Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books

Darryl Pinckney

Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

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Racial Choice at Century’s End in Contemporary African American Literature

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2010-09-19 18:38Z by Steven

Racial Choice at Century’s End in Contemporary African American Literature

University of Maryland
161 pages

Kaylen Danielle Tucker

Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy 2008

This dissertation introduces the term “racial choice” to describe a contemporary idea that racial identity can be chosen or elected, as can the significance and the influence of race on an individual’s identity. Racial choice emerges out of the shifting historical, cultural, and social discussions of race and identity we have witnessed after integration. This dissertation examines the resulting representations of contemporary black identity in African American literature by analyzing texts that were published in the last quarter of the twentieth century and that feature protagonists that come of age during or after integration. Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips (1984), Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), and Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996) are representative texts that engage racial choice to register how the racial hierarchy has changed in the late twentieth century and how that change affects the African American literary tradition of race writing. In their attempts to write outside of the existing racial paradigm—using white flight, passing, and satire as narrative strategies—the authors test the racial boundaries of African American literature, finding that writing outside of race is ultimately unachievable.

The introductory chapter explains the cultural, literary, and scholarly context of my study, arguing that because race matters differently in the late twentieth century contemporary African American literature handles race uniquely. I argue in my first chapter that Lee uses white flight as a narrative form to move Sarah Phillips beyond the influence of racialization and to suggest class as an alibi for racial difference. Continuing this theme amidst the Black Power Movement of the 1970s and the multiracial project of the 1990s, my second chapter analyzes Senna’s Caucasia, which revises the passing narrative form and explores the viability of choosing a biracial identity. In my third chapter, I show how Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle satirizes the African American protest tradition to point up the performativity necessary in maintaining racial binaries and suggests that culture is a more accurate identifier than race.

My concluding chapter argues that though the three novels under study challenge racial categories—and by extension race writing—to different degrees, they all use similar methods to point up the shifting significance of race, racial categories, and racial identity. By historicizing attitudes about racial categories, challenging the dichotomous understanding of race, representing the tensions of racial authenticity, and showing the performativity necessary to maintain racial categories, the novels illustrate the traditional boundaries of racial choice and attempt to stretch the limits of the African American literary tradition.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: The Future American: The “Color Line” and “Racial Choice” at the Millennium
  • Chapter One: Integration and White Flight in Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips
  • Chapter Two: Racial Choice and the Contemporary Passing Paradigm
  • Chapter Three: Satire, Performance, and Race in The White Boy Shuffle
  • Conclusion: The Future of Racial Identity and African American Literature
  • Works Cited

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“It’s a Kind of Destiny″: The Cultural Mulatto in the “New Black Aesthetic″ and ‘Sarah Phillips’

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2010-06-25 17:17Z by Steven

“It’s a Kind of Destiny″: The Cultural Mulatto in the “New Black Aesthetic” and ‘Sarah Phillips’

The Humanities Review
A Publication of St. John’s University English Department, Jamaica, New York
Volume 6.1 (Fall 2007)
pages 21-28

Habiba Ibrahim, Assistant Professor of English
University of Washington

An Essay

IN “THE NEW BLACK AESTHETIC,” published in Callaloo in 1989, Trey Ellis identifies a rupture between the black aesthetics of previous generations, and the “new” aesthetics of black artists who came of age in a post-integration era. These younger artists, unfettered by concerns over racial authenticity or, more pertinently, black cultural traditions, borrow as easily from white culture as from black, and are therefore what Ellis refers to as “cultural mulattoes.” He writes, “Just as a genetic mulatto is a black person of mixed parents who can often get along fine with his white grandparents, a cultural mulatto, educated by a multi-racial mix of cultures, can also navigate easily in the white world” (235). This easy navigation between black and white worlds is the key distinction between a “new” black aesthetic-which, according to Ellis, encompasses such varied forms as the comedy of Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, the films of Spike Lee, the jazz of Wynton Marsalis-and older black aesthetic movements, most notably the Black Arts Movement, which often focused on delineating an essential blackness through art and meaning. Ellis proposes that the young black artists who came of age after integration form a black arts movement that constantly challenges what blackness “is.”..

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