- Interstitial Spaces and the Search for Identity in the "Other" South
Scholars of the "new southern studies" have begun to explore the overlooked and emerging historical, literary, and geographical spaces that help us consider the South in new and innovative ways. Leslie Bow and Maria Hebert-Leiter provide two crucial texts that exemplify this work. Although distinct in their subjects and critical approaches, both authors view the interstitial as a productive site of exploration into the complex processes surrounding racial and ethnic representation as well as regional, national, and transnational identities. These two studies reconfigure the literary and historical legacies of the South by disrupting the traditional binaries of black and white, insider and outsider, region and nation.
Utilizing pre-to post-Jim Crow era literature, history, autobiography, visual culture, and government documents, Partly Colored is an ambitious project that explores how communities positioned outside of the traditional white-black racial binary negotiate the legal and cultural systems of segregation. The book follows groundbreaking studies that [End Page 164] explore Asian identity in the South such as James Loewen's ethnography of the Mississippi Chinese and John Howard's overview of Japanese American concentration camps in Arkansas. Bow's text departs from and makes significant contributions to existing scholarship by considering how a "third race" helps to interrogate the mechanism behind segregation and status in the South. Drawing from a variety of disciplines, particularly gender and whiteness studies, she meticulously describes how the experiences of Asian Americans and Native Americans "question the logic of racial classification and … foreground the mutually constitutive nature of racial construction." Bow is less interested in tracing multiethnic and multiracial shifts in the South than in examining the logic behind Jim Crow and the cultural anxieties found within southern and American racial discourse. She persuasively insists that the "fissures and gaps within representations of segregation-era history" leave us with only a partial narrative of southern race relations, an incompletion that compels her to reconsider the ways in which the Jim Crow era is documented and remembered.
With the exception of a chapter on the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, Partly Colored is primarily concerned with how Asian Americans' exposure to segregation unveils the underlying tensions surrounding racial and ethnic identification in the South. Building off Loewen's ethnographic study, Bow contends that the Mississippi Chinese's attempts to elevate themselves ultimately proved to be a "failed approximation" of white status. This incomplete transformation points to the anxieties with status that arise within a white-black continuum as well as with racial discourse itself. She goes on to examine autobiographies of Asians born outside the United States, arguing that these individuals also resist their intermediary status by claiming an objective distance from a social system predicated on a racial binary. In doing so, these writers provide a revealing critique of southern race relations from the perspective of those born outside the United States.
Throughout her project Bow rightly argues for the need to acknowledge multiple points of differentiation that reveal "alternative connections and affiliations" found in communities across the South. Her analyses of post-Civil Rights era works such as Susan Choi's novel The Foreign Student (1998) and Marlo Poras's documentary film Mai's America (2002) best exemplify this point as she examines how new alliances emerge through the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. In her deft reading of these texts that center on foreign-born Asians living in the South, she contends that the transracial, transnational, and [End Page 165] transgendered "challenge our continued investment in black/white distinction by encoding alternative notions of community." Bow's study ultimately proves that the interstitial provides a means of questioning the cultural investment of easy dichotomies and investigating the narrative anxieties surrounding the history of southern race relations.
Like Bow, Maria Hebert-Leiter spotlights...