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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Fixing the Color Line: The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity

Posted in Articles, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Law, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2010-03-08 19:36Z by Steven

Fixing the Color Line: The Mulatto, Southern Courts, and Racial Identity

American Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 3 (September 2001)
pages 420-451
E-ISSN: 1080-6490
Print ISSN: 0003-0678
DOI: 10.1353/aq.2001.0033

Teresa Zackodnik, Professor of English
University of Alberta, Canada

In July 1857 Abby Guy sued for her freedom and that of her four children in an Arkansas court. The court records state that Abby Guy had been supporting herself and her children by farming and selling her own crops. The Guy family “passed as free persons”: Abby’s oldest daughter “boarded out” so that she could attend school, and the family “visited among white folks, and went to church, parties, etc.,–[such that one] should suppose they were white.”  Following these accounts of where and how the Guys lived, the court required that the family be presented for physical inspection by the jury, which was to base its decision of whether Abby Guy and her children were black or white, slave or free, on their appearance as well as on any testimony offered: “Here the plaintiffs were personally presented in Court, and the judge informed the jury that they… should treat their… inspection of plaintiffs’ persons as evidence.”  Following their evidentiary “inspection” of the Guy family, the jury was told that the Guys had lived as “free persons” in Arkansas since 1844. In 1855 they moved to Louisiana where a Mr. Daniel “took possession of them as slaves” roughly two years later, claiming that Abby Guy “came with . . . [him] from Alabama to Arkansas” as his slave.  Witnesses for Daniel testified that Abby’s mother, Polly, was said to have been “a shade darker than Abby,” such that they “could not say whether Polly was of African or Indian extraction.”…

Read or purchase the article here.

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The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-09-01 04:01Z by Steven

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race

University Press of Mississippi
272 pages
bibliography, index
ISBN: 157806676X (9781578066766)

Teresa C. Zackodnik, Professor of English
University of Alberta, Canada

An analysis of how black women used the mulatta figure to contest racial barriers.

From abolition through the years just before the civil rights struggle began, African American women recognized that a mixed-race woman made for a powerful and, at times, very useful figure in the battle for racial justice.

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race traces many key instances in which black women have wielded the image of a racially mixed woman to assault the color line.  In the oratory and fiction of black women from the late 1840s through the 1950s, Teresa C. Zackodnik finds the mulatta to be a metaphor of increasing potency.

Before the Civil War white female abolitionists created the image of the “tragic mulatta,” caught between races, rejected by all. African American women put the mulatta to diverse political use.  Black women used the mulatta figure to invoke and manage American and British abolitionist empathy and to contest racial stereotypes of womanhood in the postbellum United States.  The mulatta aided writers in critiquing the “New Negro Renaissance” and gave writers leverage to subvert the aims of mid-twentieth-century mainstream American culture.

The Mulatta and the Politics of Race focuses on the antislavery lectures and appearances of Ellen Craft and Sarah Parker Remond, the domestic fiction of Pauline Hopkins and Frances Harper, the Harlem Renaissance novels of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, and the little-known 1950s texts of Dorothy Lee Dickens and Reba Lee.  Throughout, the author discovers the especially valuable and as yet unexplored contributions of these black women and their uses of the mulatta in prose and speech.

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