Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Ings]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2016-09-09 18:04Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (review) [Ings]

African American Review
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2014

Katharine Nicholson Ings, Associate Professor of English
Manchester College, North Manchester, Indiana

Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 315 pp. $75.00 cloth/ $25.00 paper.

In Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction, the author explores how the theatrical and literary production of miscegenation from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries both dismantled and reinforced the black-white binary that bolstered individual and national identity during Reconstruction and the subsequent period of nation-building. Paulin analyzes race from a performative perspective—an approach she establishes as unfamiliar to a nineteenth-century American—and so she mines her texts for the complex and what she calls the “often unseen processes” (xii) by which interracial relationships become spectacular, or staged. But she also frames her topic of interracial unions as a methodology of its own: if her sources’ processes are “unseen,” Paulin consciously employs “miscegenated reading practices” (xii) by engaging with diverse fields of study, including American studies and transhemispheric studies alongside theatre and performance studies, comparative race and ethnic literary studies, and literary history.

Part of this book’s appeal comes from how Paulin herself stages the narratives within. Selecting an eclectic variety of texts, Paulin organizes her chapters by pairing and comparing; she often juxtaposes a playwright with a novelist or short-story writer—Dion Boucicault with Louisa May Alcott, Bartley Campbell with William Dean Howells, Thomas Dixon with Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins with the trio Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson—to emphasize the intersecting performative aspects of their works. She introduces each chapter by situating the authors and texts within their respective biographical and cultural contexts, paying particular attention to the performance history and reception of each play. This strategy is particularly successful for chapter one, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire,” Paulin’s treatments of Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon (1859) and Louisa May Alcott’s stories “M. L.” and “My Contraband” (both 1863). She develops her analysis beyond a familiar argument of how black blood in each work functions as either a catalyst for “chaos” (14) or exotic “art” (36) to a consideration of same-sex miscegenation (including audience reception). In Boucicault, for instance, a quadroon slave and an Indian have a friendship that Paulin locates “somewhere on the spectrum between the homosocial and the homoerotic” (20); in Alcott, white women in an authoritative, read “masculine” role express their same-sex desire for former slaves via the men’s “feminized characterizations” (41)…

Read the entire review here.

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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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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction [Fruscione review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-08-24 18:37Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction [Fruscione review]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Volume 38, Issue 3 (September 2013)
pages 180-182
DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlt040

Joseph Fruscione, Adjunct Professor of Writing
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 336 pages.

Between the Civil War (1861-65) and World War I (1914-18), writes Diana Rebekkah Paulin in Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction, “Americans … literally could not stop writing about—and talking about, and enacting—the union between black and white” in fiction and theater. Paulin asserts that such literary and dramatic works telescope how “racialized citizenship and national identity formation … coalesced” in this period (x). Positioning Imperfect Unions within evolving critical conversations about writing, race, and nation, Paulin outlines her book’s central focus and questions in the introduction:

Rather than remaining hidden, this great American fear [of black-white unions] was actually paraded and spectacularized in public sites. Rather than being relegated to the realm of the invisible, black-white relations were continually staged. Why, so to speak, all the drama? Why the consistent production—and from available historical evidence, the eager consumption by the masses—of something that deeply unsettled so many Americans? (xii)

Paulin explores and complicates these questions by analyzing works by Dion Boucicault (The Octoroon, 1859), Louisa May Alcott (“M. L.” and “My Contraband,” 1863), Bartley Campbell (The White Slave, 1882), William Dean Howells (An Imperative Duty)…

Read or purchase the review here.

