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Reviewed by:
  • Race, Work, and Desire in American Literature, 1860–1930
  • Raphael C. Allison
Race, Work, and Desire in American Literature, 1860–1930. Michele Birnbaum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. x + 190. $60.00 (cloth).

Michele Birnbaum's Race, Work, and Desire schools readers of Reconstruction-era through modernist American literature to regard representations of intimacy between races with great suspicion. Her basic idea is that racial discourse in American literature has often attempted to de-politicize and de-historicize black/white race relations through the apparent intimacy of interpersonal contact, and an insistence on the exceptionalism of "one-on-one" (5) communication. Countee Cullen's "Tableau" (1925), in which the "'black boy and the white'" link arms to form "'The golden splendor of the day / The sable pride of night'" (27), neatly captures this "fiction that intimacy trumps history" (26). Birnbaum shows, however, that black writers have capitalized upon these fictions, often to "propose more complex and potentially progressive transformations" (15) of race relations. The result is a wide-ranging but meticulously argued series of essays that offer highly original and rewarding readings of canonical and less well-known works.

Birnbaum wisely hones her large topic by focusing on relationships in the workplace. With their day-to-day interactive protocols, work environments (the three discussed are domestic employment, the medical professions, and the occupational aspects of white patronage) offer a historically recurring setting for observing "progressive transformations" in action. Birnbaum shows how the interpersonal workplace has often been promoted as a disinterested site of contact where the burden of a race-roiled American past is lifted. When a black servant is said to perform her work out of "love" rather than obligation in Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868), Birnbaum points out how much this rhetoric is involved in "[t]ranslating duty into desire" (9), turning supposedly disinterested, apolitical conventions of "personal" intimacy toward white advantage. In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), a quadroon domestic worker provides an "alien" presence for a white woman to exploit (as a symbol) for her own, deliberate self-alienation from bourgeois society. By decoding such representational strategies in the work of Keckley, Chopin, Frances E. W. Harper, W. D. Howells, Langston Hughes and others, Birnbaum reveals how scenes of work often function as "synapse[s] on the color-line" (17), the very places where race relations are experienced, articulated, and, in rare cases, worked through.

The purpose of all this is not simply to notice peculiar phenomena of American literature but to argue for the effectiveness of African-American rhetorical ingenuity (an objective she shares, inescapably, with Houston Baker, Jr., a critic mentioned just once in a footnote). This is especially true in the chapters on Keckley and Hughes, who are shown to exploit and transform discourses of intimacy for strategic gain (her readings of Harper and Chopin are less explicitly driven by this aim). Thus Birnbaum's argument works by uncovering a complex layering of rhetoric, examining the overlapping of discourses in ways that show how un-innocent intimacy really can be. In Behind the Scenes (an expose of Keckley's tenure as Mary Todd Lincoln's servant), Birnbaum shows how Lincoln drew from the well of domestic metaphors found in the sentimental fiction and Southern tradition, and deployed seemingly benign terms of affection like "confidante" (31) as a way of manipulating her black laborer, of "translating duty into desire." Yet she also shows how Keckley herself refashions this rhetorical gambit, using intimate poses to her "material advantage," "to condescend to the very woman to whom she caters" (33), or to wheedle an invitation to hear Mr. Lincoln speak at the White House (34). Birnbaum argues that "[s]uch examples illustrate the way Keckley negotiates female kinship . . . refiguring the affective work on which sentimental fiction depends" (34). [End Page 827]

In places like this, Birnbaum's evaluation of such rhetorical moves as achieving "material advantage" seems too sanguine. For example, her next instance of discursive subterfuge is Keckley's grieving of her son, which Birnbaum reads as a masculinized self-presentation due to its "less 'selfish'" sacrifice...


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