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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“Suddenly and Shockingly Black”: The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2011-07-12 02:43Z by Steven

“Suddenly and Shockingly Black”: The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction

African American Review
Volume 41, Number 1 (Spring, 2007)
pages 51-66

J. Michael Duvall, Associate Professor of English
College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

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

From at least the Civil War through the Harlem Renaissance, black and white authors alike regularly imagined interracial babies who grew lighter-skinned with each generation: the greater the proportion of white ancestry, the less obvious are signs of black ancestry. These writers thus follow the common understanding of racial interbreeding as tending toward, in Stephen Jay Gould’s parlance, “a ‘blending’ or smooth mixture and dilution of traits” (24). The “natural grandson of a Southern lady, in whose family his mother had been a slave,” Harper writes, “the blood of a proud aristocratic ancestry was flowing through his veins, and generations of blood admixture had effaced all traces of his negro lineage” (239). The blending, mixing, and dilution of African features of interracial characters occur across a wide swath of late 19th-century American fiction and answer to a wide variety of purposes, from the reconciliationist fiction of Lydia Maria Child, whose Romance of the Republic (1867) offers a model of national reconstruction in two generations of loving, moral, interracial couples who have white-skinned children, to the white supremacist tales of Thomas Dixon, whose The Clansman (1905) reifies the myth of the lascivious and tempting nature of black women via their whitened interracial offspring. And, of course, this blending model also creates the conditions for a staple trope of much white and African American fiction of the late nineteenth century and onward: racial passing.

 Yet if the fiction of the time features this “amalgamation” model of heredity as embodied by Latimer (as well as Iola and her brother Harry), it also sees the emergence of a countervailing discourse of interracial heredity the specific effect of which throws a wrench into the mechanics of passing. In Iola Leroy, the eponymous heroine warns the white Dr. Gresham, her first suitor, that should they marry and procreate, her race could be revealed by an “unmistakeab[ly]” black child (117). An undeniable “throw-back” to a black racial past, such a child would result from the supposed process of “atavism” (in Latin, “a great grandfather’s grandfather”). Submerged racial features were believed to skip generations only to recur farther down the family line, rupturing a smooth hereditary narrative of blending and exposing the parent’s “true” race, always black and never white. In many novels and stories, atavism remains only a threat. However, in texts we examine below, atavistic children are actually born. These children range in appearance from simply showing signs of color to manifesting a monstrous, ape-like form, the fancied evidence of a supposed profound and irremediable racial pollution.

We argue specifically that the actual birth of grotesquely atavistic children in fiction, suddenly appearing at the turn of the twentieth century, is both historically bound and distinctly gendered: such children were usually the product of black male/white female sexual relationships that were seen by many whites as particularly threatening to white hegemonies at the historical moment. Various turn-of-the-20th-century authors use racial atavism, structured through a logic of contamination, to consolidate racial identity, maintain the color line, or bolster white supremacist discourse. The unidirectional logic of racial contamination, common throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, fueled white racist propaganda for maintaining distinct racial categories and white hegemonies: black blood, once introduced into a family line, could be diluted, but never removed. Such mongrelization, white supremacists feared, would eventually lead to the disintegration of the white family and, consequently, the white nation. Framing these atavistic children or the threat of their appearance against their more common cousins, the light or white-skinned mulatto figure, we thus argue that they function as a dire warning both to black men of any shade and to white women whose wombs white men needed “uncontaminated” to (re)produce a white nation.

The idea of an apparently other-raced child, Werner Sollors tells us in an indispensable chapter of Neither White Nor Black Yet Both (1997), goes back to antiquity, during which an other-raced child was thought to prove adultery or, alternatively, to figure as a true wonder. In this ancient cultural setting, atavism could result in either a black or white child: such a child might be Natus AEthiopus, a black child birthed by white-appearing parents, or Natus Albus, a white child birthed by seemingly black parents. With one parodic exception, we find no instances of Natus Albus in the fiction of the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century. (1) Furthermore, according to Sollors, with the advent of a species model of race, the nineteenth century marks a change in attitude toward the idea of Natus AEthiopus, which he summarizes in his chapter’s closing discussion of Robert Lee Durham’s novel, The Call of the South (1900):

In the hands of a racialist radical, the Natus AEthiopus changed into the white horror of horrors. Underneath the Gothic machinery, however, one … recognizes the issues of the past in their transformation: atavism explains a child’s color, but in a cultural context in which it could be asserted that black and white must never be related in a family structure. Wonder is replaced with horror … ; adultery seems to have completely disappeared [as an explanation for atavism]; “essential” racial difference cuts even fully legalized family relations…. (66)

 The present essay builds on Sollors’s work by investigating what, aside from the species-inflected racial science and thinking that he identifies, lies behind this shift from wonder to horror, at the end of the nineteenth century. What, more precisely, governs the appearance in American novels of not just unexpected, dark-skinned babies, but grotesquely atavistic ones, and to what ends?…

