- “The Love of Colour in Me”: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers and the Space of White Racial Manufacture
“I could beat them all if I only let loose the love of colour in me.”—Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (181)
Philosopher Charles W. Mills’s observation that “race as a system has to be maintained through constant boundary policing” (77) aptly speaks to the phenomena of the early-twentieth century when a new onrush of European migration to the US threw white racial identity into chaos again and required a formidable amount of surveillance and negotiation to effect its coherence. Scholars such as Kenneth T. Jackson, George Lipsitz, Carlo Rotella, Nancy A. Denton, and Douglass S. Massey have detailed carefully how New Deal legislation such as the Federal Housing Act and the GI Bill provided the imprimatur and material resources by which white ethnics could distance their residences from the nonwhites living in American cities. Their research, however, is not as informative about the subjective processes of racialization these state-sponsored segregationist initiatives advanced.1 They explain how American institutions engineered racially homogeneous spaces, but they do not account for all the psychic concessions that led particular white ethnics to accept the formation of pan-European whiteness in the US. Neither do they focus on the extent to which these “probationary white groups” (Jacobson 8) saw space as the key to this formation and their sense of American belonging.
Critics have examined Anzia Yezierska’s writing as the epitome of ethnic modernism; as a sample of burgeoning, yet unrealized, urban immigrant feminism; or as a case study in the modern writer’s ambivalent encounter with the market values of Hollywood’s emerging film culture.2 Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) provides the ideal text with which to examine the consolidation of ethnic whiteness in the 1920s. Such whiteness was a phenomenon that was simultaneously racial and spatial. Although the spaces and places through which the narrative proceeds are fictive, the actual ghettoized life of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of 1920s New York inspired the vicissitudes of the tale. The enclave the novel imagines proffers unique access to the spatial psyche of the people who served [End Page 93] as the models for Yezierska’s characters. Moreover, the novel’s Jewish female protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, appears to be a prelapsarian immigrant subject, a character who exercises free will and makes existential choices before the serendipitous production of pan-European white identity. Also, Yezierska’s novel defies the conventional spatial parameters of what Michael Denning describes as “the ghetto pastoral.” Denning posits that in these proletarian tales of communal immigrant life in the New World, “there is little crossing” out of the ghetto milieu (247), and these tales remain faithful to their regional boundaries and the imagined intimate geography in which their narratives unfold. The central feature of Bread Givers, however, is the ever-shifting location of the female protagonist within urban space. If we heed geographer Doreen Massey’s claim that the mobility of subjects, institutions, or states is redolent with sociopolitical significance (150), we can see Yezierska’s heroine as the prototypical pre-white immigrant whose movements within and beyond fictional New York tell much about the desires and psychic processes that abetted the spatialization of race.
Bread Givers maps its protagonist’s anguished voyage from working-class immigrant girlhood to white American femininity, a voyage that necessarily passes through the way station of commodity culture. As the primary means by which immigrants Americanized themselves, mass culture became a source of peril and imagination for the newcomer. On the one hand, immigrants were vulnerable to how commodities such as fashion and cosmetics could deceive the observer (the individual may not be who/what he or she appears); on the other, it was precisely the commodities’ ability to disguise the appearance of ethnic foreignness that could facilitate immigrants’ acceptance by the modern American mainstream. Through this complicated relationship to the commodity—one that casts the Smolinskys both as deceivers and deceived—they come to understand racial identity not as an immutable biological status determined by one’s skin and blood, but as a potential...