Black and White: Vestiges of Biracialism in American Discourse

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-11-16 00:51Z by Steven

Black and White: Vestiges of Biracialism in American Discourse

Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies
Volume 7, Issue 1 (March 2010)
pages 70-89
DOI: 10.1080/14791420903511255

Greg Goodale, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies
Northeastern University

Jeremy Engels, Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences
Pennsylvania State University

The authors argue that the application of critical methods to fragments in successive discursive formations, including oral traditions, double meanings, epithets, fictions, and fantasies, reveal that Americans have always almost known of their biracial heritage. This re-examination of archival evidence in conjunction with critiques of novels, neologisms, and epithets enables the authors to reinterpret narratives of whiteness, particularly those surrounding Jane McCrea, America’s first national martyr. Though claimed as a pure, white woman, we argue that underground traditions and a succession of discursive formations lend credence to the possibility that she exemplifies America’s biracial past.

Why are reports of America’s biracial heritage, like Thomas Jefferson’s black descendents and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond’s biracial child, met with a shrug? (NB: The terms “white” and “black” are problematic because they essentialize. In this essay, we gradually de-essentialize the terms even as we use them.) Given America’s history of racism, one might expect this news to be controversial. Yet illustrating a strikingly blasé attitude toward America’s biracial past, in 2008 Illinois Senator Barack Obama used stump speeches to respond to reports that he was related to the unpopular sitting Vice President: “Dick Cheney is the black sheep of my family.” The line drew laughter because successive discursive formations have perpetuated knowledge about America’s biracial heritage, even as these formations have attempted to deny this memory. Thus Americans have always almost been conscious of their biracial heritage, a near-consciousness that is responsible for both current shrugs and past violence. During the early years of the republic, the identity “American” was made white. As evidenced by Noah Webster’s first American Dictionary, after the Revolutionary War the concept African American became unthinkable to Euro-Americans. Webster defined “American” as “a native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America.” In his dictionary, Webster represented “American” as white and explicitly excluded Indians while ignoring Americans of African descent. The Revolution had forced former subjects of the British Empire to rethink their identities. Those who published dictionaries, constituted a government, and constructed schools nearly effaced racial mixture by imposing their self-representation—whiteness—on the inchoate nation. As rhetorical scholars, we are deeply interested in representations, and in particular in how these shape our understanding of history. For Roger Chartier, “a double meaning and a double function are thus assigned to representation: to make an absence present, but also to exhibit its own presence as image.” Representation performed two critical functions after the Revolutionary War: it invented a reality by making an absence in the form of white American-ness present, and it exhibited the no-longer absent as reality by deifying a pantheon of exemplary “white” Americans like George Washington and Jane McCrea. The double meaning thus constituted identities while underpinning regimes of representation that almost hid such constructions.

Like the Christian God, educated “whites” made Americans in their own image, a vision that attempted to and always almost effaced racial mixture. Chartier’s colleague Pierre Bourdieu described the effects of representation: “What is at stake here is the power of imposing a vision of the social world through principles of de-vision which, when they are imposed on a whole group, establish meaning and a consensus about meaning, and in particular about the identity and unity of the group, which creates the reality of the unity and reality of the group.” To represent, Chartier and Bourdieu argue, is to define and constitute. Yet all representations, insofar as they attempt to make an absence present, are necessarily imperfect. The double meaning retains a pre-history of the representation’s construction. In constituting a reality and a social unity predicated upon a re-presentation of history, educated whites in the founding period were unable to erase fragments of Americans’ biracial heritage that remained in the discursive formation; vestiges that have remained in the succession of discursive formations from the founding to today. When a purist vision of the social world like Webster’s is imposed, hints of diversity linger, always almost reappearing to re-present the constructed nature of the representation

We argue that evidence of America’s biracial heritage exists in discursive clues that always almost remind Americans that race was never as pure a distinction as the lexicographers and teachers of official language and histories once inculcated. Though recent scholarship has recovered some of this heritage, we argue that this knowledge has haunted Americans, who have always almost known about their biracial past. Double meanings, oral histories, “fictions,” fantasies, and epithets perpetuated an almost awareness of this heritage even as successive discursive formations obscured its memory. Discursive formations are not monolithic. Even as they influence and to a degree determine what we take to be true and hence our ability to think, to understand, and to name, our current truths must necessarily emerge out of older regimes of representation. Truth does not spring sui generis on the scene, like Athena from Zeus’s head. Truth is made out of old truths and even older rules. Thus, each new discursive formation contains vestiges of prior knowledges and epistemologies…

…When whites participated in lynch mobs or volunteered for black-voter registration drives, their decisions were rooted, in part, in insecurities about the purity of whiteness or an awareness of brotherhood. These reactions should be partially attributed to discursive fragments that always almost threaten to re-present America’s biracial heritage. In this essay, we offer an exploration of a few vestiges that have preserved knowledge of America’s integrated past. Beginning with double meanings that hide and betray biracial truths, we find that a close study of this unofficial history uncovers America’s biracial heritage at the same time that it reveals clues that illustrate the imperfect racial purification of America by white lexicographers and teachers. Then we turn to a sustained analysis of a popular nineteenth-century story. This critical reading of the biography of Jane McCrea exemplifies efforts to proclaim the purity of race while revealing a discursive formation that recalls Americans are not simply white or black. We are both…

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