“Lying about a Lie”: Racial Passing in US History, Literature and Popular Culture

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-11-05 16:07Z by Steven

“Lying about a Lie”: Racial Passing in US History, Literature and Popular Culture

Journal of American Studies
Volume 50, Issue 2 (May 2016)
DOI: 10.1017/S0021875816000219

Sinéad Moynihan, Associate Professor of English
University of Exeter

In June 2015, the parents of Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, claimed that their daughter was passing as black. While she professed to be of mixed (white, African American) racial heritage, her parents asserted that she was of white European descent, with some remote Native American ancestry. The revelations precipitated Dolezal’s resignation from her role at the NAACP and a flurry of articles about the story that were disseminated around the world on Twitter under the “Rachel Dolezal” hashtag.

Much of the media coverage attempted to account for the fact that this story should elicit such impassioned reactions given that race has long been acknowledged as a performance. As Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker, Dolezal had dressed herself in “a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging.” This does not mean that Dolezal “wasn’t lying about who she is.” It means that “she was lying about a lie.” Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Daniel J. Sharfstein pointed out that the kind of passing we saw in Dolezal’s case – passing from white to black; so-called “reverse passing” – was not as historically uncommon as other writers had claimed. What is unusual is that Dolezal should feel the need to pass as black when there were no legal (and comparatively few social) obstacles to her forming “meaningful relationships with African-Americans, study[ing], teach[ing] and celebrat[ing] black history and culture and fight[ing] discrimination.” For Sharfstein, the explanation lies in the fact that “when blackness means something very specific – asserting that black lives matter – it follows for many people that categorical clarity has to matter, too.”

The pervasive media and public interest in the Dolezal story confirms the ongoing fascination with racial passing within and beyond the United States, a popular interest that has its counterpart in the proliferation of academic studies of the subject that have been published in the past twenty years. The scholarly attention paid to racial passing inaugurated, arguably, by Elaine K. Ginsberg in her edited volume Passing and the Fictions of Identity (1996) continues unabated in two recent works on the subject. Julie Cary Nerad’s edited volume Passing Interest is concerned with cultural representations of passing, while Allyson Hobbs’s A Chosen Exile grapples with its history.

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Reviewed Work: Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010 by Nerad, Julie Cary

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-05-27 22:02Z by Steven

Reviewed Work: Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010 by Nerad, Julie Cary

CLA Journal
Volume 61, Number 3 (March 2018)
pages 250-253
DOI: 10.34042/claj.61.3.0250

Sharon L. Jones, Professor of English
Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio

Nerad, Julie Cary. Passing Interest: Racial Passing in Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990-2010. Albany: SUNY Press, 2014. 360pp. ISBN: 9781438452272. $95.00. Hardcover.

Passing Interest. Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990-2010 provides relevant, meaningful information because of its scope and range. Julie Cary Nerad, the editor and the other contributors, should be praised for the book, which features innovative contributions offering new and useful analysis of literature and film from varying critical perspectives. Overall, it serves an important purpose in advancing knowledge, discussion, and debates about different genres and centuries. Ultimately, Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990-2010 promotes a reconsideration of how numerous factors influence literature and popular culture.

In “Preface: The ‘Posts’ of Passing,” Gayle Wald assesses the book in an enlightening and thoughtful manner by drawing upon personal and academic contexts (vii-x). Wald states, “In particular, this book expands upon a rich body of scholarship on passing by exploring recent literary and visual texts produced in an era often referred to as ‘post-racial,’ and by bringing a host of new voices to the scholarly con-versation” (vii). Wald astutely acknowledges the scholarly writings of other authors, and some examples include the following: Barbara Christian, Houston Baker, Valerie Smith, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as well as Werner Sollors (viii). Wald also stresses, “In some ways, the essays in Passing Interest are about the conditions of the possibility of post-ness itself “ (ix). Wald’s approach demonstrates the book’s relevant position in helping potential readers to better understand contemporary and earlier times.

As both editor and contributor, Julie Cary Nerad highlights her careful and meticulous approach to analyzing the book’s topic. In “Introduction: the (Not So) New Face of America,’’ (chapter one) Nerad argues that “ln the United States, race does still matter. Indeed, the concept of race continues to be a fundamental element of identity in America” (5). Nerad identifies several books that are noteworthy including Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture, Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, as well as acknowledging additional scholarship (12). Nerad contends “These works generally read passing texts from early American literature up to the Civil Rights Era” (12). Nerad’s introductory essay then lays a foundation for the idea that Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990-2010 proves distinct from many other books because of its emphasis on analyzing more recent publications (12).

The subsequent chapters offer useful insight or perspectives. For example, the second and third chapters concentrate on nonfiction and present illuminating commentary. In “On the Margins of a Movement: Passing in Three Contemporary…

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Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2014-08-18 02:28Z by Steven

Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010

State University of New York Press
July 2014
352 pages
Hardcover ISBN13: 978-1-4384-5227-2
Electronic ISBN13: 978-1-4384-5229-6

Edited by:

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

Explores how the trope of racial passing continues to serve as a touchstone for gauging public beliefs and anxieties about race in this multiracial era.

The first volume to focus on the trope of racial passing in novels, memoirs, television, and films published or produced between 1990 and 2010, Passing Interest takes the scholarly conversation on passing into the twenty-first century. With contributors working in the fields of African American studies, American studies, cultural studies, film studies, literature, and media studies, this book offers a rich, interdisciplinary survey of critical approaches to a broad range of contemporary passing texts. Contributors frame recent passing texts with a wide array of cultural discourses, including immigration law, the Post-Soul Aesthetic, contemporary political satire, affirmative action, the paradoxes of “colorblindness,” and the rhetoric of “post-racialism.” Many explore whether “one drop” of blood still governs our sense of racial identity, or to what extent contemporary American culture allows for the racially indeterminate individual. Some essays open the scholarly conversation to focus on “ethnic” passers—individuals who complicate the traditional black-white binary—while others explore the slippage between traditional racial passing and related forms of racial performance, including blackface minstrelsy and racial masquerade.

Table of Contents

  • Preface: The “Posts” of Passing / Gayle Wald
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: The (Not So) New Face of America / Julie Cary Nerad
  • 2. On the Margins of Movement: Passing in Three Contemporary Memoirs / Irina Negrea
  • 3. “A Cousin to Blackness”: Race and Identity in Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life / Lynn Washington and Julie Cary Nerad
  • 4. Can One Really Choose? Passing and Self-Identification at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century / Jené Schoenfeld
  • 5. Passing in Blackface: The Intimate Drama of Post-Racialism on Black. White / Eden Osucha
  • 6. Broke Right in Half: Passing of/in Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone / Julie Cary Nerad
  • 7. Passing for Chicano, Passing for White: Negotiating Filipino American Identity in Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son / Amanda Page
  • 8. Race in the Marketplace: Postmodern Passing and Ali G / Ana Cristina Mendes
  • 9. Passing for Black, White, and Jewish: Mixed-Race Identity in Rebecca Walker and Danzy Senna / Lori Harrison-Kahan
  • 10. Smiling Faces: Chameleon Street, Racial Passing/Performativity, and Film Blackness / Michael B. Gillespie
  • 11. Consuming Performances: Race, Media, and the Failure of the Cultural Mulatto in Bamboozled and Erasure / Meredith McCarroll
  • Bibliography
  • Contributor Biographies
  • 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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“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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