Dissertation – Chapter 1 – Introduction (2 of 3)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade

Historian Jim Cullen defines minstrels as white men in blackface who pretend to be black and “pride themselves on the verisimilitude with which they re-create African-American life and customs.  But these are not simple acts of imitation or homage – the routines they enact are wildly, even grotesquely, exaggerated” (57).  Cullen’s definitions place males at the site of racial crossover (begging questions of gender identities and roles in minstrel performance), set up the paradox of blacks imitating whites imitating blacks, and suggest that audiences determine the authenticity of racial performances. 

Similarly, literary historian Laura Browder places blackface minstrelsy as a caricature of black life that “flattens the topography of the racial landscape to black and white” (49).  In other words, blackface minstrelsy allows for only white and black to exist in the US, while ignoring other races.  She further characterizes minstrelsy as a white performance of “inauthenticity,” which creates a hyper-whiteness.  This whiteness, which emerges from the performers’ ability temporarily to “embody” cultural norms associated with blackness, depends “on denying blacks the same options for self-transformation” (49, 50).   Browder’s stance on minstrelsy allows whites to put on blackness in order to further highlight their whiteness, and in many ways, their American-ness.  Denying blacks this ability to change race as easily as clothing also denies them access to the body politic of the US.  Sociologist Howard Sacks broadens Browder’s arguments by maintaining that minstrelsy is “a vehicle for reinstating tradition” (44).  Minstrelsy develops into an inauthentic performance that establishes and upholds authentic whiteness and American-ness.

Performance theater historians Harry Elam and David Krasner argue that minstrelsy, as a uniquely American performance, not only affords whites the opportunity to employ perceived characteristics of blackness, but also allows whites to master the baser aspects of human nature that are theoretically inscribed on black bodies.  Acting as black people allows minstrel performers to disregard white cultural norms and taboos.     Elam and Krasner add that the male-domination of minstrelsy dictates that ideas of black women become inscribed on white male bodies (23).  This theory denies white women opportunities to overcome the baseness of humanity by forbidding them the ability temporarily to put on blackness, and this male-domination further removes black women from participating in mainstream American cultures.  I include all of the above nuances in my definition of minstrelsy.  I add that minstrelsy is a performance, based on racial stereotypes, that includes many of the traditions of the form but does not necessarily entail blacking up. [Eric Lott describes minstrel shows as formulaic and including comic dialogue and cross-dressed wench performances (5).  F. James Davis describes minstrelsy as the “singing-dancing-comedy characterization portraying black males as childish, irresponsible, inefficient, lazy, ridiculous in speech, pleasure-seeking and happy” (51)]  I use blackface or blackface minstrelsy to designate a minstrel performance that makes use of a blackening agent.

The definitions of minstrelsy deal largely with acting and with audiences intentionally accepting the pretend as real.  Definitions of passing also deal with subterfuge and audience interpretations but somehow carry malevolent connotations in America’s racially charged cultures.   Literary critic Elaine K. Ginsberg asserts that passing is about the “boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing.  Passing is about specularity: the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen” (2) and is often motivated by the quest to attain the perceived awards of another race (3).  Literary theorist Juda Bennett adds that the metaphoric term passing most likely stems from the pass given to slaves to facilitate their travel.  “The ‘pass’ is a slip of paper that allows for free movement, but white skin is itself a ‘pass’ that allowed for some light-skinned slaves to escape their masters” (36).  Both of these definitions concentrate on gaining access to socially restricted spaces and have social and individual ramifications.

Theorist Randall Kennedy defines passing as a deception that allows a person to “adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct” (157).  Kennedy cites the classic American racial passer as the “white Negro” and distinguishes the passer from a “mistaken” person who, “having been told that he is white, thinks of himself as white” (157).  Kennedy’s argument points to the intentional duplicity involved in racial passing, a treachery that involves circumventing and undercutting American societal norms regarding race.

Noting the artifice rather than the duplicity in racial crossover, film scholar Linda Williams distinguishes between posing and passing, arguing that “whites who pose as black intentionally exhibit all the artifice of their performance – exaggerated gestures, blackface make-up – [but] blacks who pass as white suppress the more obvious artifice of performance.  Passing is performance whose success depends on not overacting” (176).  Posing, then, reflects the theatrical roots of minstrelsy, but passing speaks to the subtleties involved in both passing and minstrelsy.  Kenneth Price, a literary historian, adds that passing involves enacting a “narrative or an identity dependent on fabrication” (90). 

Unlike the previously cited critics, cultural theorist Gayle Wald underscores neither the artifice nor the duplicity of passing.  Instead, Wald defines passing as a practice that stems from subjects’ desires to control their racial definition, “rather than be subject to the definitions of white supremacy” (6).  Wald further characterizes passing as a transgression of the social boundary of race that seeks not “racial transcendence, but rather struggles for control over racial representation in a context of the radical unreliability of embodied appearances” (6).  Wald emphasizes the unreliability of bodily markers of race, and challenges people to control their self-definition.  This obfuscation of the line between black and white, along with the call to self-empowerment, confronts the predominance of white supremacy.  These critics inform my definition of passing, which I view as a social transgression, rooted in duplicity, that brings performers closer to self-definition as they chip away at notions of white supremacy that govern US society.

Regarding white supremacy, philosopher George Yancy maintains that America operates under a mainline white center that has the “power to create an elaborate social subterfuge, leading both whites and nonwhites to believe that the representations in terms of which they live their lives and understand the world and themselves are naturally given, unchangeable ways of being” (11).  In other words, this white center induces people to believe that representations associated with race are innate rather than constructed, thus making race appear immutable and blackness seem forever destined to marginality far from the white core of mainline American cultures.  David Roediger urges people to fight against the centrality of white supremacy (240).  His pleas acknowledge, however, that white supremacy prompts people to cling to white privilege if they can claim it and aspire to it if they cannot. 

Following the vein of white supremacy, philosopher Lewis Gordon defines white normativity as the “schema in which whites serve as the exemplification of the human being and the presumption of what it means to be human” (181).  Gordon postulates that for those outside the sphere of normativity, the only way to attain normalcy is to become what they are not – blacks can only become “normal” by self-identifying as white, and conversely, whites can only be “abnormal” by appropriating characteristics ascribed to blackness.  In other words, racial passing serves as a vehicle for blacks to achieve normativity and participate in mainstream American cultures, and minstrelsy functions as a channel through which whites can abandon the norms of mainline US cultures.  The subterfuges that characterize passing lie both in the act itself as well as in the white center that creates the perceived need to pass.  This view equates US citizenship with normativity and white supremacy, and it is against this bulwark that the authors under consideration pummel. 

I study passing and minstrelsy in the selected texts because the action in all of them occurs shortly after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law comes to prominence, and because they all consider how slave women use motherhood and race in order to gain access to and enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship.  While Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin more than 40 years before the publication of Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the two texts treat the same time period, as do Clotel and The Bondwoman’s Narrative.  Stowe, Brown, and Crafts’ works come on the heels of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required the extradition of escaped slaves from their homes in free states back into the throes of slavery.  The laws demonstrated that U.S. blacks were property – not human and certainly not U.S. citizens.  The Fugitive Slave Law also fueled the abolitionist cause, as did Stowe’s novel.  By setting his novel in the early 1850’s, Twain deliberately sets his work as contemporary with the other authors and with the issues of their time.  All of these novels treat antebellum issues of race and citizenship.  Additionally, all four texts treat both blackface minstrelsy and passing, not one or the other, in close proximity in the text.  In all of the texts, passing and minstrelsy, at some point, take place in the same female body.

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