Academic journal article MELUS

Decoding Essentialism: Cultural Authenticity and the Black Bourgeoisie in Nella Larsen's Passing

Academic journal article MELUS

Decoding Essentialism: Cultural Authenticity and the Black Bourgeoisie in Nella Larsen's Passing

Article excerpt

[T]he Negro is not born per se but reborn out of the detritus of American racialism. It is not so much a matter of deracination as re-racination, the production of the Negro as a marker of the universal and the cosmopolitan such that even the 'whitest' individual (the mulatto) might proudly proclaim, 'I am a Negro American.'

--Robert Reid-Pharr

"Cosmopolitan Afrocentric Mulatto Intellectual" (52)

Adrian Piper's 1992 essay "Passing for White, Passing for Black" recounts her experiences as a self-identified African American woman with "white" skin, and the resultant alienation from both whites and blacks which she has experienced throughout her life. At one point in the essay, she describes what she calls the "Suffering Test of blackness" (236), administered by primarily working-class, darker-skinned blacks, who "recount at length their recent experiences of racism and then wait expectantly, skeptically, for me to match theirs with mine" (236). Piper's initial compliance with these expectations is based on the assumption that these acquaintances hoped to bond via shared experience, but she soon discovers otherwise:

   I realized I was in fact being put through a third degree. I would
   share some equally nightmarish experience along similar lines, and
   would then have it explained to me why that wasn't really so bad,
   why it wasn't the same thing at all, or why I was stupid for
   allowing it to happen to me. So the aim of these conversations was
   clearly not mutual support or commiseration. (236)

Piper's fair skin here provides, for some blacks, evidence of her racial inauthenticity; her experience of racism as a "white-looking" black person, rather than indicating her similarity to other blacks, instead is dismissed as inevitably less severe or is used to mark her as foolhardy for willingly subjecting herself to such treatment.

Piper recounts an entirely different experience with middleclass blacks, however. Noting that it wasn't until her college years that she "reencountered the middle- and upper-middle-class blacks who were as comfortable with [her] appearance as [her] family had been" (238), Piper goes on to suggest that this group of blacks had an entirely different reaction to and attitude towards her racial identity: "Suffering Test exchanges almost never occur with middle-class blacks, who are more likely to protest, on the contrary, that 'we always knew you were black!'--as though there were some mysterious and inchoate essence of blackness that only other blacks have the antennae to detect" (238). Interspersing a quote from Frances Harper's 1893 novel, Iola Leroy, in which a white Southerner claims that "tricks of the blood" betray white-looking blacks to a practiced (white) eye, Piper implicitly aligns these inclusive assertions on the part of middle-class blacks with exclusionary statements made by racist whites near the turn of the twentieth century, when hysteria about miscegenation and interracial proximity was reaching its peak in the South. (1)

Piper's juxtaposition of these two parallel assertions suggests that both are based in an erroneous assumption about black homogeneity, the presupposition of "an essentializing stereotype into which all blacks must fit"--while in fact, as she goes on to insist, "no blacks, and particularly no African American blacks, fit any such stereotype" (238). For Piper, then, middle-class blacks who claim an innate ability to recognize her otherwise invisible blackness are not only as caught up in restrictive stereotype as are working-class blacks who assume that Piper could not possibly be "really" black because of her light skin, but they are also as limited as racist whites, relying upon an overly narrow understanding of blackness in order to situate white-skinned blacks like Piper within the group. Indeed, Piper's inclusion of the quote from Iola Leroy in her discussion of middle-class blacks implies that this stereotypical assumption about blackness is based in not just cultural but biological essentialism: middle-class blacks claim a special ability to see how Piper's body is physically "marked" by her race in the same way that the novel's racist Southerner claims the ability to see the "tricks of blood" which "always betray" the passing mulatto. …

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