Academic journal article MELUS

Staged Bodies: Passing, Performance, and Masquerade in Charles W. Chesnutt's the House Behind the Cedars

Academic journal article MELUS

Staged Bodies: Passing, Performance, and Masquerade in Charles W. Chesnutt's the House Behind the Cedars

Article excerpt

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., claims that "one of the ironies" of the New Negro Movement "is that words, not the tactics of visual representation, were the tools blacks used to assert their self-image" (xliv). While we can point to exceptions that complicate this observation--James Van Der Zee's photography, Archibald Motley's paintings, or W. E. B. Du Bois's photographic collection Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U. S. A. (1900)--Gates identifies an important gap in the history of African American self-imaging. What happens, however, when we open up Gates's terms to examine how authors using words might simultaneously employ "tactics of visual representation"? These written and visual representational modes are not easily or neatly separated. In fact, early African American literature regularly combined them. The first African American novelists creatively integrated these methods of representation in their texts, strategically dismantling racist visual iconography by developing an ocular language that invited consumers of their fiction not just to read their words but also to see the images those words conjured. This practice became even more prevalent during the New Negro Movement, particularly in passing novels that sought to embody mixed-race characters for socio-political purposes. This essay thus revises Gates's claim that "until the 1920s there was virtually no black counterpoint to the hegemony of racist visual images that dominated the popular arts and more subtly infiltrated the fine arts" (xliv). Authors of the written word were developing a specific language, a visual discourse that sought to topple the hegemony Gates describes.

Visual discourse builds on the practice of "word painting" that dominated US realist writing by the turn of the twentieth century. Edith Wharton identifies word painting as highly descriptive language that "help[s] to make [a character] bodily visible" (485). While not the only tool available for "conferring visibility" to "the reader's mind" (484), the artist's brush, when applied to the written page, aided realists who sought to convey an "acute visibility which makes the [reader's] heart throb and the marrow tingle at the flesh-and-blood aliveness" of literary characters (481). Word painting facilitates the textual or readerly gaze; it encourages the reader to picture or see a character.

Authors deploying visual discourse certainly rely on evocative word painting, but they push beyond descriptive language into a more complex discursive register. They emphasize ocularity by consciously staging their descriptions. For example, when William Wells Brown provides his first portrait of the eponymous heroine in Clotel, Or, The President's Daughter (1853)--describing her creamy skin, "her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful" (47)--he embeds it within a framework that underscores the act of looking. Specifically, Clotel is on the auction block, being inspected by a crowd of potential buyers. In this passage, which the narrator explicitly refers to as a "scene" (48), the straightforward description of Clotel, or what Wharton calls the "vivid picturing" (485) of a character, functions within a layered linguistic system that both relies on and foregrounds the mediated gaze. Fictional characters within the novel look at Clotel, and readers look along with them.

Moreover, authors exploiting visual discourse often allude to--and sometimes rework the codes of--traditional visual and performing arts such as painting and theater, photography, and, by the early twentieth century, silent film. Another early text, Julia C. Collins's The Curse of Caste; Or The Slave Bride (1865), provides an informative illustration of how this practice functions to generate the textual gaze. In the ekphrastic veiled portrait scenes of the novel, readers behold Richard rendered as art: his haunting face dominates the vivid oil painting, which appears "lifelike and breathing" (57). …

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