“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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How The Vanishing Half fits into our cultural fixation with racial passing stories

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2020-09-19 20:36Z by Steven

How The Vanishing Half fits into our cultural fixation with racial passing stories


Constance Grady

Zac Freeland/Vox

The Vox Book Club is linking to Bookshop.org to support local and independent booksellers.

Passing for white never left.”

In Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, the character of Stella haunts the narrative like a ghost. Stella is the half who vanished: half of her family, half of her sister’s heart. And she vanished by excising half of her own identity.

Stella is a light-skinned Black woman, and when she is 16, she decides to start passing for white. Her identical twin sister Desiree, meanwhile, grows up to marry the darkest-skinned man she can find. Stella breaks away from her family, and we don’t get a chance to meet her on the pages of the novel until nearly halfway through the book when at last her niece, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, tracks her down. It’s only in that last section that we finally learn exactly what happened to Stella.

Stella’s fate haunts the novel, and so does the genre her story belongs to. There’s a long history of narratives of racial passing in the American novel, and The Vanishing Half plays with the genre in new and interesting ways. So as the Vox Book Club spends the month talking about The Vanishing Half, I wanted to put it in the context of the passing novel more broadly.

To get an expert view, I called up Alisha Gaines, an English professor at Florida State University and the author of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Together, we talked through the history of the African American passing novel, what passing looks like after Jim Crow (sorry, Ben Shapiro), and how passing novels can show us how race is produced and reproduced. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

The first African American stories of racial passing are slave narratives

Constance Grady

Do we know when the first of these narratives emerged? How old are stories about racial passing?

Alisha Gaines

It’s an old story. In literature and in life, America has a fascination with impersonation, which includes blackface minstrelsy. And passing narratives, if you want to be technical about it, in African American literature, they start with the slave narrative…

Read the entire interview here.

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Blood Work: Imagining Race in American Literature, 1890-1940

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2015-03-29 20:12Z by Steven

Blood Work: Imagining Race in American Literature, 1890-1940

Louisiana State University Press
January 2015
240 pages
5.50 x 8.50 inches
Hardcover ISBN: 9780807157848

Shawn Salvant, Assistant Professor of English and African American
University of Connecticut

The invocation of blood—as both an image and a concept—has long been critical in the formation of American racism. In Blood Work, Shawn Salvant mines works from the American literary canon to explore the multitude of associations that race and blood held in the consciousness of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Americans.

Drawing upon race and metaphor theory, Salvant provides readings of four classic novels featuring themes of racial identity: Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood (1902); Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892); and William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). His expansive analysis of blood imagery uncovers far more than the merely biological connotations that dominate many studies of blood rhetoric: the racial discourses of blood in these novels encompass the anthropological and the legal, the violent and the religious. Penetrating and insightful, Blood Work illuminates the broad-ranging power of the blood metaphor to script distinctly American plots—real and literary—of racial identity.

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“Split At The Root”: The Reformation of The Mulatto Hero/Heroine

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2014-05-01 19:13Z by Steven

“Split At The Root”: The Reformation of The Mulatto Hero/Heroine

AmeriQuests (Online)
Vanderbilt University
Volume 6, Number 1

Tia L. Gafford, Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies
Mercer University

Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy offers a valuable insight on the development of a holistic and natural model for patriarchy in the 19th century. Harper combines normally diametrically opposed ideologies of masculinity and femininely in the characters of Dr. Frank Latimer and Iola Leroy who become cultural heros/heroines by embracing a Black consciousness. By addressing what she considers to be a more cohesive productive society, Harper contextualizes the mulatto racial and social visions against the backdrop of the post-Reconstruction South. Within this new radical mixed race, Dr. Latimer and Iola Leroy rescues this normative stereotypical version and redefines them as the pre-cursors of Alain Locke’s “New Negro.” By rejecting whiteness as a mean to emancipate themselves out of an otherwise racial bondage, Iola Leroy and Dr. Latimer embrace the “one drop” rule. By “casting themselves” into the racial “pot,” Harper sets the mulatto up to ideally “work for the people.”

