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  • Reading Brownness: Richard Rodriguez, Race, and Form
  • Swati Rana (bio)

In Richard Rodriguez’s 2002 collection of essays, Brown, the lone figure of Rodriguez is hard at work in his “brown study,” dwelling quite completely in that brooding span of aimless reverie that the term describes (33). He paces back and forth across this volume of nine essays, piecing together for the reader the meaning of brownness and its particular instantiation in Hispanicism—“the last discovery of America,” as the subtitle of the collection brashly declares. The text takes a heuristic approach, charting a course toward brownness by what looks like trial and error, and proliferating racial figurations without attaching these to specifically racialized figures. In the brief span of one essay, Rodriguez’s thoughts about brownness are themselves described as brown; his writing on brownness is to be shelved as brown; Eve’s apple is brown, not to mention T. S. Eliot’s London fog, rich Europeans, nature’s call, and blind John Milton—all assimilable to the “brown all, brown all” refrain of the text (44). For Rodriguez, it is fine for this miscellany to perplex readers of Brown: “Only further confusion can save us,” he claims (142).

Whether celebrating this agenda or critiquing it, readings of Brown tend to remain caught in the confusion that Rodriguez generates. Brown is often understood as a defunct example of the millennial discourse of race: a misguided representation of postracial ideology that proliferates racial referents only to render race meaningless, disavowing race despite the structuring effects of race and racism today. In this essay, I argue that we need a literary hermeneutic for reading the millennial discourse of race—a hermeneutic that opens up the possibility of a gap between racial hybridity and postracial ideology and enables us to see how Brown illuminates rather than obfuscates our understanding of race at the present conjuncture.1 I develop this hermeneutic through a close reading of Brown, proposing that we [End Page 285] emerge from the confusion of Rodriguez’s “brown study” and develop an agenda for what I term “brownness studies.”

The first section positions Brown in the millennial discourse of race and what critics have characterized as its magical formalism to argue that we need a formalist hermeneutic for reading race today. Rodriguez is a particularly apt figure through whom to pursue this project because of his popularity as a spokesperson for US racial futures, a stature which has depended on the rejection of his own racial identity and his stated determination to undermine the very concept of race. I start by reading Brown with the grain of this disavowal, showing how Rodriguez seeks to undermine race by refiguring race as a formal principle. Cursory readings of Brown miss the complexity of this refiguration, which redefines brownness as a generalized principle of impurity that seeks to include everyone within its universalist ambit, thus exemplifying the particular style of our postracial moment. The second section reads Brown against the grain of Rodriguez’s stated disavowal of race, in productive tension with the controversial figure of its author and the overdetermined ideological field that the book generates. I show how intransigent racial forms assert themselves from the interstices of the narrative, testifying to the continued relevance of race and to the fragility of Rodriguez’s universalist ambition. Under the sign of “confusion,” I find a dialectical tension within Brown between Rodriguez’s attempt to generalize race as form and Brown’s representation of contrarian racial forms that refuse this incorporative logic. Ultimately, I argue that by reading Brown today we can grapple with, rather than simply repudiate, the magical formalism of the millennial discourse of race. The final section considers the significance of this formalist hermeneutic and proposes that brownness studies explore the critical deployments of brownness as a productive entropy within postracial discourse.

1. Refiguring Race as Form

Published after 9/11 but mostly written in advance, the essays in Brown reckon with the visibly changing racial composition of the US in the recent past, most especially the proposition that “America is browning” (xii). Rodriguez’s observation can be dated to the early 1990s, when US census results first gave rise to...


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pp. 285-304
Launched on MUSE
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