Comps Notes: Race and Representation

what-about-raceIn my reading list on 20th Century multi-ethnic American literature, some  of the main ideas include thinking about how American identity is constructed through works that take up racial conflict or how race and ethnicity are constructed in ways that limit the representation or access of certain people in the public sphere. How is racial diversity and interracial conflict part of understanding American identity and how do responses to these tensions shape American literature?

Writing these scatter-shod notes, I’m finding that, rather than getting into Asian American and Latino literature more fully, I’m mostly drawn the African American literature here. I think that’s largely because in my notes on immigration and citizenship theory I’m thinking critically about a lot of those works, but with African American literature the role of migration is markedly different. The majority of black Americans on my reading list (with exceptions such as Edwidge Danticat and Jamaica Kincaid) are part of the African American literary tradition that focuses on post-slavery identity. Cultural citizenship and the role of representation works differently here. Slavery has a different, haunting role as Africans were imported as property rater than as people. While many migrants across national borders do not have the level of agency over their immigration that myths of the American Dream would have us believe (i.e. fleeing oppression, refugees, indentured servants, brides, and so on), slavery plays an important part in both migration and racialization. Further, as many authors on my list including Julia Lee and Molly Winter argue, the racial politics of the United States often assume a black/white binary.

Anyway, I’m rambling. What I’m saying is, these are just some thoughts I have about different trends on my list in depicting race and the role of race intersects with my other notes on citizenship, class, immigration, and feminism elsewhere too.

Histories and Violence

In a lot of the works on my list, a history of violence haunts or shapes the narrative. For example, No-No Boy is all about masculinity after the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII (more on that later). In Tracks, the taking of land from Native Americans looms over the story. 12 Million Black Voices describes the way social change and official policies affected African American men, women, and families during the Great Migration and the Great Depression, using striking, poetic essays and pictures.

In Beloved, one of the readings of the dark place from which Beloved says she comes is a slave ship. On one level, the dark place can be read as a grave or as a womb if we go with the idea that Beloved is the reincarnation of Sethe’s lost daughter. On the other hand, if we go with the reading the Beloved represents the haunting presence of slavery, then the dark place, cramped with corpses is a slave ship on the Middle Passage. Scary. Moving. Scary.

Absalom, Absalom! ends with Quinten asserting that he doesn’t hate the south and methinks he doth protest too much. Through the violence that brings down the Sutpen family, Faulkner depicts the way that racism and violence tore apart the South. It’s a really complicated book as the same story is told over and over from different perspectives, sometimes from the perspective of people who are just speculating. In addition to the creepy depictions of Thomas Sutpen’s slaves, the narrative about the destruction of a family centers partially on the secret of why Henry killed Charles Bon. Underlying the story is the implication that Henry has feelings for both  Charles and his sister and it becomes unclear if he is more upset by the revelation that Charles Bon is his half-brother or that he is biracial. In this way, Faulkner’s narrative critiques the way that obsession with legacy and property, racism, and forbidden desires lead to destruction and violence.

For some reason, I had this idea that there was a murdered black boy in multiple texts. The Bonfire of the Vanities comes to mind most prominently, but when I went back through my list it was also the only one I could find. Nonetheless, the murdered African American child has tremendous weight in the depiction of the struggle for Civil Rights in America. It seems ironic, given how little attention news media normally give to missing or killed children who aren’t white. Yet, from Emmit Till to Trayvon Martin, the killing of young black men has been a flashpoint. I think in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the accidental killing of a black teenager is linked to Emmit Till, but it has striking prescience reading it so shortly after the Trayvon Martin case. I’m teaching it this coming semester and both looking forward to and dreading having that conversation with my students. 

Of course, with Emmit Till and Trayvon Martin and in The Bonfire of the Vanities, the death of the African American youth engages with a tense space between our ideas about children and our ideas about black masculinity. The death of a young person is decried as a tragic loss and our culture invests so much in protecting young people that an early death is talked about as a failure (as discussed at length in Pricing the Priceless Child). On the other hand, when each of the boys above was killed, it was because of the perceived (not real) threat they posed to white people. Emmit Till was murdered over a wolf whistle, a perceived danger because of anxiety over black men’s sexuality (and white men’s ownership of their women). In The Bonfire of the Vanities, the Bronx is depicted as a jungle and Sherman McCoy’s fear of the young black men approaching his car is a visceral defensive fear. Wolfe is crafty enough that it’s not totally clear whether or not Sherman was going to be robbed (I’m going with no, but the ambiguous narration of the scene implicates the reader in McCoy’s racist knee-jerk reaction.) What’s especially striking, to me, is the way that in the media representations of these cases, a lot of attention is given to establishing the boys’ youth and innocence. On one hand, this portrayal is used to garner sympathy for the cause that the boys’ death becomes a martyrdom for. On the other, it seems to work as a way to counter the idea that as black men, even young ones, they were in some way a threat. Even if they were good boys. (To that end, I think that’s what makes Emmit’s mother’s decision to have an open casket so admirable. She put the violation and the horror front and center, obliterating sentimentality and forcing people to confront what was done to her son.)

