Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African American and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African American and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African American and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African American and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Synopsis

Why do black characters appear so frequently in Asian American literary works and Asian characters appear in African American literary works in the early twentieth century? Interracial Encounters attempts to answer this rather straightforward literary question, arguing that scenes depicting Black-Asian interactions, relationships, and conflicts capture the constitution of African American and Asian American identities as each group struggled to negotiate the racially exclusionary nature of American identity. In this nuanced study, Julia H. Lee argues that the diversity and ambiguity that characterize these textual moments radically undermine the popular notion that the history of Afro-Asian relations can be reduced to a monolithic, media-friendly narrative, whether of cooperation or antagonism. Drawing on works by Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, Nella Larsen, W.E.B.Du Bois, and Younghill Kang, Interracial Encounters foregrounds how these reciprocal representations emerged from the nation's pervasive pairing of the figure of the Negro and the Asiatic in oppositional, overlapping, or analogous relationships within a wide variety of popular, scientific, legal, and cultural discourses. Historicizing these interracial encounters within a national and global context highlights how multiple racial groups shaped the narrative of race and national identity in the early twentieth century, as well as how early twentieth century American literature emerged from that multiracial political context.

Excerpt

In a speech delivered to the Cleveland Council of Sociology in 1906 on the subject of the “problem” of race, Charles Chesnutt describes the nation’s attitude toward African Americans by comparing them to another racial group: “The Negro is a hard pill to swallow. the Chinese we have sought to keep out—the Negro is too big to throw up” (“The Future American,” 248). Chesnutt’s enshrinement in the canon is based in part on his fiction’s nuanced and complex representations of black-white race relations, but this quotation is striking because it suggests that African American identity is structured in part by its relationship to an Asian other. To put it another way, these lines suggest how closely connected African Americans and Asians are to each other, not just in the nation’s mind but within the author’s own. Far from being a straightforward comparison, however, this linkage prompts an ambivalent and even contradictory response from Chesnutt. On the one hand, Chesnutt uses an alimentary metaphor to link black and yellow bodies as foreign objects that the national body politic either refuses to ingest or wishes to “throw up.” His formulation of race relations as a form of both absorption and rejection indicates how deeply and ambivalently embedded the racial other is in the formation of an ego identity, a process that Anne Cheng calls racial melancholia. At the same time, Chesnutt subtly distances the two groups by using the pronoun “we” to describe those who have striven to keep the Chinese out. the distinction Chesnutt makes recognizes the fact that the two groups were often treated in radically different . . .

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