Narratives of Passing

Posted in Articles, Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-11-06 21:50Z by Steven

Narratives of Passing

Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York

Amitava Kumar, Professor of English

(Same as AFRS 253) Topic for 2019b: Narratives of Passing. The phrase “passing for white,” peculiar to American English, first appears in advertisements for the return of runaway slaves. Abolitionist fiction later adopts the phenomenon of racial passing (together with the figure of the “white slave”) as a major literary theme. African American writers such as William Wells Brown and William Craft incorporated stories of passing in their antislavery writing and the theme continued to enjoy great currency in African American literature in the postbellum era as well as during the Harlem Renaissance. In this class, we examine the prevalence of this theme in African American literature of these periods, the possible reasons for the waning interest in this theme following the Harlem Renaissance, and its reemergence in recent years. In order to begin to understand the role of passing in the American imagination, we look to examples of passing and the treatment of miscegenation in literature, film, and the law. We consider the qualities that characterize what Valerie Smith identifies as the “classic passing narrative” and determine how each of the texts we examine conforms to, reinvents, and/or writes against that classic narrative. Some of the themes considered include betrayal, secrecy, lying, masquerade, visibility/invisibility, and memory. We also examine how the literature of passing challenges or redefines notions of family, American mobility and success, and the convention of the “self-made man.”

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On Being Brown in America

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-28 23:15Z by Steven

On Being Brown in America

The New York Times

Amitava Kumar, Writer and Professor of English
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

The recent bombings in Boston threw up many questions. One of the most pressing, in my somewhat narrow view, is the meaning of being brown in America.

On April 17, two days after the bombs went off during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring almost 200 others, CNN’s John King went on air to say that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” In the CNN video, which shows that the time of the broadcast was 1.15 p.m. on Wednesday, we see King pointing to a photograph from the front-page of The New York Times. A positive identification had been made based on a surveillance video from a Lord & Taylor store just outside the frame of the picture in the Times, King said. A little later that afternoon, King would go on to assure viewers that a subsequent arrest had been made.

No one had been arrested that day, of course, and, alas, there was no dark-skinned male. What is remarkable is that even while first reporting his piece of “exclusive” news, CNN’s King felt it necessary to qualify what he was saying. The qualifications he offered were not about the haste with which he was sharing a piece of misinformation, or the bewildering lack of specificity in his description, or even the absence of adequate verification. Instead, his remarks appeared to suggest to his viewers that he couldn’t be more open with them because of politically correct sentiments that complicated open disclosures of “game changers” that the police had uncovered:

“I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male… The official used some other words. I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that.”

Some people! Who are they?…

…You’ve heard the words of the old blues song: “They say if you’s white, should be all right, / If you’s brown, stick around, / But if you’s black, mmm mmm, brother, get back, get back, get back.” That old racial imaginary is changing. Brown is staining the edges of the racial divide. Richard Rodriguez has written, “Brown bleeds through the straight line, unstaunchable — the line separating black from white, for example.” If we are going to be optimistic, we can even say that brown is the color of the future.

A new book by a Boston-based academic and filmmaker, Vivek Bald, describes the formation of what he calls Bengali Harlem in the early decades of the last century. Starting with the migration of Bengali peddlers to the United States in 1880s, and a later group of seamen, mostly Muslims, in the 1930s and 1940s, those who came to this country didn’t establish separate ethnic enclaves like later immigrants. Instead, they formed “networks that were embedded in working-class Creole, African-American, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and entwined with the lives of their residents.” This radical mixing and assimilation, Bald argues, is an unnoticed aspect of the history of U.S. immigration.

The invisible assimilation of working-class immigrants in that early phase has given way to an entirely different order of mixing in contemporary America. The attacks of Sept. 11 might have drawn a line in the sand, but the reality of sand is that it keeps shifting…

Read the entire article here.

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