…That the myth of atavism emerges in a wide range of novels makes sense, given the period’s fixation on the discourses of blood, the idea of racial purity, and the legally entrenched system of segregation, yet the texts that actually produce atavistic children are in fact striking for their rarity. Indeed, the arguably overwhelming presence of light- or white-skinned mixed-race children in interracial fiction, even in those that include the threat of atavism, prompts us to ask what governs the appearance of those few mixed-race infants who actually show black racial traits. We suggest that these children often materialize within particular narrative constructions. Two turn-of-the-century stories, both again involving racial passing and featuring comparatively mild incidents of atavism, suggest that narrative’s contours. In one, Kate Chopin’s widely-read 1893 short story “Desiree’s Baby,” a presumably white woman commits suicide and infanticide, and in the other, Pauline Hopkins’s “Talma Gordon” (1900), a mixed-race woman survives, but her male child dies. (10) In Chopin’s story, Desiree, herself a woman of “obscure origin,” marries Armand, the son of a respected family, only to produce a baby—a son—who has black racial characteristics. Unclear as to what this appearance could possibly mean, she queries her husband, who replies: “it means that you are not white” (176, 179). Befuddled by this revelation since her complexion is lighter in shade than her husband’s, but accepting his judgment against her, Desiree walks into the swamp with her infant, presumably committing infanticide and suicide. The story ends not here, however, but with Armand’s discovery of a letter written to his father from his long-deceased mother, explaining that Armand has black heritage. This discovery reverses the common narrative construct of the white male/black female coupling. Instead, the story offers us a black male/white female pairing that actually produces in very mild form an atavistic (male) child. (11) Pauline E. Hopkins’s short story “Talma Gordon” (1900) also offers a case of a mildly atavistic child. Although the child issues from the more common white male/black female pairing, the child, who has physical characteristics that identify him as having African heritage, is again male. The child dies from disease while still an infant, while his two older, physically white sisters survive. What we begin to see in these two stories of mild atavism is a gender dynamic that further complicates narrative embodiments of grotesquely atavistic children…

…The manner in which individual authors have engaged the trope of the atavistic child—as evidence of an everlasting barrier between the races, as warning not to transgress or pass over the color line, as strategy for solidifying race categories and white hegemonies–suggests that the trope of the atavistic child functions as the bearer of certain kinds of what Jane Tompkins has called cultural work the functional relation of a piece of literature to its immediate historical conditions and the answer to the question “what kind of work is this novel trying to do?” (38). Throughout the nineteenth century, novels that explored “the race question” did significant cultural work by helping to shape our national politics. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps the best-known example of the impact that a novel can have in our cultural imaginary. By the turn of the twentieth century, the novel had perhaps an even greater impact on the public. As Lee Baker explains, “The mass media played an integral role in shoring up the ideological demarcation of the color line. Technological advances and rising literacy rates increased the circulation and decreased the prices of magazines, newspapers, and books. By 1905, stereotypes that had previously been reinforced by folklore or expensive texts were now voraciously consumed by the public in the mass media” (38). The graphic racist novels by whites in the first decade of the twentieth century promulgated negative stereotypes about African Americans, using the atavistic child as a nodal point for articulating the discourses of miscegenation, white supremacy, racial passing, black male/white female sex, the mythic black beast rapist, and lynching. These novels, in essence, reinforced anti-miscegenation sentiment in a particularly unidirectional way to maintain the color line and to deny black civil rights. While white male/black female sex may have been considered immoral–by many people, black and white–it ultimately failed to destabilize cultural hegemonies. Not so with black male/white female sex, which whites considered much more dangerous because it disrupted the reproduction of whiteness. White men, so novels such as Lee’s and Davenport’s conclude, must strenuously guard the white womb against race pollution and perversion, corruptions marked by the birth of a degenerate atavistic child. Punishing black men who dare pollute those wombs works to consolidate whiteness across a North-South regional divide…

….Ironically, women posed one of the greatest dangers to the sanctity of the color line because of their central role in the reproduction of whiteness. White women held the biological key to maintaining and increasing the white race, and thus fortifying white hegemonies because only white women could produce white children. Their race loyalty alone made possible the continuation of white male authority that insured white privilege. If white women’s bodies served as the vessels for reproducing whiteness, they had to remain “pure” from the corrupting taint of blackness. The grotesquely atavistic child that drove its mother to insanity and/or death became a graphic symbol of the punishment of racialized transgression and one that starkly highlights white men’s anxiety over controlling the reproductive powers of white women. Thus, while woman’s importance in cultural production was elevated above other cultural factors, it also remained linked to their racial identity and to their biological role as mother and the age-old attempt to govern female sexuality. The grotesquely atavistic child’s appearance at this moment stems from the same white fear that fueled the industry of lynching in this decade…

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