Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction: From Faulkner to Morrison

By Bishop, Katherine | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction: From Faulkner to Morrison


Bishop, Katherine, Philological Quarterly


Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction: From Faulkner to Morrison by John N. Duvall. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2008. Pp. xix + 194. $89.

Circumnavigating social, cultural, and normative privilege and their effects in works by notable white Southern authors such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, John Barth, and Dorothy Allison, in addition to discussing counterpoints by Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed, John Duvall deeply delves into the intersection of critical race studies, literary examinations, and regional literature. Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction is centered upon the idea of playing as in addition to in the dark, a nod to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard U. Press, 1992). In her seminal work, Morrison studies canonical white authors' figuration of blackness "in order to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture" (66) and Duvall extends this concept to study white authors' figuration of racially white characters as culturally or socially black.

Arguing that being Caucasian is not the same as being white, the first a scientific and genealogical rather than social term which is easily "overwhelmed by a constellation of cultural values placed on blackness and whiteness" throughout the novels he studies, Duvall prefaces his study with a wish to explore a "metaphysics of class privilege" (60) predicated on "a series of imbricated relations between racial and other forms of otherness, particularly that of gender/sexuality and class" (2). Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction follows characters who unconsciously "racechange" following a deviation from normative standards of class, sexuality, or masculinity and charts the subsequent effects on ideological whiteness. Embodying cultural anxieties and taboos, white characters such as O'Connor's Hazel Motes slip amongst cultural and racial categories of blackness and whiteness to become unknowing "whiteface minstrels" or "artificial Negroes" who enact a cultural performance that observers from a world such as Faulkner's South might expect of those they categorize as racially black.

Duvall argues that the economic rift caused by the mass movement of black labor to the North forged a social shift that stripped poor whites of the tenuous privilege of whiteness when left alone with class. Social hierarchies pushed poor whites to whiteface minstrelsy when tasked with counterbalancing protected shades of privileged Southern whiteness, incisive points which resound most fully when he turns his first term, "diasporic" to the less loaded "uncanny" (11). For the white characters he scrutinizes, this homelessness derives from "a sense of difference from the white self they thought they possessed, which leaves them with a fundamentally changed sense of home" (66). …

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