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Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-02-24 22:48Z by Steven

Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

University of Michigan Press
232 pages
6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-472-11861-8
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-472-02890-0

Andreá N. Williams, Associate Professor of English
Ohio State University

Photograph of John and Lugenia Burns Hope and family, undated, Atlanta University Photographs—Individuals, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library
(Pictured from left to right: Dr. John Hope, Edward Hope, John Hope, II, and and Lugenia Burns Hope)

New insights on the intersection of race and class in black fiction from the 1880s to 1900s

Dividing Lines is one of the most extensive studies of class in nineteenth-century African American literature. Clear and engaging, this book unveils how black fiction writers represented the uneasy relationship between class differences, racial solidarity, and the quest for civil rights in black communities.

By portraying complex, highly stratified communities with a growing black middle class, these authors dispelled popular notions that black Americans were uniformly poor or uncivilized. But even as the writers highlighted middle-class achievement, they worried over whether class distinctions would help or sabotage collective black protest against racial prejudice. Andreá N. Williams argues that the signs of class anxiety are embedded in postbellum fiction: from the verbal stammer or prim speech of class-conscious characters to fissures in the fiction’s form. In these telling moments, authors innovatively dared to address the sensitive topic of class differences—a topic inextricably related to American civil rights and social opportunity.

Williams delves into the familiar and lesser-known works of Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, showing how these texts mediate class through discussions of labor, moral respectability, ancestry, spatial boundaries, and skin complexion. Dividing Lines also draws on reader responses—from book reviews, editorials, and letters—to show how the class anxiety expressed in African American fiction directly sparked reader concerns over the status of black Americans in the U.S. social order. Weaving literary history with compelling textual analyses, this study yields new insights about the intersection of race and class in black novels and short stories from the 1880s to 1900s.


  • Introduction: Contending Classes, Dividing Lines
  • 1. The Language of Class: Taxonomy and Respectability in Frances E. W. Harper’s Trial and Triumph and Iola Leroy
  • 2. Working through Class: The Black Body, Labor, and Leisure in Sutton Griggs’s Overshadowed
  • 3. Mapping Class Difference: Space and Social Mobility in Paul L. Dunbar’s Short Fiction
  • 4. Blood and the Mark of Class: Pauline Hopkins’s Genealogies of Status
  • 5. Classing the Color Line: Class-Passing, Antiracism, and Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Epilogue: Beyond the Talented Tenth
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-06-28 02:00Z by Steven

Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

American Literature
Volume 75, Number 4, December 2003
pages 813-841

Julie Cary Nerad, Associate Professor of English
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Conceived in slavery, gestated in racialist science, and bred in Jim Crow segregation, the U.S. race system calcified into a visual epistemology of racial difference based largely on skin color. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this visual schema of biological difference, despite fluctuation within racial categories—even within whiteness itself—was generally reduced to just white and nonwhite. This illusion of racial dichotomy sometimes allowed very light-skinned African Americans to choose between a black or a white identity. “The position of the pale [black] individual,” wrote African American psychiatrist Charles Gibson in 1931, “is analogous to that of a traveler who has come to a forked road. One branch of the fork is remaining Negro; the other is ‘passing for white.'” In Gibson’s schema, light-skinned African Americans could choose to retain their black identity and risk reverse discrimination within the darker-skinned community, or they could pass as white through an identity of deception, trading the ties of their African American family and friends for economic opportunity, a choice often conceptualized as crass materialism. Recent scholarship on passing for white has complicated Gibson’s simple binary of individual choice by recognizing racial passing as an aggressive political challenge to the ideological construct of race. As a form of performative trespass, many have argued, passing exposes race as a performative identity category, like gender and class. Recognizing this dimension of racial identity does not reduce the cultural and psychological significance of race; rather, it attempts to separate race from biology and the fallacious hierarchy of innate difference that has been used historically to justify systemic inequity and violence.

