Melissa Ann Castillo-Garsows
Significant scholarship has been dedicated to what has been termed “passing novels” of the Harlem Renaissance. 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). Often dismissed both during the Harlem Renaissance and after as elitist novels whose bourgeois characters took the “easy way” out when faced with racial discrimination instead of remaining loyal to the race, recent scholarship since the 1990s has argued for a more complex treatment (Gallego 6). Within the novels I examine – Plum Bum, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and Passing – I find that more than just 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), these novels allowed for the exploration of more fluid racial identities, such as those imagined and touted to exist in countries like Brazil. Thus, by interrupting the divisive black-white categories, these so called passing novels, actually deal with 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.
Embranquecimento, passing, Harlem renaissance.
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