Academic journal article African American Review

Fading to White, Fading Away: Biracial Bodies in Michelle Cliff's Abeng and Danzy Senna's Caucasia

Academic journal article African American Review

Fading to White, Fading Away: Biracial Bodies in Michelle Cliff's Abeng and Danzy Senna's Caucasia

Article excerpt

However dissimilar individual bodies are, the compelling idea of common, racially indicative bodily characteristics offers a welcome short-cut into the favored forms of solidarity and connection, even if they are effectively denied by divergent patterns in life chances and everyday experiences.--Paul Gilroy, Against Race (25)

the invisible in me is counter to the visible.--Michelle Cliff, "The Black Woman As Mulatto" (12)

Michelle Cliff's Abeng (1986) and Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998) typify a recent literary uptrend: a dramatic increase in biracial fiction, memoir, and theory, in biracial discourses of passing, invisibility, and identity. Abeng, which received widespread critical acclaim, and Caucasia, the winner of numerous 1998 "Best Book" awards, introduce characters whose mixed race parentage holds true for a growing number of multiracial Americans. (1) Both novels offer biracial characters who resist racial labels while staying especially connected to "blackness." In Abeng and Caucasia, respectively, the white bodies of Clare Savage and Birdie Lee misrepresent identities that remain ascribed to, yet not confined by, "blackness."

The sharp rise of interracial marriages in the US parallels a growing number of multiracial organizations committed to promoting "a positive awareness of interracial and multicultural identity" (AMEA). (2) Many of these multiracial organizations have attracted criticism for disassociating themselves from minority issues and concerns. Their lobbying for a multiracial category on the 2000 Census, for example, perturbed many African Americans who suspected that "multiracial" was really an escape from "black." (3) Negative criticism notwithstanding, many mixed race people who express a desire to live beyond the confines of race categories politicize a multiracial identity that obscures blackness. Opposed to this kind of identification are mixed race individuals who--suspicious of the elitism associated with projecting a biracial identity--advance a black subjectivity. Yet, a distinct third group, increasingly represented by biracial writers who embrace a biracial subjectivity, remains inextricably linked to a black history and social past. (4) In her autobiography, Rebecca Walker writes, "I am tired of claiming for claiming's sake, hiding behind masks of culture, creed, religion." She continues, "My blood is made from water and so it is bloodwater that I am made of, and so it is a constant empathic link with others which claims me not only carefully drawn lines of relation. I exist somewhere between black and white, family and friend" (320). Refusing any entrapment in "siding" with received notions of "blackness" and "whiteness," Walker resists racial binaries, and offers an alternative to reading biracial individuals in opposing racial extremes, a practice repeated in history, literature, and popular cultural discussions of mixed race identity. (5)

Late 19th- and turn-of-the-20TH-century "mulatto" characters developed by African American authors were often tragic or one-dimensional. Two prominent examples are Rena Walden, who passes for white and dies tragically in Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900), and the eponymous heroine of Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy (1893), whose white identity radically changes when she discovers that her mother is black and then uniformly accepts blackness. By contrast, Abeng's Clare Savage and Caucasia's Birdie Lee want to be seen as young women of color despite others' attempts to bleach their pasts, presents, and futures. Unlike another of their fictional predecessors, Helga Crane of Nellie Larsen's Quicksand (1928), Clare and Birdie are not frustrated by flawed choices; rather, their frustration results from other people's expectations, which always derive from the whiteness of Clare's and Birdie's bodies. Clare wants her father to acknowledge her mother's blackness and Clare's own mixed race heritage, while Birdie struggles to balance being "black and proud" with connecting to her white mother's heritage. …

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