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Meridians mapping metaphors of mixed race identity
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xi, 224 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Trudell, Shane Willow
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 2004.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Shane Willow Trudell.
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Copyright 2004


Shane Willow Trudell

This book is dedicated to the Spirits of Peace and Love.

May they be the foundation of all our knowing and all our being.


I began thinking about the ideas behind this work years ago. Had it not been for

the instruction and guidance of my professors at the University of Florida, these ideas

may never have reached this form. Therefore, I wish to thank Tace Hedrick, Debra

Walker King, Mark Reid, and Milagros Pefia for their contributions to my academic

growth. Each is an individual and scholar whom I respect and admire. I am especially

grateful to Tace Hedrick, director of my dissertation, who has been a committed and

encouraging mentor, one who has shared with me wisdom gleaned from her own

journeys in academia so that I might learn from her experiences. Tace, in addition to

being a scholarly role model for me, has also become a respected friend, a fact that

pleases me and helps me with the sometimes surprising transition from student to

professional scholar. I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from her.

I am grateful, too, to other friends and peers whose support of me has kept my

spirits high and encouraged my commitment to reaching this goal. I am blessed by Penny,

sister-friend and poet, who makes me laugh and reminds me, through her amazing skill,

to play with words. I value the friendship and intellectual brilliance of Katherine and

Tzantali, who, working toward similar goals, both remind me of why we are working to

realize these particular academic dreams. I have been reminded, too, of my commitment

to working for peace and justice by all of my friends in the Association for Racial and

Cultural Harmony in Jacksonville, Florida. James, Jennifer, Joni, Sis, and Thalia have

been especially supportive friends from that group during particularly trying times, and I

extend warm thanks for their presence in my life.

I wish to thank, additionally, those who have provided me with support, financial

and otherwise, throughout this process. The fellowship I received from the University of

Florida was a blessing that allowed me greater peace of mind during my writing than I

would have felt otherwise.

Finally, I wish to thank those I love-especially my beautiful, wise, and inspiring

mother Yvonne-and those I have loved-especially Art. I extend heartfelt gratitude for

their support, encouragement, and unwavering belief in me. I would not be here if it were

not for the journeys I have taken with them.


"I've been reading memoirs," I announced to my mother, "which has me thinking

about the possibility of marrying literary criticism with life, mine specifically. Like so

many others producing scholarship in gender and race studies, I want my work to be

valuable to those outside the academy. I want to convince people my book is worth their

time, despite their question of 'Why would I want to read literary criticism?'"

"That would be my question," my mother confessed. "Why would I want to read


Indeed, why would she? Having previously pondered the usefulness of my work,

the possibility for praxis to accompany theory, I was stumped by my mother's question.

Because you're my mother, of course, I thought wryly. You'd want to read it

because you're proud of everything I accomplish ...

This was a shallow and narcissistic response, I knew. Why would my mother, or

any other intelligent and thoughtful person with a limited amount of time, want to choose

my book out of a limitless number of others? And what would it offer of practical value

toward social change?

Instead of attempting to give a definitive answer to my mother's question-a

question that, I suppose, an individual can answer only for herself-I offer something I

tell my students when they wonder why they should read the works we study in class:

literature illuminates life. And when we subject literature to theoretical scrutiny, we can

switch on the bulbs of knowledge and simultaneously shed light on our own cultural and

personal experiences. In literature and in literary criticism, we find new ways in which to

pose questions, to seek answers, and to see the world. We can engage the hypothetical.

We can reflect on gritty reality. We can tease out memories. We can explore the truths of

myth. We can acquisition space in which to mine our own knowledge, giving us new

possibilities for being in the world and being in relation to others.

Instead of answering my mother's question, then, I will tell you what this book is

about so that you can answer for yourself...

This is a book about race and real lives, gender and generations, traditions and

travel, love and language, borders and belonging, metaphors and maps, books and bodies.

This is a book about the twentieth century and today. This is a book about literature and

about life.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ..................................................................................... iv

P R E F A C E .................................................................................................................. vi

A B ST R A C T ............................................................................................................... x


1 CARTOGRAPHIES OF RACIAL IDENTITY......................................

Intimate Cartography ......................................... ............................................ 1
Mapping Past Paths and New Directions ...................................... ............ 3
Mapping the Contemporary Landscape ............................... ....... ............. 9
Mapping Metaphors ................................................................................ 13
M ixed M etaphors ........................................................................................... 16
Playing With the Map ......................................................... ................... 19
Mapping the Path Ahead ................................................................................ 22

CENTURY METAPHORS OF RACE...............................................27

R ace C rystallized ........................................................................................ 27
Climbing the Ivory Tower ......................................................................... 34
Climbing into the Kettle Black ...................................................... ............. 41
Continued Crystallization .................................................................................... 55

WORK OF JEAN TOOMER .......................................................57

Points of D eparture........................................................................................ 57
D ividing L ines ............................................................................................. 7 1
Transcending the D ivide................................................................................ 83
Points of C contact ........................................................................................... 89

COOKIE ......................................... ..... ................ ............... 94

The Frontier: Where Two Come Together ................................... ........... 94
Traveling Beyond the Boundaries ................................................ 100
"She G ot W om b" ......................................................................................... 109
Travelers, Questers, and Cookies ............................................................... 116
Traveling in/as T w os .................................................................................. 125


Disappearing: The Skin We're In ................................................................. 128
Bodies at Play: Performing (and Being) Race(d) ......................................... 134
Appearing in the Mirroring ......................................................................... 140
Longing and Belonging ................................................................................ 145
Appearing in Motion and Blurring the Lines ............................................. 150
Reappearing beyond Recognition ................................................................ 156

RESURRECTING MINGUS......................................................... 163

H om e B found ......................................................................................... 163
D ivided H ouses .................................................................. ...................... 170
C racking the M irror ................................................................................. 181
C om ing H om e ............................................................................................. 196

7 MERIDIANS ON THE MAP OF IDENTITY................................... 201

W O R K S C IT E D .................................................................................................... 217

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .................................................................................. 224

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Shane Willow Trudell

August 2004

Chair: Tace Hedrick
Major Department: English

Although mixed race identity traditionally has been equated with conflict, the

conflict is not necessarily lived but may be more accurately viewed as a conflict of

language, a conflict of metaphors. Traditionally, metaphors of mixed race identity have

reflected notions of opposition and hierarchy; at the same time, mixed race individuals

have searched for utopian spaces in which conflict and tragedy are alleviated and race is

imagined as a unifying, rather than divisive, idea. This study looks at the treatment of

mixed race women in twentieth century novels, beginning with Jean Toomer's Cane

(1925) and then jumping to the end of the century-to Fran Ross's Oreo (1975), Danzy

Senna's Caucasia (1998), and Jenoyne Adams's Resurrecting Mingus (2001)--to study

texts written during and after the Black Power Movement. It begins with an analysis of

metaphors of blackness and whiteness that developed in the nineteenth century and then

questions the ways these metaphors have traditionally complicated possibilities for mixed

race identity, resulting in replications of the tragic mulatto and adherence to the one-drop

rule. Subsequently, the analysis moves to contemporary metaphors of mixed race identity

to explore their limits and possibilities and the ways in which these metaphors are

implicated by questions of gender. The texts under analysis respond to the same set of

problems, including the longing for utopian spaces of wholeness and harmony within

mixed race identities and non-traditional families. Additionally, these texts contain a

latent struggle over questions of history, family, and racial identity. They long to

articulate utopian visions while they are confined within the historical moments and

literary formulas in which they were written, and they struggle to negotiate postmodern

questions of identity, self, wholeness, and harmony-both individual and

communal-while bound by literary and social conventions that resist the utopian visions

they hope to articulate. Each text attempts to envision utopian social, political, familial

and individual spaces where the "play" of identity-the possibility of negotiation and

individualization-may be manifested, utopian visions of harmony may be realized, and

new metaphors may be articulated.


Intimate Cartography

I want to show you a map and tell you a secret. The map looks like this: I'm a

woman with skin the color of cattails in the sunshine. My hair is dark brown, soft, thick,

and willfully curled. My eyes are brown-not a honey-colored brown but a deep brown,

yet not so dark that my pupils are indistinguishable from my irises. Of course, none of

this comprises the secret, for none of this is hidden information; it is all readily apparent

on my body. The secret is this: I am not a black woman; I am a black woman; I am not a

white woman; I am a white woman.

Of course, this sounds paradoxical, impossible, but the metaphors of black and

white are often only meagerly and superficially -sometimes not even

superficially--related to actual bodies. My sense of myself as both black and white and

as neither black nor white comes from my own understanding and perception of my body

as well as understandings and perceptions that go beyond it. Additionally, the perceptions

of others become crucial in these perceptions of myself. For instance, when I am among

strangers, I assume that their first perceptions of me involve the color of my skin, the

texture and style of my hair, the codes of my gender. Although I do not consider myself a

black woman, I must recognize that this will be the way many others perceive me. In

contrast, when I was married to a white man or when I visit my white mother, I function

as part of a family and culture to which outside observers would claim I do not belong

and yet in which I feel un-contestably at home, although I do not consider myself a white


My body, then, like that of any other person, is implicated by what Debra Walker

King has called body fictions: our "externally defined identities and representations as

bodies." These body fictions result in the "collision between real bodies and an

unfriendly informant: a fictional double whose aim is to mask individuality and mute the

voice of personal agency" (vii). The body becomes a map with a very peculiar

geography, one that attempts to impose identity, to pinpoint contours and demarcate lines

of latitude and longitude, in an effort to describe and contain realities that are

multidimensional within the two-dimensional realm of black and white. If the body can

be seen as a map, then what we call that body is an indication of our navigation, of our

interpretation, of the map. Thus it is that the map of the body becomes an important

reference point in locating identity. Although most people forget to look beyond its

limited dimensions and thereby assume the map is totalizing, the body is not an exclusive

means of mapping identity.

The body, indisputably important, is still a limited and contradictory map, subject

to metaphors that function unevenly-allowing, for example, a light-skinned woman to

be called black but typically not allowing a dark-skinned woman to be called white. It is

with these contradictions and uneven metaphors of race in mind that I begin this

exploration of metaphors of mixed race identity. In so doing, I seek to draw a more

accurate map of mixed race identity-or at least one that acknowledges the limits of its

dimensions-a map that can direct new explorations of these identities and chart the

geography of my being a not-black/not-white woman.

Mapping Past Paths and New Directions

Werner Sollors has catalogued in intricate detail the history of miscegenation and

mixed race characters in American literature. His comprehensive study Neither Black Nor

White offers a thematic analysis of interracial literature, which he defines as "all genres

that represent love and family relations involving black-white couples, biracial

individuals, their descendants, and their larger kin" (3). Identifying common tropes

throughout interracial literature--such as reference to the curse of Ham, fractions of

blood, and fingernails as racial signs, among others-Sollors concludes that interracial

literature is most often themed "for a black-white contrast of 'either/or' than for an

interracial realm of 'neither, nor, both, and in-between'" (Neither 10). In this instance,

Sollors highlights an important question for current discussions of mixed race identity in

American literature: how are individuals of mixed race represented, as a site where races

unite or as a site where they collide?

Mixed race characters have long been a subject of interest to black and white

authors alike, and there have been numerous arguments made to explain the origins of

this interest in pre-Civil War and antebellum fiction. To pre-Civil War Northern

audiences, the tragic mulatto or tragic octoroon was "a perfect object for tearful sympathy

combined with moral indignation" (Zanger 285). Yet the use of the tragic mulatto by

antislavery writers also has been seen as an indication of racial prejudice since such

writers may have found the plight of a near-white character more tragic than that of one

more phenotypically black. Although it has been argued that these authors focused on

characters of mixed race in order to highlight the tragic nature of slavery and/or make

their characters more likely to generate sympathy from white readers, it is more

compelling to argue that these writers sought to highlight generations of white patriarchal

guilt through the use of mixed race characters. On an even more symbolic level,

"miscegenation and the 'unnatural' treatment of biracial offspring [may] conveniently

stand for the South's real sins: the prostitution of an entire race of black bodies for the

gratification of the white man's 'lust' for wealth and power and the resultant violation of

those 'family ties' traditionally associated with the Christian notion of the brotherhood of

man" (Clark 294). Conversely, Simone Vauthier argues that "interest in the white Negro

may be read as an imaginary testing of boundaries. The white Negro represents a cas

limited, the smallest difference that marks the point where the Other turns into the Same,

when the either/or disjunction is no longer operative" (349).

Countless other scholars, as well, have approached the topic of mixed race

literature in hopes of identifying and analyzing themes such as those detailed above. Most

often, scholars turn to discussions of the tragic mulatto and passing in order to highlight

the constructedness of race and facilitate arguments about its lack of basis in biology. In

fact, Sollors seeks to investigate the themes of mixed race literature in order to

comprehend "the cultural operations which make [races] seem natural or self-evident

categories" (Neither 3). Similarly, Naomi Zack notes that miscegenation "can be viewed

as a recurrent trope in popular fiction, a sort of metaphor for the unblended part of the

melting pot of American society as a whole; the problems of all black Americans in white

American culture; or the alienation of the modern individual in general. Characters of

mixed race have also been interpreted as universal cultural archetypes, such as the

scapegoat or the Christ figure" (128).

Other scholars have addressed mixed race literature in order to move beyond

arguments about race as a social construction. Cathy Boeckmann, for example, assumes

race's constructedness and looks to "the topics of race, passing, bodies, and American

literature using an approach based in historical vocabulary" (3). Her insightful study

questions the notion of character in the late nineteenth century, arguing that "In current

usage character is a figurative term, signifying the imagined structure of an individual's

moral and ethical orientations, but in the nineteenth century it referred to a quantifiable

set of inherited behaviors and tendencies that were almost always racial" (3). Her

discussion turns to interracialism precisely because the "equation of outer and inner that

was a cornerstone of white supremacy, and which was used to argue the absolute

inferiority of African Americans, was unsettled by the mixing of physical signs of race"


Boeckmann's study is also unique in that it seeks to demonstrate the significance

of genre to nineteenth century questions of characterization. As Boeckmann notes,

"Literature was assumed to be the best location for the representation of national and

racial character, and debates over the relative merits of sentimental, romantic, and

realistic fiction were embroiled in discussions of which mode offered the best form of

characterization" (5). Boeckmann's study is important because it questions the role of

genre in defining character and analyzes the ways in which character in nineteenth

century American literature was problematized by the reality of mixed race.

Similarly, my study recognizes the recurrence of certain genres, specifically

sentimental and romance fiction and autobiography, in discourses of mixed racial

identity. These genres facilitate many discussions of mixed race and allow a forum for

social activism within public discourse.' As in the nineteenth century, when women

writers often used the sentimental novel to comment upon and seek to change social

conventions, many writers of popular fiction--including the genres of sentiment,

romance, and autobiography-seek to make social commentary and reflect the changing

social attitudes regarding race and mixed race identity. Ann duCille argues in her study of

nineteenth century black women's novels that "the marriage convention has been claimed

by black women writers in particular as a trope through which to explore not only the so-

called more compelling questions of race, racism, and racial identity but complex

questions of sexuality and female subjectivity as well" (4). Thus, duCille comments upon

the longstanding use of the private, the domestic, the sentimental to explore questions

regarding the public and social. Autobiography, as well, is a common genre for

explorations of mixed race because, as Paul Spickard has written, "multiraciality may

inevitably be autobiographical in that it is an identity that draws its life-force from

fashioning and refashioning the story of the ethnic self" (92). And Claudine Chiawei

O'Hearn acknowledges:

Because most people didn't know where to place me, I made up stories
about myself. In bars, cabs, and restaurants I would try on identities with
strangers I knew I would never meet again. I faked accents as I pretended
to be a Hawaiian dancer, an Italian tourist, and even once a Russian
student. It always amazed me what I could get away with. Being mixed
inspired and gave me license to test new characters, but it also cast me as a
foreigner in every setting I found myself in. (ix)

Thus, O'Hearn speaks of a prevalent sense among mixed race individuals of authoring

one's own identity through autobiography, allowing those of mixed race to articulate

By popular, of course, I mean those texts that are mass-marketed and widely available to a large
population of people.

their own stories and analyze the ways in which ancestral peculiarities shape subsequent


Although autobiography also served numerous black authors in the nineteenth

century, my study investigates the treatment of mixed race women in twentieth century

novels to trace social understandings of race, mixed-race, and gender. Unlike nineteenth-

century texts dealing with mixed race characters, which often relied on tropes of conflict

and turmoil, a number of twentieth-century texts have attempted to move beyond the

binaries dictated by ideologies of race in order to assert the complex nature of mixed race

identity, rather than insisting on the either/or model.

My study, moreover, departs from traditional investigations of literature

containing mixed race characters by white and black authors in order to question the

metaphorical ways in which black and mixed race authors define mixed racial identity.

Because race itself is, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has suggested, a metaphor for difference,

it is useful to investigate the ways in which mixed race difference has been described via

the use of metaphors. What do these metaphors suggest about the nature and character of

mixed race difference? In what ways do these metaphors naturalize racial difference as

oppositional and hierarchical and in what ways may metaphors of mixed race disrupt this

assumption of the oppositional and hierarchical nature of race? Additionally, using a

feminist framework, I question the ways in which these metaphors are gendered in order

to investigate the options that are made available for mixed race women and men to

negotiate their identities.

