"Suddenly and Shockingly Black": The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction
Duvall, J. Michael, Nerad, Julie Cary, African American Review
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?
Racial atavism surfaces at the end of the nineteenth century as a nodal point in a web of discourses on race. Racial identity was commonly thought to be inherited through the "blood" (or semen as its vehicle). (2) When it came to black blood, late 19th-century white Americans largely held to a model of fluid contamination in which primitive African blood, even in infinitesimal proportion to white blood, pollutes irremediably. (3) While visual signs of black racial identity may not be apparent, a black pollutant still poisons the blood and, moreover, so such thinking goes, an essential black identity will eventually manifest itself in the physical form of an atavistic child. (4) There is a constitutive irony here: the physical markers of race are recognized as unstable, so discourses of blood emerge to vouchsafe identity; these discourses then allow, through atavism, for embodied race to return to the scene. Thus, one can see how the atavistic child myth serves as a powerful addition to anti-miscegenation discourse: a mistaken choice of mate might result, as Joel Williamson puts it, in "the birth of [a] child suddenly and shockingly black" (103).
The belief that atavism would reveal black blood through embodiment (falsely) guaranteed whites some measure of assurance: blacks passing as white would eventually be identified, if not by their actions or physical minutiae, then by their children's skin. The irrepressibility of black blood thus also served as a warning to blacks and to any individuals knowingly contemplating an interracial union. A 1931 article reporting on the eugenic studies of Charles Davenport illustrates how the fear of atavism held the power to constrain interracial marriage within a Jim Crow society and help maintain the color line well into the twentieth century. That is, the fear of atavism serves as both a barrier to would-be miscegenators and a policing agent against potential passers: "The fear of becoming the parent of a distinctively negro child is all that keeps many young octoroons of both sexes from crossing the color line matrimonially; the same fear keeps many young white men from marrying young women to whom they are strongly attracted but who, they have reason to suspect, have a strain of negro blood" (C. Johnson 526). (5) Only the fear of exposure through atavism keeps blacks and whites from marriage and the procreation that would follow.
Stories that engage atavism as a threat (but not as an actual event) often begin with precisely this type of interracial romance: a distinguished white man marries or couples with a light-skinned woman of mixed-race ancestry, sometimes his slave or exslave and sometimes a woman passing as white. These authors, however, specifically invoke atavism as a potential barrier to interracial relationships. The couple would marry but for the disruption and exposure that atavistic progeny would cause. Harper's Iola Leroy (1892) and William Dean Howells's An Imperative Duty (1891) both feature such a use of the threat of atavism, although they mobilize it for distinctly different ends.
Howells's Imperative Duty depicts characters who overtly discuss the possibility of atavism. In a pivotal scene early in the novel, Mrs. Meredith, who has raised her mixed-race niece Rhoda as white, agonizes over her "duty" to reveal Rhoda's "black blood" to a young, rich, white suitor, the Reverend Mr. Bloomingdale. Despite, or perhaps because of, the remoteness of Rhoda's connection to a black relative, she fears that Rhoda's ancestral traits and tendencies might recur in her children. Mrs. Meredith asks the white Dr. Olney, a yet-undeclared suitor for Rhoda, whether he believes in "the persistence of ancestral traits; the transmission of character and tendency; the reappearance of types after several generations" (35-36). Olney is skeptical, responding that cases of atavism are
not so very common, and they're not so very well ascertained.... Take the reversion to the inferior race type in …
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Publication information: Article title: "Suddenly and Shockingly Black": The Atavistic Child in Turn-into-the-Twentieth-Century American Fiction. Contributors: Duvall, J. Michael - Author, Nerad, Julie Cary - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 41. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2007. Page number: 51+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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