- “What Are You?”:Exploring Racial Categorization in Nowhere Else on Earth
In his introduction to the 1985 collection of essays entitled "Race," Writing, and Difference, Henry Louis Gates rightfully asserts: "Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction" (4). Even so, contemporary disputes centered on race remain one of America's most glaring problems. Although laws supporting atrocities such as the Jim Crow South rest in the past, the systems of classification that inspired them still operate on many different levels of present-day American society, ranging from the way people describe themselves, to the labels people place on difference, to the way the American government decides what fraction of "blood" constitutes race. Fiction writer Josephine Humphreys explores the complexities, falsifications, and implications of racial classification for the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina in her historically based novel Nowhere Else on Earth. First published in 2000, the work's 2001 Penguin edition includes a reader's guide following the text in which Humphreys explains her impetus for writing about the Lumbee people. She admits that when she first encountered a Lumbee aboard a train, upon discovering that the woman was not white, Humphreys asked, "What are you?" (6). She goes on to remember that the young woman explained the story of the Lumbee people, as well as the infamous tale (among [End Page 33] Lumbees) of Henry Berry Lowrie and Rhoda Strong. Enthralled by the fact that Henry formed an outlaw gang to avenge the unjust death of his father, Humphreys also learned of the marriage between Henry and Rhoda, their ensuing popularity among the Lumbee people, and the mystery surrounding Henry's fate—even today Robeson County residents debate whether Henry escaped authorities.1 Humphreys then declares, "I promised myself that one day I would write about Henry and Rhoda" (6). Humphreys undoubtedly found that promise challenging, because in re-telling her first "Lumbee encounter" she remembers that the young woman's answer to "What are you?" only "further bewildered" and "hooked" Humphreys' curiosity about this racially ambiguous group (6). However, when Humphreys writes about the Lumbees, instead of creating a novel that answers the "What are you?" question in racial terms, she uses Rhoda's discovery about herself and who she is to ground identity in a particular place and people.
In this essay I interrogate the troubled nature of Lumbee racial classification in both fictional representations and historical events by relying in large part on theorist Samira Kawash's assertion from her essay, "The Epistemology of Race," that "Race, we might say, is not a nothing-at-all, but a something that says nothing" (155). It is that something that Americans insist on naming (that in fact only takes meaning in the act of naming), and it is this same something that Humphreys addresses in Nowhere Else on Earth. In discussions such as this, group naming becomes especially significant: does one use terms like Indian and Native American synonymously or rather pass judgment and declare one term more appropriate than another?2
While exploring the nuances of the impossible nature of racial classification, we must simultaneously ask why these classifications weigh so heavily for Humphreys' characters and in current American mindsets, politics, and value systems. To honestly evaluate the importance of these categories, we must admit that for Humphreys' fictionalized community (as well as the non-fictional perceptions of Americans today) race and identity are so deeply entangled that the absence of one calls the validity of the other into question. In her essay "Weaving/Framing/Crossing Difference: Reflections on Gender and Ethnicity in American Literary and Art Practices," Teresa Gomez Reus writes: "Never so poignantly as today has one been made to realize how wholly contaminated our experiences are, how problematical it is to reproduce organic concepts of identity, and how, in a culture of diversity, the question of identity is always a matter of constantly crossing and (re)drawing boundaries" [End Page 34] (99). Humphreys' characters stand firmly by the boundaries they have drawn—they are Indian—but as with the history of the Lumbee people, others outside the group find...