My discussion focuses on the metaphorical, as well, because identity itself can be

considered a metaphor for the self, for self-perception, self-understanding, and self-

awareness. If we define the self, as C.G. Jung does, as the archetype of wholeness,2 then

we might begin to see the self and self-identity as metaphorical. Moreover, as Susan

Rowland has argued in her definition of archetypes, "Given that archetypal images can

never exhaust the multiple possibilities of the archetype and are refracted through the

personal, they can be described as fiction, metaphorical versions of an unrepresentable

reality. That is, archetypal images are fictional and metaphorical, not because they are

arbitrary but because they are the partial and imaginative expressions of fundamentally

plural potentials for meaning" (11).

So, too, with race. As a constructed imagining of difference refracted through

personal experience, race can be seen as fictional and metaphorical because it attempts to

reify and make singular that which is fundamentally plural and capable of multiplicitous

meaning. In fact, given that race cannot be singularly defined as simply a representation

of phenotype or ancestry or experience or law, it is fundamentally plural in meaning.

Thus, any discussion of race is already metaphorical. Acknowledging this, my study

seeks to highlight the ways in which race and mixed-race are constructed through various

metaphors that result in hierarchy and opposition. In so doing, we may move toward

metaphors of difference that help to eradicate notions of naturalized hierarchy and

opposition in favor of those that seek inclusivity, interconnections, and difference without


Feminist geographer Minelle Mahtani has embarked upon a similar project in

trying to identify a more useful spatial metaphor for what she calls "multiethnic"

identities. She justifies the appropriateness of this project within her disciple by noting

2 1 acknowledge that poststructuralism has demonstrated the problematic nature of notions of the self and
wholeness, and I will return to this in chapters four and five.

geographers' assertion that "all social relations are spatial, and take place within

particular spatial contexts. Therefore, it follows that racism creates particular spatial

patterns and codes through which spatial and racial domination is maintained. This

directly impacts on questions of identity" (174). Drawing on the work of feminist

theorists Gillian Rose and Elspeth Probyn, Mahtani argues for an understanding of

"mobile paradoxical spaces," which articulate "notions of belonging as movement rather

than as static positioning" (184) and which seek a space for identity that exists beyond

dualisms. Similarly, my project acknowledges the impact of spatiality upon identity and

notes those metaphors within American literature that highlight mixed race identity in

terms of spatiality, which is common among these texts since so many of them attempt to

locate a utopia of racial harmony. These metaphors, while still problematic, may offer an

understanding of identity without duality and hierarchy that is not encouraged by other

metaphors. Temporal metaphors, for example, often rely on notions of history that

inevitably reinforce dichotomies and hierarchies-e.g., prehistoric/historic, less

civilized/more civilized. Although spatial metaphors can work in dualistic ways

also-e.g., inside/outside, margin/center-they may instead recognize the "mobility and

simultaneity of particular subject positions" (Mahtani 180). For this reason, spatial

metaphors may offer more flexible and less hierarchical notions of mixed race identity;

additionally, they are readily taken up by mixed race discourses that seek a racial utopia.

Mapping the Contemporary Landscape

Because romance is often considered a genre of popular culture, it is fitting that

contemporary discussions of mixed racial identity would exhibit a connection to issues

traditionally housed in the domain of romance: the family, interpersonal relationships, the

role of individuals in the private and public spheres. Mixed racial identity is an important

social issue in the contemporary United States due to the increase in the population of

individuals whose parents are designated as members of different races. And discourses

of mixed race identity span issues of family, relationships, and the individual's role in the

public sphere. In fact, the issue is so prominent that numerous groups highlighted the

"private" matter of mixed racial identity in the public sphere when they lobbied to have a

multiracial category added to the year 2000 census. Although this proposal was

ultimately defeated, respondents were allowed to select more than one box when

identifying their race(s), testifying to the fact that questions of mixed racial heritage and

identity are important in the lives of millions of Americans. Researchers since the 2000

census have attempted to categorize the identities of mixed race individuals in order to

discern contemporary identities of mixed race. G. Reginald Daniel argues that what he

has termed the new multiracial identity

deconstructs the dichotomization of blackness and whiteness, as well as
the hierarchical relationship between these two categories of experience.
Its goal is to rescue racial identities from distortion and erasure by
incorporating both African American and European American
backgrounds. Individuals who display this identity recognize the
commonalities between blacks and whites (integration), but at the same
time appreciate the differences (pluralism). (6)

Although Daniels' claim supports the possibility for non-hierarchical identities of

mixed race, he too readily homogenizes mixed race identity. Other researchers, however,

note more diversity in individuals whose parents belong to two different socially

designated races. Through a study conducted after the 2000 census, Kerry Ann

Rockquemore and David L. Brunsma delineate four types of identity formation for

black/white biracial individuals. First, the border identity is one that acknowledges both a

black and a white identity as well as a third identity of mixed-race. In effect, "the border

identity highlights an individual's existence between two socially distinct races as

defining one's biracialism. Meaning lies in their location of in-betweenness" (42).

Rockquemore and Brunsma divide this border identity into two types: validated, in which

others acknowledge a mixed race individual's in-between status, and unvalidated, in

which "others may not understand biracial as an existing category of racial classification"


A second type of identity defined by the researchers is the singular identity, which

typically functions in the United States via the one-drop rule. The singular identity

recognizes the binary racial classification system in the United States and asserts that

individuals of mixed race must align themselves with one racial group. Given the

historical reality in the United States of the one-drop rule, which states that any black

ancestry makes one black, most individuals of mixed race have chosen to identify (and

have been outwardly identified) as black. The researchers note, however, that a singular

white identity has, at times, been possible given certain socioeconomic and phenotypical


The third identity described by the researchers is the protean identity, one that

maintains identity as contextual and shifting. Acknowledged as the least common type of

mixed racial identity, the protean identity functions by "changing and shifting according

to the group of people that [the individual] is with and the social context" (47). The

researchers clarify the uniqueness of this identity by maintaining that "although most

people might adjust their behavior to differing circumstances, [proteans adjust their]

identity to these different circumstances" (48). Finally, Rockquemore and Brunsma

acknowledge a transcendent identity in which individuals seek to define themselves

outside of racial terms. In fact, these individuals often imagine race as a barrier to the

realization of their true identities, preferring instead to think of themselves as "human."3

It is within this social context of varied interpretations of mixed race identity that

my study seeks to investigate current and historical metaphors of mixed race in twentieth-

century American popular fiction. The texts I explore deal with individuals of mixed

black and white ancestry, and I have delineated this precise group of women for a number

of reasons. Although I acknowledge that mixed racial identity is a reality for every

designated racial group, not simply black and white, and although I recognize that the

current discourse on mixed race typically assumes the presence of whiteness and thereby

normalizes it,4 I have chosen black/white mixtures, in part, because "in the United States,

blacks and whites continue to be the two groups with the greatest social distance, the

most spatial separation, and the strongest taboos against interracial marriage"

(Rockquemore and Brunsma ix). In fact, I would argue that black/white (i.e., dark/light)

is one of the quintessential opposition of western dualism and works in metaphorical

relation with other dualisms (such as evil/good, ugly/beautiful, material/spiritual).

Given this black/white opposition and the metaphorical dualisms of western

philosophy, I find it necessary to explore metaphors of blackness and whiteness before

proceeding into an elaboration of metaphors of mixed race. I do this through a discussion

of historical metaphors of blackness and whiteness, including an analysis of two

nineteenth-century sentimental novels that demonstrate the complicated nature of these

3 Obviously, I acknowledge the problematic nature of such identities, given that race, though not a
biological truism, is a social and experiential reality.
4 Carol Roh Spaulding has astutely argued, "In American literature of the twentieth century, the term
'mixed race' almost invariably refers to individuals who are part 'white' and part 'raced'" (98).

metaphors: Emma Dunham Kelley's Megda and Frances E.W. Harper's lola Leroy, Or

Shadows Uplifted. For, as Antonio Gramsci writes "the starting point of critical

elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as the

product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces,

without leaving an inventory" (324).

Mapping Metaphors

Though we have entered into the twenty-first century, the importance of the

nineteenth century in terms of United States' racial formation cannot be underestimated.

It was during this period that cultural and phenotypic difference became codified as racial

difference and these differences came to represent variations in morality, intelligence,

and social progress. Indeed,

Racialism did not emerge in full flower until the mid-nineteenth century;
indeed, as many carefully note, early European representations of Native
Americans had much more to do with cultural rather than so-call racial
difference.... Although European representations of Africans had
virtually always drawn attention to the darkness of African skin, which
increasingly carried a host of negative connotations in European thought,
still, early observers depicted African darkness as something of a marvel,
even accepting the fact that the Africans themselves found their so-called
blackness beautiful. In European speculations that the hotter sun, or red-
colored oils were the cause for differences in skin color, is a search for
commonality-even if that commonality is the ethnocentric assumption
that "we all start out white." "Black" and "red" at this early juncture
designated a superficial, metaphoric difference between groups of human
beings. (Nelson 6)

Clearly this focus on commonality on the part of the colonialists shifted to a focus on

inherent, biological difference, enabling Europeans to claim a position of superiority and

manifest destiny and rendering the position of their racial Others one of inferiority and


Through "scientific" research and legal precedents such as Dred Scott v. Sandford

(1856)-which declared black people to be articles of property and, therefore, not United

States citizens-and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)-which required separate but equal

accommodations for black and white travelers- superficial, metaphoric difference

developed into racial difference, with all of the structural inequalities that difference

entailed. And, as Abdul JanMohamed has argued, "The perception of racial difference is,

in the first place, influenced by economic motives" (80). Additionally, according to

David Roediger in a discussion of the development of working-class whiteness, "the first

sixty-five years of the nineteenth century were the formative period of working class

'whiteness,' at least in the North, though obviously earlier habits of mind and patterns of

colonialist oppression of Native Americans form an important part of the prehistory of

working class whiteness" (14). Similarly, Richard Dyer alludes to research that suggests

"a sense of being white, of belonging to a white race, only widely developed in the USA

in the nineteenth century as part of the process of establishing a US identity" (19).

Further development of racial difference in the nineteenth century was allowed

through scientific inquiry. Numerous nineteenth-century researchers deployed

understandings of evolutionary biology to societies and proposed that physical

differences correspond to both racial and moral differences; arguing that certain races are

more advanced than others, they assumed that socio-political differences are, in fact,

racial and essential and, for them, colonialism became a valid response to racial

difference. Moreover, these eugenicists claimed that Caucasians "have been assigned...

in all ages, the largest brains and the most powerful intellect; theirs is the mission of

extending and perfecting civilization" (Nott and Gliddon 67). Because of such white

superiority, the numerous eugenicists of the nineteenth century argued that racial

"amalgamation" can only be detrimental to the white race, although it could have the

effect of raising the "lower" races: "the infusion of even a minute proportion of the blood

of one race into another, produces a most decided modification of moral and physical

character" (68). More specifically, Nott and Gliddon claim that "It is so rare, in this

country, to see the offspring of a Negro man and a white woman, that I have never

personally encountered an example; but such children are reported to partake more of the

type of the Negro, than when the mode of crossing is reversed" (401). Clearly, such a

claim was necessary in order to protect the sanctity of white womanhood and overlook

the transgressions of white men who forced sexual relations with black women. Although

Nott and Gliddon argued that the intellect of children usually follows the mother, they

needed to reverse this claim with regard to white women and black men. Because the race

of children legally followed the condition of the mother, Nott's claim guarded against the

likelihood that free mulatto children would result from relations between a black man and

a white woman. Here, political necessity created "scientific" knowledge.

Such nineteenth-century scientific knowledge, according to Nancy Leys Stepan,

was highly dependent upon metaphor and analogy. The use of such tropes in nineteenth-

century scientific inquiry influenced and maintained a power structure that dictated the

place of women and people of color beneath that of white men. In this way, races and

genders were constructed in specific ways and differences were maintained as natural.

Because of the naturalization of racial difference, nineteenth-century authors were forced

to confront the formation of "blackness" and "whiteness" as racial categories, whether in

an effort to defend or to refute the emerging stereotypes. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has

argued, "Text created author; and black authors, it was hoped, would create, or re-create,

the image of the race in European discourse" (11). Yet African-American authors were

not concerned solely with the question of blackness; they also gave voice to questions of

whiteness as well. Roediger writes, "The white problem-the question of why and how

whites reach the conclusion that their whiteness is meaningful-is an intellectual and

even an artistic problem for Black writers" (6). Thus, nineteenth-century texts-and, for

the purposes of this study, nineteenth-century texts by African-American authors-offer

an appropriate starting point for discussions of both the nature and the ontology of

blackness and whiteness, discussions which interrogate not only what blackness and

whiteness are but also what experiences are entailed for individuals in being black or

white. Such understandings of blackness and whiteness informed notions of mixed race

identities and ontology.

Mixed Metaphors

Elaine K. Ginsberg has written, "In its interrogation of the essentialism that is the

foundation of identity politics, passing has the potential to create a space for creative self-

determination and agency: the opportunity to construct new identities, to experiment with

multiple subject positions, and to cross social and economic boundaries that exclude or

oppress" (16). In other words, passing has the potential to transgress boundaries and

thereby create spaces for new affiliations that problematize what is constructed to be the

dominant group's inherent right to exercise oppressive power and domination. I would

argue, however, that the interracial figure, whether passing or not, most powerfully

represents this transgressive potential due to his or her embodiment of those metaphors of

difference that are constructed as oppositional--white and black blood. It is this figure,

which mixes the metaphors of whiteness and blackness, which embodies the potential for

deconstructing traditional notions of race. This potential is more nearly realized in

twentieth century representations and articulations of mixed race that attempt to move

beyond the binaries of race. Rather than insisting on the nineteenth century tropes of

conflict and tragedy within mixed race, many later representations explore the potential

for the reconciliation of blackness and whiteness.

Races have been constructed in particular ways in the United States since the

nineteenth century, ways that have been the foundation for contemporary notions of

racial identity. American society is mired still in nineteenth-century ideologies that

construct whiteness as the ivory tower and blackness as the kettle black-metaphors I

will investigate in the next chapter-and these metaphors are difficult to mix in the social

imagination. Furthermore, with whiteness long symbolizing power and domination, a

mixed race individual's claim of whiteness in addition to blackness can be construed as

tantamount to a desire for power, a desire to dominate, a desire to fully inhabit the

"property" of whiteness, and a desire to pass quietly into the position of a wielder of


Of course, whiteness is more than a sign of power and domination when viewed

on a more individual level. The workings of affect, as in a disposition or strong feeling,

must be considered; a mixed race individual's sincere desire to claim an affiliation with

her parents-one black, one white-likely has little to do with an attempt to claim the

privileges of whiteness. This desire, furthermore, may be most clearly facilitated through

her ability to claim her parents' traces within her-blackness and whiteness. Iola Leroy's

"choice" of blackness, which will be explored in the next chapter, can be seen as

necessitated by the affiliation and kinship she felt for her black mother. On the other

hand, one is left to wonder how she could so quickly disregard her positive feelings for

her white father. In this regard, Iola's black identification seems to have required her to

subsume affect to political necessity. Had Iola chosen whiteness, in addition to or in lieu

of blackness, she would have been seen as passing. Thus, regardless of the workings of

affect, a mixed race individual who claims whiteness would very likely face accusations

that she is attempting simply to "usurp" white privileges, to become complicit in the

oppression of those with whom she should be united.

What is necessary, then, in order to avoid such accusations, may be a new

definition for whiteness, one that eschews its cultural connotations of power and

domination. Annalee Newitz suggests that white identity must undergo a "progressive

transformation," one that allows its dissociation from ideologies of white power (151)

and Robyn Wiegman writes of a "counterwhiteness whose primary characteristic is its

disaffiliation from white supremacist practices" (119). Alternatively, what I suggest is

not a new definition or a new term for whiteness but a new metaphor for mixed race

identity. Although mixed race identity has also been traditionally equated with conflict,

the conflict is not necessarily lived but may be more accurately viewed as a conflict of

language, a conflict of metaphors. What is now needed is a metaphor that explicitly

rejects the longstanding association of whiteness with domination and blackness with

degradation, a metaphor which explodes the negative connotations of both the ivory

tower and the kettle black, a metaphor which is clearly, and confidently, mixed.

