The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity

By Sheehy, John | African American Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity


Sheehy, John, African American Review


In this scene from James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the encounter between the young, nameless mulatto boy - who will soon transform into the still nameless "ex-colored man" of the novel's title - and his image in the mirror is both troubling and inconclusive. The boy seeks in this seemingly objective specular image the visible evidence of his identity - a sign or mark which might brand him indisputably as either black or white. He finds instead both "liquid darkness" and "ivory whiteness" contraposed, the blackness of his hair falling over his temples, making his forehead seem "whiter than it really was." In short, for the boy his mirror image is a doubtful proof of his race, as was his former opinion of himself (as white or, more precisely, as blank or without color), or as are the opinions others will later form of him (as white, black, mulatto, etc.). Barred from what for others seems an objective test of identity, the boy is left in a peculiar position: He may choose his race. This choice, of course, is not an uncomplicated one, entailing as it does either the denial of his own history, on one hand, or the acceptance of an unjustifiable but undeniable economic and social subjugation, on the other.

The complex of social, economic, and political considerations involved in this choice - both undergirding it and following from it - are symbolized when the boy looks into the mirror. Does a black man gaze into the looking-glass to find a white man looking back? Or is it the other way around? Johnson never answers these questions, but never stops asking: The question of verifiable and constant identity is as crucial for the white boy in this scene learning that he is "black" as it is, later in the novel, for the black man determined to pass as "white" - and as ambiguous. The passing Negro becomes, in Johnson's novel and in other African American literature of the same period, the conscious, speaking center of what for the rest of the world is a largely unconscious effort to mark the borders of race, class, and self; his struggles with self-definition, with class and race consciousness as both internalized and articulated, are themselves mirrors for the racialized American dialogue of identity that surrounds him. Similar "mirroring" confrontations - both literal and figurative - arise in Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars, another novel in which issues surrounding American racial identity are explored through an examination of the lives of its two "passing" characters, John and Rena Walden. In each of these books, the confrontation between the passing figure and his/her mirror image marks a point at which the enigmatic American dialogue of race is resolved into a single human being, as the complementary notions of alienation and assimilation inherent in that dialogue are balanced on the narrow fulcrum of a constructed and constructing self.

Hall of Mirrors: Lacan and Gates

In order to understand fully the implications of "passing" for identity-formation, it may be useful to examine the passing figure's confrontation with the mirror from two similar, yet distinct, theoretical vantage points: first, from the point of view of Lacan's identity theory, and then from the more racially aware perspective of Henry Louis Gates's theory of "Signification." Certainly, the scene with which I began this essay resonates with Lacan's "mirror stage" - that (to Lacan) crucial stage in a child's development during which the child develops an I:

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation - and which manufactures for the subject... the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality . . . and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of alienating identity which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development. Thus to break out of the circle of the Innenwelt into the Urn welt generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego's verifications. …

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