- Backing into the Other:White Identity, Cultural Blackness, and Southern Fiction
Building on the concerns of whiteness studies, literary and cultural studies of the U.S. South, and broader inquiries into the relationship of aesthetic and social constructions of race, John N. Duvall outlines a set of practices that expand our sense of the "serviceable other" in contemporary U.S. fiction. Readers interested in a revitalized sense of Southern literature as more than a reactive player in conversations about race, gender, and sexuality will find Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction interesting. It will also attract those who may feel that the recent development of whiteness studies toward a concern with white ethnicity rather than whiteness as such has left something behind. Duvall grounds his study in the work of several white Southern authors—William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, John Barth, and Dorothy Allison—with counterpoint developed in the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed. Broadly speaking, Duvall's study attempts to explain a particular configuration of racialization, privilege, and appropriation. He focuses on a number of visibly and uncontroversially white characters (that is, none of them are "passing" for white, nor are their white origins brought into question) who manifest or perform what he calls "cultural" or "figurative" blackness. [End Page 429]
Rather than deriving from judgments based upon biological or legal factors, this blackness is a collection of traits or behavior that have been or could be associated with stereotypes of African Americans, but that might also be applied to white Southerners more generally. Some examples include forms of speech; attitudes about sexual propriety, community customs, or class standards; or a seemingly casual attitude toward violence or criminality. One might say that Duvall's idea of "cultural blackness" bears on "race" in much the same way that gender can be thought to bear on sex: as an enacted construction whose lineaments spring from and hearken to an underlying bodily condition, but whose relationship to that condition is quite mutable, and is the result of both individual intention and worldly determination. Thus "black" here is a trope often (but not exclusively) tied to a set of features that are associated with a particular position within a larger racial structure. With this distinction in play, although not without a parallel sense of its complications, Duvall explores characters who are both phenotypically white and "white by birth" and yet who perform blackness. They push themselves toward the margins of the surrounding white community and "end up playing a role that the southern community would have no problem understanding if they were visibly black. They become artificial Negroes, then, not because they are in blackface but because they are, quite literally, in whiteface: their white faces either render invisible their black psychological interiority or mask their abject class position" (8).
"Whiteface minstrel" and "artificial Negro" are Duvall's more or less interchangeable terms for these figures (7). To become a whiteface minstrel or an artificial Negro is to become a source of anxiety about the security of whiteness. Such figures may renounce privileges and powers that their whiteness grants (Ike McCaslin in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses), or become such figures through their failures to maintain their whiteness (Ms. McIntyre in O'Connor's story "The Displaced Person"), or develop a near-appropriative cultivation of a "black interior" (as in Barth's Maryland trilogy novels). Where such figures are not protagonists, the central characters who encounter them are invariably stirred by their interaction with or observations of these others. [End Page 430] Where such figures are protagonists, the anxiety includes them, for they are invariably unaware of their whiteface performance. The unspoken rules that typically delineate people into white or black instead come to the edge of recognition. The discord created by visible whiteness and performed blackness raises tensions without allowing anyone to locate or name their exact origin.
In his introduction, Duvall reviews comments by Chris Rock and Toni Morrison about Bill Clinton and reasons that if the former President is...