These ideas of innocence and masculinity are also worked through in To Kill A Mockingbird in which Tom Robinson is on trial for the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell. Tom is depicted as a gentle giant whose large frame and strength present a stereotypically threatening black body in the Great Depression Era South (and, frankly, now). Although Harper Lee’s story is racially progressive as it chastizes the racism of the town and jury, this comes along with some pretty classist and sexist elements in her depiction of Mayella as a “white trash” girl who tries to seduce Tom and then cries rape when her father catches them.

Gender an Sexuality

In No-No Boy, the narrative deals with what David Eng calls “racial castration”. Ichiro is a no-no boy, meaning he said no to internment and no to the army, so he went to prison. He’s thus sort of doubly dishonored and feels like an outcast in both Japanese circles and the broader culture. He struggles, for example, with going back to school and with finding a job because he has a lot of anxiety about explaining where he was for the last four years. He cannot give an answer that is suitably patriotic or that fits within the dominant wartime narrative. Ichiro is contrasted with a number of other men. His father is crumbling under the weight of running the family store and dealing with his wife, who refuses to believe Japan lost the war, and letters from those in Japan who are pleading for help and supplies. Freddie, another No-No boy has even more trouble re-integrating into the community and ultimately dies in a bar fight with a racist man (a more complex character than it sounds) in what plays out as a sparring of machismo and patriotism. Then there’s Kenji who fought in the war and loses a leg that continues to get infected. The doctors keep cutting piece after piece off until the infection finally kills him. In that sense, the aftermath of the war eats away at even the ideal citizen.

Zora Neale Hurston-  A novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century African-American literature and closely related to the Harlem Renaissance. Best known for her 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Queen Latifah should play her in the movie when they make it.

In Beloved, Toni Morrison painfully depicts different ways that slavery traumatized black men and women. Paul D’s tobacco can inside shows how his experiences with slavery were not only emasculating (due to schoolteacher’s studies and brutality), they also left him emotionally stunted, unable to fully connect because his trauma and lack of personal ownership lead him to disengage. Halle is the most emasculated by slavery in the novel as he goes mad after witnessing the brutal violation of Sethe by schoolteacher’s nephews. Sethe’s body bears the scars of her enslavement on her back. Her emotional scars, however, are most prominently tied to her experience of motherhood. While Paul D thinks that it isn’t good for slave women to love their children too much, because they’ll just be taken away, the intensity of Sethe’s love for her children leads to a couple of traumas. First, the murder of her daughter and attempted murder of her sons when schoolteacer shows up in Cincy. Later, the draining of her life force by Beloved. The situation is foreshadowed or at least set up by the horrible act of schoolteacher’s nephews stealing her milk (for Denver, still in the womb) when they rape her. The relationship between Sethe and Paul D largely follows a trajectory of healing these wounds and learning how to move on from the past.

In Quicksand, Nella Larsen depicts the oppression of black women, the black middle-class, and bi-racial women. Helga Crane’s inability to feel at home anywhere depicts the way that as a bi-racial person in the 1920s she did not fit with her white family and did not fully fit with the growing black middle-class, especially in Harlem. Then, when Helga goes abroad, the way she is treated as an exotic other shows the heightened sexuality attributed to the black female body. Intersectionality, folks. Interracial Encounters also has a great reading of the role of Oriental objects in Helga’s representation.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God it’s all so beautiful. The end.

One of the most enduring images in my head from 20th century literature is Janie Crawford walking into town in overalls with her hair hanging down her back in along thick braid. Beautiful, self-possessed (in more ways than one), and–I think importantly–middle-aged, Janie is a beautifully written character and her journey through a string of marriages movingly shows her becoming a woman and becoming her own woman. There’s a lot of smart things to say about the novel, about Hurston’s style inspired by folklore, and about the intersections of race and class. I still think the whole dog and hurricane thing is bizarre. But, it’s such a beautiful book and I’ll just say that for now.

P.S. It’s Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday.


  • In Mona in the Promised Land, despite becoming a Jew, Mona cannot escape being Chinese. She says that in America you get to choose who you are, but you can’t choose how people read you.
  • In From the Belly of My Beauty, Ester Belin writes searing poetry about the way Native Americans are portrayed as connected to nature, even when they grow up in urban settings. She also criticizes the appeal to Native American ancestry as a means of feeling connected to the “exotic” by those who have never experienced lived oppression.
  • Urban Triage examines the anxiety that underlies discourses of multiculturalism in urban spaces in the 1980s.
  • I have to concede that some of the authors who I read as white would not have been consider white Americans in their own times. The immigration narratives at the turn of the century often contest discourses that sought to hold up a very narrow definition of American identity. For example in Hamilton Holt’s Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans and the stories of Abraham Cahan, the stories of immigrants center on assimilation as Jews, Italians, and Irish people were considered non-white.

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