Academic journal article African American Review

Face Value: Ambivalent Citizenship in Iola Leroy

Academic journal article African American Review

Face Value: Ambivalent Citizenship in Iola Leroy

Article excerpt

From the moment of its initial publication in 1892, Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted has experienced a decidedly ambiguous critical reception. In William Still's introduction to the second edition of the novel, for example, the famed abolitionist records his doubts over Harper's decision to write "'a story' on some features of the Anglo-African race, growing out of what was once popularly known as the 'peculiar institution.'" Still worries that in focusing on mixed-race characters, "one of the race, so long distinguished in the cause of freedom" risks "[making] a blunder which might detract from her own good name." While he ultimately praises Harper's achievement, Still tells us that "it was far from being easy for [him] to think that she was as fortunate as she might have been in selecting a subject which would afford her the best opportunity for bringing out a work of merit and lasting worth to the race" (1).

The scholarship on Iola Leroy tends to echo Still's concerns. Approving early critics suggested that the book's apparent celebration of white bourgeois values signals a successful (and desirable) cultural assimilation, a perspective reconfigured in modern analyses of the novel that view black adoption of such ideologies as inherently subversive within the cultural context of the nineteenth century. By contrast, readers critical of the book see it as too invested in value systems that, until Emancipation, had typically oppressed black communities. (1) Tellingly, both analytical perspectives share a tendency to read the novel primarily in terms of its relationship to white culture. Scholarship on Iola Leroy (on both sides of the debate) thus often relies on a number of shared assumptions about political activism, racial solidarity, and civic enfranchisement; and perhaps even more significantly, this body of criticism generally assumes that Harper's relationship to ideologies of racial uplift is unambiguously positive. (2)

In this essay, I want to suggest that such paradigms minimize the full scope of Harper's argument. I am particularly interested in how the novel's thematic rejection of racial passing offers one way to reevaluate its apparent investment in ideologies of racial uplift. On the surface, the novel positions passing negatively; to affirm their loyalties to the race, its black characters refuse to pass as white. But in this refusal of passing, and its corresponding lessons on the ways that visibility and knowledge do not always neatly correspond, the book calls our attention to other sites of cultural (and critical) misrecognition. We might read passing in the novel, then, as both theme and interpretive method, as a paradigm that allows us to acknowledge those aspects of the book we may not otherwise see.

In its attention to the complex cultural position of black identity in the postbellum era, Iola Leroy not only records African Americans' hope for social equality following Reconstruction but also delineates the unspoken value systems that characterize democratic citizenship. By implicitly considering what (and who) may be overlooked in uplift's attempts to empower black communities, the novel chronicles some of the specific intracultural consequences of civic enfranchisement. The book's engagement with issues of ideological representation thus extends beyond black-white relations to examine how black society defines itself after Emancipation. In this respect, the book seems less a roadmap for the future of the race than it does an examination of the processes by which such roadmaps are created--offering an analysis whose social and cultural repercussions require not only a reevaluation of Harper's relationship to hegemonic ideologies, but also a reassessment of our contemporary paradigms for minority identity and their attendant political concerns. Iola Leroy, in other words, may be much more than the novel we think it is.

From its first pages, Iola Leroy engages the dynamics of social passing. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.