The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature

The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature

The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature

The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature

Synopsis

"How and when does literature most effectively uncover race to be a metaphor? The passing figure, a light-skinned African-American capable and willing to pass for white, provides the thematic focus to this provocative study. In exploring the social and cultural history of this distinctly American phenomenon, Bennett moves freely between literature, film, and music, arguing that the passing figure is crucial to our understanding of past and present conceptions of race." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

"Well she just can't be. Do you suppose I don't know a coloured woman when I see one? I can tell 'em a mile off." (Plum Bun, Jessie Fauset)

In his introduction to Race, Writing, and Difference, Henry Louis Gates reminds us that "[w]hen we speak of 'the white race' or 'the black race,' 'the Jewish race' or 'the Aryan race,' we speak in biological misnomers and, more generally, in metaphors." How and when, we might ask, does literature most effectively uncover race to be a metaphor? What, moreover, is race a metaphor for? Can we recognize its personal, national, local, and legal uses? Are the metaphor-makers themselves in control of meaning? The present study began with questions about the epistemological interests of certain race narratives. What I found was that narratives of passing, those stories involving the dissembling of one race (usually black) as another (usually white), were frequently rich with epistemological questions about race.

Although the passing figure, frequently referred to as a mulatto or tragic mulatto, has commanded some attention from various scholars, this elusive subject still seems hidden in larger studies about representations of race. There have been many articles and chapters on passing, but the subject deserves greater study. With a broader history in mind, The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion in Modern American Literature pursues three interrelated types and representations of passing: 1) the black-to-white passing narrative, beginning with antebellum works and peaking with the literary output of the Harlem Renaissance; 2) the parodic passing of the minstrelsy, but also the less negative and sometimes less obvious forms of racial impersonation or . . .

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