Significant scholarship has been dedicated to what has been termed “passing novels” of the Harlem Renaissance1. Although the theme of passing was also prevalent prior to this time period (notably in the work of Charles Chesnutt), texts including George Schuyler’s Black No More, (1931), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand(1928) and Passing (1929), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929), and Walter White’s Flight (1926) have been closely studied as prominent examples of the subgenre, with James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man often mentioned as an important precursor (1912, republished 1927). These works are significant given their publication at a time when “the New Negro” was being defined and what it meant to be African American was highly contested (Gallego 45). Though passing novels both during the Harlem Renaissance and after were often dismissed as elitist novels whose bourgeois characters took the “easy way” out when faced with racial discrimination, recent scholarship since the 1990s has argued for a more complex treatment (Gallego 6). As such, within the novels I examine –Plum Bum, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and Passing – I find more than stories of “white Negroes” whose physical appearance allows for the opportunity to present as “white” but whose “black” lineage makes him or her a Negro according to dominant racial rules (Kennedy 1). Instead, I also find that these novels allowed for the exploration of the possibility of more fluid racial identities, such as those imagined and touted to exist in countries like Brazil.
Recent scholarship seems to be heading in an analogous direction. For example, Plum Bun editor Deborah McDowell asserts that while Fauset’s novels “seems to be just another novel of racial passing” (xv), this book is in fact, a text which examines gender oppression, unequal power relationships, and marriage, within the form of a bildungsroman (xv-xvi). She writes, “Plum Bun, like the protagonist whose story it tells, is passing. It passes for another novel of passing, for a modern fairy tale of age-old concerns” (xxii)2. Nevertheless, despite the role passing plays in exploring other themes (race, class, marriage, sexuality), especially as has been noted for female authors such as Fauset and Larsen (McClendon 2), the significance of either choosing to be identified as white or choosing not to be identified as black is paramount. As Wald notes in Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. literature and Culture, “racial passing can ‘work’ … only because race is more liquid and dynamic, more variable and random, then it is conventionally represented to be within hegemonic discourse” (6). Thus, by interrupting the divisive black-white categories, these so called passing novels, actually present race on a much more fluid level than US race categories can accurately describe, ways that mimic the South American and especially Brazilian notions of race they reference as imaginary utopias. In this way, more than “passing” in terms of simple movement from black to white, the concept of embranquecimento or a policy of population whitening and assimilation serves as a useful framework in which to examine these narratives.
There are several reasons why a Brazilian analogy here is instructive. In addition to the intrinsic usefulness of a comparative approach, the Brazilian case highlights the existence of numerous international conversations about blackness that existed during the time. While Penny M. Von Eschen, Robin D.G. Kelley, Minkah, Makalani, Clare Corbould, Michelle Stephens, Brent Edward Hayes and others have written about the various black internationalisms and strains of black radical thought that traveled through New York and across what Gilroy famous termed the “Black Atlantic,” few have explored the influence of Latin American views on blackness. And yet, the 1900s-1940s was an important period of Latin American migration to New York growing from 41,094 by 1920, to110, 223 by 1930 and 134,000 by 1940 (Census of 1920 679; Census of 1930 297; Census of 1940 63-4). By the 1920s, East Harlem was already cemented as a “barrio Latino,” and moreover, Latin America was firmly entrenched in the minds of African Americans in questions of race, regularly finding a presence in The Negro World and The Crisis.
Brazil however represented a special case. Due to language barriers, Brazil was more a site of imagination than conversation. In African American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise, David Hellwig traces the way Brazil has been represented in newspapers, reports and other materials by African Americans from 1900 to 1980, finding that in the earlier period between 1900 to 1940 the general consensus was that Brazil could serve as a racial model for the United States, despite the fact that it was the last nation in the hemisphere to abolish slavery. He writes, “for most of the twentieth century, African Americans, including a large number of black leaders, preached the lessons of the Brazilian experience to skeptical, if not hostile whites… More important, they used the image of Brazil as an open, colorblind utopia for people of color to instill hope among those who, long after the legal abolition of slavery, lived in social, economic and political servitude” (Hellwig xi-xii). Significantly, Brazil was seen as an important potential refuge, much closer both geographically and culturally than Africa.
Although this utopic image of Brazil later crumbled in the mid 1960s, this myth created hope for many African Americans, including the writers of these passing novels. For many educated African Americans, for example, Brazil represented a hope that racial equality could exist in a nation that had recently abolished slavery. For example, Du Bois made sure to publish “the truth” about Brazil in The Crisis in 1914, writing: “There are in Brazil 8,300,000 Negros and mulattoes; 3,700,000 Indian and mixed Indian-whites and 8,000,000 persons of European descent. All these elements are fusing into one light mulatto race” (Hellwig 32). In addition, he states, “the facts” that: “1. Brazil is absorbing the Negro race; 2. There is no color bar to advancement. 3. There is no social bar to advancement, but the mass of full-blooded Negroes are still in the lower social class” (32). Despite the acknowledgement of the racial progress still to be made in terms of class, the emphasis on “fusing” into one race and “absorbing the Negro” are important indicators of the spread of Brazil’s whitening ideology into black American consciousness. It is not surprising then that almost a decade later, Cyril V. Brigs in a series of articles on Brazil for The Crusader between 1920 and 1924 writes of a melting pot:
Almost every race under the sun is found in Brazilian society, and there is a daily increase through a perpetual stream of immigration. But in spite of the great variety and broad differences of physical type and mental outlook, there is a state of absolute social harmony. Negroes and whites intermarry without provoking the slightest social criticism. Further, the tendency seems to encourage intermarriage between widely different stocks, such as white and African – the deal being a perfect political state thoroughly homogenous in blood” (Hellwig 65-66).
