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Bachelorarbeit, 2010, 36 Seiten
2.1 The Evolution and Nature of the Term ‘Race’
2.2 Race vs. Ethnicity
2.3 Contemporary Race Concepts: Essentialism
2.4 Contemporary Race Concepts: Constructionism
3 Historical Context: The Harlem Renaissance
4 Color as Racial Metaphor in Passing
4.1 Color as Racial Metaphor in The Autobiography
5 Music as Racial Metaphor in The Autobiography
6 Comparing Passing and The Autobiograhy
6.1 Depiction of “Race” Between Constructivism and Essentialism
6.2 Construction of a Black Middle Class
Can Change Black To White in Three Days
This quote from George S. Schuyler’s short story Black No More advertises the benefit of a “remarkable discovery” that empowers black people to free themselves from the resentments of racial separation and all the disadvantages that come with a life as a person of a dark skin color during the time of the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws in the US.
Although this “remarkable discovery” has yet only been invented in fictional literature, albeit rumors about Michael Jackson’s skin bleaching therapy will supposedly never stop, it can be speculated that it would have had a breakthrough commercial success among the black community as generations of African Americans have suffered and are still suffering from discrimination and racism in the US, even now that the President is of African descent.
For that reason “passing” narratives are part of a genre that is continuously popular in American literature and popular culture. Starting from the early slave narratives with the likes of Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in 1860, which even includes a cross-dressing, thus “gender-passing” story to Philip Roth’s The Human Stain in 2000, or TV series such as Gangster Rapper Ice Cube’s reality show Black.White. in 2006, “passing” stories have always caught the attention of a wide audience.
This is, of course due to the fact that a “passing” novel usually includes a lot of the ingredients that make up for an exciting read as the “passing” protagonist is willing to give up everything, leave his family and friends behind to pursue his individual happiness and freedom, thus making the “passing” character a symbol of American individualism looking for what is the most popular myth about “The Land of the Free”: the American Dream.
The focus in this paper though is not on individualism or the pursuit of the American Dream but on the constructions of race in two selected novels, Passing by Nella Larsen and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. The essential assumption for this central question is, of course, that race as a category of human classification, evaluation and grading is constructed and is by no means a biological fact that literally only knows black or white with the vague mulatto as the in-between. The simple fact that race-passing is possible shows that the race of a person cannot be directly derived from the color of his skin or a look at his facial features like generations of white supremacists tried to scientifically prove in their race science programs. Of course “passing” will only be possible for those African Americans and mulattos who are light-skinned enough to be taken for Caucasian, Spanish or one of the other odd ever changing ethnic categories. For this matter it is crucial to first explore the questions of defining race in modern and historical context. What is race and what are the implications of belonging to a certain race in (post)modern society and how can it be defined? What were the concepts of scientific racism in the American society at the turn of the centuries and how do these relate to contemporary concepts of race such as constructivism and essentialism?
Speaking about society, since this paper is dealing with literature from the era of the Harlem Renaissance it is equally crucial for a better understanding of the subject to provide the reader with the cultural background information about this period of time because the Harlem Renaissance is an important period in the emancipation process of African Americans in the US. The processes that started during this time which is also called “The Progressive Era” evoked numerous social changes that enabled the young black writers not only to publish their works but also to give them the tools of literary expression through means of education. Famous black authors who contributed to the advancement of African Americans in a predominately white society published their first works during this time such as Langston Hughes, George S. Schuyler and of course Nella Larsen. Novels published during this era always enjoyed an immediate feedback from the African American community; a prominent example would be the journal of the NAACP The Crisis , edited by W.E.B Du Bois, which criticized the novels for their social relevance and for the skillfulness of the literary construction.
Larsen’s and Johnson’s novels have all the key elements such as drama, tragedy, friendship, jealousy, hatred, doubt and love that made the “passing” novel a well-known literary genre, a genre that is more than just entertainment literature for the willing reader. The novels merely “pass” as entertainment literature at the same time leaving the reader thinking about racial issues and the overall question of human identity and what the main factors are, that constitute this “identity.”