Despite its impetus, however, recent critical work on race often illustrates the degree to which the one-drop rule still has a toehold on American racial consciousness. “One drop” of “black blood” continues to imply a responsibility to blackness that academic deconstructions of race have not significantly altered. One goal of my essay is to investigate how continuing misconceptions about race as a biological imperative influence our readings of novels about racial passing, despite our acknowledgment that race is performative. The cause I identify here is twofold. First, the ideology of racial uplift and the tenacious persistence of the one-drop rule converge to influence our perceptions of race and our reading of passing novels. Racial uplift, with its debt of responsibility, has become a significant part of our racial ideology: if one’s family is African American, if one has any “drop” of black blood, then one has a responsibility to the race and should proclaim oneself black. That is, no matter how “white” one’s skin, we assume that passers are black and censure their attempts to live outside the bounds of that identity. This assumption evinces the tenacity of—and simultaneously reinforces—the one-drop rule.

Second, in focusing almost exclusively on passing as an intentional act of racial identification, scholars have regarded it as primarily a political challenge to the racial status quo. In many novels of passing, however, the characters’ sense of racial identity develops less consciously, in conjunction with (not simply in conscious opposition to) the racially marked socioeconomic and cultural spaces they inhabit. Legally black but corporeally white, these passers are initially unaware that their genetic heritage includes a “drop” of black blood. I call these critically neglected characters unintentional passers. They do not know that in the eyes of the law they are passing. Texts of unintentional passing, and there are many, destabilize notions of biologically constructed racial identity precisely because the passers are unaware that they are transgressing legal boundaries. The discrepancy between legal race categories and racial self-perceptions reveals how race functions in the United States to maintain socioeconomic inequalities by controlling an individual’s sense of identity and her place within family, community, and nation. Our own tendency to conceptualize these fictional characters as…

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Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing on 2012-05-18 21:04Z by Steven

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

University of Illinois Press
208 pages
6 x 9 in.
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-07248-2

M. Giulia Fabi, Associate professor of American literature
University of Ferrara, Italy

Revealing the role of light-skinned black characters passing for white in African American literature

A CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2003

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel restores to its rightful place a body of American literature that has long been overlooked, dismissed, or misjudged. This insightful reconsideration of nineteenth-century African American fiction uncovers the literary artistry and ideological complexity of a body of work that laid the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance and changed the course of American letters.

Focusing on the trope of passing—black characters lightskinned enough to pass for white—M. Giulia Fabi shows how early African American authors such as William Wells Brown, Frank J. Webb, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton E. Griggs, Frances E. W. Harper, Edward A. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson transformed traditional representations of blackness and moved beyond the tragic mulatto motif. Challenging the myths of racial purity and the color line, these authors used passing to celebrate a distinctive, African American history, culture, and worldview.

Fabi examines how early black writers adapted existing literary forms, including the sentimental romance, the domestic novel, and the utopian novel, to express their convictions and concerns about slavery, segregation, and racism. Chesnutt used passing as both a structural and a thematic element, while James Weldon Johnson innovated by parodying the earlier novels of passing and presenting the decision to pass as the result, rather than the cause, of cultural alienation. Fabi also gives a historical overview of the canon-making enterprises of African American critics from the 1850s to the 1990s and considers how their concerns about promoting the canonization of African American literature affected their perceptions of nineteenth-century black fiction.

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Beyond the Pale: Unsettling “Race” and Womanhood in the Novels of Harper, Hopkins, Fauset and Larsen

Posted in Dissertations, Law, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-03-28 01:44Z by Steven

Beyond the Pale: Unsettling “Race” and Womanhood in the Novels of Harper, Hopkins, Fauset and Larsen

McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
December 1996
303 pages

Teresa Christine Zackodnik, Professor of English
University of Alberta, Canada

A thesis Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor Of Philosophy

This dissertation proposes that writers like Frances Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen “talk out both sides” of their mouths, parodying the values of the black bourgeoisie, racialized notions of womanhood, and understandings of racial difference popular at the turn into the twentieth century. Using complex modes of address, these authors have written novels that in all likelihood were read in different directions by their white and African American readerships. I contend that these narratives would have placated their white readership with familiar forms, while simultaneously forging a sense of community with their African American readers in novels of a highly political nature which questioned and subverted definitions of womanhood and “race”. These “tragic mulatta” and “passing” novels, published from 1892 to 1931 are contextualized with an analysis of three cultural efforts to consolidate turn-of-the-century American beliefs regarding race and gender: legal statutes codifying racial identities, theories of racial difference, and notions of gender identity disseminated through the cult of domesticity. Because the mulatto is neither white nor black, her ambivalent identity and experience make parody a significant trope with which these authors interrogate identity. In order to “pass” for “true women” or for white, these mulatto characters utilize and parody the very qualities designed to ensure the “purity” of whiteness and womanhood. This study argues that such parodies access an African American tradition of parodic performance that played to and on white notions of “blackness” and constructions of white identity. Moving from a consideration of such “signifyin(g)” acts as a challenge to gender and racial identities represented by heroines who pass for “true women,” the study concludes with a consideration of how race, as a political category of description, is destabilized through the representation of heroines who choose to pass for white.