What is important here is not the actualities of embranquecimento as a solution to racial conflict, but the way miscegenation was imagined as a positive form of mixing when done openly and without prejudice as purportedly existed in Brazil.
Brazil’s whitening ideology or policy of embranquecimento was actually quite different. Although Brazil’s racial order is based on the same Eurocentric paradigm as the United States in which blackness and whiteness represent negative and positive designations, Brazil is more grounded in the “excluded middle” (Daniel 27). Blackness and whiteness then are seen as extremes on a continuum – a continuum which works in conjunction with class and cultural signifiers to create social hierarchy. Although Brazil touts an absence of legalized barriers, the social hierarchies based on race and class are startlingly similar to those presented in these passing novels. As Skidmore describes, “the whitening thesis,” which was commonly accepted by the Brazilian elite between 1889-1914, was based on the assumption of white superiority, using the terms “more advanced” and “less advanced” races (64). Importantly this myth of forward thinking miscegenation to promote racial union, was in fact largely due to high ratios of European men to women (Daniel 28) especially as Africans replaced Native American labor force. Thus, between the “need” and decision to reproduce with non-white Brazilians and the belief that white genes were stronger, key here was the assumption that “miscegenation did not inevitably produce ‘degenerates,” but could forge a healthy mixed population growing steadily white, both culturally and physically” (Skidmore 65). Additionally, the timing of this thesis is not surprising – after slavery was abolished, the fear of being a minority as well as the fear of the large number of mulattos who were seen as above blacks, along with saturation of European and American eugenics3 thinkers lead to an embrace of the ideology of embranquecimento as a solution. Daniels writes, “If, according to the scientific racism dominant in this period, miscegenation and cultural blending were the disease, whitening through miscegenation and Europeanization of Brazilian culture was the Brazilian elite’s prescription for a cure” (37). In the end, although this “cure” was presented as racial mixing and equality through miscegenation, a significant focus of this policy was to encourage immigration of Europeans (especially of Germanic origin), and to restrict the immigration of blacks. While African American leaders like Du Bois wrote glowing articles about Brazil’s racial utopia, newspapers in Brazil expressed alarm at idea of African Americans migrating to that country (Daniels 38). In fact, at this time the US government worked in full cooperation with Brazilian authorities to raise barriers to black emigration (Nunes 132). As such, the actualities of embranquecimento inspired Abdias do Nascimento’s 1978 book, provocatively titled O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro: Processo de um Racismo Mascarado (Genocide of the Black Brazilian: Process of a Covert Racism).
The realities and imaginaries of Brazil’s embranquecimento “solution” for African Americans highlight then, one of the reasons why “passing” may have been such an important theme during this time period. As Gallego notes, what these novels are really doing through the “passing motif” is seeking a way to accommodate a “multiplicity of voices” and to account for the “multiplicity and hybridity inherent in any attempt to define an African American identity” (Gallego 191). Nevertheless, paradoxically, what the act of passing also highlights is the vast gap between race as a legal versus social construct. The real case of Gregory Howard Williams demonstrates this view, much in the same way as The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man does fictionally. As the son of a white mother and light-skinned Negro man who passed, he did not know he was black until his parents divorced at age 10. This difference between himself and his father pinpoints the meaning of passing in the United States, as opposed to embranquecimento in Brazil, where laws about race did not only not exist, but also where race was not even a part of the census4. As Kennedy writes, “When he held himself out as white before learning of his father’s secret, Williams was simply mistaken. When he occasionally held himself out as white after learning the ‘true’ racial identity of his father, Williams was passing. In other words, as I define the term, passing requires that a person be self-consciously engaged in concealment” (Kennedy 1). This characteristic of concealment is also what makes passing novels so important in their questioning of US racial categories that insisted on absolute racial demarcations – demarcations which often didn’t work (Pfieffer 8). As Pfieffer notes notes, “An individual’s ability to ‘pass for white’ challenges the applicability of racial categories, yet those same racial categories are precisely what constitute the passing scene” (Pfeiffer 12). Consequently the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 not only increased the motivation for passing (Pfieffer 1)5 but also emphasized the paradox of a society where a person could look white, be taken for white, and yet be black because of the “one drop rule.” Rather than acknowledge a history of miscegenation and racial blurring, the US increasing chose to, at least legally, separate races into highly defined categories. Yet the reality of racial boundaries is what allowed for passing to exist and what makes narratives like those of Fauset, Johnson and Larson so important in their demonstration of the failure of these racial identifications. It was also why African American thinkers of the time looked outward to France and South America.