Playing With the Map

Of course, in this postmodern age when multiplicity and heterogeneity within the

self are touted, the claim that one can become a homogeneous, centered being is

problematic. A poststructuralist critique would claim that wholeness is impossible, that

the center is lacking, that there cannot be, in fact, an authentic self. Yet it is such thinking

that sometimes leads to the idea that coalition is equally impossible, that identity is so

unique and individualized that it precludes solidarity and community. A poststructuralist

critique of wholeness and coherence would suggest that such qualities are impossible to

attain and, perhaps, even undesirable. After all, as George Levine has noted, "The

concept of the 'self,' fully naturalized into a coherent, stable, and normative essence, is

precisely what is invoked to dismiss deviations from the norm as symptoms of illness or

criminality" (8). For poststructuralists, the notion of structure implies organization but

also implies play, implies a movement that is both produced and limited by a point of

presence, a fixed origin, a center. The notion of a center, an idea that relies on fixity,

unity, and full presence, is problematic for poststructuralists, who would argue that such

characteristics are mythical. There is no fixity. There is no unity. There is no full


Yet "some concept of the 'self' needs to be recognized and reconstructed-one

that does not succumb to the political, psychological, and epistemological failures that

have plagued the self from the time of its invention in the West" (Levine 3). How, then,

can one speak of wholeness and an authentic self,5 which imply that coherence, unity, and

being are possible? Derrida writes that

Play is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a
signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences
and the movement of a chain. Play is always play of absence and presence,
but if it is to be thought radically, play must be conceived of before the
alternative of presence and absence. Being must be conceived as presence
or absence on the basis of the possibility of play and not the other way
around. (292)

Thus, according to Derrida, play does not negate the possibility of presence and absence;

rather it would seem that play is a precondition of being in an ontological sense. Because

it would be difficult to rid ourselves of the notion of center, which exists as an organizing

principle, rather than a part of structure, more useful is a consideration of the way the

center moves, of the play inherent in any system or being. Mixed race identity, then, can

work within this possibility because it acknowledges that fixity is missing; instead, there

is an absence, a lack of structure, which allows play (infinite substitutions, supplementary

interpretations and meanings). Any notion of mixed race identity that does not allow

play, that seeks fixity (through limiting notions of the one-drop rule and hypodescent, for

example), removes the condition for being.

Play may usefully be imagined as a foregrounding and receding of identity

components in varying contexts; play is multiplicity and difference enacted based on

social situations. Rather than discarding or ignoring those parts of identity not compatible

with certain contexts, the individual at play highlights various components over others,

while still allowing all components to speak to and implicate that individual's self-

definition and public presentation. Perhaps it will be necessary, then, to seek play before

5 Debra Walker King acknowledges that "At its best, 'authenticity' ... is an understanding of self
supported by introspective awareness, honest self-evaluation, personal integrity, and self-avowed worth"

wholeness, to acknowledge the ways in which mixed race identity "plays" with the

structure of racial categorization, rather than seeking a fixed and unchanging sense of

self. Conversely, perhaps play is the essence of wholeness, rather than authenticity or

stability. In fact, wholeness might be more usefully imagined not as coherence and

stability but as variety and difference, as the allowance of infinite substitutions, as an

acceptance of the various parts that comprise the whole, much like the construction of

various states, provinces, and countries seeks to order and comprise the globe. Wholeness

in this sense becomes akin to what Judy Elsley terms "cohesive fragmentation" (164).

Although Elsley finds multiplicity and wholeness antithetical, she states, "Fragmentation

and diversity become not a limitation but a trademark, a strength" (169). By allowing

new patterns to emerge, new possibilities for being, responding, and relating to surface,

fragmentation and diversity become positive conditions that deconstruct the hegemony of

rigid coherence and sameness. Yet it is also true that, through a redefinition of wholeness

that allows play, one can acknowledge a sense of self that revels in multiplicity and still

remains coherent in the sense of an individual "I": "Once perceived or imagined, the self

implies doubleness, multiplicity. For what knows the awareness of the self if not the

self?: division as premise and price of consciousness" (Howe 249). This somewhat

romantic notion of self-consciousness as double still acknowledges the fact that the self is

multiplicitous while at the same time often conscious of itself as singular.

Thus, my notion of "play" within identity works in terms of Derrida's notion of

play within structures, which occurs when the elements within that structure are

deconstructed or "shaken up" by other structural elements that point to its flawed nature.

We may link this notion to identities by realizing that all individuals function within a

sense of self-a persona presented to the world with the semblance of stability. Like any

other "structure," identities contain their own conflicts and contradictions, allowing shift,

room to move-in other words, "play." In terms of identity, then, play is the possibility

of negotiation and individualization -it is the paradox that allows one of mixed race to be

not black, not white, and yet both.

Mapping the Path Ahead

In search of metaphors that allow or disallow play, my study traverses historical

and contemporary metaphors of mixed race identity in novels dealing with mixed race

women. These novels all respond to a set of problems linked to historical crystallizations

of blackness and whiteness that would seem to preclude the possibility of racial harmony

within mixed race identities. Because of the historical treatment of mixed race, which

included opposition and hierarchy between the races within one's identity, most

nineteenth century portrayals of mixed race limited their characters' options to passing or

accepting the one-drop rule. Each option, however, relied on negations of ancestry and

possibly self-identity as well as negations of the vision of a potentially more-inclusive

definition of community and family. Such visions, reflecting personal and national

utopias, were necessarily discarded until social discourse became amenable to these

discussions. Even in the midst of widening discourse, however, these texts contain a

latent struggle over questions of history, family, and racial identity. They struggle to

articulate utopian visions while they are confined within the historical moments and

literary formulas in which they were written. They struggle to negotiate postmodern

questions of identity, self, wholeness, and harmony -both individual and

communal-while bound by literary and social conventions that resist the utopian visions

these texts long to articulate. Thus, these seemingly diverse texts-which do not fit into

one literary period or genre-are united by their shared questioning of identity and

wholeness. Additionally, the texts also respond to questions about the historical and

potential roles of black and white men as fathers. In many of the novels, black fathers are

both elevated and made abject, resulting in a tension that seems to acknowledge the

historical denial of black fatherhood and the longing for its affirmation and enactment.

The texts within my study, which are all first novels containing mixed race

women, share similar concerns and negotiate similar challenges. Additionally, they each

attempt to envision utopian social, political, familial and individual spaces where the

"play" of identity-which I define as the possibility of negotiation and individualization

of identities-may be manifested, utopian visions of harmony may be realized, and new

metaphors may be articulated.

Chapter 2 investigates the crystallization of racial ideologies and racial metaphors

through an interrogation of cultural constructions of blackness and whiteness by reading

two nineteenth-century sentimental novels by African-American women: Emma Dunham

Kelley's Megda and Frances E.W. Harper's lola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifed. Nineteenth

century racial metaphors, I argue, crystallized oppositional and hierarchical notions of

race, even when these notions exhibited confusion over the negative versus positive

polarity of blackness and whiteness. Imaginings of mixed race during the nineteenth

century, then, worked from within these dichotomized constructions of race and also

were used to both uphold and condemn constructions of racial difference.

In chapter 3, I shift to twentieth century representations of mixed race, which

were shaped by earlier crystallizations of race as exhibited in nineteenth century

metaphors. This chapter focuses on Jean Toomer, likely the most renowned mixed race

writer of the early twentieth century, and his work in Cane and the poem "The Blue

Meridian," which is especially interesting due to its use of a spatial metaphor that

attempts to bridge the oppositional construction of binaries. Interestingly, Cane exhibits

distinct anxieties regarding mixed race while "The Blue Meridian" offers a metaphor that

recognizes the mixed race body as a site where differences unite, rather than a space

where they collide in conflict and, inevitably, destruction. Within the poem, the mixed

race body becomes a space of productive existence, a more utopian view than that offered

by Cane.

Chapter 4 looks at the recently republished Oreo by Fran Ross. Originally

published in 1974, Ross's novel is a rewriting of the mythical story of Theseus, and it

casts the mixed race heroine as the metaphorical traveler and border crosser, the

individual on the quest for self. Additionally, the title character manipulates the borders

of gender in interesting ways. In fact, Oreo moves beyond limited notions of the feminine

in her ability to travel, cross borders, and ignore boundaries. She, unlike traditional

notions of the feminine, is completely active and never passive; she is mobile rather than

static, multiple rather than singular. Rather than existing on the borderlands, in some

indeterminate limbo, Oreo constantly embodies movement and change and, like a

mythological hero, actively participates in a quest for her origins and, by extension, a

quest for herself. Metaphors of traveler, translator, mediator, and border crosser offer

more positive visions of mixed race that, nevertheless, suggest the impossibility of

reaching the utopia sought.

In chapter 5, I investigate metaphors of mixed racial identity in Danzy Senna's

novel Caucasia. Senna's novel allows a continuation of the discussion begun with Oreo

of travel metaphors of mixed race identity. However, Caucasia, unlike Oreo, does not

celebrate mixed race identity as movement; rather in its similar quest for origins, it

searches for a site of belonging (a prominent trope in literature of mixed race) and for the

recapture of an assumed paradise lost. This search for an imagined original utopia is,

additionally, a search for wholeness. Because this wholeness remains unrealized,

Caucasia in some ways seems to reinscribe the tragedy of mixed race; yet it questions

this type by offering a tentative space of belonging among others who also embody

traditional dichotomies.

Finally, in chapter 6, I turn to the recently published debut novel of Jenoyne

Adams, Resurrecting Mingus, and address the question of the romance genre as a frame

for discourses of mixed race identity. As illustrated by my analysis in chapter two of

Megda and lola Leroy, the sentimental and romantic genres have long facilitated

discussions of miscegenation, and Resurrecting Mingus continues this generic tradition.

Additionally, I demonstrate the centrality of a particular spatial metaphor that serves as a

locus for questions of mixed race identity in the text. This metaphor, furthermore,

continues a tradition in which women's identities are defined in terms of the domestic

sphere and familial relationships.

Chapter 7 concludes my discussion by exploring the significance of recent spatial

metaphors of mixed race identity in twentieth-century American literature. Using the

Jungian notion of the crystallization of archetypes as a metaphor, the conclusion

discusses the ways in which notions of social race and social gender are crystallized into


oppositional difference. These crystallizations are challenged by what I call meridian

metaphors of mixed race identity that seek non-oppositional, non-hierarchical visions of

difference; such meridian metaphors may offer a map of mixed race identity and

difference that moves beyond traditional dimensions while still acknowledging the map's

construction and the limits of cartography.


Race Crystallized

Since my maternal grandmother and grandfather had fourteen children and since

most of them had numerous children of their own, my family is quite large. To the public

eye, mine is a white family. Sprinkled among the white faces in family snapshots, though,

are a number of brown ones of various shades-faces like mine on the bodies of people

like me: "mixed raced." Of course, most of us may not think of ourselves as mixed raced;

in fact, many of us might not see ourselves in terms of race at all. For me, growing up

welcomed and secure in this extended family, I didn't often consider my racial

background; in fact, I don't remember knowing much about "race" at all. Not knowing

my black father or his family meant that I had only one family-this white one-and here

was where I felt a sure sense of belonging. Naturally, I noticed color, but I'd been raised

to believe that my color was simply another-not the sole-marker of my uniqueness. To

the extent that I considered it, my racial mixture was merely the cause of my brownness,

and it held no other relevant effects. Simply put, I was just one of the red poppies amidst

the pink-just a differently colored flower.

Then, on the cusp of my teenage years, I heard through the grapevine of cousins

that one aunt "felt sorry for the mixed kids" in the family. My throat tightened, my

equilibrium slightly tilted, my face infused with a reddish tinge. Sorry? Why? Ifl were so

special, then why would anyone feel sorry for someone like me? As best as I can isolate

it, this was the moment when I sensed the negative connotations of "special." This was

the moment when I recognized race, when an understanding of race and racial difference

crystallized in my imagination.

With such recognition came the weight of stereotypical assumptions regarding

whiteness and blackness, assumptions based on a history of dualisms that has constructed

race, in part, through oppositional and hierarchical metaphors. Although difference,

specifically racial difference, for centuries had been part of the cultural imagination of

western civilization, particular notions regarding race became crystallized in the

nineteenth century-that is, cultural and phenotypic difference became codified as racial

difference through legislation and through significant scientific attention to the presumed

biology of race; these racial differences came to represent variations in morality,

intelligence, and social progress through theories of social Darwinism and eugenics. In

turn, these crystallizations of racial difference, informed as they were through science and

the law, impacted society in both the public and domestic spheres, allowing assumptions

about race to become self-fulfilling prophesies through the choices afforded those of

various races.

Nineteenth century notions of whiteness and blackness-which were also

gendered in their constructions -may be succinctly articulated through the metaphors of

the ivory tower and the kettle black, and the understanding of race employed through

these metaphors further dictated constructions of mixed race. Indeed, these

crystallizations of black and white races as oppositional and hierarchical influenced

nineteenth century-and later-discourses of mixed race, resulting in prophesies of the

doomed fate of any individual of mixed race who refused to adhere to the dictates of

hypodescent, and tales of tragic mulattos abound in nineteenth century sentimental

novels. Conversely, racial mixture was also used in the nineteenth century-again, often

within the frame of the sentimental genre--to highlight the plight of blacks and the

horrors of racism. Thus, constructions of mixed race were formed by notions of

black/white racial difference as they concurrently informed understandings of blackness

and whiteness; discourses of racial mixture were used by both supporters and denouncers

of racial hierarchies to respectively confirm and condemn the assumed traits of racial

difference. Therefore, an exploration of nineteenth century constructions of whiteness

and blackness illuminates an understanding of the formation of mixed race difference.

Whiteness, the ivory tower, has historically been assumed in the cultural

imagination to be monolithic, impenetrable, phallocentric, and pure. Racial purity was in

the nineteenth century, and is for racial purists in the twenty-first, a crucial element of

whiteness. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson demonstrated clearly the anxiety over

"commingling," whether spatially or sexually, that rested at the heart of notions of white

purity. The case demonstrated that being white meant being free of miscegenation, both

literally and metaphorically:

The object of the [fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the
absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of
things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon
color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a
commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. (1140)

This case, in addition to establishing the purity of whiteness, defined whiteness as a

property: "the reputation of belonging to the dominant race, in this instance the white

race, is 'property,' in the same sense that a right of action or of inheritance is property"

(1142).' Thus, in declaring that whiteness was a property, the Supreme Court constructed

whiteness as a status of privilege and wealth, a valuable asset that afforded one power

and even the ability to dominate. It was this property, secured through the purity of

whiteness, which was threatened by racial commingling.

As Richard Dyer attests, whiteness, in addition to becoming a "property," became

conflated with "Americanness." Although Werner Sollors argues that "the symbolic

construction of American kinship has helped to weld Americans of diverse origins into

one people, even if the code at times requires the exaggeration of differences" (Beyond

15), such American kinship is reserved most exclusively for those persons constructed as

white. Thus, during the nineteenth-century, inclusion within the privileged category of

whiteness was vigorously sought by working-class ethnic immigrants such as those of

Irish, Italian, and Polish descent. Although such groups lacked the privilege in economic

terms that would have distanced them from more obviously "colored" groups such as

Asians, Africans, and Native Americans, inclusion within the category of "whiteness"

allowed them alternate "wages," to use David Roediger's term. These wages established

their privilege and worth or value in racial, rather than economic, terms.

In addition to the parallel with "American," whiteness also has been associated

with independence, industry, and success. "It is not spirituality or soul that is held to

distinguish whites, but what we might call 'spirit': get up and go, aspiration, awareness of

the highest reaches of intellectual comprehension and aesthetic refinement" (Dyer 23).

'Justice Harlan, dissenting from the majority opinion, argued, "The white race deems itself to be the
dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in
power" (1143). Although he acknowledged the dominance of the white race, he simultaneously argued that
the white race's dominance was a construction, a product of its power and privilege, and not an inherent

Whiteness is an indispensable characteristic of the frontiersman, through whose efforts,

we are led to believe, the United States was founded. White identity, moreover,

is founded on compelling paradoxes: a vividly corporeal cosmology that
most values transcendence of the body; a notion of being at once a sort of
race and the human race, an individual and a universal subject; a
commitment to heterosexuality that, for whiteness to be affirmed, entails
men fighting against sexual desires and women having none; a stress on
the display of spirit while maintaining a position of invisibility; in short, a
need always to be everything and nothing, literally overwhelmingly
present and yet apparently absent, both alive and dead. (Dyer 39)

Whiteness, even in the twenty-first century, maintains associations with the ivory

tower: deemed worthy of admiration, praise, and attention, yet simultaneously too large

to see, too obviously and eternally present to require notice. Blackness, on the other hand,

in many ways still is equated with the kettle black-inferior, dirty, more feminine than

masculine, and a catch-all for all that is not white. Because of slavery's degradations,

black men were excluded from the socially constructed masculine ideal. After slavery

and because of widespread disenfranchisement, black men still were denied access to the

patriarchal power offered through success in the public, capitalist realm. In apparent

contrast with this emasculation of black men is the connection made between blackness

and sexuality, a connection that has served to separate further blackness from whiteness.

