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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.3 (2001) 67-86



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Haunted Houses, Sinking Ships
Race, Architecture, and Identity in Beloved and Middle Passage

Samira Kawash
Rutgers University


IN MOST CONSIDERATIONS OF THE COLOR LINE, THE GOVERNING METAPHOR IS blood: the color line is understood to figure racial distinction in terms of some biological vision of heritage and ancestry. But the metaphor of the color line itself is not biological, but spatial. This raises the question, what kind of line is it? We might wonder what it would mean to take seriously the metaphor of the color line from a spatial perspective, that is, to consider the relation between architectural or geographical boundaries and social distinctions and divisions. While this may be a familiar problem for social geographers, it has drawn less attention from literary and cultural critics. The deconstruction of racial difference and the attendant emphasis in contemporary "mobility studies" on migrancy, diaspora, and hybridity draw attention away from the sometimes irreducible force of boundaries and barriers, the sometimes undeniable there-ness of the physical and the built. Migrancy, diaspora, and hybridity are defined against the (bad, old, essentialist) ideas of "home" and "identity." But in this framework of oppositions, the built world is curiously absent.

In contemporary thinking about identity or its failures, the idea of home is most frequently aligned with the development or contesting of affective [End Page 67] identifications. "Home" signals a source of belonging, or alternatively, a negative pole appearing in tension with perpetual motion or unrealized longing. But what of the physical manifestation of home, frequently a house—the built, local, inhabited site—to which meanings of home may or may not attach? The analysis of home as a source of either identifications or disidentifications tells us little about the symbolic, affective, or phenomenological implications of the house.

Throughout the postwar period, the house has held a signal place in the American cultural imaginary, providing an affective and symbolic locus for the virtues and desires through which the national subject is interpellated and normalized (heterosexuality, sexual reproduction, work ethic, individual responsibility, sobriety, consumption, to name a few). We are familiar with the role of the single-family detached house in the American Dream; in the wake of the large-scale development and promotion of suburban living following World War II, home ownership has become a potent sign and guarantee of the citizen-subject as possessive, and possessing, individual. But the significance of this image of the house for my consideration of the color line is not simply that restrictive covenants, de facto and de jure segregation, racist lending and selling practices, and systemic economic discrimination excluded many African Americans from realizing this version of the American Dream. In Redesigning the American Dream, Dolores Hayden emphasizes the complex meaning of the suburban dream house as an object of desire and identification that interpellated postwar generations into the interrelated narratives of upward class mobility, Americanization, and patriarchal family romance, indicating the complex interplay of class, race, and gender at work in the idealized American subject. Feminist critics have drawn our attention to the significance of the patriarchal ideology that identifies femininity with domestic space, and woman with the house (see Colomina; Stimpson et al.; Wekerle; Weisman). But I want to add to this by arguing that, in perhaps a less immediately evident way, the house as both an externalization of the normalized American citizen-subject as possessive individual and as a figure of separation and enclosure has become both sign of and site for struggles over belonging, identity, and privilege whereby specifically racial meanings and identities are produced and negotiated (see Kawash, "Safe House?"). [End Page 68]

The notion that the house itself might produce racial meanings can be more easily grasped by focusing first on the mirror image of the house in contemporary American life: the prison. The prison, sometimes referred to colloquially as the "big house," is inexorably twinned with its smaller, private counterpart. Both appear as enclosures, the one protecting the outside world from the dangerous bodies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 67-86
Launched on MUSE
2003-12-25
Open Access
No
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