Significantly, in her study of Faust, Johnson and Larsen, Mar Gallego frames her analysis through Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness” as well as Bakhtin’s theory of “heteroglossia” to argue that “passing novels act as the most valid written expression of double consciousness” (7). As such, Gallego sees Johnson, Fauset and Larsen as not only examining “double consciousness” but also drawing on numerous literary genres and traditions to create a unique literary viewpoint. Although not part of the Harlem Renaissance, Gallego, like other scholars before her, cites James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man as an influential work which both anticipates many central motifs and themes of the 1920s passing novels (45) and demonstrates evidence of Duboisian thought (61). First published anonymously in 1912, the novel was later republished in 1927 under Johnson’s by then well-known name prior to Plum Bun and Passing (Andrews xiv). Johnson’s novel tells the story of a light skinned black man raised in the middle class and of his experiences with both blacks and whites. Originally supported as a ragtime musician by a white gentleman, he decides to pass after witnessing the brutal lynching of a black man. Leaving his music, the narrator marries a white woman, has children and lives out the rest of his life as a white man.
In a twist on passing, and in congruence with Brazil’s racial image, Johnson opens the fictional Autobiography with scenes from an idyllic childhood in which the protagonist is completely unaware that he is black. The son of a light-skinned woman and a prominent southern man, his first traumatic experience when he is exposed to his racial heritage at school highlights several issues about US racial constructs. Not only does the protagonist and narrator live a comfortable life and attend an integrated school, but he is best friends with a white boy nicknamed “Red.” When he returns home after being told he is black and asks his mother, “Am I a nigger?”, she responds vaguely that he is not white while also admitting that she is not white (12). The only affirmative information she provides is that “the best blood of the South is in you” (12). By refusing to declare his race, a race which he never thought applied to him, but that is attached to him by outsiders because of the arbitrary “one drop rule” of identification, Johnson early on highlights both the fluidity of race in daily life as well as the rigidity of US classifications. Ironically, from this point on, the narrator describes passing from white to black stating, “From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by open dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great tangible fact” (14). Thus, because he always thought of himself as white, he is acutely aware of being forced into a new outlook, “not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man” (14), an outlook which he describes as affording every colored man “a sort of dual personality” (14). Interestingly, this “passing” from white to black, is not so much passing in the traditional sense–except to the protagonist there seemed to be no secret about his mixed racial heritage– but instead a “colouring” of his thoughts, a sort of “psychic miscegenation” that is neither black nor white. As Gallego elaborates, by “starting with the Dubosian representation of African American identity, Johnson not only questions such representation, but also the very myth of neatly distinct and unrelated races, and ultimately the notion of race itself” (73). Clearly this character’s exploration of “double consciousness” through passing is an important statement about the fluidity of racial identities and way in which miscegenation, as would be seen through embranquecimento, has often lightened the population to indistinction.
The results of this “psychic coloring,” are conscious acts and changes in the narrator’s mindset. He consciously substitutes his heroes (King David for Frederick Douglass), dreams of becoming “a great coloured man” (32) and throughout much of the novel emphasizes the artistry of black music as a valuable musical contribution. He even sees Shiny, the dark skinned high achieving fellow student from whom he once distanced himself as inspiration, commenting that, “he [Shiny] bore the weight and responsibility of his race” (31). Shiny’s rousing valedictorian speech for the first time brings forth a “leap within me pride that I was colored; and I began to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (32). Here, as in later in the novel, the indefiniteness and constant racial shifting of the central character highlights the way that “authentic blackness is a construct” (Ahlin 115). Because he is a “hybrid character,” he cannot be “socially acceptable” (Ahlin 115). Race more and more becomes performance and that performance is unstable.
Despite this awakening of consciousness, however, the narrator knows that his childhood offers only a limited view of racial consciousness for him, a perspective he explores in Jacksonville, which he explains “was really my entrance into the race… I had formulated a theory of what it was to be colored; now I was getting the practice. The novelty of my position caused me to observe and consider things which, I think, entirely escaped the young men I associated with” (54). Crucially, the narrator highlights two important aspects here: first that race for someone like him is a performance, a role which needs to be practiced and developed and secondly, that because of his earlier experiences as a white boy, he can observe the Negro in a different way. As such, the narrator’s observations of both black and whites litter the narrative as he comments on class, race relations in the north as opposed to the south, and a number of other issues. This “whitening” is further developed when the narrator passes for white in Europe, where he plays music that is a blend of ragtime and classical. Yet to pursue the type of music he wants, he must return to the American south to collect old slave songs, modern ragtime tunes, and “drink in my inspiration firsthand” (Johnson 104). At the same time that he seeks out black cultural traditions as an ethnographer might (Ahlin 115), he is also searching for a return to home, “to live among the people” (104). However, this home doesn’t exist for someone like him. Thus, like his earlier education in the “practice” of blackness, Johnson’s narrator not only demonstrates that there is nothing intrinsically black or white about anyone, but also that acknowledging that fact makes him an outcast. Even “double consciousness” is not a solution and France is not home.
Unfortunately for the narrator, the reality of trying to live as a “doubly conscious” light skinned Negro man who embraces his hybridity is impossible – a fact he confronts after witnessing a lynching. His third and final face-to-face encounter with the effects of US racial conditions (the first being learning he was white and confronting his mother, and the second his relationship with the white benefactor), the shame and humiliation he feels lead him to permanently pass as white. As the narrator explains:
All the while I understood that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals (139).
