Several years ago, I had the opportunity to direct a dramatic reading of “White Wines,” a short play by Gertrude Stein, written in 1913. After a month of rehearsals, one of the players, an African-American woman, called me on the phone to say that she was upset by one of her lines: “A cousin to cooning, a cousin to that and mixed labor and a strange orange and a height and a piece of holy phone and a catching hat glass and a bit of undertaking” (214). Wasn’t this reference to “cooning” racist? We discussed this question at the next few rehearsals, where I presented some etymological background on the word “coon,” which turned out to have a slang usage as a verb, meaning to steal something, and an even more obscure usage attributed to hobo slang, regarding hopping trains. However, the actress was too disturbed by this line to remain in the production. The rest of the cast, all of us white, did not read this use of the term “cooning” as having an explicitly racist intention, and we went ahead and performed the play. [End Page 569]
Looking back, however, the question of how to read this one phrase from the play, “A cousin to cooning,” is still not settled in my mind. Once the racialized noun is discovered in the gerund, then other words in the sentence cease to be so innocuous, “mixed labor” suggesting an anxiety over miscegenation and class and even “a strange orange” glowing more ominously. The whole play, a dense four pages, has the lively, suggestive style of Tender Buttons. References to “cunning,” “trembling,” “wet,” “clutch,” “habit,” “corset,” “cake,” “butter,” and “stain” can be read as instances of sexualized language within the nonreferential context of the play, while a line like “Change the sucking with a little sucking” jumps out as surprisingly explicit. Later, Stein’s plays would get more abstract and pared down, but here language is like butter-laden cake, rich and sweet. Except for that racial term, “cooning,” which leaves a bitter taste in the contemporary mouth.
The appearance of such racialized language is not unique to “White Wines.” Many of Stein’s experimental texts contain the “sudden” eruption of racialized, sometimes derogatory terms. For instance, in another text from 1913 titled “Miguel (Collusion). Guimpe. Candle.,” “coon” shows up in the noun position, though again overt intention is obscured by the odd syntactic logic and the use of rhyme: “A lamb a white long loan and an ostrich and a tin bin a real cold cake with season and a little blind oak, a coon is sooner” (37). While there have been several conflicting interpretations of Stein’s views of race and racism in her more traditional narrative “Melanctha” from Three Lives, 1 few critics have commented on the many instances of racialized or ethnic terms in the experimental texts. 2 Given that these texts are largely nonrepresentational—they continually set up barriers between sign and referent—how can the racialized terms in these texts be read?
Stein’s use of racialized language is best understood in the context of her focus on difference and relation in the arenas of semantics and syntax. Racialized signifiers, which foregrounded the issue of difference by embodying America’s brutal racist history, posed the greatest challenge to Stein’s project: to unlink the signifier from the signified, to foster a plurality of meaning, to reformulate relations between words outside the laws of grammar. If she was drawn to racialized terms and references again and again, it was because, unlike many others, these signifiers could not be separated from what they signified.
The presence of intractable racialized words and tropes of dark [End Page 570] and light in Stein’s early work was probably prompted by her aesthetic concerns with similarity and difference at the level of the signifier and an anxiety about the effects of binary categorization, rather than any overt desire on her part to comment, one way or the other, about racism. However, her use of racialized language can also be understood in relation to the “Africanism” which Toni Morrison defines as the literal or symbolic...