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Canadian Review of Amen can Studies/ Revue canadienne d'etu.desamericaines Volume 28, Number 3, 1998, pp. 47-67 Racial Etiquette and the (White) Plot of Passing: (Re)lnscribing "Place" in John Stahl's Imitation of Life Adrienne Johnson Gosselin 47 The idea of "passing for white" is a uniquely American notion. It is a social more than a biological phenomenon, the one-drop rule, artificial constructs of race and miscegenation, and America's "unique definition of what makes a person black" (Davis 1990, 14).1 The narrative of passing-for-white is embodied in the trope of the tragic mulatto, a figure characterized by betrayal and race-denial, haunted by racial impurity, and whose very body bears the stigma of relations unsanctionable in the United States. While the narrative of passing-for-white has been popular with both black and white American authors, it would be a mistake to assume their treatment to be the same. For example, in Our Nig ([1859] 1983), the author Harriet Wilson utilized the passing plot to frame a narrative "not about virtue in distress because of mixed blood and male oppression but about the hypocrisy of New England Christians" (Bell 1987, 50). Moreover, Our Nig is the first to introduce an interracial marriage into American fiction with a white wife and black husband , as well as the first to treat its mulatto protagonist "as an individual rather than a type" (Bell 1987, 50). 48 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadienne d'etudesamericaine.s The theme of passing was also a frequent topic of black and white writers during the 1920s and early 1930s, a period when black life "fascinated" the American imagination. 2 Black modernist writers such as James Weldon Johnson (Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, [1912] reprint 1926), Nella Larsen (Passing,[1929] 1969), Jesse Fauset (Plum Bun, [1928] 1985), and George Schuyler (Black No More, [1931] 1969) used the plot of passing, as did white modernist writers, such as William Faulkner (Light in August, 1932) and Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life, 1933). In "white" narratives of passing, however, plots are "typically predetermined ... presuppos[ing] that characters who pass for white are betrayers of the black race," while depending "almost inevitably, upon the association of blackness with selfdenial and suffering" (Smith 1994, 43-44). However, unlike Faulkner's haunted Joe Christmas,3 the racial origins of Johnson's anonymous protagonist are known to his wife and his material success is secured by children whose identities are "white enough to cast no doubt on his" (Mullen 1994, 79); in the same vein, Schuyler's satiric science fiction parodies the absurdity of colour prejudice by means of an electrical process for turning black people white. Like Imitation of Life, Larsen and Fauset deal with women and passing , but while Hurst reinforces racial and gender determinism, Larsen uses the theme to critique the black middle class; while Fauset combines the dual plots of passing and the female bildungsroman to critique "unequal power relations in U.S. society" (McDowell 1995, 65) and encourages her black (women) readers to "act independently from a "new understanding of the nature of power"(69). 4 For very different reasons, the plot of passing was a narrative strategy important to both black and white writers. On the one hand, black writers were attempting to stem the tide of racial passing in order to build solidarity for the New Negro Movement, led by a second-generation black intelligentsia not easily awed by white psychology and empowered by participation of African and African-American soldiers in the First World War. On the other hand, white writers used the passing narrative to exploit the threat of "invisible blackness," the result of "centuries of miscegenation [producing] thousands of mulattoes who had simply lost visibility, so much did color and features overlap between those who were mixed and those who were purely white" (Williamson 1995, 98).5 Such differences in treatment become even AdrienneJohnson GosselinI 49 more significant when one considers that the practice of passing for white reached its "all-time peak" by 1925 and that by 1932, a study of 2,500 mulattos showed quadroons, octoroons, and persons with three-eighths African ancestry...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 47-67
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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