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (Green-Rogers review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-08-24 18:06Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin (Green-Rogers review)

Theatre Journal
Volume 65, Number 2, May 2013
pages 304-306
DOI: 10.1353/tj.2013.0048

Martine Kei Green-Rogers, Post Doctorate Fellow
University of Utah

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Paulin is a multidisciplinary examination of how fictionalized versions of miscegenation both obfuscated and unmasked aspects of the complex black/white binary that shaped racial histories in the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By combining literary and historical approaches from the fields of theatre, performance studies, race and ethnic studies, American studies, and trans-hemispheric studies to works that were disseminated through the popular press and performance, Paulin illustrates the epistemological influence that stories of miscegenation had on the term “race” and the white versus black paradigm that created a racial divide in the United States.

Using a comparative approach, Paulin typically pairs a work of fiction with a drama in each chapter, organizing her materials chronologically. Thus, for example, the first chapter, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates,” examines Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) alongside Louisa May Alcott’s “M.L.” and “My Contraband” (1863). Paulin begins with Boucicault’s play, she explains, because it offers “a representative sample of the common tropes and themes used in narratives about interracial unions: forbidden love, the tragic death of the mulatta, and the simultaneous appeal and repulsion of black blood” (5). Both The Octoroon and Alcott’s stories served as historical and sociological precedents, voicing the idea that children of miscegenistic unions would always lead tragic lives that often ended in violence—either self-inflicted, due to the emotional burden of their mixed-race heritage in a society defined by a racial binary, or at the hands of others, given the threat they posed to the black versus white paradigm. Paulin argues that although these “multivalent figures” call into question the logic of the binary paradigm, ultimately their tragic fates reinforce the dominant values of the larger historical and social context in which these characters were created (9).

Chapter 2, “Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy,” discusses Bartley Campbell’s play The White Slave (1882) and William Dean Howells’s novel Imperative Duty (1892). Here, Paulin analyzes these two works in relation to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, finding that both literature and culture “marginalized blackness and glorified the past greatness of white society” (57). While Boucicault’s and Alcott’s works insinuate “democratic ideas” into their treatment of the tragic mulatta, Campbell’s play and Howells’s novel portray “unclassifiable person[s]” as objects of fear (61). Paulin explains that, in their works, such figures exceed the clearly defined boundaries of racial division and thus tap a growing fear that freed slaves would likewise exceed the boundaries of social divisions. She adds that this fear was especially trained on “intimate social spaces previously reserved for bourgeois whites, such as their parlors and bedrooms” (59). Paulin’s argument is intriguing because Campbell’s “unclassifiable” character is of European heritage (which is racially defined as “Other”) and of illegitimate birth, and within the world of the novel she is passed off as the daughter of an “octoroon.” As such an example illustrates, the fluidity of racial categories could be used paradoxically to reinforce societal structures that depended on a definitive line between “white” and everything else.

Chapter 3, “Staging the Unspoken Terror,” juxtaposes Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) with Thomas Dixon’s play The Clansman (1905), which the author adapted from his novel of the same name and which became the basis of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Although these works espouse drastically different views—€”Dixon’s play seeks the “reestablishment of white domination,” while Chesnutt’s novel critiques the “corruption and hypocrisy of southern white-supremacist ‘tradition’ and government” (106)— Paulin notes that both rely upon the assumption that women are responsible for maintaining racial purity. Both also address racial violence: if, in Dixon, it can be stopped if the threat of miscegenation is eradicated, in Chesnutt it is an inevitable consequence of white power.

Chapter 4, “The Remix: Afro-Indian Intimacies,” addresses an often ignored topic in the discourse of miscegenation because it exists outside of the black/white binary: the legal…

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-06-27 03:20Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction

University of Minnesota Press
July 2012
336 pages
9 b&w photos
5 1/2 x 8 1/2
paper ISBN: 978-0-8166-7099-4
cloth ISBN: 978-0-8166-7098-7

Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Associate Professor of English and American Studies
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

Imperfect Unions examines the vital role that nineteenth- and twentieth-century dramatic and literary enactments played in the constitution and consolidation of race in the United States. Diana Rebekkah Paulin investigates how these representations produced, and were produced by, the black–white binary that informed them in a wide variety of texts written across the period between the Civil War and World War I—by Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Dixon, J. Rosamond Johnson, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, William Dean Howells, and many others.

