“Suspect-Proof”? Paranoia, Suspicious Reading, and the Racial Passing Narrative

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2022-03-20 02:02Z by Steven

“Suspect-Proof”? Paranoia, Suspicious Reading, and the Racial Passing Narrative

American Literary History
Volume 34, Issue 1, Spring 2022
pages 272–282
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajab089

Sinéad Moynihan, Associate Professor of English
University of Exeter

This short essay considers racial passing narratives in relation to the “postcritical turn,” highlighting the proliferating reappraisals of the practices of “suspicious” or “symptomatic” reading in literary studies and the extent to which passing narratives offer an opportunity to test some of the claims of this body of scholarship. The utility of the passing narrative for this critical project lies in its persistent, self-conscious foregrounding of reading practices. Revisiting passing narratives in light of postcritique reveals that symptomatic reading is not a monolithic practice; rather, there are multiple ways of reading suspiciously. Moreover, and more importantly, passing narratives disclose that what has now become an orthodoxy in postcritique—that attitudes such as “paranoia,” “suspicion,” and “vigilance” profoundly limit “the thickness and richness of our aesthetic attachments”—ignores contexts, like that of a passer in a white supremacist society, in which such strategies are not a choice but are essential for survival (Felski 17). The key question posed herein is: What forms of privilege enable a reader to relinquish her attachment to paranoia, suspicion, and vigilance; to opt for openness rather than guardedness, submission rather than aggression (21)? Narratives of racial passing provide one answer to that question.

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The Time of the Multiracial

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-09-03 17:25Z by Steven

The Time of the Multiracial

American Literary History
Volume 27, Number 3, Fall 2015
pages 549-556
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajv026

Habiba Ibrahim, Associate Professor of English
University of Washington, Seattle

Habiba Ibrahim is the author of  Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism (2012). Her current book project, Oceanic Lifespans, examines how age and racial blackness have been mutually constituted.

These three recent studies all read how mixed racialism expresses and challenges the terms of US nationalism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Collectively, they account for a period when the nation developed as a global force through a series of racializing projects, implemented through intra- and international war, imperialist expansion and conquest, and the consolidation of the color line at home. Tropes such as miscegenation, tragic mulatta, and genres of mixedness such as the “racial romance” (Sheffer 3) reveal a key aspect of the cultural imagination during the turbulent era that led up to and inaugurated the “American Century.” Figures of deviant intimacy—interracial sex, incest, same-sex filiation—and figures of gender, such as the mulatto/a, and the tragic muse revealed the cultural outcomes of the unfinished project of nation building. All of these studies take racial mixedness and its correlating categories as key analytical starting points for unmasking the neutrality or invisibility of state power. Thus, they bring to mind the urgency of the current moment: what analytics can interrupt the post-ness—postracialism, postfeminism, and postidentitarianism—of the present?

1. Neoliberalism, Postidentity

Twenty years ago, mixed racialism first appealed to literary scholars because it offered a critical space in which to explore the era’s political contradictions and transitions. During the heyday of the so-called multiracial movement, key developments in the cultural politics of identity were well under way. The culture wars were still raging with neoconservative moralists and left-of-center liberals vying for influence over social and political life. At the same time, neoconservatives  and neoliberals converged around the erosion of identitarian categories as social tools for making political and historical critiques. By the neoliberal era of the 1980s and 1990s identity was increasingly viewed as the stuff of separatist and single-issue groupthink, rather than as an instrument through which to analyze the operations and historicity of power. Perhaps this explains the remarkably accelerating cultural and scholarly interest in multiracial identity by the mid-1990s. After all, what did the appearance of the multiracial indicate? Under the umbrella term “multiracialism,” subjects with competing social, political, and cultural views formulated clashing accounts of how to situate race in US discourse. As a diagnostic tool, multiracialism bore the potential to cut through the present.

2. Gender, Sexuality, Family

Twenty years later, interdisciplinary scholarship in philosophy, performance studies, literary, and cultural studies increasingly take multiracialism as a starting point for thinking historically about social identities and cultural production. Current literary scholarship retrieves unfamiliar, forgotten history in order to diagnose the present, or to reconsider our present-day relationship to the historical. Some scholars have started with how multiracialism is treated within current US discourse—as the balm of postracial transcendence on the one side, as another separatist identity on the other—to ask how we’ve arrived at these particular interpretations. This line of inquiry denaturalizes present-day meanings attached to the multiracial and clearly departs from work that vehemently argues one position or the other.

