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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature
  • Julie Cary Nerad
Catherine Rottenberg. Performing Americanness: Race, Class, and Gender in Modern African-American and Jewish-American Literature. Dartmouth, NH: UP of New England, 2008. 180 pp. $50.00.

Rottenberg's study adapts Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity to analyze four categories of identity—race, class, gender, and ethnicity—with the aim of linking them to the concept "Americanness." She uses as case studies six early twentieth-century African American and Jewish American novels ranging from the Progressive Era to the Harlem Renaissance: Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917); Anzia Yezierska's Arrogant Beggar (1927) and Salome of the Tenements (1923); James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912); and Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Rottenberg's premise is that a comparative analysis of these two minority groups will better [End Page 206] show how "dominant norms have helped to produce and sustain social stratification in the United States" (3). Although Rottenberg uses literature to illustrate her argument, the book's primary scholarly contribution is to performance and identity studies. Her arguments coalesce around a few key ideas: the difference between race and ethnicity, the difference between "identification" and what she calls the "desire-to-be," the intersectionality and irreducibility of the identity categories under study, and the production and functions of privilege. Her stated goal is to understand better the possibility for subversion.

Following Butler, Rottenberg argues that identity is produced by the subject's constant and compelled reiterative performance of dominant norms, and more specifically, the traits that are interwoven with those norms. Identity is also affected by a subject's identification (as black or female or lower class, for instance) and her desire-to-be (to "live up to the norms associated with a particular category" [11]). The relationship between identification and desire-to-be, according to Rottenberg, varies depending on the identity category, and each category, she argues, demands a "unique modality of performativity" (9). Thus, for instance, we are compelled to perform race differently than we perform class or gender, although those performances intersect in multiple ways.

Rottenberg devotes individual chapters to showing how class, race, and gender operate in America, as illustrated in the selected novels. She argues that class is understood to be a nonessential aspect of identity, and that the idea of class mobility embedded in the "American dream" encourages a split between identification and desire. One should desire to move "up" the class system regardless of his initial class identification. He may move up through hard work, determination, and the reiterative performance of the norms of the target class. Within such a system, if a subject fails to move up the class hierarchy, the individual (rather than society) is at fault. In comparison, within the U. S. patriarchal system (which functions through compulsory heterosexuality), two gender ideals exist: man and woman. Although they do not have equal access to power, they each operate as ideals to which a subject must aspire through the performance of associated traits. One's gender identification should always match his desire-to-be. For instance, once interpellated as a man, a subject identifies with the category "man" and desires to reach the ideal through performing the traits linked together under the rubric "masculinity." Not so for race. According to Rottenberg, under the racial and historically racist hierarchy in the U. S. as structured through a black/white dichotomy, one is compelled to desire to be white regardless of one's racial identification. She explains: "In a white racist society, the construction of blackness as undesirable is one of the mechanisms employed to control subjects, both black and white" (37). Those interpellated as black must identify as black but they are simultaneously compelled to desire to be white. Blacks can never, however, actually be white (even racial passers). Ethnics such as Jews do not face these divergent pressures. According to Rottenberg, race and ethnicity have had different "historical trajectories" and are distinct categories that cannot be collapsed. She suggests that ethnicity as an identity category has actually arisen...


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pp. 206-208
Launched on MUSE
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