Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities

Synopsis

In the 1920s, black janitor Sylvester Long reinvented himself as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, and Elizabeth Stern, the native-born daughter of a German Lutheran and a Welsh Baptist, authored the immigrant's narrative ###I Am a Woman -- and a Jew#; in the 1990s, Asa Carter, George Wallace's former speechwriter, produced the fake Cherokee autobiography, ###The Education of Little Tree#. While striking, these examples of what Laura Browder calls ethnic impersonator autobiographies are by no means singular. Over the past 150 years, a number of American authors have left behind unwanted identities by writing themselves into new ethnicities.

Significantly, notes Browder, these ersatz autobiographies have tended to appear at flashpoints in American history: in the decades before the Civil War, when immigration laws and laws regarding Native Americans were changing in the 1920s, and during the civil rights era, for example. Examining the creation and reception of such works from the 1830s through the 1990s -- against a background ranging from the abolition movement and Wild West shows to more recent controversies surrounding blackface performance and jazz music -- Browder uncovers their surprising influence in shaping American notions of identity.

Excerpt

In the history of the United States, slavery most clearly illustrated the clash between the American precept that all men are born free and equal and the reality that race determined class status. Southern apologists for slavery in the antebellum period employed a variety of pseudoscientific and religious theories to point to Africans' suitability as slaves and their inability to hold equal status with whites. On the other hand, many of the horror stories published in abolitionist newspapers centered around cases when the link between blackness and slave status was threatened—when white people were enslaved. I have chosen to start with slave narratives because slavery was, after all, a condition in which race and class status were inextricably linked. in the United States, as Werner Sollors points out, from Puritan times to the present the notion of consent rather than descent has been instrumental in defining Americanness. and yet “the concepts of the self-made man and of Jim Crow had their origins in the same culture at about the same time, whereas aristocratic societies had no need for either. … It was not the . . .

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