What stands out about more recent studies—Kimberly Snyder Manganelli’s Transatlantic Spectacles of Race (2012), Jolie A. Sheffer’s The Romance of Race (2013), and Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s Imperfect Unions (2012)—is the way they represent a decisive turn toward staunchly comparativist, even transnational approach to multiracial literary studies. Comparativism indicates that the field is broadening its spatial and analytical scope to pursue fuller explorations of the historical and historiographical. Such a broadened scope repositions interest in the cultural politics of gender, sexuality, and family as deep engagements with the modern.

Like Suzanne Bost’s Mulattas and Mestizas (2003), Teresa Zackodnik’s The Mulatta and the Politics of Race (2004), and Eve Allegra Raimon’s The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited (2004), Transatlantic Spectacles of Race, investigates early intersections between racial amalgamation and womanhood by exploring how the figurative feminization of racial mixedness has been instrumentalized to vie for various nationalist and counter-nationalist outcomes over the long nineteenth century. Manganelli’s unique contribution is to read the mixed-race “tragic mulatta” of the Americas alongside its heretofore-unacknowledged counterpart, the Jewish “tragic muse” of Victorian British literature, thereby positioning both blackness and Jewishness along the same…

Read or purchase the review of the three books here.

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Taste, Manners, and Miscegenation: French Racial Politics in the US

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, United States on 2011-09-07 21:45Z by Steven

Taste, Manners, and Miscegenation: French Racial Politics in the US

American Literary History
Volume 19, Issue 3 (2007)
pages 573-602
DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajm025

Robert Fanuzzi, Assistant Chair and Associate Professor of English
St. Johns University, Queens, New York

A prequel:

A French gourmand, in flight from political turmoil at home, arrives in post-Revolutionary America with a taste for satire, a Rabelaisian eye for folly, and a gargantuan appetite for turkey. Journeying from the Francophone enclave of Philadelphia to the “backwoods” of Hartford, he enjoys the hospitality of a Mr. Bulow, “a worthy old American farmer,” and his “four buxom daughters, for whom our arrival was a great event” (Brillat-Savarin 77). Having charmed his hosts, he enjoys still more success as a member of their shooting party, bagging the prize turkey for “sport.” Afterwards, the gourmand makes sport of one of the most widely noted mannerisms of Americans, the childlike but grating chauvinism for their nation that stops every conversation in its tracks. True to form, his American host foregoes the customary bon voyage wishes in order to drill into his departing guest the national creation myth. His own well-tended estate, he reminds his French visitor, pays eloquent tribute to the providential system of mild laws and low taxes that has rewarded the labor of self-sufficient yeomen like him. He means to leave his listener with the thrilling prospect of continual, self-perpetuating prosperity, but all the gourmand has heard is a steady droning in his ear. “I was thinking,” he recalls as he rode away, “of how I would cook my turkey” (81).

In The Physiology of Taste (1825), an eccentric philosophical treatise on cookery, cuisine, and conviviality, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin made quick work of the Americanist commentary that so many of his fellow travelers inscribed into their narratives of North American travel. The most well known of these French travel writers, Jean de Crevecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville, used their narratives to generate the synthetic, formalized images of democracy—the pervasive equality of condition; the assimilation …

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Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-09-05 19:00Z by Steven

Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction

American Literary History
Volume 23, Number 3 (Fall 2011)
pages 574-599
E-ISSN: 1468-4365 Print ISSN: 0896-7148

Ramón Saldívar, Professor of History
Stanford University

Since the turn of the century, a new generation of minority writers has come to prominence whose work signals a radical turn to a postrace era in American literature. Outlining a paradigm that I term historical fantasy, I argue that in the twenty-first century, the relationship between race and social justice, race and identity, and indeed, race and history requires these writers to invent a new “imaginary” for thinking about the nature of a just society and the role of race in its construction. It also requires the invention of new forms to represent it. In this light, I address the topic of race and narrative theory in two contexts: in relation to the question of literary form and in relation to history. Doing so will allow me to explain the reasons for what I take to be the inauguration of a new stage in the history of the novel by twenty-first-century US ethnic writers.

