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The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (Volume 1)

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, Women on 2011-01-27 01:50Z by Steven

The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson (Volume 1)

Oxford University Press
480 pages
4-5/8 x 6-1/2
Hardback ISBN13: 978-0-19-505250-3; ISBN10: 0-19-505250-1

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Edited by Gloria Hull

Spanning the gamut of literary genres, from autobiographical short stories to poetry, journalism, and novelettes, this is a comprehensive collection of one of America’s most seminal women writers. A testament to the nineteenth century as birthplace for black woman writers, The Works of Alice Dunbar-Nelson offers insight into the themes of oppression and intolarance, often considered dangerous or ignored in the nineteenth century, but now pervade much writing today. Themes such as crossing racial boundaries, infused with Dunbar-Nelson’s autobiographical fervor.

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