Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 by Julia H. Lee (review)

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-10-18 00:19Z by Steven

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 by Julia H. Lee (review)

Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 16, Number 3, October 2013
pages 340-342
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2013.0025

Caroline H. Yang, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, English
University of Illinois, Chicago

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937, by Julia H. Lee. New York: New York University Press, 2011. xi + 219 pp. ISBN: 9780814752555.

That 1896 is a defining year in the history of segregation and unequal citizenship in the United States is obviously common knowledge in critical race studies. What Julia Lee teaches us about the moment in Interracial Encounters is probably not: that the Chinese figured significantly in Plessy v. Ferguson as a crucial component in both the majority and dissenting opinions on whether or not segregation based on race—specifically, blackness—was constitutional. According to Lee, the discourse of what it meant to be Chinese was influential to the definition of what it meant to be black, as both opinions adjudicated the placement of black bodies on a black–white racial binary through the figure of the Chinese. Naming the Plessy case as “the document that most dramatically reveals the ways that the figure of the Negro and the Asiatic were intertwined in this period” (42), Lee suggests in the rest of her book that 1896 was significant in not only instituting segregation but also inaugurating a particular brand of misreading. And this common misreading about the Plessy case has glossed over and continues to make invisible what she calls “encounters” between African Americans and Asians during this time, encounters wrought by the complexities of the historical moment following black emancipation and enfranchisement, as well as labor migrations from Asia.

Interracial Encounters demonstrates that not accounting for the significance of Chineseness in how blackness was defined in the Plessy case had a critical role in how race was understood in the United States for much of the twentieth century. In this way, Lee’s close reading of the Plessy case speaks to her book’s methodological interventions. It shows the importance of literary studies in not just historical analyses of texts that have been read heretofore as concerning only blacks and whites but also Afro-Asian critique. As part of a vibrant and rising field of study that teases out Afro-Asian connections and disconnections, Lee’s book makes clear why many of its proponents are Asian Americanists whose approach to critical race studies is shaped by their understanding of the vicissitudes and contradictions of the Asian racial form in the United States. Quite simply, the reading practice developed in Lee’s book is original and insightful, and it brings to light figures and forms in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literatures that have often been rendered as insignificant nonpresence unrelated to other racialized figures.

With a deep interest in writing a “historicizing project” (9), Lee points to a wide-ranging archive of minstrel show sheet music, political cartoons, and films, as well as literature, to explain that African Americans and Asians were the most rampantly compared minority groups in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also writes that the process of racializing the two groups was mutually constitutive and essential in the creation of the “fantasy of modern American identity” (21). Despite this, Lee argues that if and when they are remembered together in this period, they are seen as either antagonistic opposites or natural allies bonded together in solidarity based on shared experience of discrimination, violence, and exclusion. Against this way of thinking, Lee argues that we need to study not just the hegemonic ways in which blackness and Asianness became meaningful but also the ways in which African American and Asian American literatures contributed to and challenged the process of racial meaning making.

As such, save for one substantive chapter that explores the representations of African Americans and Asians in dominant popular culture from the Reconstruction period to the early twentieth century, all of the book’s chapters call attention to the formal strategies of literary texts by wide-ranging authors of color such as Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Nella Larsen, Edith Eaton, Winnifred Eaton, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Younghill Kang. Lee’s focus on these texts and authors decenters whiteness as ostensibly the a priori authentic embodiment of citizenship into which minority groups were trying to assimilate. In turn, the texts decenter the nation as a privileged site of identification as they underscore the “multilateral nature of racial encounters” (43).

Certain parts of the book illustrate just how complex and ambitious Lee…

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Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 (review) [Sheffer]

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States on 2013-04-20 20:15Z by Steven

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 (review) [Sheffer]

MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.
Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 2012
DOI: 10.1353/mel.2012.0061
pages 203-205

Jolie A. Sheffer,  Associate Professor, English and American Culture Studies
Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio

Julia H. Lee’s Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 offers new insights on how African American and Asian American identities were defined in relation to one another during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. As Lee explains, the book seeks to show how “American identity emerges from the interplay between the fantasies of the ‘Negro Problem’ and the ‘Yellow Peril’” (5). Lee focuses on iconic texts and court cases, as well as lesser-known novels, memoirs, and films in order to show how widely the trope of interracial encounter traveled, and how varied were its permutations.