  • CHAPTER 1: Codifying and Quantifying “Race” in Turn-of-the-Century America
  • CHAPTER 2: Unsettling “Race” and Womanhood in Tum-of-the-Century America: Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy and Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces
  • CHAPTER 3: Policing the Bounds of Race: Jessie Fauset’s The Chinaberry Tree and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand
  • CHAPTER 4: Transgressions and Excess: Passing as Parodic Performance in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun and Nella Larsen’s Passing
  • CONCLUSION: New Trajectories of Self-Definition

Read the entire thesis here.

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Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2012-01-03 22:58Z by Steven

Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

St. Mary’s College of Maryland
English 400.01
Fall 2008

Christine Wooley, Assistant Professor of English
This course will consider representations of passing (and thus also miscegenation) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture. While passing has often been depicted-and dismissed-as an act of racial betrayal, more recent criticism has suggested that we view these depictions of racial transgression and deception in more complicated ways. In this class, we will analyze various narratives centered around passing and miscegenation as sites through which we can better examine-and understand-the construction of racial identities in particular historical and political contexts. We will ask whether or not narratives about passing and miscegenation challenge the stability of racial categories. Likewise, we will pay close attention to how such narratives also engage issues of class, ethnicity, and gender. Syllabus may include works by authors such as Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Frances Harper, William Dean Howells, Pauline Hopkins, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. In addition, this class will also draw on a selection of historical and legal documents, current critical works on race, and films such as The Jazz Singer and Imitation of Life.

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Into the box and out of the picture: The rhetorical management of the mulatto in the Jim Crow era

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2011-08-24 03:41Z by Steven

Into the box and out of the picture: The rhetorical management of the mulatto in the Jim Crow era

Duke University
573 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3250085

Jené Lee Schoenfeld

Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English in the Graduate School of Duke University

Contemporary conventional wisdom maintains that anyone who has any trace of black ancestry is black. This precept, known as the “one drop rule,” was not always so widely accepted; in fact, from 1850 to 1920 an intermediate racial category—mulattoappeared on the United States Census. Visibly “both/and” in a society of “either/or,” the ambiguous body of the mulatto had the potential to obscure the color line and thus the system of racial hierarchy predicated on the division it marks. Therefore, the limited tolerance under slavery of an intermediate racial status became untenable during Jim Crow. In my dissertation, I argue that the fiction of the Jim Crow era helped the one drop rule gain hegemonic status.

Through sustained close readings of texts by Frances Harper, Thomas Dixon, Nella Larsen, Charles Chesnutt, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner, I argue that the biological determinism of the one drop rule is inadequate to explain what makes their characters—who are often physically, culturally, and even socially aligned with whiteness—”truly” black and suggest that in mulatto fiction, self-identification emerges as the fundamental basis of racial identity. I argue that fiction facilitated the containment of racial indeterminacy by “rhetorically managing” the mulatto into choosing blackness for herself through characterizations of those who remained racially liminal as tragically marginal and generally despicable, and contrasting characterizations of those who chose to identify as black as noble, privileged, and supported by the embrace of their families and their communities. The possibility of choosing one’s racial identification, however, undermines racial ideology’s essentialist pretense to racial authenticity. Therefore, choice must be supplemented by demonstrations of racial allegiance, such as “intraracial” marriage, which preserves at least the illusion of biological and cultural racial continuity, and seamless performances, of blackness or whiteness. Finally, I examine the relative authority—asymmetrical because of the construction of whiteness as pure and exclusive—of self-identification with respect to whiteness and blackness, and the near impossibility of self-identification outside this binary.