At the outset, I wish to make one thing clear about my use of the term “postrace”: race and racism, ethnicity and difference are nowhere near extinct in contemporary America. W. E. B. Du Bois’s momentous pronouncement in 1901 that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” could not have been a more accurate assessment of the fate of race during the twentieth century (354). Today race remains a central question, but one no longer defined exclusively in shades of black or white, or in the exact manner we once imagined. That is, apart from the election of Barack Obama, one other matter marks the present differently from the racial history of the American past: race can no longer be considered exclusively in the binary form, black/white, which has traditionally structured racial discourse in the US. If for no other reason than the profoundly shifting racial demographics of early twenty-first-century America, a new racial imaginary is required to account for the…

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Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-01-15 04:27Z by Steven

Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness

American Literary History
Volume 8, Number 3 (Fall 1996)
pages 426-448
DOI: 10.1093/alh/8.3.426

Stephen P. Knadler

Among Charles Chesnutt’s earliest political essays is a little studied piece that he wrote for the New York Independent entitled “What Is a White Man?” (1889). At a time when he was, it has been argued, at best accommodating—at worst, pandering to—the taste of his genteel Northern readers for the exotic local colors of plantation fiction (Brodhead 204), Chesnutt was reinterpreting race as less a stigma against blacks, or an advantage for whites, than a cultural practice by which all are marked. The little-known Cleveland lawyer’s entrance into racial polemics was prompted by Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady’s series of speeches on the material progress of the New South. Although many Southerners viewed the economic development’ of the South with hope and apprehension, Grady had appeased their misgivings and sanctioned industrial advancement through a recurrent rhetorical appeal to “white supremacy.” In his speech “The South and Her Problems,” delivered at the Texas State Fair (1887), for example, Grady had recruited the implacable rise and expansion of the Anglo-Saxon spirit as a guarantee for a New South of industrialism and urban growth. This “transcending achievement” of the New South, Grady argued, could not be impeded, for the “supremacy of the white race must be maintained forever… This is the declaration of no new truth. It has abided forever in the marrow of our bones, and shall run forever with the blood that feeds Anglo-Saxon hearts” (53; emphasis added)…

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Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2010-10-24 01:33Z by Steven

Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race

American Literary History
Volume 9, Number 2 (Summer, 1997)
pages 329-349

George Hutchinson

People see what they want to see, and then they’ll claim you.  Not claim you, but label you. Because it’s not really about claiming you.  The white people don’t want you around.  You’re not really white… And for Blacks—and it’s not for all Blacks—there’s sort of this feeling that, yeah, she is black and yes, we’ll call her black, but she’s not black like we are… I was recognized by the black community as an outstanding black student, of course.  That used to upset me, that they would claim me because I did well academically, but I wasn’t a part of their world.

Heidi Durrow, daughter of Danish mother and African-American father, quoted in Lise Funderburg, Black, White, Other

White studies of cultural syncretism, transnationalism, and “hybridity” have lately become all the rage, there is one area in which claims of racially “hybrid” identity are still subtly resisted, quietly repressed, or openly mocked.  The child of both black and white parents encounters various forms of incomprehension in a society for which “blackness” and “whiteness” seems to constitute two mutually exclusive and antagonistic forms of identity.  Moreover, the shift to terms presumably marking ethnic or cultural descent—“European” and “African”—has done little to clarify the situation of those “black” subjects who are at the same time, say, German, or, as in the case of the young woman quoted above, Danish-American.

For more than a decade, the strongest Nella Larsen scholarship has been motivated by a reaction against earlier approaches to her fiction that stressed the importance of biracial subjectivity, connected to fiction of the “tragic mulatto.”  The best recent criticism tends to focus on other issues, particularly feminist themes.  Often the difficulties of Larsen’s mulatto characters are treated as metaphors for supposedly more important issues such as black and/or female identity generally…

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

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-11-02 14:29Z by Steven

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…

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