Although the narrator does not accept the inferiority of African Americans as eugenics theory and racial prejudices of the time would suggest, he does accept what those strict categories mean for him in terms of his future and the future of his children. Importantly, only the thought of losing his future wife makes him ever wish to be really white, emphasizing the absurdity of how “the drops of African blood” (149) could and did change entire lives.
More than relinquishing one race for another, the narrator chooses a form of assimilation that does not forget the other, but instead chooses the race which affords more opportunities. This is very much the spirit of embranquecimento. Embranquecimento in “theory” did not forget the history of miscegenation, but embraced any movement towards European cultural norms. As a result, when the narrator moves back to living as a white man he again refuses to make the choice of race stating: “I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would.” Although for Gallego, this results in a critique of Du Bois’ theory, “in which Johnson is posing the question of double consciousness as a clash wherein only one identity is possible with the total exclusion of the other” and whereby the novel’s resolution suggests the impossibility of an integration of “white and black identities in a conciliatory union or ‘third self’” (63), the narrator’s journey actually represents more of a critique of US racial categories than a rejection of Du Bois. While I agree that “because of social pressure, only one identity can prevail in the end,” this identity represents only the public role or performance of race the narrator chooses as more beneficial. It does not represent either the “whitening” or “coloring” mental development that occurs in the novel, resulting in a hidden but simultaneous consciousness that is both as problematic as embranquecimento and yet more complex than simply passing for one race or another. As the utopian tone which portrays “the vision of both races as illusory and dreamlike” (Gallego 65) suggests, by the end of the novel, the protagonist has been whitened but is not white. Here, the lens of embranquecimento highlights the problematic of concealment for Johnson’s narrator, which would be theoretically solved under a Brazil solution.
The complexities of the narrator’s psychic experience demonstrate the convergences of embranquecimento and passing as two theoretical sides of miscegentation. On the level, the creation of a nonracial utopia, the Brazilian painter Portinari’s “Três Raças Tristes” (Three Sad Races), would be merged into one Brazilian type, whereby no one race would either predominate or disappear without a physical and cultural trace. On the other, embranquecimento as passing resulted in the sad psychic state which the narrator describes: “Sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I felt that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people” (153). The worst tragedy for the narrator then in a passing form of miscegenation is this loss of heritage and culture. Not surprisingly, for Andrews, the tragedy of the novel is not passing for white but leaving behind the expression of a dual consciousness through music: “The career he imagined for himself, in which he would harmonize through his creative genius the European classical and the African American folk musical traditions, might have enabled him to affirm his dual cultural heritage, his affinities with European as well as African modes of artistic expression…” (Andrews xxvi-xxvvii). Embranquecimento can only be imagined outside the United States context. In the US, the narrator has no choice but to pass. Thus, just as Ahlin finds the “symbolic geography of Europe” in these three authors as an important “antithesis of America,” South America and specifically Brazil also figure as an important sounding board for frustrations with US racism.
In her dissection of Nella Larsen’s Passing, Gallego, like McDowell with Plum Bun and Andrews with The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, again frames Larsen’s work as a novel which discusses much more than just race: “Larsen’s novels ‘pass’ for sentimental novels of passing, while the author actually delves into the more serious work of exploring the diverse stereotypes ascribed to African American women. In doing so, Larsen demonstrates how these images have undeniably limited the expression of African American femininity” (122). Similar to Johnson’s work then, this lack of definition, both in terms of genre for the novel, and race for the characters, allows for the possibility of questioning issues of sexuality and gender beneath the guise of a passing novel (Gallego 140). However, unlike Johnson’s novel, Larsen’s work presents not one, but two African American women who pass for white, and this passing or not passing colors their entire relationship. As such, while the significance of women (as opposed to men) passing has been highlighted by several scholars6 and will be discussed later in this paper, this frame, again, is crucial to understanding the unique ways these novels address racial identities.
Larsen’s novel tells the story of Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, two light-skinned black women who had been childhood friends. When Clare’s father dies, she moves in with her two white aunts, passes for white and marries a racist white businessman. Irene, on the other hand, lives in Harlem, commits herself to racial uplift and marries a black doctor. Reuniting in Chicago, the novel follows the pair as each becomes fascinated with each other’s lifestyle. In the end Irene begins to believe that her husband is having an affair with Clare and Clare’s race is revealed to her husband, ending suddenly with her unexplained death by “falling” out of a window.
One strand which runs through all these novels but is explicitly stated repeatedly in Passing is the idea that while whites believe they know the differences between the races, in fact, mixing and miscegenation are occurring right under their noses. Again, as in Johnson’s narrative, this illuminates both the performance of race and the fallacy of authenticity. Thus, when Irene meets Clare while also passing she thinks, “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell…They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy” (150). This is even further exemplified, by the fact that Jack Bellew calls his wife “Nig” because of her dark color and yet cannot imagine that she is a Negro, or that the two other friends he meets having tea with his wife might also be of mixed race (171). Moreover, although later on these books highlight supposed black characteristics such as the “Negro laugh”, friendliness and sense of community (200), and musical sensibility or oratorical skill (205), the truth is Irene cannot “tell” either and takes Clare for a white woman, even when Clare addresses her by the familiar Rene: “What white girls did she known well enough to have been familiarly addressed as ‘Rene by them?” Irene wondered (151). As such, Larsen’s novel, while also demonstrating important issues about race and gender, highlights the hypocrisy of a society which segregates and separates races, but can’t tell them apart- on either side. As Johnson’s narrator comments, “Yet it cannot be so embarrassing for a colored man to be taken for white as for a white man to be taken for colored; and I have heard of several cases of the latter kind” (126). In this way, the realities of racial fluidity and miscegenation begin to present themselves in these novels.
