The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930

Synopsis

In the United States miscegenation is not merely a subject of literature and popular culture. It is in many ways the foundation of contemporary imaginary community. The Romance of Race examines the role of minority women writers and reformers in the creation of our modern American multiculturalism.

The national identity of the United States was transformed between 1880 and 1930 due to mass immigration, imperial expansion, the rise of Jim Crow, and the beginning of the suffrage movement. A generation of women writers and reformers--particularly women of color--contributed to these debates by imagining new national narratives that put minorities at the center of American identity. Jane Addams, Pauline Hopkins, Onoto Watanna (Winnifred Eaton), Maréa Cristina Mena, and Mourning Dove (Christine Quintasket) embraced the images of the United States--and increasingly the world--as an interracial nuclear family. They also reframed public debates through narratives depicting interracial encounters as longstanding, unacknowledged liaisons between white men and racialized women that produced an incestuous, mixed-race nation.

By mobilizing the sexual taboos of incest and miscegenation, these women writers created political allegories of kinship and community. Through their criticisms of the nation's history of exploitation and colonization, they also imagined a more inclusive future. As Jolie A. Sheffer identifies the contemporary template for American multiculturalism in the works of turn-of-the century minority writers, she uncovers a much more radical history than has previously been considered.

Excerpt

The seeds of this project were planted many years ago, when I took an undergraduate course on nineteenth-century women writers with Julia Stern at Northwestern University. One of our texts was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869), which had been one of my childhood favorites. What struck me upon reencountering the novel was its deep anxiety about immigrants, particularly German and Irish immigrants, who appeared as pathetic wretches and invading hordes. I wanted to know the historical conditions that shaped Alcott’s xenophobia and understand how those attitudes had shifted over the course of a century, making immigration essential to the American story. Having been raised in the Midwest, Irish and German ancestry seemed quintessentially American to me. Who wasn’t Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day? Who didn’t eat bratwurst and potato salad?

My own family history is unremarkable precisely for its conformity to major patterns of U.S. immigration. My father’s family proudly traces its roots to Germany, having come to America in the eighteenth century, fought in the American Revolutionary War, and built lives in Pennsylvania. My mother’s family fled anti-Jewish pogroms in eastern Europe to settle in New York City during the first decade of the twentieth century. As a child, these two versions of the American immigrant story—the Pennsylvania “Dutch” pioneer and the New York Jew—felt like paradigmatic examples of ethnic groups who managed to make better lives for themselves and their families in America. However, even within my own family’s stories, it was apparent that the path toward upward mobility . . .

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