- Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South
Soon after her 1943 release from an Arkansas internment camp, Mary Tsukamoto boarded a bus to Jackson, Mississippi. Deeply immersed in the South's Jim Crow era and a victim of racial segregation herself, Tsukamoto was shocked to discover she was not colored when the bus driver told her to sit behind him. What exactly does not colored mean for Asian Americans after an entire ethnic community had been separated as "enemy aliens?" As Leslie Bow asks in Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South, "How did Jim Crow accommodate a supposed 'third' race, those individuals and communities who did not fit into a cultural and legal system predicated on the binary distinction between black and white?" (1). In other words, "What became of other 'colored people'?" (3).
Bow's Partly Colored is an impressive and well-researched interdisciplinary response to this question. Using Homi Bhabha's theory of the interstitial as a conceptual lens, Bow argues that the "racially interstitial can represent the physical manifestation of the law's instability, its epistemological limit, the point of interpellation's excess. Yet it may also be the site of cultural reinscription, the place where difference is made to conform to social norms" (4). Bow focuses on how color lines are drawn for those who stand beyond and between the structural logics of segregation (generally defined within a black/white axis) and how subjects are defined within the intermediary space between abjection and normative invisibility. Examining a wide array of sources (government documents, visual culture, fiction, memoirs, and film) and academic fields (sociology, anthropology, history, and law), Partly Colored is a major contribution to Asian American Studies, American Studies, New Southern Studies, comparative race studies, and literary studies.
By focusing on nineteenth- and twentieth-century representations of Asians, American Indians, and mestizos in Southern culture, Chapter [End Page 187] One examines how the "partly colored" were forced into recognizable roles, especially how Asianness became articulated in proximity to the "Negro." Bow highlights the role of interstitial Asians in Southern history to uncover the ambiguity of interstitiality: the racialized subject who can go either way (39). To illustrate this flexibility, Bow examines Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins of North Carolina whose anomalous Asianness reveals the flexibility of Southern culture. She also studies anti-miscegenation laws that struggled with creating other "colored" subjects beyond "Negro." By highlighting racial omissions and their constructions in legal documents, Bow reveals erasures in American narratives of race and racism.
Chapters Two and Three focus on the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina and the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta, respectively. Both these ethnic enclaves are generally seen as success stories due to their caste elevation during the Jim Crow era. But Bow further explores their interstitial status by asking how the space of intermediacy is created and maintained. For the Lumbee community, the pressures to choose between white and black resulted in their struggle for "Indian" status via problematic quantifications of blood. For the Chinese of the Mississippi Delta, the status shift from "colored" to white, argues Bow, occurred incompletely. "Eruptions of funk," or what Bow describes as "interstitial subjects who fail to perform the dual gesture of white identification and black disavowal" (103), usually occurred through acts of Chinese-black intimacy such as Arlee Hen, an elderly Afro-Chinese woman the Chinese community tried to cover up. Although caste elevation depends on repressing these unions, they can never be wholly buried.
Two Asian American Southern memoirs are the focus of Chapter Four: Choong Soon Kim's An Asian Anthropologist in the South: Field Experiences with Blacks, Indians, and Whites (1977) and Ved Mehta's Sound-Shadows of the New World (1985). Both Kim and Mehta offer personal narratives mediating between the not-black and not-white via what Bow names the neutrality of Asians in the South: Kim is a foreigner who believes his status...