Analyzing the constructions of race in these novels means of course especially concentrating on the literary constructions that serve as a medium for getting the point of the authors across. Important aspects in this case are the metaphorical constructions of race by means of color in both novels and the extensive use of music as a racial metaphor in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Both novels not only rely on addressing the “negro question” straightforward but also create more or less subtle hints and convey their message between the lines to address and showcase the problems of racial discrimination and segregation.
Analyzing the constructions of race in these novels means of course especially concentrating on the main “passing” protagonists Clare Kendry and the anonymous Ex-Colored Man and the concept of race that stands behind the construction of these characters and their actions. It is crucial for the understanding of the novels that the reader understands that the stories are written from the point of view of their protagonists and thus carry the subjective opinion of these narrators. It has to be analyzed in depth why the protagonists behave the way they do and what the connections between the characters and their creators are.
Another interesting part in both novels is their focus on a new social group that tried to secure their place in the middle of society during the Harlem Renaissance: the black middle class. Both novels focus on the values and the specifics of this group, their distinction from their white counterparts and the other classes of the black population which is let alone a statement against the concept of scientific racism.
The term ‘race’ has enjoyed one of the most controversial discussions of the last century. Conflicts with race as a central issue are numerous and have been fought over viciously ranging from small local conflicts to the largest military conflict in the history of mankind, the Second World War.
In all of these conflicts the term ‘race’ functioned as a tool for evaluating and categorizing human beings but also for discrimination and political causes, thus enabling a certain group to take control over the other. According to Sandro Gindro, humans tend to “categorize events, objects and other humans, in order to identify and control them” (Gindro: p. 239). Essential for the control of one racial group over another has to be an established hierarchy that both groups agree on or that is imposed on the weaker by the dominant group. Therefore a hierarchy has to be established that places the stronger group at the top of the ‘racial ladder’ and the one to be controlled at the bottom while providing coherent reasoning for the members of the group to understand and to internalize why this hierarchy is valid.
With science enjoying a wider acceptance as being the most accurate tool for supplying universal truths in all areas of human life in the nineteenth century, during the period of secularization, the reasoning for racial discrimination shifted. Before the rise of science, racism was justified by religious motifs such as the biblical Curse on Ham, but in the 19th century a modern view on race was established that declared race to be a biological fact while religious reasoning still mixed with the new scientific findings (Rattansi: p. 242/243). 19th century biologists claimed that there are four different races in the world, sorted by color, namely ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ which was a point of view that was also supported by Christian racists who believed that God had placed the races on different continents because he did not intend for the races to mix (Melotti: p. 240). This assumption makes clear that in a 19th century Christian society, interracial relationships or marriages were not tolerated because they thwarted God’s plan for the relationship and ‘purity’ of the races themselves.
After the Second World War, the UN released a groundbreaking report on racial difference, discrimination and racism called The Race Question in 1950, which was composed by “a number of anthropologists and sociologists from various countries to meet as a committee of experts” (Unesco(ed.): p. 2). This “committee of experts” came to the conclusion that there is no biological evidence that one race is superior to another in terms of intelligence or genetic advantages, which suggest an entitlement of a racial hierarchy of any sort.
Still, differences in skin color or facial features certainly exist and sociologist Umberto Melotti argues that “it is inexact and counterproductive, to affirm that ‘there is no such thing as race’” (Melotti: p.240). Therefore Geneticist Theodorius Dobzhansky as written by Melotti suggests that race should rather be regarded as a process than a fact. Dobzhansky also states that the races can further be regarded as “Mendelian populations” (Melotti: p.240) that are continuously subject to changes, mutation and evolution. Where 19th century scientists defined four races, Dobzhansky came up with 34 different categories, but it is highly doubtful that every human being on earth would fit into one of these categories (Melotti: p.240). However, after the DNA code of human beings had been deciphered in 2000 it is clear that the concept of race has no biological validity since 99,9% of human beings share the same DNA that derives from a common gene pool (Perry: p.1, p. 45).
