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Racechange and the Fictions of Identity
John N. Duvall and Nancy J. Peterson
In recent years, MFS has published several special issues focusing on the fictions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality/citizenship. "Fictions" in this sense refers not only to narrative literature, but more broadly to the social, cultural, biological, and ideological fictions that are manifested in and around literary texts. Racechange and the Fictions of Identity continues this trajectory, but is an especially fitting companion to Queer Fictions of Race, an MFS special issue guest-edited by Siobhan Somerville, which appeared in Winter 2002. The number of excellent submissions (far more than we could possibly publish) generated by the earlier issue led us to believe that, with a different inflection, we might continue the investigation of how narrative meditates on the coordinates of identity through both literal and figurative depictions of race.
Queer Fictions of Race focused on the complex intersection of sexual and racial identity, always with an overriding concern for queer subjectivity. In the call for papers for the current issue, we decided to shift the emphasis, asking for work that explored how racial transfiguration in fiction and film reveals and/or conceals various other coordinates of identity. Racial transformation can be literal (narratives of passing), symbolic (blackface minstrelsy), or figurative (characters of one race delineated with tropes of another), but it is never politically neutral. While such transformations most directly point to racial identity, we were also interested in essays that considered how narratives depicting racechange speak to class, gender, sexual, [End Page 409] and national identities. Our goal was to extend the conversation begun in the 1990s by such critics and writers as Susan Gubar, Eric Lott, Toni Morrison, David Roediger, and Michael Rogin.
Since its publication in 1992, Morrison's well-known critical study of whiteness, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, has become an important touchstone in the dialogue on racial representation. For Morrison, canonical white writers, in a fashion akin to minstrel entertainers, have been able to deploy images of blackness "in order to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture" (66). Morrison's sense of the minstrel possibilities of white writing has been engaged in broader cultural contexts by Lott, Rogin, and Gubar. Focusing on minstrelsy's reception in the nineteenth century, Lott explores the complex contradictions arising from his insight that "audiences involved in early minstrelsy were not universally derisive of African Americans or their culture" (15). Working with twentieth-century films and popular entertainment, Rogin details the way Jewish entertainers such as Al Jolson were able to effect their assimilation into American culture—to become "white"—precisely by donning blackface. Perhaps most synthetically, Gubar, whose concept we have borrowed for our title, terms all forms of racial metamorphosis in art "racechange" and sees it emerging in the twentieth century as a "crucial trope of high and low, elite and popular culture, one that allowed artists from widely divergent ideological backgrounds to meditate on racial privilege and privation as well as on the disequilibrium of race." For Gubar, racechange includes a variety of symbolic behavior, such as "racial imitation and impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality" (5).
The essays that follow repeatedly invoke the critical discourse of minstrelsy, racial transformation, and racechange enunciated by Gubar, Morrison, Lott, and Rogin. Because Susan Gubar was cited in all of the essays, we invited her to add an afterword that reflects on her conception of racechange and responds to our issue's essays. We wish to thank her for revisiting her concept to forge links between African-American and Jewish contexts in her wide-ranging consideration of cultural texts, from the Marvel comics series Truth (which imagines a black Captain America fighting the Nazis)to Spike Lee's Bamboozled, as well as for her generous comments on the essays in this issue. In fact, before delving into the individual essays, readers may wish to turn to...