The cerebral and spiritual associations of whiteness often have called for a concomitant

denial of sexual urges in both men and women; blackness, however, is not only expected

to express sexuality, it is also conflated with sexuality. Sander Gilman has insightfully

outlined the association of blackness with overt sexuality in the nineteenth-century

imagination, and, of course, such representation is still visible today. Gilman further

argues that black sexuality became equated with black women, specifically, in the

nineteenth century; the construction of the cult of true womanhood, furthermore, allowed

white women to embody those characteristics of piety, purity, submissiveness, and

domesticity and also refused to allow black women to embody such characteristics

without questioning the structural inequalities that prevented many black women from

demonstrating these traits. As Hazel Carby has noted,

The sexual ideology of the period thus confirmed the differing material
circumstances of these two groups of women and resolved the
contradiction between the two reproductive positions [producer of heirs or
producer of property, in the sense of chattel] by balancing opposing
definitions of womanhood and motherhood, each dependent on the other
for its existence. (25)

Clearly, whiteness and blackness typically occupy the positive and negative poles

of the racial dichotomy, respectively, although each can also be associated with the

opposite characteristics. Because of its pureness and impenetrability, whiteness has been

imagined at times as cold, lifeless, ornamental, unsustaining, and even representative of

death. Blackness, conversely, has been thought to offer life, vitality, vigor, virility,

warmth, and sustenance. Because of the dichotomous thought of Western societies,

whiteness and blackness have been necessary in constructing each other, and, clearly,

they represent a quintessential opposition according to American society, with blacks still

being a vilified group in a culture that glorifies whiteness and finds meaning through

dichotomies. In illustrating that the construction of whiteness in America has been

dependent upon an opposing construction of blackness, Toni Morrison has written, "the

image of a reined-in, bound, suppressed, and repressed darkness became objectified in

American literature as an Africanist presence" (39). This Africanist presence, in turn, was

invoked by white writers and became "crucial to their sense of Americanness" (6). White

writers, then, could use blackness as a metaphor against which to construct Americans as

white. Primitivized minorities within cultural constructions have represented a group

against which whites could define themselves. The oppositional nature of such

constructions between races is vital to understandings of mixed race as a site of conflict

and turmoil, for if races in larger society are imagined to be diametrically opposed, then

they likewise must be imagined within the individual. Given the comparative nature of

oppositional assumptions regarding racial characteristics, races necessarily have been

simultaneously constructed along a hierarchy of value, prowess, and potential.

Popularized around the turn of the century through the application of evolutionary theory

to human society, eugenicist theories asserted that weak, primitivized races would die

away while the fittest would survive. Of course, these eugenicist theories were developed

on a pseudo-scientific basis whose hypotheses always defined white as the fittest.

Constructions of whiteness have allowed it to dominate while concurrently

keeping its connection to power invisible, unmarked, and unnamed. Leaving this

connection unexamined allows many whites to imagine that white supremacy refers only

to violent segregation, preventing many from self-reflexively analyzing their access to

power and privilege. Because the power and domination that are available to whiteness

historically have remained invisible, they have, therefore, been difficult to confront and

combat. Nevertheless, African-Americans and other racial minorities have long made

efforts to challenge the dominating power of whiteness and to redefine blackness (and

"color") in positive terms. Likewise, numerous mixed raced individuals have made

similar efforts, and though some have felt the seduction of white identification for the

power and privilege it can provide, many have articulated a black identification.

Attractive for alternative reasons, black identification has been a positive choice for many

individuals who may have struggled with the dichotomously constructed blackness and

whiteness they contain.

Climbing the Ivory Tower

Emma Dunham Kelley's 1891 novel Megda offers a discussion of whiteness and

blackness that reflects the complexity of nineteenth century crystallizations of race. Like

other sentimental novels of the time, Kelley's novel articulates political and religious

messages through tales of romance, family, and the feminized domestic sphere, allowing

this feminized realm to speak on public issues constructed as masculine and to bring

domestic concerns into the public world. Megda tells the story of a group of schoolgirls

who embark upon womanhood with inconsistent loyalties to their duties as Christians and

their prospects as women. Meg, the title character, is a feisty heroine beloved by all, yet

one whose pride and independence must be tamed by the male Christian

minister-Reverend Stanley-before she makes a desirable wife-one who, though she

may have a mind of her own, realizes that this mind ought to be in agreement with her

God's (and her husband's) will.

Although Claudia Tate has written that Megda is among a number of "'white' or

'raceless' works" (23) and although white is typically assumed to be unraced, whiteness

in Megda is raced strikingly. Whiteness is valorized throughout the text as its characters

climb the ivory tower, and some critics have suggested that such valorization is in

acquiescence to a white audience.2 Contrary to much critical thought, however, Megda

does not present palatable white characters to present a simple story of Christian morals

2 Additionally, Tate has claimed,"By making racial difference unimportant, this novel already presumes as
gratified the political objectives of racial equality depicted in traditional black works" (24). For this reason,
Tate argues that "the nonracialized feminist paradigm about gender inequity may seem more appropriate"
for a critical reading of Megda and asks: "Does this mean that we should read Megda as we read Little
Women, since we cannot read Megda like lola Leroy?" (23).

and domestic bliss; instead, its use of sentiment and religion are vehicles for the novel's

discussion of race and gender. Since race and gender are used collaboratively to mark

individuals in specific ways, we cannot claim that Megda is an unraced work about

gender. In fact, the text resists simplified readings of race, given the fact that it appears to

be about white people but is written within a cultural context of blackness. It is true that

Kelly does not make race as explicit an object of study as most other nineteenth-century

African-American writers did. This fact of the text's "hidden" racial commentary makes

its investigation even more worthwhile, for this latent discourse reveals important clues

regarding cultural constructions of blackness and whiteness within the nineteenth

century. Kelley's text exhibits tensions within its formulations of whiteness, blackness,

and gender that comment upon social assumptions about race, color, class, and gender


This tension surrounding race and gender within the novel is notable through the

shifting use of color throughout. Whiteness symbolizes purity, goodness, transcendence,

and other positive characteristics, yet it is also used to highlight fear, pride, coldness,

sickness, weakness, and even death. Ethel, unquestionably the most pure character in the

novel and, therefore, the woman most desired by the male protagonist, is first depicted as

having a "fair, sweet face" (12) and her whiteness is increasingly emphasized throughout

the text. May is described as "white as a snowdrop" with hair that "shone like gold"

(108). Dell, "the beauty of the town," has skin that is "dazzling white, without one tinge

of pink in it" (36). Thus, throughout the novel, whiteness becomes indicative of purity,

goodness, and beauty. Of course, whiteness within Megda also functions as a signifier of

salvation. In her attempt to convert Meg to Christianity, Ethel insists that "For all these

things [she must eschew] He will give you a robe of whiteness and a crown of beauty that

fadeth not away" (145).

It is even more significant, then, that Meg wears a black robe during her baptism,

which is performed not inside the church but in the river, and that the "deep black made

her face look like marble" (322) Although Meg may be depicted here as having attained

the ultimate whiteness of purity, it is also possible that her whiteness is meant to

represent coldness and even the death of sentiment and sincerity. Since she may be

insincere in her acceptance of Christianity, she lacks the purity that white connotes. This

insincerity, in keeping with the character's pride and independence, may additionally

make her less of a woman than Ethel, whose religious sentiment is true, whose

independence is tempered through obedience and who, therefore, is first to be engaged to

the minister. The simile comparing Meg to marble, additionally, recalls the scene when

Meg plays Lady Macbeth, a scene that equates whiteness with pride, sinfulness, and

coldness. Meg's baptism, then, is tainted by these connotations, suggesting that her

baptism may not be heart-felt acquiescence to the will of God and that it, like her role as

Lady Mcbeth, is merely a performance.

For the theater performance of Lady Macbeth, "Meg wore her favorite pure white

cashmere. A large bunch of exquisite white roses was in her belt. She looked pale, but oh,

so girlishly sweet and pure." (152) Additionally, when Meg is described as being "the

color of marble," Laurie comments "the whiter, the better" (157). And though Meg would

never be beautiful, "in that costume she looked like a queen" (158). Despite the

overwhelming praise she receives for her performance and for her costume, which

emphasizes whiteness, Meg cannot feel completely proud because Reverend Stanley, the

man she admires, does not approve of the theater. Thus, although the text depicts Meg as

willful and independent, it simultaneously demonstrates in her the dissatisfaction that

results from non-conformity to male desire. Additionally, the novel makes clear that pride

is a sin, one which Meg is continually guilty of displaying. The text suggests, then, that

pride is a debilitating factor in women's most true calling-winning a husband-and that

pride in whiteness itself may be associated with sin, making whiter not always better.

In fact, the whiteness Ethel assumes during her illness confirms that whiteness

symbolizes, in addition to purity and beauty, weakness and death. Furthermore, when

Meg's conversion becomes inevitable, descriptions of Dell, one of the girls Meg admired

for her convictions and independent spirit, equate Dell's whiteness with coldness and link

this fact symbolically to her lack of conversion: "Dell's lovely face ... was white, cold

and perfectly composed. She had never felt the least desire to become a Christian" (216).

Dell's beauty in this description becomes the shell surrounding a void; here, she becomes

like a statue and her inner convictions, which Meg had praised as "true blue," become

synonymous with nothingness since those convictions do not lead her to Christ and,

thereby to Christ's representative in marriage: a husband.

Dell, additionally, understands that it is her whiteness that makes her so beautiful,

yet her whiteness is markedly different from Ethel's:

"There is a great difference between the whiteness of my skin and that of
Ethel's," replied Dell, who fully realized how beautiful she was, but didn't
consider it necessary to be foolish because she was beautiful; therefore,
she accepted the fact as a fact, and nothing more. "Mine is a healthy white,
and hers a sickly white." (221)

Although both Dell and Ethel are depicted as beautiful, Dell's beauty is merely external,

with none of the inner beauty occasioned by the presence of Christ in her soul. Ethel, on

the other hand, is beautiful both inside and out because she is the epitome of goodness

and purity; she is an angel too good for earth, the woman who initially wins Reverend

Stanley.3 Yet Dell's beauty is also equated here with a certain vibrancy provided by

health and, possibly, by her ability to enjoy life's pleasures-even, perhaps, by her

independence. Ethel, in contrast, grows weaker as she grows whiter, and whiteness comes

to signify a lack of health, vitality, and life. She, who would devote her life to Christ and

to her husband, dies before her marriage. Ethel, a victim of consumption, is consumed by

whiteness, "her face as white as the pillow on which it rested," the pillow of her deathbed

(337). Ethel dies in her room, which is decorated entirely in white, and is buried in her

wedding dress, making the association of whiteness and death quite clear as well

displaying the text's tension regarding women's roles and the prospect for women's

"life" within the confines of patriarchy.

Thus, Megda is conflicted in its view of women, and its connotations of whiteness

are likewise intricate and paradoxical. Darkness, too, is equally complex in its

constructions in the novel. The pure-hearted but economically disadvantaged Ruth is

exceptionally dark. In fact, she is the only woman within the text who is explicitly

described as "dark-faced." Maude, though not brown-skinned, is dark-featured; her hair

and her eyes are described in terms of their raven blackness. And Maude, the texts insists

through its plot and character development, is not a character worthy of our admiration or

respect. Maude, in fact, is explicitly compared to both Ethel and Meg in terms of both her

3 At Ethel's baptism, in fact, Meg describes Ethel in angelic terms:
All the girls had worn white, but somehow or other it seemed as if there was something
about Ethel that the others did not have. The slender, fragile form seemed almost
spiritualized. Her skin was as white as the driven snow; her eyes large, blue and shining.
But lovelier than anything Meg had ever seen was the expression of the delicate face. I
cannot paint it; only it was just such an expression as Meg had always imagined the
angels of Heaven must wear. (224)

physical characteristics and her spiritual condition: "She formed a strong contrast to Ethel

and Meg, with her dark, richly-colored face; large, black eyes and raven hair. It made

Ethel's delicate loveliness look almost spiritual, and Meg's white face look whiter still,

and her light-brown hair almost golden" (171). Maude's marriage is loveless and results

in her death, although her dark-eyed daughter is redeemed by being adopted by Reverend

Stanley and Meg, who marry after Ethel's death and Meg's acquiescence to God. At

Maude's death, all color is gone from her face, making it "white enough now" (388). Of

course, the associations of whiteness here are twofold and reflective of the often

contradictory associations of racial dualities: Maude is white enough because she has

been purified by repentance and sincere acceptance of Christ, yet she is also white

enough because she is nearly dead.

Meg, interestingly, is depicted as somewhat dark-reflecting her distance from

Ethel's religious and feminine purity-until she is compared with the darker Maude; Meg

is light-skinned, but her hair and eyes are brown, rather than the blonde and blue of Ethel,

who is, unquestionably, the purest and most "true" woman in her small circle of friends.

Upon the readers' first introduction to her, Meg is described as having a "pair of lovely

dark eyes" and "two small, white hands," which, the text continually suggests, are her

best feature (9). In fact, Meg's brother comments on her hand: "Pretty is no name for it

... It is a regular little beauty" (33). This odd comment is notable both for its peculiar

content and for the fact that it is made by Meg's brother while she sits upon his lap,

giving the scene a suggestion of sexual impropriety through incest-historically a

common theme in discussions of mixed race-that may imply Meg's deviance as a

woman because she is independent but that also associates her most redeeming quality

with the part of her "taken" by man in marriage. Meg's liminal state between

independence and desirability as a wife accompanies her liminal position in terms of race

as well. Meg often wears gray, mingling white and black, and this becomes a symbol of

her in-betweenness. This in-betweenness may be considered a characteristic of Meg's

racial heritage-- like Iola Leroy, she may be racially mixed as well as of her character.

In her introduction, Molly Hite describes Meg as "ethically mixed" (xxix), suggesting

that Meg's conversion to Christianity is not entirely sincere, that her morals are not

entirely pure, and that she is not entirely a woman. Meg is, after all, conflicted in her

desire to accept Christianity. She remarks that, if Maude Leonard "is a specimen of a

Christian, all I can say is, deliver me from the misfortune of being one" (11). Meg,

additionally, continues to assert that she will have no part of a church that accepts

hypocrites such as Maude. Yet Meg's turmoil over entering the church does not result

merely from the hypocrisy she sees within it; she is also conflicted because she cannot

resolve her hubris: "Pride was Meg's besetting sin; it often kept her from converting

noble thoughts into noble actions" (102), and this hubris is explicitly given as the reason

for her initial rejection by Reverend Stanley.

Thus, Meg's embodiment of "ethical [and gender] mixture" is illustrated through

the use of color within the text. Her "delicate, white, slender, dimpled hand" (13), the

hand that would perform noble actions, is inhibited by her pride, so often revealed in her

"dark eyes," which in turn inhibits her marriage prospects. Moreover, Meg is often

depicted with a hint of color tainting her fair, white face: "There was a slight tinge of

pink in her usually pale cheek" when she feels scorn that Ethel has chosen to criticize her

favorite activities of dancing and theater (37). Thus, Meg's often darkening cheeks offer

a contrast to Ethel's and Dell's. Ethel remains free of the stain of color through her moral

purity and goodness, her epitome of womanhood. Dell, on the other hand, remains

uncolored because she is the epitome of beauty and because she is, as Meg has described

her, "true blue," unwilling to compromise what she believes in and, thus, unwilling to

join the church before she feels a sincere conversion. Thus, although Dell is independent,

she is allowed praise within the text because she is redeemed by other essential

characteristics of womanhood: physical beauty and sincerity.

Rather than simply pandering to the tastes of a white audience, Kelley's text, then,

illustrates complex notions regarding gender as it struggles with questions of agency

within womanhood. Additionally it exhibits tensions between blackness and whiteness

that existed within the nineteenth century cultural imagination and which continue to

impact subsequent notions of race. Megda's in-betweenness and the text's racial

presumption, if not racial ambiguity, assume no choice is available or necessary in terms

of her racial identification, yet the text exhibits a distinct tension surrounding color and

its meanings. It demonstrates that whiteness and blackness represent a number of

complex and often contradictory ideas, problematizing strict associations of blackness

with the negative and whiteness with the positive. Although characters within Megda

appear to climb the ivory tower, the text's metaphors of whiteness and blackness insist

that such a location is not without its limitations.

Climbing into the Kettle Black

Although metaphors of whiteness include negative connotations that problematize

its construction, blackness, of course, has occupied the most limited and vilified position

on the black/white pole. Artist and writer Adrian Piper has written, "What joins me to

other blacks...and other blacks to one another, is not a set of shared physical

characteristics, for there is none that all blacks share. Rather, it is the shared experience

of being visually or cognitively identified as black by a white racist society, and the

punitive and damaging effects of that identification" (267). Yet Piper acknowledges that

she is not easily identified as black; her light (even "white") complexion functions to

problematize her claims to a black identity in the eyes of many she meets. In fact, Piper

admits that she faces not only accusations of a desire to pass for white but also

accusations that she literally passes for black. Piper's contemporary experience parallels

many nineteenth century fictive representations of racial mixture, such as Frances E.W.

Harper's lola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, published in 1892, which relates the common

tale of a mixed raced woman raised as white until her white father dies and she is forced

into slavery. Such tales were used by supporters of racial equity to illustrate the tragedy

of racial oppression, which seemed all the more tragic since, as these lily white

protagonists show, racism could easily affect anyone with one drop of black blood. Of

course, such tales also functioned to preserve ideologies of white supremacy since their

interracial heroines often faced the tragic mulatto's fate if they attempted to pass and

claim the privileges reserved for white women. Nevertheless, accusations that individuals

such as Piper and characters such as Harper's protagonist could pass for white but choose

to pass for black offer telling instances for the study of constructions of blackness and

whiteness as well as what is gained and lost when one is expected to choose one race

above the other.