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • 1. “What are you?” And why it matters
  • 2. “Genocidal Images” or “Imagined Community”: Converting the Marginal Mulatto into a Light-Skinned Elite Black
  • 3. Keeping Race in the Family: Marriage as Racial Pledge of Allegiance
  • 4. Indeterminacy on the Loose! Invisible Blackness and the Permeability of the Color Line
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Biography


The mulatto figure in American fiction is too often treated by critics as though she is static, both within individual texts and over the course of American literary history. Critics tend to assume that the most famous version of the mulatto figure—the antebellum tragic mulatto, whose near-whiteness was used to evoke white readers’ sympathy for the abolitionist cause is the only significant template for the mulatto figure. Moreover, they take for granted the mulatto’s essential blackness, explaining away her apparent whiteness as solely a concession to white racism. My dissertation models an approach to the mulatto figure that is attentive to the figure’s development.

On the scale of American literary history, I argue that the representation of the mulatto is inextricably bound up with the (United States’) political context. Though I am also interested in the way that racial indeterminacy is represented in contemporary texts, in what I think of as the post-mulatto moment, I decided quite early on that this was better saved for a future project. I focus instead on representations of the mulatto during the Jim Crow era and how those representations differ from antebellum representations of the mulatto. At its heart, this project is fundamentally a literary one, but as I sought to explain why the mulatto was represented differently in the Jim Crow era, I became interested in the relationship between those representations and a broader social and political context.

Accordingly, I offer an interdisciplinary hypothesis that literature concerning the mulatto—what I call “mulatto fiction”—was instrumental in facilitating an historical shift in the racial structure of the United States from an antebellum racial system with some possibility of a third racial category (labeled “mulatto”) to a system that is much more rigidly a binary of black and white. The effect of this historical shift was that the mulatto “became” black. While I believe that this may be true, I want to qualify this as a provisional claim. I can and do offer (mostly in chapter one) concrete evidence that such a historical shift occurred. For example, “mulatto” appeared as a category on the United States’ census from 1850 to 1920, but from 1930 onward, mulattoes were moved into the box marked “Negro,” and thus rendered invisible as mulattoes. It is to this shift that my title, “Into the Box and Out of the Picture,” refers. To establish the causal relationship between mulatto fiction and the historical shift that I describe, at this stage I can only offer a theory about why other, more obvious, forms of racial discipline, such as the law, might have had limited power to control the mulatto’s racial identification.

I would also qualify my related claim that mulatto fiction is invested in facilitating the development of the binary racial system through the disappearance of the mulatto. Additional research into authorial biography would allow me to make that claim more forcefully, however, I stand by that claim as a description of a trend in fiction of the early Jim Crow era (in the years shortly after Reconstruction). Some of the most interesting works of mulatto fiction—those by Faulkner and Larsen, for example—are critical of the binary racial schema. Those texts, however, tend to appear later in the Jim Crow era, when the binary is already well-established. Even in those texts, as I argue at length in the body of my dissertation, the critiques are limited by the existing terms of the discourse. In Quicksand, for example, Larsen locates the “problem” of the mulatto in the system—not in her mulatto protagonist, Helga—yet she cannot imagine any positive resolution to the situation. Though Helga eventually marries a black man and settles in the most apparently “authentic” black setting—among the folk of the rural South—almost as soon as she arrives, Helga is (as usual) looking for a way out. Despite Larsen’s critique of the racial system that so confines Helga, there is no way out for her. As in earlier works of mulatto fiction, Helga must fully embrace a black racial identity or die.

