Academic journal article African American Review

Not Black And/or White: Reading Racial Difference in Heliodorus's Ethiopica and Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood

Academic journal article African American Review

Not Black And/or White: Reading Racial Difference in Heliodorus's Ethiopica and Pauline Hopkins's of One Blood

Article excerpt

In the ancient Greek novel Ethiopica, written by Heliodorus sometime in the fourth century A.D., a portrait of the mythical Andromeda figures prominently: When the Ethiopian princess Charicleia is born resembling the white-skinned Andromeda of the portrait, rather than her black parents, the queen, fearful that her husband will think her an adulteress, gives up her infant daughter and tells everyone that she has died. [1] The reader's response to this cover-up is complicated by knowing that Andromeda was herself an Ethiopian princess, and so she, too, should have been black. How are we to interpret her whiteness here? One explanation is that the Andromeda myth has two divergent settings--Asiatic and African. [2] Thus, the conflicting representations of Andromeda in ancient art and literature--is she black or white?--derive from competing claims about her origin; in a sense, she is both black and white. Charicleia, in turn, is herself defined in terms of apparent oppositions--black/white, princess/slave, siste r/wife, woman/goddess, Greek/Ethiopian--her identity a riddle which it is the work of the plot to (re)solve.

Werner Sollors has suggested that Greek tragedy's "themes of obscure origins and interfamilial strife" influenced the interracial literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (244). I want to extend this observation to argue that Heliodorus's account of Charicleia's multiplicity and the interpretive anxiety that it generates both for her fellow characters and for readers finds eloquent resonance in the African-American feminist novel, notably in the fictional representation of the mulatta/o. Embodying racial difference, the mulatta's visible whiteness destabilized categories of white and black by emphasizing that "racial barriers were indeed artificially constructed and imposed" (Brooks 124). After all, observes Elaine Ginsberg, "when 'race' is no longer visible, it is no longer intelligible: if 'white' can be 'black,' what is white?" (16). In a culture obsessed with being able to "tell" one race from another, the mulatta was a source of anxiety, particularly if she chose not to "tell," and to (tres)p ass as white. Sollors warns, however, against accepting unquestioningly the fictional stereotype of the "Tragic Mulatto," for by "thus devaluing much nineteenth-century interracial literature we may also be supporting racial essentialism, or advocating as 'normal' a view of the world that divides people first of all into 'black' and 'white'--and hence ridicules intermediary categories as 'unreal' "(242). Furthermore, this liminality may be double-edged, a source of empowerment as well as disempowerment: "In its interrogation of the essentialism that is the foundation of identity politics, passing has the potential to create a space for creative self-determination and agency: the opportunity to construct new identities, to experiment with multiple subject positions, and to cross social and economic boundaries that exclude or oppress" (Ginsberg 16).

One African-American feminist writer who insistently probed "questions of inheritance and heritage" through fictional depictions of mixed race characters, racial intermarriage, and passing was Pauline Hopkins (Carby 162). A remarkable woman whose talents included theatre and music as well as literature, Hopkins carried on a literary career which took place almost entirely within her brief tenure (1900-1904) at The Colored American Magazine. In her capacity as editor and writer, she published four novels, as well as numerous short stories and essays. Hopkins's "agitationist politics" proved, however, too provocative (Gabler-Hover 237). While officially leaving her job for health reasons, she was effectively fired, contends Elizabeth Ammons, because "certain of her literary practices, such as the portrayal of racially mixed marriages, were too radical for white readers and, even more instrumental, because [of] her refusal to endorse Booker T. Washington's accommodationist policies," in the wake of his supporter s' takeover of the magazine (Ammons 85). …

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.