Discussions of race within lola Leroy and other texts that rely on metaphors of

blood maintain associations between race and biology; in these instances, blackness is

seen as a powerful stain and an inescapable force that no generational distance will

diminish. Black "blood" is often depicted in terms of its strength and vigor, of its

powerful presence and its ability to blot out any whiteness, even when its presence is

proportionally smaller. The black character Uncle Ben is described "as if the blood of

some strong race were stirring with sudden vigor through his veins" (30), and Iola herself

claims-once she is made aware of it-that the "best blood in my veins is African blood,

and I am not ashamed of it" (208). Indeed, Iola's "African blood" may be understood as

her best blood, given the fact that her ability to recognize its influence despite its

miniscule presence suggests its powerful presence and vitality.

Bases for racial identities do not rely solely on essentialist metaphors of blood,

however; they also invoke questions of affiliation, kinship, and desire.4 Iola's assertion

that she wishes to be with her own people tells of her affiliation with black Americans

and such affiliation can be predicated upon political alliance or kinship, upon the desire

to align oneself with those one loves. As Iola states, all the rest of her family have aligned

themselves with the "colored race" (235); because of this fact, Iola can see no other

possibility for her own identification if she wishes to remain emotionally connected to

those she loves. Further evidence of racial identification based upon kinship and desire is

offered by both Iola's brother, Harry, and by her future (black) husband, Dr. Latimer.

Harry acknowledges that it was "love for [his] mother" that allowed him to overcome "all

repugnance" he felt at the idea of aligning himself with blackness (202). And Dr.

4 "Desire" here is broadly construed as affection, love, affinity, interest in affiliation, etc. Additionally, I am
considering affiliation in these instances to mean something other than political alliance. In these instances,
characters identify as black because loved ones do, but these loved ones identify as black because their
physical characteristics dictate that they are black. Since the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 and
the boom in mixed raced families, the pull of kinship represents a strong force in the racial identification of
many mixed raced individuals who assert that they will not deny any portion of their heritage.

Latimer, again invoking mother-love, attests, "My mother ... belongs to that race. Where

else should I be? (263). Thus, it is the desire to remain affiliated with loved ones that

causes both men to assume no identification outside of blackness. Interestingly, it is the

desire to remain close to mothers, from whom each character (Iola, Harry, and Dr.

Latimer) had been separated by the forces of slavery, which necessitates this

identification. Such identification reflects the nineteenth-century dictate that the

children's racial status followed that of the mother and, thus, reflects the strong

matrilineal heritage of black communities. Slavery forced the physical separation of

mothers and children, and the text's alignment of these characters with their mothers

demonstrates its acknowledgement of this history. Although law necessitated black

identification for individuals such as Iola, Harry, and Robert based on the one-drop rule

and the mother's racial classification, many consciously choose to align their identities

with their matrilineal heritage. As Robert claims at the beginning of the novel, "A boy

ain't nothing' without his mother" (17); the novel, then, asserts that no person is anything

without affiliation (and even reunion) with his or her ancestors. To deny kinship and

refuse to follow desire becomes tantamount to choosing absence--absence of family,

community, and the self.

Because of the oppressions of slavery and the violence it forced on black women

at the hands of white men, mixed raced characters of this era are typically depicted as the

offspring of black mothers and white fathers. Necessarily, given both laws and social

propriety, fathers typically were absent from the lives of their mixed raced children. Even

in Iola's case, her father is present only when she is "white;" his death precipitates her

mixed raced status, thereby continuing the custom of white paternal absence from the

lives of mixed raced progeny. Although slavery often forced the absence of the black

mother specifically and of fathers generally, by the mid to late twentieth century,

representations of mixed race share a common problem of absent fathers, both illustrating

the gendered division of labor and challenging the reification of matrilineal heritage and

the one-drop rule. Texts containing absent black fathers- Caucasia and Resurrecting

Mingus, for example-confront the history and potential of black paternity, questioning

long-standing constructions of black masculinity and demonstrating challenges to black

identity based on an unknown ancestry. Texts in which the absent father is white-such

as Oreo--offer alternative visions of black female/white male relationships than those

based on the violent oppressions of slavery. In each case, because the female protagonists

long for their absent fathers, the texts examine the impact of origins on racial identities

and articulate utopian longings for a harmony of blackness and whiteness.

Such harmony is not often imagined in nineteenth century texts that were forced

through an oppressive political climate to deal with oppositional constructions of race.

Essentialist notions of race proliferated, not simply due to pseudo-scientific theories, but

also due to the necessity of political alignments in a fight for basic human rights.

Although notions of racial performance currently challenge biological bases of race,

many nineteenth century texts offered essentialist arguments of race by highlighting

racial performance of whiteness through passing. Harry's acknowledgement that "he had

seen colored men with fair complexions anxious to lose their identity with the colored

race and pose as white men" (126) suggests the essentialism that is inherent in these

notions of racial performance. Those who choose to pass as white are described as losing

their identities, as forsaking their fundamental selves in order to "pose" as something they

are not. Similar is Robert's claim that "it would be treason not only to the race, but to

humanity, to have you ignoring your kindred and masquerading as a white man" (203).

Racial passing becomes a crime not just against blackness but against nature itself; it

becomes an attempt to deny what biology has dictated and also to deny the political and

social history of oppression, and a white identity becomes simply a pose, a masquerade, a


Although numerous nineteenth century descriptions of race as a performance

imply passing for white, there are several instances where passing for black is suggested

as a performance. In defense of his mother to Miss Delaney, Harry asserts, "She is not

one who can't be white and won't be black" (278). Here, both white and black identities

are synonymous with roles adopted and costumes assumed. Race becomes a chosen

identity rather than an essential property. Harry does not claim that his mother is

someone who "can't pretend to be white;" rather, he explicitly states that she is someone

who could be white but chooses to be black instead. In this instance, then, the text

challenges essentialist notions of race, highlighting the confusing and contradictory ways

in which race has been constructed both in society and by the text itself. Harry, too,

discusses accusations that he has performed blackness when he should admit to being

white, admitting that he once had to "insist that [he] was colored in order to be permitted

to remain" in the colored car in which he was riding (245). Harry's claim to blackness,

then, is interrogated because his phenotype does not accord with his professed racial

identity. He is assumed to be "performing" blackness rather than "possessing" it,

demonstrating that it is possible, in fact, to pass as black. The text, like many others

dealing with mixed race, struggles with notions of racial ontology and racial


Within lola Leroy, racial performance highlights the possibility of social gain it

affords (through passing for white) as well as the challenge it offers to traditionally

essentialist notions of racial identity (through passing for black). Additionally, racial

performance is undertaken within the novel for political purposes. By performing certain

stereotypical characteristics of blackness, characters are able to achieve a political

agenda, as they do by performing "market speech" in the first chapter. As Eric Lott has

argued, "Black performance itself... was precisely performativee,' a cultural invention,

not some precious essence installed in black bodies; and for better or worse it was often a

product of self-commodification, a way of getting along in a constricted world" (39). The

text, then, illustrates the political value of racial performance, which allows individuals

an opportunity to say one thing when they mean another, to act as one thing above


This ability to perform race hinges upon a fundamental mobility that not all

individuals possess. Such mobility is facilitated, in large part, through phenotype, which

offers another site of interrogation of racial representations in lola Leroy. Because she

has "Beautiful long hair [that] comes way down her back" and pretty blue eyes, Iola is

seen as "jis' ez white ez anybody's in dis place" (38). Likewise, because her eyes are blue

and her complexion as pale as white Dr. Gresham's, he sees no reason for Iola to persist

in her claim that she is colored (232). In these instances, Iola's race becomes equated

with her appearance. It is also appearance, this time Dr. Latimer's, that allows a challenge

to essentialist notions of racial identity when one character insists that "there are tricks of

the blood which always betray" those who are black (229). Yet by being represented

phenotypically, race becomes not simply a matter of appearance but also one of

"character," reflecting common nineteenth century eugenicist notions regarding the

interconnections between biology and behavior. As Captain Sybil asserts to Robert,

"what is the use of your saying you're a colored man, when you are as white as I am, and

as brave a man as there is among us" (43). By insisting that Robert should not consider

himself colored because he is brave, blackness becomes equated with cowardice and

whiteness with courage. Similarly, as in the description of Dr. Latimer, desirable

character traits are seemingly augmented in inverse proportion to the amount of black

blood in one's veins: "generations of blood admixture had effaced all trace of his negro

lineage. His complexion was blonde, his eye bright and piercing, his lips firm and well

moulded; his manner very affable; his intellect active and well stored with information"

(239). Positive physical and mental characteristics, according to this description, result

from racial intermixture, through the infusion of "superior white blood" into a "black"

body-a pervasive eugenicist notion that situates the text within nineteenth century

pseudo-scientific discourses of race and places it at odds with its aims of racial uplift.

This goal of racial uplift is reflected throughout the text in representations of race

as a political choice. The political necessity of aligning oneself with blackness is best

illustrated through Harry, who felt "as if two paths had suddenly opened before him, and

he was forced to choose between them. On one side were strength, courage, enterprise,

power of achievement, and memories of a wonderful past. On the other side were

weakness, ignorance, poverty, and the proud world's scorn" (125). Of course, class is

here collapsed into race, even though the novel elsewhere problematizes assumptions

which link poverty to blackness and wealth to whiteness. Nevertheless, Harry's dilemma

succinctly illustrates assumptions about what whiteness and blackness offer and about

what they are. Again, according to the dominant cultural imagination, whiteness has long

been constructed as the ivory tower-mainly associated with positive characteristics,

monolithic, impenetrable, pure, and strong. Blackness becomes the kettle

black-associated with the negative, inferior, dirty, weak; it is imagined as a container

for all that is not white. Though the novel describes the gains and losses that accompany

passing for white versus passing for black, it also makes clear that not all the gains

accompany a white identity. As Iola asserts, Harry "has greater advantages as a colored

man" (218) since she idealistically believes, "To be...the leader of a race to higher planes

of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their

souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material

prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment" (219). Moreover, Harry

acknowledges, "It was more than a matter of choice where he should stand on the racial

question. He felt that he must stand where he could strike the most effective blow" for

black freedom and improvement (126). Thus, for some, race becomes a political choice.5

And within lola Leroy, the most noble-though still problematized-choice is clearly

that of blackness.

Blackness is represented in terms of nobility most clearly through Tom Anderson,

who symbolizes the black martyr willing to surrender his life for others. Tom Anderson

"was a man of herculean strength and remarkable courage" (40) who single-handedly

saves his fellow soldiers by freeing their mired boat and pushing it toward open water; in

5 Of course, we must question whether there is much choice available in the negotiation of identity and to
whom such choices are allowed.

the process, he is rained upon by enemy bullets and mortally wounded. Through this act

of heroism, Tom becomes not only a martyr but a role model as well. He, who is depicted

as a dark-black man, becomes an object of praise and a subject to emulate. Additionally,

he remains perfect in glory, rather than wasting away in a death caused by sickness and

debilitation; he remains heroic and dies with strength and dignity. Tom's blackness, then,

takes on the noble qualities of his character-qualities of strength, courage, dignity,

selflessness, and goodness -once again problematizing the metaphorical associations of

blackness and whiteness.

Yet Tom's blackness as nobility is tempered by the suggestion that it is in death

that blacks achieve greatness. Indeed, before his death, Tom's blackness has been a

physical defect. The text acknowledges, "on account of physical defects, instead of

enlisting as a soldier, he was forced to remain a servant, although he felt as if every nerve

in his right arm was tingling to strike a blow for freedom" (40). These defects may very

well be the signs of Tom's blackness; after all, he is not educated and light-skinned like

Robert and Harry, who are strongly encouraged to join the ranks of those soldiers

struggling for freedom. Under the oppression of slavery, Tom's blackness was a

hindrance to mobility and self-determination. The result of such oppressive force is a

blackness that is deemed as defect, which remains an obstacle to be overcome in the

quest for such mobility and self-determination. Tom's death, then, instead of or in

addition to representing a noble martyrdom, may also represent the brutality inflicted on

blackness, a brutality necessitated by a climate that refuses to acknowledge Tom's full

humanity and participation.

Of course, the text struggles with these conflicting notions of race, not simply

suggesting that blackness is negative. As Iola attests, there is greater merit to be found in

her association with blackness than with whiteness, so long as material prosperity is not

the only gain considered. In fact, throughout lola Leroy, blackness often takes on

distinctly positive characteristics and whiteness, in contrast, acquires negative

associations. Because white men long denied their black children, whiteness, to some

extent, becomes synonymous with a denial of family.6 In fact, such would have been the

case had either Iola or Harry chosen to pass into whiteness and surrender all efforts to

locate her or his relatives. Because they both choose blackness and because this choice is

necessitated by a desire for family, blackness becomes equated with an embrace of the

family, of history, and of ancestors.

Additionally, the text also makes explicit that "white" religion is hypocritical.

When Robert claims to not "take much stock in white folks' religion," Tom responds, "I

think wen some of dem preachers brings de Bible 'round an' tells us 'bout mindin our

masters and not stealin' dere tings, dat dey preach to please de white folks..." (21).

"White" religion, from the men's discussion, is depicted as hypocritical and self-serving.

"Black" religion, in contrast, becomes a pure, valid, authentic religion because it involves

neither hypocrisy nor oppression of others. This view of black spirituality, as the

discussion of Jean Toomer in the next chapter will show, is influenced by eugenicist

thought which attempted to portray blacks as more connected to nature and the spiritual

and, hence, more capable of self-expression. Robert's claim that "the Bible is all right,

but some of these church folks don't get the right hand of it" (22) clearly indicates a

6 Whiteness also involves a denial of family in the sense that any non-white relatives are erased from
personal and familial memory.

rejection of organized religion as the means to understand the divine. Through this

character, the text rejects the intervention of white religion and white religious leaders

into black spirituality and claims blacks' own ability to read and understand the word of

God. Through the metaphor of religion-which may largely represent wisdom, justice,

and salvation--these characters claim the superiority of blackness and the inferiority of

whiteness. They problematize white religion, and, in so doing, they condemn those

characteristics of whiteness that are not wise, just, or saved.

The text further problematizes whiteness, in the sense of a white phenotype, by

not allowing it to become a fulfilled privilege for Iola. She sees "no necessity for

proclaiming [the fact that she is black] on the house-top. Yet [she is] resolved that

nothing shall tempt [her] to deny it" (208). Ann duCille argues that "claiming, rather than

denying, the invisible racial mark becomes an act of empowerment and...a declaration of

independence" (45).7 Yet Iola can only claim this independence because her blackness is

unmarked, freeing her to choose how she will be identified. Because of her refusal to hide

her black racial ancestry, she encounters suspicion and rejection on the part of white

supervisors and coworkers in the North who discover she is black. Thus, Iola's light

complexion and blue eyes liberate her to control her identification, yet they do not change

the fact that she is black since she is unwilling to deny that this is what she is.

Nevertheless, although both Iola and Harry choose blackness over whiteness,

there is an assumption that blackness has the potential to be repulsive to them. Inherent in

this assumption is the suggestion that blackness is, indeed, the kettle black-that it is

dirty, distasteful, common, and despised. The fact that both characters overcome

7 duCille's diction declares that Iola's only racial mark is invisible, resulting in the assumption that her
white phenotype cannot be racialized and contributing to the notion that whiteness is unraced.

whatever "natural" repulsion they may feel and step into blackness acts as a sign of the

mobility and privilege allowed by phenotype. Had they not such freedom, they may not

have surmounted their own internalized anxieties about blackness. Furthermore, although

lola claims that dark-skinned Lucille Delaney is her "ideal woman," readers can assume

that their model for emulation is not Lucille but Iola herself. Though lola may admire

Lucille's qualities, she escapes Lucille's confinement in a dictated, phenotypical

blackness. This blackness, though ostensibly offering an example of the race's potential,

is also constructed problematically. Because Harry initially feels repulsed at the idea of

associating closely with blacks, his eventual realization that he loves Lucille appears to

be a textual inconsistency that readers must overlook. In selecting a dark-skinned woman

as his wife, Harry exercises the privilege that he has as a light-skinned man making a

political choice to align himself with blackness. His marriage to Lucille can be seen as a

gesture which solidifies his claims to blackness and which reinforces the desirability of

black women as well as their right to participate in social conventions that will protect

their morality rather than make them vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Positively, this

marriage may function as a demonstration that black men, even those who look white, do

not always or necessarily desire white women, thereby commenting upon the social myth

which suggests all black men lust after white women. Yet the fact remains that between

Harry and Lucille there exists none of the symbolized sexual energy of Dr. Latimer's

marriage proposal to Iola. In fact, Harry's "proposal" to Lucille is filled with comedy,

misunderstanding, and the explicit claim that "there is a great deal of misplaced sentiment

at weddings" (277). The proposal is void of sexuality and sincere sentiment, reinforcing

the idea that Lucille cannot be as ideal as Iola.