Nevertheless, it is this whitening through which the true eugenics behind embranquecimento emerges, an embranquecimento that makes Irene judgmental of Clare for passing even though she regularly does so herself. Irene separates herself from Clare on US terms of racial allegiance while Clare displays a more individual sense of identity that wants both the comforts of whiteness and the familiarity of blackness. As Irene comments, “Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it” (182). As such, Irene’s comment to the fictional famed writer Hugh Wentworth that “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured” (206) is challenged in these novels. Both Clare and the fictional narrator of The Autobiography do just that, alternately performing the role of “white” or “black” as it suits them. Rather than abandoning their race as Irene judges, these characters have actually “whitened” themselves socially and culturally, based on the physical characteristics they were born with to get ahead in society, much in the same way Brazil promoted everything Eurocentric. As McLendon points out then, “the juxtaposition of the two characters makes it clear that passing is as much a state of mind as a physical act, which imparts a parodic thrust to the received social meaning” (96). Similar to my reference to “psychic miscegentation” in The Autobiography, McLendon, not surprisingly finds a “psychological passing or escapism” in Clare and Irene (96). Interestingly, it is Irene’s husband, a man far too dark to even consider passing, who sees this point of view. In reference to meeting with Clare’s husband, he says “‘But it seems to me,’ he pointed out, ‘that you, my dear, had all the advantage. You knew what his opinion of you was, while he – Well, ‘twas ever thus. We know, always have. They don’t’” (185). Although not devoid of racism, the rhetoric ofembranquecimento did allow for a more open imagining of race, at least in theory. In Brazil, John Bellow would know she was not white, because any hint of color, “Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy” meant a mixing, a mixing which continued miscegenation would eventually eliminate. Likewise, Jack Bellew’s use of “Nig” and his position as an international businessman also point to the way embranquecimento serves as an important way of looking at Larsen. According to Nunes:
As a discursive system in which cultural, linguistic, and biological transmission is precisely a process of mixture and contamination, South America speaks Jack as much as he speaks it. The symptom, his adoption of the term Nig, betrays much. South America endures in and through him because it contains within itself a realization that national purity/racial purity is impossible. That Jack – the character who should be unambiguously white for the novel’s other characters as well as for its readers – transmits this point serves to make it all the more fruitfully. There is an effect of translation here that mimics not only miscegenation, but also the ambivalence surrounding it. (137)
Through Jack then, Larsen both emphasizes and critiques the translation of international miscegenation, pointing to the ways in which other views of race are both frequently transported, but not so easily adopted. Ironically, through this white character, she is also creating layers of black cosmopolitanism to the narrative.
As Bernard argues, this is what makes the white characters, Jack Bellew and Hugh Wentworth, so crucial to the plot. From the onset of the novel there is an “invisible whiteness that hovers over the opening scenes” (Bernard 417) in which passing is both criticized and employed as a convenience. Additionally Irene, despite her supposed commitment to racial uplift, is obsessed with the white normative gaze. Notwithstanding Bellew’s extreme racist comments, she “had to concede that under other conditions she might have liked him” (173). Similarly, she not only seeks out prominent whites such as Hugh Wentworth but also encourages his curiosity about and desire for black spaces, arranging a prime seat at the Negro Welfare League dance. Together they gaze on the mixed population, objectifying blacks, especially white women’s attraction to them (218). Perhaps a statement on the middle class, perhaps on women, perhaps both, but these interactions and the impact of what Bernard calls the “normative white gaze” (420) also represents a whitening of Irene, something which she cannot handle. Thus as Bernard points out, “It is through Hugh’s vision that Irene’s ‘unseeing eyes’ finally lose their scales and she is forced to recognize the ‘truth’ about the relationship between Brian and Clare (QP 218). Whether the two actually have an affair or Irene invents this ruse to protect herself from her own errant sexual desires, Irene’s complex psychological maneuverings in Passing require the mediation of Hugh Wentworth” (Bernard 420). Additionally, whether Clare jumped because of her unveiling to her husband or was pushed by Irene out of jealousy, her death is a direct result of this white gaze and as such a powerful indictment not on whitening – which was considered a normal part of light-skinned middle class experience – but as a result of the secrecy and shame of passing.