The authors of the Dictionary of Race and Ethnicity argue that even if human beings all shared the same skin color, morals, behavioral patterns etc., there would still be categories invented to differentiate them from one another. This need for differentiation and comparison is part of the human “deep-seated psychological urge to identify diversity and similarity as terms of comparison in an effort to establish their essential identity” (Gindro: p. 239).
Taking all the arguments into account it can be summarized that the term race or a conception of race “stem from emotional rather than from a logical mind” (Gindro: p. 239) and although it is a social construct, it is a very powerful construct that can impose great power on the affected people.
Much has been written about both race and ethnicity and their differentiation since the beginnings of racial theory. For a correct application of the central term of race in this BA thesis it is crucial to define the term “ethnicity” as well to avoid misunderstandings in the course of this paper and to prepare a theoretical background for a better understanding of the difference of ethnicity to the concept of race. Since the terms get sometimes confused it is also important to analyze the differences between the two.
According to the Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity and Culture the term “ethnicity” translates from the Greek word ethnos which means people, crowd or nation but could also mean stock or multitude .
Upon the introduction of the term “ethnicity” in 1896 by G. Vacher de la Pogue the basic definition included people of “different races brought together by historical factors” (Gindro: Ethnicity , p. 95) which does not extent to the term nation which is a much wider term with a different theoretical background. The authors of the Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity and Culture suggest that “Ideally, it is preferable to not refer the concept of ethnicity to stable groups, but to groups which share certain economic, social, cultural and religious characteristics at a given moment in time”. This definition understands ethnicity as a dynamic concept that can relate to various groups, not necessarily of the same skin color, at various points of time, “past and present, advanced and ‘primitive’” (Gindro: Ethnicity , p. 95).
According to Weber, who formulated his thoughts about ethnicity in 1922, ethnic groups are groups of people “who have a subjective belief in origins, a belief which is founded on a similarity of habits, customs or both, or on collective memories of migration or colonization” (Gindro: Ethnicity , p. 94). This common belief is the reason for the bonding of the group and their sense of community and the identity of the group.
An important part of the debate about ethnicity when dealing with the subject of racial discrimination is that it is quite possible that ethnicity is imposed on people by more powerful others, rather than choosing their ethnicity for themselves (Moore: p. 97).
The term essentialism goes back to the days of the famous Greek philosopher Platon who first formulated his so-called “ergon-thesis” about the elementary character of human beings which is a reference to his studies with Socrates. The basic essentialist assumption in this case is that any given object has certain characteristics and traits of character that are essential to this object and that all the other objects of the same kind possess (Wesche: p. 76).
A representative example is formulated by Brian Ellis by using the characteristics of a copper atom. All copper atoms share the same electron structure, a nucleus, are tied to the same rules of chemical reactions and must therefore show the same powers, abilities and interactions with other atoms and molecules. Otherwise it would not be a copper atom (Ellis: p. 176).
A human being is certainly not a copper atom and is as we all know (or at least science has not proven us wrong yet) much more diverse and not as determined as the atom. It can show emotions, express itself and interact with others on a whole different level. What Ellis describes here is scientific essentialism and there are many different directions in which scientific essentialism has progressed, for example in the fields of chemistry, biology, physics etc.
The idea of essentialism in regard to racial theories and ethnic groups, as it is used in the course of this paper, carries the same basic assumption that the example of the copper atoms does and is summed up nicely by John J. Su, who states that an essentialist viewpoint on race implies that “individuals from a particular ethnic, gender or religious group possess from birth a common essence that is homogenous and unchanging” (Su: p. 361).
