The Awakening's Signifiying "Mexicanist" Presence

By Barrish, Phillip | Studies in American Fiction, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Awakening's Signifiying "Mexicanist" Presence


Barrish, Phillip, Studies in American Fiction


Since the appearance in 1992 of Toni Morrison's paradigm-changing Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, critics have striven to respond to her mandate that we develop a new "critical geography." Playing in the Dark asks, how has the United States's pervasive Africanist presence helped to organize, to give texture and meaning, to "literary `whiteness'"?(1) Trying to answer Morrison's question has produced remarkable results throughout U.S. literary studies, ranging for instance from Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? to Kenneth Warren's Black and White Strangers to Eric Sundquist's To Wake the Nations.(2)

Yet despite the vast border shared between Mexico and the United States, comparatively little scholarship has been devoted to a question that might be taken as analogous to Morrison's: How has the centuries-old encounter between the United States and what Jose Limon calls Greater Mexico helped to shape what Morrison dubbed "literary `whiteness'" in the body of material that U.S. critics often think of simply as "American" literature? (By Greater Mexico, Limon means people of Mexican descent from "either side" of the border, "with all their commonalities and differences.")(3) If a black population accompanied and, as Morrison emphasizes, in many cases preceded white settlers to this country, so too a Mexican population inhabited significant areas of what became the United States long before those areas' mid-nineteenth century incorporation. (Roughly 20% of the United States population now lives on land that was once part of Mexico.) Moreover, of course, Mexican-descended people have continued to inhabit those and other parts of the U.S. ever since, exercising incalculable influence on the cultural, financial, and political economies of such regions.

In the field of literary studies, much important work has been done by scholars associated with the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, as well as by other scholars, in locating and elucidating a richly diverse tradition of Mexican-American and Chicano literature. But few have asked how paying fuller attention to the abiding, signing "Mexicanist" presence (adapting Morrison's terminology) in the United States might also help us to reread certain "Anglo" texts, ones that are usually seen as unrelated to the nation's "Hispanic Literary Heritage." Again adapting Morrison's terms, how has "a real or fabricated" Mexicanist presence been used "to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness"?(4)

Explicitly responding to Morrison's challenge finally to see American literature's pervasive Africanist presence, the most powerful recent line of argument about Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) contends that the sexual, political, and creative dimensions of Edna Pontellier's "awakening" all depend upon an unacknowledged "racial midwifery."(5) Citing, for instance, the domestic labor (childcare, cleaning, cooking, errands) provided for Edna by "nameless, faceless black women," Elizabeth Ammons insists that "the very liberation about which the book fantasizes is purchased on the backs of black women."(6) Michelle Birnbaum, who has developed this line of argument about The Awakening most fully, emphasizes in particular how Edna's access to a freer, richer sexuality is facilitated, even structured, by the many black women who surround her. Highlighting a series of implicit, oblique, and even hidden textual connections, Birnbaum shows that Edna does not only take the physical labor of African-American women for granted. She "employs as well their tropological potential, their associations with the marginal and, ultimately, with the erotic."(7) Birnbaum draws on Hortense Spillers' suggestion that the mere presence of a mulatto in works of American literature serves to evoke illicit sex: the mulatto presence permits the dominant white culture "to say without parting its lips that `we have willed to sin. …

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