In many ways, Fauset’s Plum Bum brings together a number of themes from both Johnson and Larsen in terms of “psychic miscegenation,” and the presence of shame, secrecy, and the imagined Brazil in the way embranquecimento can be explored in these texts. A Bildungsroman, the story centers on Angela Murray, whose romantic illusions about the advantages of “passing” as white are shattered by a succession of cruel experiences. Although Plum Bum (which was written in the 1920s and published in 1929) sold 100,000 copies in its first 90 days, Fauset was most fiercely attacked as “a traitor to her race” for this novel (Ahlin 157). Perhaps this was a result of her use of four female identified covers- fairy tale, romance, nursery rhymes7, passing – to dissect African American female identity and sexuality from a female perspective (Ahlin 164) while also demonstrating the particular effect of these restrictive roles on African American women. Although not told in an autobiographical form, Plum Bum regularly enters the mind of Angela to create a similar confessional tone for the character who passes. While the narrator casually confesses to “divulging the great secret of my life,” a “practical joke on society” (1), there is also real family pain expressed. For example, Angela’s dark father tells her mother after the two of them don’t acknowledge him or their other daughter, Virginia, “My dear girl, I told you long ago that where no principle was involved, your passing means nothing to me. It’s just a little joke; I don’t think you’d be ashamed to acknowledge your old husband anywhere if it were necessary” (Fauset 19). Yet, as Fauset and Larsen demonstrate8, while the joke may be on the white man, as in the case of John Bellew, passing for a woman is much different than for a man.
Not surprisingly, these gendered differences seem to really develop as Angela comes of age. For example, like Johnson’s narrator, Angela, although obviously aware of her ancestry, was “outed” at school to her friend Mary Hastings. Her response, which she repeats almost verbatim when a similar situation occurs at the Art Academy she is attending years later9, is revealing: “Tell you that I was coloured! Why of course I never told you that I was coloured. Why should I?” (38). As a result of her mother’s light complexion and their joint passing outings, Angela was raised in an environment in which, like the narrator, she could be black and white within the same day. This fluidity of race, as well as the loss of friendships and opportunities such as an art scholarship leads her to see the possibilities of embranquecimento: “And she began to wonder which was the more important, a patent insistence on the fact of colour, or an acceptance of the good things of life which could come to you in America if either you were not coloured or the fact of your racial connections was not made known” (46).
Here is where the female and male narratives begin to diverge. Although for Johnson, “whitening” is also an economic decision10, for Clare and Angela, as African American orphaned women (Johnson is also an orphan), the options are even more limited. Even though her mother, Mattie, was able to provide a different life for her daughters than her own (“going out to service, working as ladies’ maid, or taking a genteel but poorly paid position as a seamstress”), their options were still limited to school teaching (Fauset 27, 33). Like Clare and the narrator, Angela locates her expectations about material passions, luxury and comfort in the white race. However, as women, only Clare and Angela look towards marriage as a solution. Significantly, it is through this marriage plot that Fauset challenges not only passing, but also the ideology of embranquecimento as a solution in a way the other novels do not. While both Clare and Johnson’s narrator often long for the black community but choose to pass as white because it seems easier, Fauset presents a story where life as a white women is morally, economically, and socially worse. According to Ahlin, “it is precisely at the moment of passing by showing the other side of white reality as a corrupt world, where poverty and loneliness abound and where there is no sense of morality. Moreover, together with a negative vision of the white world, Fauset presents Harlem as the ideal site for life, culture, proper morality and disinterested solidarity” (159). As a white woman, Angela is no better economically, compromises her morals in her relationship with Roger (by following the guidelines set by two white women – Paulette and Martha), and finds her social life and friendships superficial. Additionally, not only does Fauset invert the “primitivist stereotype” through Paulette and Martha, but associates white blood with other negative characteristics such as selfishness. Virginia says: “I’m beginning to think that you have more white blood in your veins then I, and that it was that extra amount which made it possible for you to make that remark” (81). Unlike embranquecimento then, where white blood was supposed to “cure” the deficiencies of black, Fauset turns notions of eugenics upside down.
It is key for Fauset that unlike Clare, Angela does not marry a white man or have children, as this is what locks in an African American women to a lifetime of passing’s shameful secrecy. Irene not only cautions Clare to be more careful because of the existence of her daughter, but is also Irene terrified of having any more children: “‘No, I have no boys and I don’t think I’ll ever have any. I’m afraid. I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born for fear that she might be dark. Thank goodness, she turned out all right. But I’ll never risk it again. Never! The strain is simply too – too hellish” (168). Like Johnson’s blaming of his mother11, miscegenation holds the women accountable for the color of the child. This is a crucial and overlapping aspect to both passing and embranquecimento. As Johnson’s narrator notes: “It is evidenced most plainly in marriage selections; thus the black men generally marry women fairer then themselves; while, on the other hand, the dark women of stronger mental endowment are often married to light-complexioned men; the effect is a tendency toward lighter complexions, especially among the more active elements of the race” (113). As Johnson and Clare embrace embranquecimento’s “solution” to race relations, Angela’s rejection of Roger’s marriage proposal becomes even more significant. In the end, although Angela comes to a conclusion that is reminiscent of the narrator’s remarks in An Autobiographythat “And as for colour; when it seemed best to be coloured she would be coloured; when it was best to be white she would be that” (253), unlike Johnson and Clare, she is still left with that possibility to move between the two. It is an absolute recognition, as Ashley points out, that “there’re hardly any of unmixed blood in the Untied States, so the term Negro is usually a misnomer” (324). Although for Zacodnick, “in the end, Angela’s racial identity is represented as so ambivalent that it is difficult to determine what is performance and what is ‘genuine,” what is constructed and what is ‘natural’ (180),” she does make a choice in the end to be colored, because it is best for her. Here, in the romance with Anthony Cross, the marriage solution combines with a race solution.
