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  • Introduction: Cross-Racial and Cross-Ethnic Collaboration and Scholarship: Contexts, Criticism, Challenges
  • Carolyn Sorisio (bio)

My interest in editing a special issue of MELUS devoted to cross-racial and cross-ethnic collaboration and scholarship evolved from my investigation of newspaper accounts by and about the nineteenth-century Northern Paiute author and activist Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins. These items present increased evidence regarding Winnemucca’s productive interracial collaboration with her editor Mary Peabody Mann, her manager and friend Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and her husband Lewis H. Hopkins. Many nineteenth-century accounts of these relationships replicate their era’s racism, representing Winnemucca’s husband in language evoking a “squaw man” and calling Peabody’s relationship with Winnemucca “a curious idiosyncrasy” (“Current”). Even Mann, who, as Heidi M. Hanrahan’s essay in this issue demonstrates, had a positive relationship with Winnemucca, nonetheless called Winnemucca Peabody’s “pet Indian” (qtd. in Zanjani 280). Winnemucca, in turn, was at times accused of duping naïve non-Natives. There was something unsettling to many about the possibility that Winnemucca was working with non-Natives productively—that together they may have been enacting their versions of interracial friendship, love, or political and artistic collaboration. Critical accounts written in the past few decades replicate this suspicion, effectively stripping Winnemucca of agency in her life and work.1

In American Indian literary studies, some scholars are reconsidering collaboration and revising assumptions about American Indian passivity or naïveté.2 Aware of these changes, I was curious about how new work in other areas of race and ethnic studies resulted in revised narratives of cross-racial and cross-ethnic collaboration. I had in mind neither exclusively commendatory nor condemnatory reconsiderations, wanting to avoid what Lorraine M. York describes in relation to women’s collaborative writing: scholarship that supplants “deplorably subversive” representations of collaborations with ones that are “admirably subversive” (9). I sought a diversity of scholarship urging us to consider the ethical and practical implications of the stories we tell about interracial or interethnic collaboration. The call for submissions sought new biographical information, new critical interpretations of previously studied cross-racial or cross-ethnic collaborations, reexaminations of the representation of cross-racial or ethnic collaboration within literary and cultural studies, and contemporary scholars’ reflections on their own experiences of interracial and interethnic collaboration. Because my experience with Winnemucca convinced me that in many cases, we lack or have not looked for the archival [End Page 1] materials necessary to adequately reconsider the topic, I sought scholarship that presented or drew on archival and recovery work.

The essays in this issue demonstrate that the narratives we have inherited about cross-racial or cross-ethnic collaboration, whether affirmative or negative, are pervasive and in need of reexamination. Yet those narratives can be challenging to revise, in part because they are connected to the reality of US culture, a culture in which structural inequities complicate interracial and interethnic collaborations and our narratives about them. As Marcelline Block and Megan Heuer note in their introduction to the 2009 Critical Matrix issue devoted to collaboration, “By its very definition, collaboration is an ambivalent concept, demonstrated by the two primary synonyms for the word collaborator: coworker and traitor” (2). When the collaborators are from groups with unequal power, the tensions between co-worker and traitor can be exacerbated. Although friendship differs from collaboration, the relationships that several essays in this issue explore contain elements of both collaboration and friendship. As in the case of collaboration, structural inequities, racism, and ethnocentrism may influence friendships and scholarly narratives about them. In Perfecting Friendship: Politics and Affiliation in Early American Literature (2006), for example, Ivy Schweitzer demonstrates that Aristotle’s representation of friendship based on likeness and interchangeability has “had a powerful and uncharted effect on our ability to conceive of friendship across the lines of difference” (14); his understanding that “voluntary, rational choice and an equality between friends” (35) is a precondition for achieving the highest form of friendship has also been formative. The task before us, then, is to reimagine interracial and interethnic collaborations without obscuring the realities of power differentials in US culture that make such collaborations and the stories we tell about them fraught.

Carolyn L...


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