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American Quarterly 55.2 (2003) 323-331



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Race(y) Words and Pictures:
Depicting and Demarcating "Natural" Preference

Julie Cary Nerad
Georgia State University

"Miscegenation": Making Race in America. By Elise Lemire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 204 pages. $35.00 (cloth).

ELISE LEMIRE IDENTIFIES "MISCEGENATION": MAKING RACE IN AMERICA AS A genealogy of the term "miscegenation," a term which helped prohibit inter-racial sex and marriage by biologizing race and thus obscuring the "constructed nature of whiteness" while simultaneously shoring up white supremacy (5). 1 Her well-researched book, however, is much more than a genealogy of a term. In "Miscegenation," Lemire illustrates how racial categories were partially produced and then policed in nineteenth-century America through the racialization of certain sets of sexualized physical traits. Although various scholars have recently explored the interdependence of race, gender, and sex, Lemire shows in a particularly graphic way how the discursive fields of politics, science, literature, race, sex, and gender converged in the space of political cartoons that lampooned abolitionists and constructed inter-racial political, social, or sexual alliances as unnatural. 2 This anti-inter-racial propaganda specifically appeared during, as she sees them, three key "distinct waves of hysteria about inter-racial sex and marriage" (1) between 1800 and 1865: the national attention on the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings relationship generated by the 1802 Port Folio poems, the 1830s New York and Philadelphia race riots in the wake of [End Page 323] immediate abolitionism, and the fervor following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 3

For each of these historical moments, Lemire highlights the white anxiety created and fueled by the fear of "amalgamation." Her argument draws from and puts into conversation the tenets of liberal democracy, socio-economic justifications of slavery, white economic insecurity, racial violence, racialist science, the gendered production and reproduction of families, and political rights of citizenship. Produced by and within this milieu of discourses and anxieties, political race cartoons and the literary and journalistic accounts of inter-racial relationships that often accompanied them not only depicted an epistemology of race but helped demarcate that way of constructing, seeing, and experiencing race. In short, they "trained" people to see blacks and whites through certain physical features drawn as vastly disparate: skin, hair, nose, lips, "facial angle," and smell. These physical traits, first racialized in caricatured proportion, were then sexually charged: they were loaded both to reflect sexual desirability and govern sexual "preference." Because some racialist scientists classified blacks "as near relatives of primates," these images marshaled science to imagine intra-racial desire as the instinct to perpetuate "distinct biological entities," while inter-racial desire became abnormal and against the laws of nature (3). These pictorial and literary depictions thus helped limit the number of inter-racial marriages, sometimes despite the absence of legal prohibitions, by persuading whites that blacks were physically and socially inferior. Ultimately, the naturalization of race partially accomplished by these Northern political cartoons and anti-"amalgamation" propaganda made intra-racial relationships seem solely the product of biology rather than prejudice and thus worked to prohibit inter-racial sex and/or marriage even among those who argued for black political equality.

Lemire sees the public exposé of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings's relationship, the earliest of her three historical moments, as foundational in the construction of inter- and intra-racial desire. Turning a fresh lens on an otherwise worn subject, she focuses not on their sexual relationship but rather on the Federalists' attempt to discredit liberal democracy by publicly ridiculing and demonizing Jefferson's sexual "preference" for an African American woman while highlighting the hypocrisy inherent in the slave-owning Jefferson's political philosophies. According to Lemire, these Federalists' poems, [End Page 324] published in the Port Folio in 1802, and James Akin's 1804 engraving entitled A Philosophic Cock that depicts Jefferson as a rooster strutting before a dark-skinned, turbaned chicken (presumably representative of Sally Hemings) conceptualized this presidential inter-racial liaison as the direct consequence of Jefferson's "embrace of liberal democracy" (1). Rather...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 323-331
Launched on MUSE
2003-06-16
Open Access
No
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