Of course the fact that the vehicle for the happy ending in Plum Bum is a light skinned Brazilian is no coincidence. The son of a light skinned Brazilian woman, and an African American man, Anthony Cross is haunted by the lynching of his father at the hands of a white mob while living in Georgia. Even though his father warned his mother Maria never to venture out or talk to others, not understanding the hostile race relations in the US, she took this for jealousy. As a result she rejected the advances of a white man, hitting him in the face with no thought of the consequences. Interestingly, while his mother chose to reject African Americans as a result and marry a white German man, Anthony harbored a deep hatred for whites, expressing the opposite of embranquecimento: “I’m not ashamed of my blood. Sometimes I think it’s the leaven that will purify this Nordic people of their cruelty and their savage lust of power” (291). As Nunes describes, “The refusal to be seen as a representative of the black race drives Maria to ‘join’ the white race as a foreigner, a symbolic embrace of embranquecimento. Her son, however, who retains her name in an Americanized form, vows, ‘always to hate [white people] with a perfect hate’” (142). Thus, through her support of Miss Powell12 and her feelings for Anthony, Angela not only passes beyond US racial constructs in favor of embranquecimento, but rather faces them head on. By imagining a Brazil “a race devoid, notoriously devoid of prejudice against black blood” (265), through an Americanized Anthony Cross, Fauset is able to move beyond both traditional passing narratives (as Johnson and Larsen also do), while also challenging many of the arguments that made embranquecimento so attractive for African Americans. Although similar to the narrator’s experiences in France13 and with Cubans in An Autobiography, as well as Brian’s attraction to and Jack Bellow’s disdain for South America in Passingin highlighting the influence of international views of blackness, Angela’s experience is slightly different. In centering Brazil in her narrative, Fauset incorporates a different kind of race solution for the United States – one though not at the level of racial equality is at least a hope for racial self-acceptance – even for the hybrids who do not seem to fit anywhere.
It is no coincidence that key literary moments that questioned national and racial identities in both Brazil and the US occurred during the 1920s and 30s. Although not race centered, Brazil’s modernist movement was an attempt to find a Brazilian form of literature, separate from European styles while incorporating the diverse indigenous, African and Portuguese heritages. This moment in Brazil is also significant because it saw the emergence of Afro-Brazilian political actions, first with the Brazilian Black Front (1930), and then the Teatro Experimental do Negro (1937), which were inspired by and had links to Negritude and other Pan-African movements. There are numerous examples of transnational references in both countries in novels, newspapers, and anthologies – that these writers and political movements were well acquainted with each other is clear and well documented14. The very word “miscegenation,” often identified with Brazil’s biological hybridization process, was actually devised in 1864 by New York-based American journalists David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman.
Zita Nunes takes up this topic in Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas, where she finds transnational links between Brazilian modernist writers and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance through the theoretical model of cannibalism where the metaphor of who is eating whom and what is left over serves as an exploration of identity. Through this idea of the remainder (resulting for the process of assimilation), she not only approaches constructions of a national/racial identity but also the concept of “racial democracy” as a cultural ideal. Johnson, Fauset and Larsen through their characters explore what is left over when black is left behind. An analogous racial experience was occurring simultaneous in Brazil. While in the US the theme of passing showed up in several novels, in Brazil the rhetoric of embranquecimento was used to oppress African culture in Brazil by emphasizing assimilation and lightening through immigration and miscegenation. Although embranquecimento was a key component of Brazil’s image of racial utopia, seen especially by Harlem Renaissance writers as encouraging racial mixing and equality, in actuality, its basis was in eugenics. Thus, while passing in the US was a movement from blackness to whiteness, embranquecimento was a comparable lightening, in which whiteness was imagined as having a purifying aspect to society. Through my exploration of Nella Larsen’sPassing, Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bum, and James Weldon Johnsons’ Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man, the similarities and differences of embranquecimento and passing as two parts of an international conversation about miscegenation as a solution to racial conflict highlight the particularities of the US context that resulted in secrecy, concealment and the sexualization of the mulata.
The figure of the mulatta emerges both as the product of miscegenation and reproductive agent for whitening within these populations, highlighting the intersections between race and gender in the way whitening is imagined. The narrator’s mother, Anthony’s mother, Clare (as a mother and daughter), and Angela all represent an experiment of embranquecimento in the United States, demonstrating the fallacy of racial demarcations in the United States and the limitations of miscegenation as a solution for racial inequality. As Carol Boyce Davis writes:
US-centrism, following Eurocentrism, identifies internally a linear narrative of founding that erases histories of others that do not fit the national in a narrative, and then exports this narrative…In US-centrism, furthermore, the US becomes the equivalent of America, and prior formulations of “The Americas” and the “other Americas” become nonexistent or erased in their very formation, i.e., America = the US. It is not unusual, then, for a variety of US scholars, including Afro – U S scholars, to create similar paradigms and narratives of identity. Sometimes, then, US-generated Diaspora formulations may reference others outside of this linear narrative but, in the main, conceptions are intrinsically US centered, US-bordered (101).
