restricted access Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Gubar. Racechanges: Black Skin, White Face in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. xxiii + 327 pp.

Comprehensive in scope, Susan Gubar’s Racechanges: Black Skin, White Face in American Culture explores the psychological and ideological [End Page 1073] implications of cross-racial mimicry in twentieth-century culture. This wide-ranging study of film, literature, and visual arts examines an impressively large number of artifacts that are by now standard objects of cultural studies of race in America, including films such as The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and Blonde Venus; literary works by Carl Van Vechten, Nancy Cunard, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ernest Hemingway; and photographs and paintings by Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Pablo Picasso—to name a few. Racechanges also discusses in fruitful ways some lesser-studied works such as the paintings of Robert Colescott, the drawings of Richard Bruce Nugent, the fiction of Saul Bellow, the poetry of Anne Spencer, and the conceptual art of Adrian Piper. Gubar collects these varied and numerous cultural texts under the rubric “racechanges,” a term which is “meant to suggest the traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality.” Gubar explains that such racial impersonations permeate not only our popular culture—from nineteenth-century minstrelsy to Vanilla Ice—but also our intimate daily lives; she cites a man who speaks “‘black talk’” to his dog and her own daughter who used to address Gubar by mimicking the words of her mother’s African-American childhood friend, Theresa: “‘I loves ye, honey. But you’re de WRONG color.’” Although these idiosyncratic “racechanges” are usually hidden by whites—who consider them degrading to black people—they are integral to daily life and indicative of the ways in which white identity is “predicated on black Others.” In a formulation that recalls Eric Lott’s groundbreaking study of minstrelsy, Gubar sets out to investigate the fear and loathing, desire and envy of such impersonations.

Ambitious in scope and broad in methodology, Racechanges will be most useful for the general audience to which it is addressed: “To some scholarly readers, [. . .] my speculations may seem grounded in subjects too diverse, while to others they will seem undertheorized. I took both these risks quite consciously in an effort to enliven my topic for [. . .] ‘the common reader.’” Those specializing in African American and race studies will be familiar with many of the book’s findings from the work of such scholars as Michael Rogin, Eric Lott, Eric Sundquist, and Toni Morrison. However, specialists and nonspecialists alike will be drawn to the numerous illustrations—reproductions of film stills, [End Page 1074] paintings, and photographs. Especially compelling are the color plates of Robert Colescott’s ironic and parodic paintings such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware and his revision of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters titled Eat Dem Taters. Gubar’s reading of Colescott’s Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White (in which a black Shirley Temple and white Bill Robinson traipse down a garden path) is especially astute: “Shirley Temple does not appear simply darkened, Bojangles simply lightened in skin tone. Instead, racial transformation eroticizes the couple, draining away their innocence and infusing them with a vaguely perverse ribaldry. Why does the prancing Robinson White seem to be leering at the equally coquettish and rather hefty Temple Black? Does their berry picking hint at the saying ‘the darker the berry the sweeter the juice’?” Gubar goes on to elaborate the painting’s implications for the sexualizing of black girl children and the simultaneous emasculating and making-virile of black men.

Gubar’s attentiveness to the representation of men, women, whites, and blacks in the visual art of Colescott and others signals her intent to theorize the intersections of race and gender as a corrective to her earlier work on gender which, as she acknowledges, had ignored issues of race. The chapter titled “Psychopathologies of Black Envy” is unusually even handed in its analysis of the dynamics of interracial desire—masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homoerotic. Returning to the subject of women, Gubar...