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

Article excerpt

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. …