Paulin’s “miscegenated reading practices” reframe the critical cultural roles that drama and fiction played during this significant half century. She demonstrates the challenges of crossing intellectual boundaries, echoing the crossings—of race, gender, nation, class, and hemisphere—that complicated the black–white divide at the turn of the twentieth century and continue to do so today.
Imperfect Unions reveals how our ongoing discussions about race are also dialogues about nation formation. As the United States attempted to legitimize its own global ascendancy, the goal of eliminating evidence of inferiority became paramount. At the same time, however, the foundation of the United States was linked to slavery that served as reminders of its “mongrel” origins.


  • Introduction. Setting the Stage: The Black–White Binary in an Imperfect Union
  • 1. Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates
  • 2. Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy
  • 3. Staging the Unspoken Terror
  • 4. The Remix: Afro-Indian Intimacies
  • 5. The Futurity of Miscegenation
  • Conclusion: The “Sex Factor”and Twenty-first Century Stagings of MiscegeNation
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
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Performing Miscegenation: Rescuing The White Slave from the Threat of Interracial Desire

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2011-01-02 01:54Z by Steven

Performing Miscegenation: Rescuing The White Slave from the Threat of Interracial Desire

Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (ISSN 0888-3203)
Volume 13, Number 1 (Fall 1998)
pages 71-86

Diana R. Paulin, Assistant Professor of English and American Studies
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

This examination of Bartley Campbell’s 1882 play, The White Slave, emerges out of a comprehensive study of the way in which representations of black/white unions in late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century U.S. drama and fiction invoke anxieties about the impact of interracial contact, while simultaneously rehearsing the multiple possibilities of these transgressive relationships. Because of the way in which black/white, or interracial, intimate alliances have symbolized both explicit acts of racial transgression in and of themselves and implicit threats to essentialized racial categories, their representation creates space for complex readings of these racial identities. In fact, the ambivalent and liminal space in which interracial desire is most frequently represented does not merely complicate race, it provides a place for more productive and multivalent articulations of black and white subjectivities. Campbell’s play offers a useful site for exploring these issues because of the way in which it complicates black and white by “playing out” the possibility of an erotic cross-racial relationship. At the same time, through a multitude of complex plot twists and unexpected revelations, the logic of play’s narrative undermines the legitimacy of interracial unions and, thereby, helps to minimize their disruptive potential. By using the explosive and contested space of the play’s narrative, this reading helps to foreground moments in the past when blackness and whiteness are destabilized in a manner that reinforces current anti-essentialist debates about race and identity.

My reading of The White Slave suggests the way in which the play engages in multiple racial performances and depicts race in performative terms. That is to say that the play produces an interracial union that is part of a broader performance—a performance of multiple articulated racial subjectivities, of miscegenation, of hierarchical power relations—that simultaneously challenges and reinforces what it attempts to represent. The contradictions produced by these cross purposes demonstrate the ambivalence that usually characterizes depictions of interracial unions. For, while most portrayals of cross-racial relationships indicate that they will fail, they also leave many of the conflicting issues and possibilities generated by the union unresolved and unexplored. This ambiguity not only complicates these representations of intimate black/white relations, it also provides a starting point for rearticulating the complexity of racial identities that are, more often than not, defined in opposition to each other…

…Historicizing Miscegenation

The word miscegenation—a derogatory term for cross-racial sexual relations—was popularized in the United States by pro-slavery journalist David Croly in 1863. His inflammatory pamphlet, “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the White Man and the Negro,” intentionally played on the fears of many white Americans by disingenuously advocating interracial marriage and by suggesting that mixed races were superior to “pure” ones. Although cross-racial unions were not new and sexual relations between white planters and their black slaves were tenuously accepted as one of the unfortunate evils of slavery, this sensational document stirred up many anxieties about the negative effects of black and white sexual contact…

Read the entire article here.

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