Another way in which my dissertation seeks to broaden the context in which we interpret the mulatto figure is by expanding the scope of the texts we might include. I argue for the consideration of what I call “mulatto discourse,” which, in addition to literary texts, includes representations of the mulatto in such fields as law and (pseudo)science. The mulatto, especially in the Jim Crow era, is a site of contestation over the establishment and location of the color line. That is to say, the mulatto figures centrally in arguments about where whiteness (along with “legitimate” access to white privilege) ends and blackness begins. Indeed, this is a question explored in the literature I discuss, but it is a battle fought in other contexts as well. Regarding the literature, I argue that authors on both sides of the color line, and from both racist and antiracist perspectives, are invested in the racial identification of the mulatto figure. The motivation behind such an investment differs; racists, obviously, are interested in supporting racial hierarchy, whereas antiracists may hope that a strategic cssentialism will create a richer base from which to mount challenges to that hierarchy. Similarly, racists and antiracists represent the mulatto differently with respect to the question of racial identity. Racists tend to emphasize the mulatto’s degeneracy, thereby suggesting that the mulatto should not exist. Antiracists tend to push the mulatto away from racial liminality by representing the tragically marginal mulatto negatively, while drawing the mulatto into blackness by representing the “light-skinned” member of the black elite positively. Despite these variations, these approaches are part of a common discourse. What all of the fictional texts under analysis in my dissertation have in common is an interest in the possibilities (in some cases, even the necessity) and the limits of self- identification for the mulatto.

Self-identification is particularly important in mulatto discourse because of the difficulty of using the external evidence of the mulatto’s phenotype to assign the mulatto a racial classification in accord with the rules established by racial ideology, in particular, the one drop rule, which dictates that anyone with a trace of black ancestry is to be considered as unequivocally black. My work focuses on the mulatto figure, exemplified by Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, whose phenotype suggests a white racial identity; the most “problematic” figure from the perspective of those invested in racial hierarchy. (I deliberately do not say “who could pass for white,” because then I, too, would be assuming the mulatto’s essential blackness, which I do not.) This mulatto’s apparent whiteness often contradicts her legal status as a black. (I say “often” because in some cases the mulatto is not legally black.) Racial ideology developed and deployed a set of narratives in various fields to support its insistence on the mulatto’s essential blackness despite the potentially contradictory “evidence” of phenotype, legal status, or even social acceptance in white communities. Though some texts in mulatto discourse frame their exploration of the contradiction embodied by the mulatto as a critique of the “logic” of racial ideology, the driving force of mulatto discourse during the Jim Crow era seems to be an impulse toward containment of racial ambiguity.

The ramifications for Jim Crow of the problem of the mulatto’s ambiguous body were both practical and ideological. The mulatto presented a practical problem for segregation because she could move out of the places designated for her without being detected. In other words, she could access white privilege without (according to racial ideology) being legitimately entitled to it. Furthermore, the mulatto—whose body is a concrete reminder of intimate relationships between blacks and whites—presented an ideological problem for segregation, a form of racial hierarchy that sought to institute maximum distance between the races.

Because the mulatto’s blackness does not register visually, I argue that agency assumes a greater role in the mulatto’s racial identification than it otherwise might. Racism is implicated in the stakes of how the mulatto identifies racially, but because she is not visually identifiable as black, she may not be personally subjected to racism unless she identifies as black and publicly expresses this identification. For example, in Iola Leroy, set shortly after the Civil War, Iola takes a job in a Northern white establishment as salesperson. She informs the manager that she is “colored,” and he hires her, but cautions her not to tell her fellow employees. Iola does promise this, but she does not go out of her way to broadcast her racial identification either. Then one day, a coworker is where I go.” Confused by her own reluctance to make the connection between Iola’s church attendance and her racial identification—thereby admitting that she has been working with a “colored” woman without knowing it—the other salesperson asks why Iola attends a colored church. Iola finally makes her meaning plain: “Because I wished to be with my own people” Comprehending at last, the (presumably “legitimately”) white salesperson “looked surprised and pained, and almost instinctively moved a little farther from her.” By the end of the day, the entire staff knows about Iola’s racial identification and they insist that Iola be fired, which she is. This is a very clear example of the way in which agency plays a unique role in the apparently white mulatto’s racial identification and attendant experience (or lack thereof) of racism. If she had been characterized by more obvious phenotypic cues suggesting blackness, Iola would probably never have been hired, not even by the manager inclined to give a colored girl a chance. Yet if Iola had simply lied about her church (and other personal details that may have come up), the salespeople and their customers would have continued to assume that she was “legitimately” white, and she would not have been fired…

 Purchase the dissertation here.

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