Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture

By Susan Gubar | Go to book overview

I
ADVENTURES IN THE SKIN TRADE

[H]ow difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends. -- Booker T. Washington

[N]ot only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. -- Frantz Fanon

Can human beings (and the cultures they create) be defined as either black or white? Or are most human beings (and the cultures they create) both black and white? These are the questions that seem to be posed by fascinating artifacts about race which survive from ancient times in the form of Janiform vases depicting the heads of Europeans and Africans. Dating back to 510 B.C., the two faces on one such Italian urn embody a study in racial contrast which is constructed by juxtaposing, feature by feature, a white and a black woman (Fig. 1.1). Seen in profile, hair, nose, lips, chin, jewelry (or its absence), and neck suggest that racial difference -- not merely skin deep -- dictates physiognomy, perhaps even psychology. Antithetical, the abutting heads seem to set the women at odds, for each looks out from her own perspective in a direction that dooms her never to see the other. Hardly a melting pot, the vessel portrays the races as distinct, separate, unamalgamated. Yet the burden of the ornamented pail shared by the two heads signifies a commonality eerily echoed by the two handles that come into view when the artifact is presented in either frontal position (Figs. 1.2 and 1.3). The white face now hides the black, the black the white. Somewhat like two sides of one coin, the dual faces constitute one head, one being, whose mysteriously doubled features speak to the complementarity of Western and African images of womanly beauty, of domestic supportiveness, or even of the biological capacity of the female to contain life as well as life-giving fluids. In this context, the salient, silent form of the urn communicates a teasing truth about racial comingling, fusing, intermixing.

As in Keats's famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the vase from ancient Tar-

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