Iola, furthermore, although accepting blackness, is placed outside the bounds of

nineteenth century constructions of blackness. She is refined and educated, retains

memories of a privileged childhood, and is courted by a white man. The novel's initial

narrative, however, suggests the impossibility of a successful interracial marriage. The

marriage of Eugene and Marie, Iola's parents, is one of inequality, one that is both

metaphorically and literally a relation between master and slave. Thus, the text suggests

the unlikelihood that blackness, in close association with whiteness, will be allowed true

happiness. Because Iola marries Dr. Latimer, and because their marriage is a partnership

between equals, both socially and racially, they are allowed such happiness. Of course,

although lola contains both blackness and whiteness within her, she finds no difficulty in

ignoring her whiteness once she is made aware of her blackness. The notion that

blackness and whiteness in close association will prohibit happiness often results in the

tragic mulatto character type for those individuals who wish to claim their whiteness

and/or deny their blackness. Iola is allowed happiness and life because she does not

acknowledge a racial conflict within herself, because she accepts the one-drop rule, and

because she marries a "black" man. This access to blackness through heterosexuality is a

prominent trope in discussions of mixed race, suggesting that mixed women may be

considered as women through their blackness-which, of course, is a notion distinctly at

odds with nineteenth century dictates that prohibited black women's classification as

women at all. Thus, lola avoids the tragic mulatto's fate, which literary narratives

historically reserve for those who reject hypodescent and insist on maintaining claims to


Race in the nineteenth century imagination was a complex idea, as its literary

representations attest. This complexity is clear in Harry's discussion of his racial identity.

Within one paragraph, Harry asserts that his racial identity is essential, that is, a matter of

biology ("after I found that I was colored"); he asserts that it is based on desire and

kinship ("I would be more apt to find my family if I joined a colored regiment" and "love

for my mother overcame all repugnance on my part"); and he asserts that it is both a

personal and a political choice ("at first I felt a shrinking from taking the step" and "Now

that I have linked my fortunes to the race I intend to do all I can for its elevation").8 This

textual confusion as to the nature of race is really a reflection of complex notions on

racial identity that were prevalent during the nineteenth century. Harper's text, overall,

offers an equally complex discussion of this identity, a discussion that highlights the

intricate and at times contradictory assumptions on the nature of blackness and whiteness

as well as assumptions that presume no one would willing climb into the kettle black.

Continued Crystallization

These nineteenth century crystallizations of race continue to influence ideologies

of race and mixed race. Perpetuated in the cultural imagination and taken up by literary

artists, metaphors of blackness and whiteness remain complex and often contradictory.

Likewise, the ways in which these metaphors influence understandings of mixed race is

equally complex. Although the social space may be opening for notions of racial mixture

that reject the hierarchy and opposition traditionally associated with race, stereotypical

assumptions regarding blackness and whiteness continue. In fact, as the discussion of

Jean Toomer in the next chapter illustrates, these nineteenth century crystallizations of

s See Harry's discussion with his mother on page 202.


race extended into the twentieth century and beyond, shaping notions of racial difference

and racial mixture.


Points of Departure

Apparently, my former mother-in-law was disturbed when her white son brought

me home to meet the family. She saw my brown skin as a sign of extreme, perhaps

insurmountable, difference and remarked on whether she could accept a "mulatto"

daughter-in-law. If I had been Asian or Latina, she admitted, I would have been easier to

accept; presumably in those cases I would have had whiter skin. Because my brown skin

was so readily visible, it took precedence over my upbringing and experience, both of

which were mainly within white communities. Ironically, since I had attended private

schools throughout my life and had lived with my white mother and grandmother, I likely

had less exposure to diversity than her son, who had attended a racially diverse public

high school. Nevertheless, my skin was a marker-perhaps the ultimate marker-of

difference that catapulted me outside of my own history and into a history of her

imagination, as her use of the word "mulatto" demonstrated. The word, linked as it is

with this country's violently oppressive past, was carried into the present with all of its

history in tow-a history filled with oppositional and hierarchical notions of difference.

Her use of this word, as well as her assumptions regarding my difference, illustrate both

the power of language to isolate and divide as well as the ease with which we allow a

body to represent the whole individual.

Of course, we are more than our bodies say we are, just as we are more than a

racial category can describe. Our bodies and our identities together play with socially-

established boundaries-sometimes they compete; sometimes they confuse; often they

challenge long-standing ideas that we take as given, as my former mother-in-law did

regarding my identity. We exist on borders of difference and sameness, of past and

present, of present and future. We may live on lines set up to divide black from white and

male from female; instead of dividing, however, we may unite the two regions; we may

be seen as the point where two halves unite into a whole rather than where those halves

are split. We may function as mediators, as meridians, as ones who, in the words of

mixed raced Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, "can balance strong contrasts, who

can combine opposing forms and forces in significant unity" (Essentials, XLIV).

Adamantly refusing to conform to the black identity that was thrust upon him, Toomer

sought to destabilize notions of race, a project that he attempts but which falters in Cane

(1923), as it couples essentializations of blackness with its confrontations of racist

hierarchies and histories. Such a tension within the text reflects Toomer's own struggles

with articulating an identity that acknowledges its various components while attempting

to maintain a proximity to the creativity and spirituality that popular eugenicist and social

Darwinist theories associated with blackness, which he feared he lacked. Because he did

not feel black but had been defined as non-white, he sought the combination of "opposing

forms and forces into a significant unity" through much of his life and work.

Such a utopian project was Toomer's self-defined artistic task in his book Cane

and in his poem "The Blue Meridian," a task in keeping with the aims of many

modernists prominent during the time Toomer wrote these works. The era between the

1920s and 1940s roughly isolates the modernist period in literature and the arts and

includes the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. During the modernist period, many people

in the United States faced alienation and self-doubt as society began a large-scale shift

away from communally oriented agrarian life toward technological and industrial

advancements that would change the way individuals saw themselves, their communities,

and the nation. Disillusioned and alienated, many intellectuals sought to make sense of a

seemingly chaotic world through their art; at the same time, many looked to modern (as

in contemporary) life as evidence of an evolutionary progression from what was viewed

as the primitivism of the past to modern and future advancement. Concomitant with these

complex views of modernity as both fragmenting and progressive were parallel ideas

regarding the past as a place of wholeness and connection as well as a place of the

archaic and static. Using increasingly widespread and popularized ideas regarding

evolution, notions of social progress and stasis were applied to social groups through

eugenics and social Darwinism. These ideologies relied on long-standing associations

between dualities, such as connections made between races and their presumed

characteristics-for example, those associations summarized in the metaphors of the

ivory tower and the kettle black. During the modernist period, certain groups could be

deemed pre-modern-even though they existed alongside their modern

counterparts-through their connection to certain "primitive" ideas, lifestyles,

occupations, even geographical locations. For many North American modernists, rural

black "folk" were the contemporary representation of a primitive past; they were history

existing temporally alongside the present. Rural black folk, then, were represented as a

primitive group that was dying under the march of modernization while whites and urban

blacks were being carried by the march into a progressive future. Of course, given the

complex ideas regarding the modern and pre-modern, rural blacks were thought to

embody both the negative associations with the primitive--a sense of oldness, lack of

progress, lack of civilized reason and advancement, etc. -as well as the primitive's

positive associations -a sense of innocence, innate spirituality, capability of sensual

expression, connection with the natural world, boundless creative energy. These positive

characteristics, moreover, were all assumed to be dying in the fragmenting chaos of

modernity. Thus, many modernist intellectuals sought access to these positive

characteristics assumed inherent in "primitive" races in order that advancing individuals

might enter the future with the sense of wholeness and self-expression allowed by a

perceived past.

In lamenting this potential loss of the black folk spirit in the face of

modernization, Toomer and other modernist intellectuals also recognized that the future

was full of potential. Toomer's vision was a utopian one that relied on eugenicist notions

of human development to suggest the possibility of racial evolution. Through this vision,

Toomer attempted to decrystallize (some) accepted notions of race and to champion the

possibility of a new understanding of race and racial categories in the United States; these

efforts advocated a New American identity that would act as a fusion of diverse types and

that would acknowledge the American history of racial mixture. In this notion of uniting

the disparate, Toomer is an artist whose work aids analysis of many later twentieth

century writers of mixed race, and his work is a direct precursor to current multiracial

discourse that seeks to unify seemingly oppositional races within the bodies of mixed

raced individuals. Such discourse claims that those of mixed race offer the prospect of

moving beyond race and racial categories by blending diverse elements into a unified

whole. Elimination of racial categories, this discourse claims, leaves open the possibility

of uniting people within the "human" race or based on American nationality in the United

States-the former being a utopian notion that, at times, ignores differences, perpetuates

colorblindness, and fosters homogenization and the latter being a problematic notion that

attempts to eliminate racial conflict by supplanting it with the equally divisive ideology

of nationalism.

Earlier in the twentieth century, many modernist intellectuals sought to re-

imagine a national identity and also looked to race in efforts to reconnect intellectually

and artistically with a source of creativity and meaning in an alienating and chaotic time.

For mixed raced Toomer, such a goal was also personal as he desired connection to his

black heritage and the positive "pre-modern" characteristics of rural black life. After a

trip to Sparta, Georgia, his first immersion into black southern culture,' Toomer produced

the first fragments of Cane, and, with them, began his search for connection to an

unknown and (he seems to have feared) unembodied black ancestry. This "blood"

connection would allow him creativity and self-expression without jeopardizing his

existence as a modern intellectual striding into the progressive future. As Tace Hedrick

writes, Toomer--like many other modernists-was

steeped in an intellectual and cultural milieu which felt the express need to
connect itself with some 'primitive' or premodern source of creative
energies ... for many modernists at the time, a world set 'back' in time
might provide a different, and even protective, space from which to derive
a sense of wholeness over against the seemingly fragmented and
increasingly secularized modern world. (39)

'Toomer was raised in the elite mixed raced society that existed in Washington, DC, at the turn of the

Toomer's self-highlighted racial mixture connected him with the life and creativity of the

black American past while ensuring against his own intellectual and artistic demise as

that past died. Although Toomer's interest in this primitive past was in part personal, he

also sought a general renewal of the spiritual and sensual expression that was being

ignored if not actively spumed by an industrializing society:

They are passing. Let us grab and hold them while there is still time.
Segregation and laws may retard this solution. But in the end, segregation
will either give way, or it will kill. Natural reservations do not come from
unnatural laws.... A few generations from now, the negro will still be
dark, and a portion of his psychology will spring from this fact, but in all
else he will be a conformist to the general outlines of American
civilization, or of American chaos. (quoted in Hutchinson 234)2

Amidst the rural black folk of Sparta, Toomer was able to glimpse a way of life

he felt was vanishing and to record this life in Cane: "O Negro slaves, dark purple

ripened plums / Squeezed, and bursting in the pine-wood air / Passing, before they

stripped the old tree bare / One plum was saved for me, one seed becomes / An

everlasting song" (14). The text insists that the rural folk life of blacks-expressed

throughout Cane in images of dusk, darkness, purple, pine, and cane-was passing, as it

was for all America in the face of modernization. At the same time, the persona in "Song

of the Son" links himself with his black ancestors, providing through his body a link

between past and future; using agrarian images that depict blacks as a full component of

the natural landscape, the persona is depicted as a seed that should carry the essence and

positive characteristics of blackness into the future. However, in "Harvest Song," he

cannot fully connect with his blackness; he works alongside the black workers in the

fields, yet he cannot call to them, nor can he hear their calls to him. Additionally, his eyes

2 Toomer to Waldo Frank, box 3, folder 84, Jean Toomer Papers.

are "caked with dust" and his "throat is dry. [He] hunger[s]." When he finally cracks a

grain, "it has no taste to it" (71). Thus, the poem's speaker can find no access to

blackness, to the essential spirit he believes it offers. He can merely hold the shell, the

outer crust, but cannot attain the life it should hold inside. Moreover, the poem's images

suggest that the persona himself is merely a husk, someone whose identity has been

conceived as blackness but someone who, nevertheless, cannot express blackness from

within. The alienation and loss of spirituality suggested by this poem, then, make it

(hyper-) modernist in a sense; the poem's speaker cannot access blackness and this

blackness, itself, is passing under the grinding wheels of modernization. Blackness is the

bloodied victim of the ever-advancing machine he describes in the poem "Reapers."3

As a response to anxieties regarding the loss of the past and its imagined

wholeness, Cane aims to gather the gems of the past and use them as treasures for the

future while it simultaneously laments the potential loss of folk expression, which is a

prominent theme in many of the poems throughout, most notably "Song of the Son" and

"Georgia Dusk." The former poem sings of the importance of black heritage and folk

culture. The Negro slaves, it argues, and their connection to what Toomer considered

spiritually authentic were "passing." Yet before they passed away, "before they stripped

the old tree bare," they saved one plum and "one seed becomes an everlasting song, a

singing tree," preserved within the language of the poem. From that song of the son

emerge "softly the souls of slavery, what they were, and what they are" (14). "Georgia

Dusk," speaks of ancestral memory, those memories of "king and caravan, High-priests,

an ostrich, and a juju-man" kept alive in the midst of sawmills and buzz-saws. As the

3 In "Reapers," Toomer writes, "Black horses drive a mower through the weeds./And there, a field rat,
startled, squealing bleeds./His belly close to ground. I see the blade,/Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds

blacks make "folk-songs from soul sounds," clearly implying a connection to their

natural selves, they complete a spiritual union above the "sacred whisper of the pines."

Additionally, the poem suggests that, through their spirituality, the singers are able to

make the profane holy, to "give virgin lips to cornfield concubines" (15).

Cane is a montage of genres-combining poetry, vignettes, and a longer story that

had been envisioned originally for the stage. Its three sections move the reader through

the spaces in which blacks found themselves at the turn of the twentieth century in the

United States. Part I is set in the rural South, where, according to the author, black and

mixed raced individuals still can encounter what is both beautiful and violent about their

history. Here, they can connect with the folk culture of their forebears, but here they also

must contend with the racism those forebears suffered. Part II takes place in the urban

North, where the characters are disconnected from their past and alienated from others by

the pressures of modernity. Part III consists of "Kabnis," the story of a mixed raced man

who leaves the urban North to better understand and connect with his origins in the rural

South. Kabnis, unable to fully embrace the South, which is depicted with both its

nurturing folk culture and its brutal racism, illustrates the modern dilemma of entering the

future without forsaking the past. This dilemma is addressed throughout Cane, as Toomer

addresses philosophical and ontological questions regarding the meanings of race within

given spatial and temporal contexts-namely, within the text, Toomer aims to understand

black life in the rural South and the urban North at a time when society was being carried

by the tides of modernization. In addition, Toomer seeks to work through issues of racial

mixture in an effort to carry what is valuable about black folk culture-deemed to be the

and shade" (Collected Poems 23).

primitive link with the past-into the progressive white culture that threatened rural

blackness with demise. Cane both privileges racial mixture and exhibits significant

anxieties surrounding it. Within Cane, racial mixture, despite seeming for Toomer to be a

natural occurrence when people were freed from inhibitions, often results in tragedy due

to social prohibitions. Moreover, Cane demonstrates the potential of racial mixture itself

to jeopardize the folk spirit of black Americans when racially mixed individuals abandon

their connection to their black heritage.

Modernist discourses such as Toomer's sought a union of various "types" of

people under a nationalist umbrella that maintained many dominant racist assumptions.

During the modernist period, such work was eugenicist in nature and was being

attempted by numerous intellectuals, artists, and officials both in the United States and in

other countries-for example, in Mexico where the work of artists such as Frida Kahlo

and Diego Rivera and of officials such as Jos6 Vasconcelos, Minister of Education,

attempted to rescue the positive characteristics of the indigenous population, who

embodied the past, before this population met its demise. Toomer, similarly concerned

with the past and the future, paused in the present to encapsulate the moment in which

one must determine how to bring what is valuable about yesterday into always

approaching tomorrow. Cane is the capsule in which this moment is captured; it is the

fulcrum between the past, assumed to be vanishing, and the future, assumed to be

imminent. While it grapples with the anxieties of modernity, the text also argues that the

past must be carried into the future, that the present always contains traces of the past.

However, while the text demonstrates that history is not linear, it still struggles with what

it believes to be a linearity between the past, present, and future. Although it

acknowledges that the past's treasures can be carried into the present moment and

beyond, it still envisions the present as a moment of balance and shift. Within this vision,

Toomer draws upon images and metaphors of meridians-metaphors of in-betweenness,

of dusk and dawn, of black and white, of male and female-and uses mixed raced

identities, including the metaphor of the New American, and mixed raced relationships to

isolate these meridians--these points of contact, departure, and change. He uses these

meridian images to play with understandings of race and gender, with notions of

difference and hierarchy, and with the possibilities of self-expression. His meridian

metaphors, in turn, provide a point of departure from reified notions of race and

difference for analysis of later writers concerned with mixed race.

Mixed raced characters in general and mixed raced women in particular function

as meridian figures within Cane, and their portrayals reveal modernist struggles to foster

full self-expression, to find meaning in ambiguities, and to locate points of balance within

opposition. In fact, within Cane "women are more metaphors than people. As metaphors

they are ambiguous and multitextured. They are representative of the Southern black

lyrical world that is dying; they are the objects of male desire; they are the battleground

on which white and black males contend for dominance and validity" (Peckham 283).

The text's treatment of these women, then, is consistent with understandings of women as

sites of contestation between races and among men. These women's bodies, as in other

texts of mixed race, become the ground on which the fate of races is decided and the

perpetuation or demise of races is assured. The illustration of women in Cane exhibits

tensions over modern fears of alienation and fragmentation and highlights modern

anxieties regarding the future.

