Race Passing and American Individualism

Race Passing and American Individualism

Race Passing and American Individualism

Race Passing and American Individualism

Synopsis

A literary study of the ambiguities of racial identity in American culture

Excerpt

The most climactic scenes in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) show heroic blacks escaping slavery by disguising their race, nationality, class, and gender. The noble George Harris successfully frees himself from a brutal master by dressing as a Spanish gentleman, after “[a] little walnut bark made [his] yellow skin a genteel brown”; his dark skin tone is then accented with hair dyed black (182). Later, in a chapter suggestively titled “Liberty, ” his wife Eliza, already light enough to pass for white without needing cosmetics, cuts her hair as short as a man's and assumes coarse body language so that she and George appear to be “fellow” traveling companions. Their son Harry becomes little “Harriet, ” a girl accompanying the benevolent Quaker, Mrs. Smyth, disguised as “her” aunt (545–47). Five years after the Harris's deliverance, Cassy dresses as a Spanish Creole lady, accompanied by Emmeline, who, as her servant, enhances her appearance as “a lady of consideration” (597). The disguises are successful and the group live out their days in Montreal, free and happy. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, passing clearly condemns American society as hypocritical, for it is only through passing and leaving the United States that the characters find the personal and political independence promised in the mythology of American identity. When George explains his decision to move to Africa at the novel's conclusion, he evokes nationhood, civic potential, and selfdetermination. “I have no wish to pass for an American, or to identify myself with them, ” he argues, and this critique of American racial hypocrisy cannot be overlooked (608). George, Eliza, Harry, Cassy—all highly refined, noble, moral, and intelligent characters—achieve legal freedom and personal independence by passing and, most pointedly, by leaving the United States.

In Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), however, light-skinned characters who might benefit from passing consciously choose not to pass; instead, they embrace their black identities as a means to freedom. To be black in Iola Leroy is to be special and distinct, and it brings a moral . . .

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