By looking at these novels through the lens of embranquecimento then, these passing novels’ treatment of race as fluid, performative and socially-constructed is not only illuminated, but so are the myths of racial homogeneity which powerfully figured in the minds of prominent African American leaders such as Du Bois. More than an alternative framework, embranquecimento highlights yet again the way race was not limited to national borders, but part of an international discussion with multiple misunderstandings, points of views, and cross influences. Like France, the importance of Brazil in the US imaginary cannot be overlooked in discussions of the New Negro or Negritude. As these novels demonstrate, they were simultaneous and overlapping conversations.
1Several book length studies include, for example: Gallego, Mar. Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance: Identity Politics and Textual Strategies. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003. Print.; Fabi, Giulia. Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Print.; Pfeiffer, Kathleen.Race Passing and American Individualism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003. Print.; McLendon, Jacquelyn. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Chalottesville: University Press of Virgina, 1995. Print.; Sollors, Werner. Neither White Nor Black Yet Both. Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.; Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. Print. Zackodnik, Teresa. The Mulatta and the Politics of Race. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Print.
2Gallego argues something very similar: “Because of their hybrid nature and their highly subversive content, all these novels can be regarded as double or multiple narratives. I have tried to demonstrate that the narratives themselves ‘pass’ in that they take on a sort of cover, drawing from other genres or modes such as autobiography, satire, romance, fairy tale, science fiction, the sentimental novel, etc. in order to ‘pass’ as mere stories of racial passing, when in fact, they come ideal instruments to reflect on all kinds of ‘passing’” (191).
3Skidmore, for example, notes the direct influence of Louis Agassiz of the “American School” as well as Thomas Arnold, Robert Knox and Thomas Carlyle, Houstan Stewart Chamberlain of England; and Gustave Le Bon and Vacher de Lapouge of France. In particular, Social Darwinism, “had great influence in Brazil. Virtually every Brazilian social thinker befre 1914 grappled with Social Darwinism. One finds constant citations of such figures as Spencer, Le Bon, Lapouge, and Ingenieros (the Argentine racist philosopher). The Brazilians usually accepted Social Darwinism in principle, trying only to work out its implications for their national situation” (53).
4Nunes also notes how in 1900, 1906 and 1920, the Brazilian census omitted all color designations: “The Instituto Brasieiro de Georafia e Estatística (IBGE) had justified the practice by arguing that the classification by color would establish a linha de cor (a color line) incompatible with Brazil’s newly formed democracy.” However, this also concealed the high number of blacks that made up Brazil’s population (127).
5According to Kennedy, “Estimates regarding the incidence of passing have varied greatly. Walter White claimed that annually “approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear” into white society. Roi Ottley asserted that there were five million “white Negroes” in the United States and that forty to fifty thousand passed annually. Professor John H. Burma’s estimates were considerably lower. He posited that some 110,000 blacks lived on the white side of the color line and that between 2,500 and 2,750 passed annually. Given its secretive nature, no one knows for sure the incidence of passing. It is clear, however, that at the middle of the twentieth century, large numbers of African Americans claimed to know people engaged in passing” (1).
6 For example see McLendon, Jacquelyn. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Print.; Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. Print.; Zackodnik, Teresa. The Mulatta and the Politics of Race. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. Print.
7The format of the novel is based on the old nursery rhyme “To Market, to Market/ To buy a Plum Bun;/ Home again, Home again,/ Market is done.” The “plum bun” represents all the advantages Angela hopes to obtain by using her charm and talent to enter the upper-class white world.
8Like Larsen’s joke on John Bellew and Irene, it is clear that while whites and blacks may think they can recognize each other, they really cannot. As Mrs. Shields, the Art Instructors wife, remarks when Angela’s racial identity is revealed, “Well she just can’t be. Do you suppose I don’t know a coloured woman when I see one? I can tell ‘em a mile off” (72). Just as with Clare and Irene, Angela’s bourgeois dress and manners are key to their successful passing. Thus, although not addressed here, the issue not only of gender, but class cannot be ignored.
9At the Art Academy Angela is attending she simply chooses not to mention her race. The instructor, Mr. Shields and his wife take an interest in her development, until of course, her background is revealed. There, she repeats: “Coloured! Of course I never told you that I was coloured. Why should I?” (73).
10According to Johnson’s narrator: “Nor is it any more a sacrifice of self-respect that a black man should give to his children every advantage he can which complexion of the kin carries than that the new or vulgar rich should purchase for their children the advantages which ancestry, aristocracy, and social position carry. I once heard a colored man sum it up in these words: It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient” (114).
11The narrator describes: “Perhaps it had to be done, but I have never forgiven the woman who did it so cruelly. It may be that she never knew that she gave me a sword-thrust that day in school which was years in healing” (Johnson 12).
12Miss Powell along with Angela win scholarships to study Art in Paris. However, when Miss Powell is denied a place on the ship because of the possible discomfort of students from other parts of the country, Angela announces that she is also black and will not be able to participate either.
13In Paris, for example the narrator concludes that, “So far as racial differences go, the United States puts a greater premium on color, or better, lack of color, than upon anything else in the world” (113).
14See Zita Nunes’ Cannibal Democracy or David Hellwig’s African American Reflections on Brazil’s Racial Paradise.
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