Overall, Cane questions-notably through the alienation its male and female

characters experience in attempting to relate-the utopian visions of the future that it

proposes through racial mixture. However, Toomer's poem "The Blue Meridian," which

was published in 1932 but over which he had labored for at least fifteen years, expands

his utopian vision of the future as the site where individuals may overcome alienation and

connect, both with each other and with their full selves, embodying meridians that unite

disparate parts. Although less visionary in its utopian ideology than "The Blue Meridian,

Cane is visionary in its unique form-which plays with the genres of poetry, drama, and

fiction--and also in its aim to locate a site for renewed self-expression at a time when

Toomer, among others, found the world alienating and even dangerous to the

understanding and articulation of identities. When Toomer published Cane in 1923, it

was a brilliant success, and Toomer became known as a new voice for black Americans.

Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, who had or would become

significant voices in the Harlem Renaissance, were notably influenced by the book, and

numerous other black and white authors greatly appreciated its merits. White author

Sherwood Anderson called Toomer's early efforts the first work that seemed to him to be

"really negro."4 Anderson's statement is ironic, given the fact that Toomer never claimed

to be black himself. It is true, however, that Toomer drew inspiration from the black

community, having said that

within the last two or three years ... my growing need for artistic
expression has pulled me deeper and deeper into the Negro group. As my
powers of receptivity increased, I found myself loving it in a way that I
could never love the other. It has stimulated and fertilized everything of
worth that I have done.5

4 Letter from Anderson to Toomer, dated December 22, 1922.
5 Letter from Toomer to The Liberator, dated August 19, 1922.

As Cane and many of Toomer's other works confront the realities of race-based

hierarchies, they concurrently exhibit hierarchies based on essentialisms of blackness that

were common during the modernist period. Toomer, like many others influenced by

eugenicist and social Darwinist ideologies, believed blacks had more ability or tendency

to express their emotions and release such expressions physically.6 Perhaps in part

because of these essentialisms linking blacks with the body, the intellectual, urban, mixed

raced Toomer could never strictly identify himself solely with the black community.

Instead, Toomer's black identity was thrust upon him from the outside. Publishers and

fellow authors identified him as black, and at times he allowed such identification; on

other occasions, however, Toomer insisted that identifying him as black was an

inadequate representation of his heritage, and he thoroughly resisted the notion that he

might identify as black to the exclusion of his other ancestries. When Toomer did resist

what he deemed the restricting identification of singular blackness, he was claimed to

have repudiated his black heritage and denied his blackness.

Scholars have speculated on several reasons why Toomer may have "denied" his

blackness. It is possible that Toomer's grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback, lied about his

heritage, claiming African-American ancestry in order to win political support for his

office as governor of Louisiana during the Reconstruction period following the Civil

War. Toomer himself could have felt that inclusion of his works in wider categories of

literature may have been easier had he not been identified as a Negro. Similarly, Toomer

may have felt that denial of his blackness may have allowed him to escape threat from

6 It might also be assumed from his statement that Toomer prioritized whiteness and blackness as if there
were no other races to be considered. This, however, would be an essentialization of Toomer's beliefs, for
he clearly acknowledged the many races that were joined within his own body.

white supremacist groups, which were gaining strength at the time Toomer published his

ground-breaking first book. Alternatively, Toomer may have wanted to write as a

"human," to avoid restrictions implicit in a strictly defined racial identification. Jewish

author Waldo Frank, Toomer's friend and mentor, wrote in a letter to Toomer, "You take

your race or your races naturally, as the white man takes his." Frank, clearly, is

acknowledging the fact that whiteness can be ignored in a way that blackness cannot

since whiteness is taken to be the universal referent. For Toomer to "take his race

naturally," then, implies that he did not limit his identification to that which was only

black. However, it was precisely Toomer's ability to identify with and communicate the

experience of black Americans in Cane that encouraged others to label him as a black

man. Finally, Toomer may have reached a point where racial identification itself was

undesirable to him. This final possibility is among the most likely, given Toomer's

attitudes-about race in general and mixed race in particular--which he delineated in

many of his letters, in his unpublished, semi-autobiographical novels, and his works such

as Cane and "The Blue Meridian."

Far from denying his blackness during the years surrounding Cane's publication,

as most critics have mistakenly claimed, Toomer adopted a position that acknowledged

none of his ancestral "races" above the others. He wrote:

As near as I can tell, there are seven race bloods within this body of mine.
French, Dutch, Welsh, Negro, German, Jewish, and Indian.... One half
of my family is definitely white, the other, definitely colored. For my own
part, I have lived equally amid the two groups. And, I alone, as far as I
know, have striven for a spiritual fusion analogous to the fact of racial
intermingling... Viewed from the world of race distinctions, I take the
color of whatever group I am sojourning in. As I become known, I shall
doubtless be classed as Negro. I shall neither fight nor resent it. There will

be more truth than they know in what they say, for my writing takes much
of its worth from that source.7

Despite Toomer's claim to accept classification as a Negro, it is true that on several

occasions he explicitly contends that he is "not a Negro." He once announced, "As for

being a Negro, this of course, I am not--neither biologically nor socially..... In

biological fact, I am, as are all Americans, a member of a new people that is forming in

this country. If we call this people the Americans, then biologically and racially I am an

American...As long as I have been conscious of the issues involved, I have never

identified myself with any single racial or social group."8 Toomer seems not to have

intended a denial of his blackness by such contentions; rather, he intended an affirmation

of his composite parts. Thus, Toomer struggled with claiming an identity that was both

diverse and American during a time when being American meant being white. For

Toomer, being modern involved a confrontation with "old" bodies and new possibilities.9

These possibilities, in turn, suggested a unification of what formerly had been distinct:

various races in one body, diverse peoples in one nation. In articulating this potential

unity, Toomer offered visions of a New America, a vision of America that moved beyond

the divisions of race, gender, and nationalism to the utopian understanding of universal

humanity and unification suggested by the meridian metaphor.

7 Letter from Toomer to Double Dealer editor John McClure, dated June 30, 1922.
8 From A Fiction and Some Facts, a privately published autobiography of 1931.
9 By "old," I am referring to those bodies that were not considered new, modern-namely, the bodies of
minorities. Rather, these bodies were marked as primitive, as bodies that belonged to history and which,

Dividing Lines

This meridian metaphor functions in Cane and "The Blue Meridian" in contrast to

accepted ideas of divisive difference between races, genders, bodies, even

eras-confronting the isolation and alienation that accompanied modernity. Cane

articulates the problems and potentialities of modernism as well as possible responses to

modernity and modernization and confronts the challenge of locating within modernizing

society those bodies that had been coded as not modern, as pre-modern and even

primitive-the bodies of rural black folk in the U.S. South. Faced with the challenge of

resituating these primitive bodies, of redefining these "old" bodies as new or of

suggesting the necessary site these old bodies occupied in a modern map of America,

Toomer articulated a New American identity-his most utopian meridian metaphor-that

likely was generated by personal motivations, for his was a body that did not fit

compactly into the modern world. Instead, his body seeped across the boundaries of the

molds he had been offered in which to situate himself. Having been characterized

throughout his literary career as a black man, Toomer nevertheless did not feel that he

embodied an "authentic" blackness. He did, unsuccessfully, attempt to grasp a black

heritage that, through notions that primitivized blackness and were proliferated through

modernist discourses, he felt would bring him access to his own spirituality and

creativity. In seeking to unify opposites within himself, he sought to become a point of

contact and metamorphosis, a meridian, like America itself. Thus, though he claimed to

seek the eradication of nationalisms, he-like many other artists and intellectuals during

the modernist era-considered America as the site where cultures met and merged,

ostensibly, should not exist alongside the "modem" bodies (those that were conflated with potential and
progress) of the present.

forming a new culture, a new America. Toomer clearly involved himself in the modernist

project of restructuring various parts in order to form something new, in this case, an

understanding of American-ness that was decidedly multiracial.

Toomer, however, essentially abandoned his struggle to promote the vision of a

universal race after his introduction to Quakerism and his involvement with the Society

of Friends beginning in 1940. His work during this period clearly shows an alignment

with whiteness, and the images of his poems during this phase associate whiteness with

higher spirituality and goodness and associate darkness with negativity and degradation.

There is an insistence on both white and blue as positive, indicating that Toomer has

shifted markedly from his earlier use in Cane of the colors dusk and purple to signify

spirituality and a positive connection to the natural world. In fact, during this phase in

Toomer's writing, he reverses his earlier reverence for nature and, instead, offers his first

degrading image of it: "As the white bird leaves the dirty nest" (Collected Poems 94).

Clearly, the natural world has lost its positive connotations here; in "The Chase," Toomer

envisions a white bird that must free itself from the grim of its material existence in order

to "merge in the blue" (94). Toomer offers the ascetic vision that the soul must unchain

itself from the degradation of the body in order to reach transcendence. Additional

organic images, like those offered in "Our Growing Day," seem to suggest that humans

should be "plowed" and "planted" like the fertile earth. No longer is the mere connection

to the natural world the assurance of spiritual health; rather, the human body becomes the

"hard and encrusted" ground in which the soul is planted. Only by being plowed "deeply"

will this ground enable the seed to "spring up and grow splendidly." Here, fertility and

darkness are positioned as opposites and the positive growth is directed upwards and

outwards-rather than downwards, as roots into the soil, which is a prominent image in

Cane (97).

Before this period in which Toomer sought to transcend the material world and

identify himself based solely on spirituality, he struggled to define himself in a way that

would connect him-socially white-with his ancestral blackness, which popular

discourses of the time associated with creativity and spirituality.'1 In so doing, he called

for a re-identification of all Americans that would incorporate the diversity found in

almost all Americans' ancestry. This "American" vision of Toomer's is truly modernist

in that it functions as a response to the alienation and chaos prevalently felt during this

era. Toomer's American vision and his work in Cane and "The Blue Meridian," like the

responses of numerous other artists and intellectuals of the period, attempt to apprehend

connections and order, to move beyond imposed boundaries, and to find meaning in the

midst of the seemingly meaningless. Additionally, it, like other modernist works, was a

distinct break with what had proceeded it, both in form and in its often positive

representation of rural black life.

There is evidence in Cane of Toomer's desire to locate a new site for expression

of his notion of an "American" identity since the text explores the restrictions placed on

individuals due to racism and sexism. Cane is, in part, a book about self-expression and

the forces that work to limit such expression, a theme that was clearly important to

Toomer, given his struggles to define himself in more inclusive terms than society

normally allows. For Toomer, such self-expression involved uniting in meridian form the

disparate components of his heritage; as he wrote, "in life nothing is only physical; there

10 Moreover, Toomer's name was self-created. Originally named Nathan Eugene Toomer after his absent
father, he eventually took the name Jean.

is also the symbolical. White and Black. West and East. North and South. Light and

Darkness. In general, the great contrasts. The pairs of opposites. And I, together will all

other I's, am the great reconciler" (quoted in Jones 11). In both Toomer's life and his

writings through his involvement, which ended in 1936, with the spiritualist and mystic

G.I. Gurdjieff," this metaphor of meridian existence is prominent as he undertakes the

modernist project of reconciling opposites into a new whole. Such reconciliation is

clearly attempted in Cane, as Toomer juxtaposes black and white, North and South, male

and female-those pairs of opposites that both dominate and restrict lives. For example,

in "Seventh Street," Toomer provides a juxtaposition of white and black lives, "a crude-

boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love,

thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed

wood of Washington" (41). Blackness, then, has the ability to "split" the "stale soggy

wood" of the white world and infuse it with black life, black "rhythms." It is clear that

Toomer-like many other modernists influenced by studies in anthropology, evolution,

and social Darwinism-found blacks to be more in touch with their emotions and

physical selves; they had the potential to infuse such life into white urbanity, but they

also faced the threat of being subdued by that white world that was the vanguard of

modernization and urbanism. The characters in Part II, for instance, all suffer the

inhibition of their physical and emotional selves due to their distance from the South and

from its land. The city, then, becomes a threatening force with the power to limit self-

expression and foster alienation.

" Toomer's ideas regarding mysticism, cosmic consciousness, and self-realization were facilitated through
his association with Gurdjieff, who founded a commune of which Toomer was a member for some years.

In contrast, the rural South, though vanishing in the face of modernization,

remains in Toomer's imagination a place where blacks are connected to the earth and

therefore capable of knowing and expressing their inner selves and desires. Although

Toomer's positive representation of rural southern black life in many of Cane's poems

was a marked departure from traditional representations of black Americans, he did not

completely reject stereotypical representations. In truth, his depictions of rural blacks

imply that they, along with women, are more natural, physical, and emotional. Whites,

then, become depicted as more industrial and intellectual. Thus, the juxtaposition of rural

and urban, North and South becomes synonymous with the juxtaposition of black and

white, a juxtaposition also assumed to occur within mixed raced bodies such as

Toomer's. Although blacks had the potential to infuse "life" and spirituality into white

society, the transplantation of rural blacks into urban centers threatened to remove them

from the sustenance they drew from a close connection with nature and the earth. Similar

anxieties surrounded mixed raced bodies; because Toomer feared that his own access to

the fruits of "primitive" blackness had been impeded and because modernist thought held

that such blackness faced certain demise, he sought to grasp these benefits and carry them

into the future, blending blackness and whiteness into a modern hybrid symbolized by his

own body.

In "Box Seat," whose characters are removed from rural black southern life,

mixed raced Dan and Muriel are prevented from expressing their true feelings and are

separated with an almost physical barrier by Mrs. Pribby, the white proprietor of Muriel's

boarding house, whose knock on the door becomes a "cool thick glass between them"

(63). Muriel, especially, is confined by social pressures; the house in which she lives

becoming a "sharp-edged, massed, metallic house. Bolted" about them (60). When they

arrive at the theater, the people seem to Dan to be machines bolted into their seats

because they have internalized the social demands that restrict their natural selves. Only

one large black woman with a "soil-soaked fragrance" and "strong roots [that] sink down

and spread under the river and disappear in blood-lines that waver south" is still

connected to her true self (65). She alone is not confined to her box seat, not locked into

the mechanics of the city, but violates the spatial boundaries that are dictated. Seated next

to her, Dan lets his hands follow her south-bound roots, "his heart beats violently. He

places his palms upon the earth to cool them...He sees all the people in the house rush to

the walls to listen to the rumble. A new-world Christ is coming up" (65). Encountering

what he considers to be authentic blackness, Dan tries to capture some of its essence, to

place his hands upon its soil to cool the fever and restlessness he experiences in the city's

mechanical grasp. In his reverie for this authentic blackness, Dan senses the coming of

the messiah, a modernist response that links salvation through connection to the past, to

the earth, to an essential primitivism rarely encountered in the city. Dan realizes he, like

this woman, does not fit within the boundaries and confines of the city, a place where

emotion, even violence, is not experienced authentically but only through caricature, as

the fighting dwarves on stage become a grotesque stand-in for physical and emotional

expression. Muriel remains caught between social pressures -which dictate that she must

accept a blood-spattered rose offered her by one of the dwarves--and her desire to

express her true feelings of revulsion at the offer. And Dan, disgusted by Muriel's stasis,

leaves the theater with the shout that "Jesus was once a leper" (69)- suggesting that

through their isolation and conformity, individuals reject the means of their salvation.

Through Dan's response to "authentic" blackness and his insistence that individuals

disallow connection, Toomer attempts to highlight, and thereby erase, boundaries.

Toomer's aim to juxtapose dichotomies and eliminate boundaries points to

meridians between seemingly diverse locations and is aptly illustrated when Dan tells

Muriel, "Life bends joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, in such a way that no one may

isolate them. No one should want to. Perfect joy, or perfect pain, with no contrasting

element to define them, would mean a monotony of consciousness, would mean death"

(62). As joy and pain define each other, then, so do black and white, North and South.

Cane illustrates that ideas are defined in terms of their opposites, that dualities constitute

each other. Toomer's desire to reject fixed identifications and to embrace dualities, a

desire seen in his own life and in his work, reflects utopian ideologies, and Toomer

clearly saw himself as representative of a New American type. His utopian New

American metaphor of racial mixture presented a contrast with traditional depictions that

offered only tragedy or conformity to those of mixed race. This New American, then,

would allow a fusion of opposites, would accelerate a consciousness that refused to

impose a hierarchy within dichotomies and, instead, would represent a "new" utopian

individual who might usher in a social utopia. This utopia is most hopefully mapped out

in "The Blue Meridian"; in Cane, which ultimately is ambivalent about the possibility of

achieving such a utopia, racial mixture is surrounded by anxiety as well as potential, and

the text often illustrates the idea that race mixing leads to tragedy. However, the tragedy

suggested is not necessitated because of any inherent conflict between races but because

of the forces of modernization that limit connections among people and because of

societal pressures that restrict free expression of one's true self and nature.

In the story "Bona and Paul," for instance, the title characters are confined by

society into fixed racial groups that allow no expression of attraction between those

groups. Paul, a biracial young man, and Bona, a Southern white young woman

transplanted in the North, are drawn to each other by a mutual attraction. Yet Paul

understands that "people saw, not attractiveness in his dark skin, but difference. Their

stares, giving him to himself, filled something long empty within him, and were like

green blades sprouting in his consciousness" (76). He recognizes that he is defined by

others as a black man-and that he is considered overtly sexual as a result-despite his

mixed heritage. This, at least, offers a sense of self, even if it is not of his own creation.