Interracial Encounters follows from a recent wave of works committed to comparative and interethnic analysis, such as Vijay Prashad’s Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity (2001), Heike Raphael-Hernandez and Shannon Steen’s edited collection AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics (2006), Caroline Rody’s The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (2009), and Cathy J. Schlund-Vials’s Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing (2011). These books continue the ground-breaking work of Werner Sollors and Elizabeth Ammons to see patterns across ethnic literary traditions while carefully attending to the particular ways American ethnic and racial identities have been negotiated in relationship to other minority groups. Lee maintains the specificity of each group’s experiences in the United States and offers an important contribution to the study of American racial formation.

Lee makes coherent sense out of the complex and contradictory laws, court cases, and racial ideologies of the period she analyzes. Her re-reading of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is particularly impressive, providing a powerful contribution to the scholarship of this pivotal court case while also shedding new light on its influence on literature and culture. Interracial Encounters does not oversimplify or selectively celebrate scenes of inter-racial solidarity; instead, Lee shows the “multiple logics of exclusion”  that were deployed in the period (5). While she provides ample evidence of cross-racial identification, she also illustrates the pattern of one group demanding inclusion at the expense of the other. Interracial Encounters reveals the tensions and alliances between Asian Americans and African Americans, as well as these groups’ shifting relationship to normative whiteness. For example, her readings of the films The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Cheat (1915) illustrate the contradictory ways African American and Asian American racialization appeared in popular cultural texts.

Lee is attuned to the complexity in how racial ideologies affect minority populations whose rights were (and still are) unevenly recognized and enforced. As she notes, “an American national identity was natural, desirable, universal—and utterly impossible for African Americans and Asians to attain” (10). While underscoring the US historical context for African American and Asian American literary production, Lee also traces the transnational and at times post-national implications of Afro-Asian encounters. Racial ideologies travel beyond the nation’s borders, particularly in this period when the US became a global superpower.

The introduction lays out Lee’s major claims and the theoretical concepts undergirding her work. Chapter Two contextualizes Asian American and African American racialization in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, particularly through the spatialization of the segregated train car, a site central to Plessy v. Ferguson. Chapter Three continues the discussion of segregated train travel by analyzing key scenes in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and Wu Tingfang’s memoir America, through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (1914).

Chapter Four addresses the transnational and imperial dimensions of racialization and orientalism as illustrated by the writings of the Anglo-Chinese-Canadian-American sisters Winnifred Eaton (Onoto Watanna) and Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far). By studying their fiction and nonfiction set in the US and Jamaica, Lee shows the women’s competing strategies for asserting their status as representative Americans. Edith Eaton depicts Asian Americans and African Americans (and Afro-Caribbeans)…

Read or purchase the article here.

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Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-03-06 20:05Z by Steven

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

New York University Press
October 2011
228 pages
Hardcover ISBN: 9780814752555
Paper ISBN: 9780814752562

Julia H. Lee, Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies
University of Texas, Austin

2013 Honorable Mention, Asian American Studies Association’s prize in Literary Studies

Why do black characters appear so frequently in Asian American literary works and Asian characters appear in African American literary works in the early twentieth century? Interracial Encounters attempts to answer this rather straightforward literary question, arguing that scenes depicting Black-Asian interactions, relationships, and conflicts capture the constitution of African American and Asian American identities as each group struggled to negotiate the racially exclusionary nature of American identity.

In this nuanced study, Julia H. Lee argues that the diversity and ambiguity that characterize these textual moments radically undermine the popular notion that the history of Afro-Asian relations can be reduced to a monolithic, media-friendly narrative, whether of cooperation or antagonism. Drawing on works by Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Younghill Kang, Interracial Encounters foregrounds how these reciprocal representations emerged from the nation’s pervasive pairing of the figure of the “Negro” and the “Asiatic” in oppositional, overlapping, or analogous relationships within a wide variety of popular, scientific, legal, and cultural discourses. Historicizing these interracial encounters within a national and global context highlights how multiple racial groups shaped the narrative of race and national identity in the early twentieth century, as well as how early twentieth century American literature emerged from that multiracial political context.


  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The “Negro Problem” and the “Yellow Peril”: Early Twentieth-Century America’s Views on Blacks and Asians
  • 3. Estrangement on a Train: Race and Narratives of American Identity in The Marrow of Tradition and America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat
  • 4. The Eaton Sisters Go to Jamaica
  • 5. Quicksand and the Racial Aesthetics of Chinoiserie
  • 6. Nation, Narration, and the Afro-Asian Encounter in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess and Younghill Kang’s East Goes West
  • 7. Coda
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • About the Author
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