Of course, this assumption supports the already discussed concept of scientific racism that has been already disproved in the previous chapter, so why bother with a concept that does not have a value for this text? The reason is that both Larsen’s and Johnson’s protagonists show essentialist view points when it comes to the ‘race question’ and attribute certain traits to other people in the book that are credited to their amount of black- or whiteness throughout both novels that are quite striking for the reader.
The concept of constructionism is the exact opposite of the theory of essentialism and as Su argues a result of essentialism since the former can not be without the latter. (Su: p. 362) The term characterizes the social constructiveness of all human invented concepts since these are always directly influenced by the “personal, social and cultural perspectives” (Ellis: p. 182) of their inventors. This is certainly true for concepts such as race since it is a social construct that has in its categorization of human beings according to skin color etc. no scientific value in terms of facts or relevant data as described by Perry in the first chapter that defines race for the context of this paper.
Nevertheless, the totalitarian standpoint of some social scientists who argue that all scientific efforts that humans have managed to achieve are socially constructed since there always is a human being behind these inventions, is not true either. There are some fundamental truths about nature like the before mentioned behavior of a copper atom in a certain environment that can truly be called essentialist (Ellis: p. 182). There is no scientific constructionism.
As the content of this paper already suggest there are also many elements that could be attributed constructivist elements in the novels which makes it difficult to indentify an undisputable essentialist or constructivist nature of the texts. Nevertheless it is an interesting aspect of both novels and therefore worth analyzing in detail.
Both novels discussed in this paper are considered to be part of an era of social progress made by African Americans that is today known under the term “Harlem Renaissance”. The Harlem Renaissance was a period stretching from the beginning of the 1920s into the 1930s that marked a turning point for Americans of African descent giving them a new self-conception and confidence. The era can be considered as “one of the most colorful and culturally productive eras in African American history” (West: p. xxi).
Although The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was originally published in 1912, it first caught major attention when the novel was re-published in 1927 under Johnson’s real name, when Johnson was already a respected individual of the black community. Because of the publication date of the second edition and the fact that the novel was a lot more successful upon it’s reissue, it can be argued that the novel is also part of the Harlem Renaissance.
There are multiple factors that contribute to the foundation for the African American new self esteem that arose in this era. Important factors were “new” scientific findings in the fields of anthropology, history and natural sciences which questioned the racial hierarchy that was regarded by most white Americans as god-given or scientifically proven by authors such as Madison Grant who suggested a superiority of the vague “Nordic Race” in his most prominent work The Passing of the Great Race (Price: p.xi).
Another major contribution to the evolvement of blacks into all parts of social life were the demographic shifts that occurred during that period of time as great numbers of blacks left the racially prejudiced Southern States to pursue a new life in the bigger cities of the north that were considered to be socially progressive. (Heinze: p.134) A lot of blacks migrated to New York and formed, not only but most importantly because of a racist real estate policy, urban districts that were considered “ghettos”. One of these ghettos was the quarter Harlem in Manhattan. Between 1914 and 1925 the black population increased from 14,000 to 175,000 people, forming an urban quarter where blacks were no longer a minority. Here, blacks organized in a variety of clubs and associations, such as the famous “National Committee for the Advancement of Colored People” who fought for equality between the races. (Heinze: p. 131)
This massive migration was also partly due to the First World War which demanded a large number of workers in the factories of the bigger cities. But not only did the blacks contribute to the war effort by producing arms as unskilled laborers in the factories, they also fought on the battlefields of Europe which gave them a new self-consciousness and the determination to better their social status when they returned home (Heinze: p.134).
During the Harlem Renaissance, the quarter of Harlem itself was regarded as the “Capital of the Black World” as black culture progressed to an unforeseen level due to the very productive “coterie of talented blacks” (Price: p.xiii) who excelled in the fields of music, literature and theatre but also business. Examples of black artists who made a major cultural and intellectual impact are numerous such as Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du Bois and of course Nella Larsen and James Weldon Johnson.
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