And, like the promise of new grass in the springtime, this definition can offer hope for the

future, provided he maintain the path chosen for him. Paul, though, does not walk the

straight and narrow path that would define him as a member of the black community

without permission to transgress his boundaries. After Bona expresses her "love" for

him, he decides to risk a relationship with her. As he and Bona leave a restaurant

together, Paul runs back to inform the doorman, "I came back to tell you, brother, that

white faces are petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out

and gather petals" (80). However, when Paul attempts to rejoin Bona, he discovers that

she is gone. She has been overcome by her own socially induced sense of propriety.

Thus, though these characters attempt to foster the outward expression of their inward

selves, although they exist on the cusp of possibilities for breaking through barriers, they

are thwarted by the dictates of society. Although they exist as meridian figures who

might link north and south, black and white, male and female they are expected to live on

one side of the dividing line-Paul must be a northern black man and Bona a southern

white woman, each isolated from the other and locked into the confines of social

expectations. They cannot reach the full expression of themselves within the confines of

the urban center where they live, nor can they achieve the potential Toomer imagined for

race mixture.

Other characters in Cane are equally doomed to suffer because they dare

transgress the boundaries that society dictates based upon race. There is Becky, for

example, "the white woman who had two Negro sons" (7). Because of her obvious

relationship with a black man, the town ostracizes her and her sons. Yet the townspeople

recognize their responsibility for Becky and their need for her as the figure against which

to define themselves, and they provide her with a place to live "on the narrow strip of

land between the railroad and the road" (7). Becky is, thus, a meridian character, both

symbolically and actually. She is caught in between the white and black worlds, accepted

in neither. Likewise, she is situated between the past (represented by the road) and the

future (represented by the railroad), and by being a liminal character, she essentially

maintains the borders between black and white, past and future. Even her sons are locked

in between two traditional worlds: "White or colored? No one knew, least of all

themselves" (8). In the end, Becky is buried under the phallic chimney in her home when

it collapses upon her as the train rolls by. Although the narrator and his companion

imagine they hear a groan from beneath the rubble, they do not investigate. They merely

toss a bible upon the heap and rush to town, where the citizens await the details of

Becky's death. Through the townspeople's clandestine support of Becky and her sons,

they have allowed racial blending while managing it through marginalization; publicly

they ignore her, though they offer her furtive assistance. Although some scholars suggest

that the effects of progress have killed Becky since her house collapses due to the passing

train, it may be equally surmised that social dictates have killed her; having heard

Becky's groan, the narrator and his companion cannot investigate or save her life because

the townspeople refuse to acknowledge their involvement with and support of her.

Similarly, the characters in "Blood-Burning Moon" are depicted as doomed to

suffer because of strictures imposed upon them. Louisa, the black cook for a wealthy

white family, is desired by both Tom Burwell, a black field laborer, and Bob Stone, the

son of the family for whom she works. The men are both compelled to possess her,

though she really desires Tom. Bob, for his part, finds her lovely "in her way. Nigger

way. What was that? Damned if he knew." Additionally, he wonders if there were

"something about niggers that you couldn't know" (33). Perhaps what Bob Stone finds

puzzling is the connection implied throughout Cane of rural blacks and the past. In

implying that blackness is more primitive and more closely associated with emotions than

with conscious thought, the text also implies that blackness is the unconscious of

whiteness and is, therefore, unknowable. The first section of the book presents scenes

illustrating the free expression enabled in blacks by their proximity to folk culture, with

its suggestions of authenticity, spirituality, and nobility. When they are removed from

this source of authenticity (through a migration North, for example) or when they are

inhibited (through social or religious dictates), they loose both their ability to express

themselves and their seemingly inherent vibrancy. The latter is illustrated in "Blood-

Burning Moon" when, on the night of a full moon, Tom and Bob fight for Louisa. Louisa

and Tom cannot express their full attraction to each other because they are inhibited by

Bob, who cannot accept her attraction to Tom and who feels he has a right to Louisa

since he is a white man. In fact, he laments the passing of the old days, when he could

have gone in "as a master should and took her. Direct, honest, bold" (33). As a result,

Bob is knifed to death and Tom is lynched, illustrating the tragedies resulting from social

imperatives that restrict natural desires; the same imperatives restrict the expression of

more complex identities than historically allowed.

Women in the text are depicted with the least ability to follow their own desires;

they are depicted as bodies moving virtually unconsciously through life, being carried by

custom and the courses of male desire. Those who do attempt to follow their own desires,

such as Esther, are thwarted. In "Blood-Burning Moon," Louisa becomes a meridian

figure, as she is desired by both black and white men who fight to the death to claim her.

The deaths of both men suggest, of course, the tragedy that results from social shackles

placed on natural desires, illustrating that it is not the desires themselves that are harmful

but rather the denial and social control of them. Because Bob Stone's whiteness allows

him to assume black and mixed raced women as his property, he cannot abide the thought

of a black man with Louisa; because Tom's natural desires for Louisa must be subjugated

to customs that allow white men access to her, he has no social rights to a relationship

with her.

In the second section, women remain subject to social dictates, sometimes

because they are removed from the South where, presumably, they would be closer to

nature and to their own desires. Muriel in "Box Seat," for example, is unable to explore

her attraction to Dan because the world of the urban North, represented by Mrs. Pribby,

interferes with the expression of her emotions. In "Bona and Paul," the characters long to

follow their desires for each other, but tradition and alienation from the natural self

interfere. Bona's emotions initially overcome her physically when she faints while

playing basketball with Paul; subsequently, when it seems she and Paul will explore a

relationship with one another, she disappears. Other women, such as Avey and the

character in "Calling Jesus" are depicted as alienated from their own souls because they

are removed from their heritage through displacement in the urban North. They are

shown sleeping through life, living unconsciously, rather than embodying the vibrancy

that the text suggests may result from connection to the heritage of black folk culture.

Like the women within the text who are forced to repress their emotions and

desires rather than allow the spontaneous expression of them, the men in the text are

similarly confined by social norms. Cane questions the meanings and limits of black male

sexuality and demonstrates numerous failures and miscommunications that thwart these

men's expression of their sexuality, desires, and emotions. In "Rhobert," for instance, the

title character is depicted with a house upon his head. Weighed down by the pressures of

domesticity and urban life, Rhobert "cares not two straws as to whether or not he will

ever see his wife and children again. Many a time he's seen them drown in his dreams

and has kicked about joyously in the mud for days after" (42). And in "Theatre," John is

a man unable to fully integrate and enjoy his sexuality; his "body is separate from the

thoughts that pack his mind [which is] contained above desires of his body" (52). In this

section, women again are made to conform to social pressures as dancers are brought in

line by strict choreography: "Soon the director will herd you, my full-lipped, distant

beauties, and tame you, and blunt your sharp thrusts in loosely suggestive movements,

appropriate to Broadway .... Soon the audience will paint your dusk faces white, and call

you beautiful" (52). The women are animalized as they are herded into conformity, and

they are simultaneously removed from their natural selves through accommodation to

public tastes.

The text reiterates, then, that removal from black heritage, including its

connection to the earth, and forced conventions within the confines of urbanity result in

the loss of self-expression and the ability to follow -even to recognize--one's own

desires. Although Cane laments the potential loss of the black folk spirit and reviles the

limitations imposed upon self-expression, it does, however, predict through its utopian

longings the coming of a new messiah who will free Americans for expression of their

true selves. This messiah, furthermore, will provide the model for the evolved American:

a mixed raced meridian who unites the imagined riches of the past with the imagined

resources of the future.

Transcending the Divide

Characters who represent this meridian figure of messiah are depicted throughout

the text: King Barlo in "Esther," Dan in "Box Seat," and the old man in "Kabnis."

Although Toomer wrote to Waldo Frank in late 1922 or early 1923 that "Kabnis is Me"

(153), Kabnis is a weak and confused figure, a "promise of a soil-soaked beauty;

uprooted, thinking out" who journeys south to connect with his heritage but who remains

"Suspended a few feet above the soil whose touch would resurrect him" (98). In contrast,

Lewis-another mixed raced character-is "what a stronger Kabnis might have been"

(97) and it is he who "merges with his source and lets the pain and beauty of the South

meet him there" (107). It is Lewis who understands the complexities of mixed race and

Kabnis's weaknesses: "Cant hold them, can you?" he asks Kabnis. "Master; slave. Soil;

and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of

your cheeks, flame of the great season's multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned. Split,

shredded: easily burned. No use..." (109). Lewis rightly assesses that Kabnis cannot

reconcile these dualities he contains and encounters, and because presumably Lewis has,

he ultimately finds himself "completely cut out" of the interactions of his acquaintances:

"Kabnis, Carrie, Stella, Halsey, Cora, the old man, the cellar, and the work-shop, the

southern town descend upon him. Their pain is too intense" (112). Lewis, who has

achieved connection between dualities, must abandon the possibility of connection with

these individuals who as yet have not, reinforcing the sense of alienation and isolation

that were modernist anxieties. The piece does not end in social utopia, but it does end

with the suggestion of a new day when the past will be embraced in the present, allowing

a hope for a brighter future and the coming of a new messiah.

Although Toomer draws a parallel between himself and Kabnis, he longs to be

Lewis, imagining himself as a messiah, a vanguard in fostering a new understanding of

race in America. He sought to encourage within Americans a transcendental vision of

race and believed he was in the best position to offer such a transcendental vision. Robert

B. Jones contends, "Toomer indeed conforms to R.W.B. Lewis's definition of the New

American Adam: 'an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry,

untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race" (134). However,

Toomer was neither "bereft of ancestry" nor "untouched and undefiled" by associations

with family and race. On the contrary, Toomer was largely influenced by both his

grandfather and grandmother and his racial identity was the subject of much

discussion-on his own part as well as the part of others. His self-definition as an

American rested largely on a devaluation of traditional notions of race, and his supposed

repudiation of his black ancestry was the subject of continued scrutiny and comment.

Toomer was notably concerned with the past, with ways in which to bring the past's

treasures into the current era, as the text of Cane demonstrates. His New American

metaphor, likewise, sought to bring the consciousness of diverse heritages into one grand

cosmic consciousness, as evidenced by "The Blue Meridian." This unification of diverse

elements, this ordering of perceived chaos, was a common project among many

modernists. In terms of race, notions of social Darwinism and eugenics were popularized

to address the disparate groups of people-some considered pre-modern-who needed to

be incorporated into the modern nation. Both within the United States and in other

countries, notably Mexico, this project was taken up in hopes that a utopian "cosmic

race" might be realized.

Jos6 Vasconcelos, Mexican Minister of Education, was interested in the Indian

who was assumed, like Southern black folk, to be dying in a "natural" and "modern"

evolution of the races. In his 1925 book La raza cosmica (The Cosmic Race),

Vasconcelos predicted the realization and expansion of an enlightened human

consciousness through the integration of diverse groups. For Vasconcelos, the mestizo or

racially mixed person was the present embodiment of the future ideal in which all races

would meld into one. However, Vasconcelos predicted that more than simple biological

mixture was necessary in order for the evolution of the "cosmic race" to occur; there was

a spiritual element that he felt must be cultivated as well. The resultant race would be a

people of heightened spirituality, intelligence, and artistic ability. As Vasconcelos wrote,

"The central thesis of this book is that the various races of the earth tend to intermix at a

gradually increasing pace, and eventually will give rise to a new human type, composed

of selections from each of the races already in existence" (3). Furthermore, Vasconcelos

argued,"even the most contradictory racial mixtures can have beneficial results, as long

as the spiritual factor contributes to raise them" (5). Thus he, like Toomer, acknowledged

that the fusion of opposite types would result in a new ideal.' This new race, according

to Vasconcelos, would be "the definitive race, the synthetical race, the integral race,

made up of the genius and the blood of all peoples and, for that reason, more capable of

true brotherhood and of a truly universal vision" (20). Vasconcelos's Cosmic Race and

Toomer's New American, then, are imagined responses to anxieties regarding the loss of

the past to the future and the loss of order to the present's chaos. Both men reified and

idealized this new type.'3 Toomer's work, especially, demonstrates a need to reconcile

seemingly dichotomous ideas and entities into a substantial whole, to find meridian sites

where differences become complementary rather than oppositional. Certainly his own

background and upbringing, as well as his personality-which would never allow him to

settle into one area of interest and which caused him to retreat from any potential

conflict-must have created in Toomer a longing for wholeness, both personally and


Toomer's utopian American society is detailed in his poem "The Blue Meridian"

(Collected Poems), which he had been writing since before the publication of Cane. In

this poem, Toomer writes of "a new America, to be spiritualized by each new American"

(50), asserting, like Vasconcelos, that the ideal race will be one of heightened spirituality.

12 Obviously, both Vasconcelos and Toomer assume the existence of "races" as distinct and separate
groups; Toomer and Vasconcelos argued that such races would eventually fuse to form a new and
enlightened group, thereby erasing the divisions between the separate "races." For Vasconcelos, this
process was "esthetic eugenics."
3 "Reification refers to the process of regarding an idealized abstraction as if it were a concrete, objective
thing with a material existence" (Jones 2), and "idealism is a classic response to reification, with its

Continuing this idea of the necessity of the spiritual, the poem asserts: "The old gods, led

by an inverted Christ...Withdrew into the distance and died...We are waiting for a new

God / For revelation in our day / For growth towards faceless Deity" (51). Here is

repeated the notion, illustrated throughout Cane, that there will come a new messiah to

foster self-knowledge and self-expression for the New Americans. This messiah, the

poem argues, must be a "faceless" deity in order that all people be represented; the

messiah must be an inclusive God for a new people who will grow "by admixture from

less to more" (51). The New America, furthermore, will be a place where the "old

peoples"-in this case Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, Christians, "all peoples of

the earth"-meld into a new race (54). Thus, the poem predicts a literal "fusion of

opposites" and a combination of "opposing forms and forces into a significant unity"

facilitated through miscegenation.

The poem also speaks of the persona's own racialized body: "I stand where the

two directions intersect / At Michigan Avenue and Walton Place / Level with my

countrymen / Right-angled to the universe" (55). The speaker is, therefore, the point of

convergence, the meridian between black and white, North and South, neither superior

nor inferior to others. Additionally, the speaker's consideration of himself as "right-

angled" to the universe suggests its meaning in terms of right and wrong, rather than

solely in 90-degree angles. For he asserts later that

There is a right turn,
A struggle through purgatories of many names,
A rising to one's real being
Wherein one finds oneself linked with
The real beings of other men, and in God;
The Kingdom exists, and is to be entered. (61)

promise that the alienated individual, socially fragmented and divided, can be made whole again in

Thus, the poem acknowledges the multiplicity of definitions for a person "of many

names" and the limbo of identity these various definitions can foster. Yet, when one has

made that "right turn" into one's real being, when one accepts the diversity within and

acknowledges one's place in the human community, the poem suggests, he enters the

kingdom-that utopia of understanding, self-acceptance, and communion with others. It

is then that the individual accomplishes the true goal for which the speaker longs:

Unlock the races, Open this pod by outgrowing it,
Free men from this prison and this shrinkage,
Not from reality itself
But from our prejudices and preferences
And the enslaving behavior caused by them,
Eliminate these-
I am, we are, simply of the human race.

Uncase the nations
Open this pod by outgrowing it,
Keep the real but destroy the false;
We are the human nation.

Uncase the regions-
Occidental, Oriental, North, South-
We are of Earth.

Free the sexes
From the penalties and proscriptions
That allegedly are laid on us
Because we are male and female ...

Expand the fields, the specializations,
The limitations of occupation,
The definitions of what we are
That gain fractions and lose wholes-
I am of the field of being,
We are beings. (64)

The poem, then, calls for the eradication, not of difference, but of hierarchies that seek to

prioritize one type of difference above all others. It is these hierarchies that, according to

thought" (Jones 3).

the poem, are enslaving, and, as a result, the poem insists on the acknowledgment and

acceptance of the universal family of humanity. It insists, likewise, on being free of labels

imposed by occupation, on being free of the restrictions imposed by gender roles. "The

Blue Meridian," like Cane, encourages an understanding of the self as meridian figure-a

human being uniting various parts (as opposed to simply male or female, black or

white)--and encourages the free expression of that being in the world.

Points of Contact

Cane asserts that such free expression of the self results from connection to one's

heritage; thus, it depicts the South as a place of rootedness, of connection with the

organic, natural world. Yet it is also a place that resists control, a place filled with actual

and potential violence-as "Blood-Burning Moon" and "Kabnis" show. Rural areas,

then, are depicted with their threat to black lives. The city, too, as the location where

energies and desires are contained, is likewise illustrated as a dangerous place for blacks.

Not only does the city make self-expression difficult if not impossible because of its

disconnection from the natural world, it is also a place where blacks are more likely to

exploit other blacks. Additionally, it is the place where blacks may internalize the white

values that stifle their natural selves, as the story "Rhobert" depicts.

Cane illustrates the trials of modernization and the repressive hold of ideologies

of race and gender and remains ambivalent about the possibility of achieving harmony

through racial mixture when such mixture is surrounded by anxieties and tragedies

resulting from limiting social demands. Cane suggests the struggles and tragic fates of

individuals both dark and light, although it suggests the hope of a brighter day when the

future generation, symbolized by Carrie in "Kabnis," may acknowledge and embrace its