Fading Out Black and White: Racial Ambiguity in American Culture

Fading Out Black and White: Racial Ambiguity in American Culture

by Lisa Simone Kingstone

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Overview

What happens to a country that was built on race when the boundaries of black and white have started to fade? Not only is the literal face of America changing where white will no longer be the majority, but the belief in the firmness of these categories and the boundaries that have been drawn is also disintegrating.

In a nuanced reading of culture in a post Obama America, this book asks what will become of the racial categories of black and white in an increasingly multi-ethnic, racially ambiguous, and culturally fluid country. Through readings of sites of cultural friction such as the media frenzy around ‘transracial’ Rachel Dolezal, the new popularity of racially ambiguous dolls, and the confusion over Obama’s race, Fading Out Black and White explores the contemporary construction of race.

This insightful, provocative glimpse at identity formation in the US reviews the new frontier of race and looks back at the archaism of the one-drop rule that is unique to America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786602558
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/31/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 8.69(h) x 0.56(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa Simone Kingstone is Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of International Development at King’s College London. She has a BA from Barnard College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in English Literature. Before coming to King’s, she taught English Literature at the University of Connecticiut and worked as a professional journalist. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Tracing Race

A Tour of the Racial Binary

Before looking at our cultural case studies, it is useful to give an overhaul of binary thinking in order to understand the changes that are taking place today. Understanding how these myths were built, sustained, policed, and defied is the story of American identity. Today's removal of Confederate statues and Confederate flags is part of our changing of the narrative. A hero is now taken as a villain; a flag becomes understood as a racial slur. I look here at the movements and philosophies that built and reinforced the binary.

The black/white binary in the United States is an edifice built over five hundred years and won't be dismantled easily. The idea that there are biologically different human "races" that we can label by physical type and also connect to superior and inferior traits such as intelligence, morality, physical prowess, and work ethic is an idea that was crucial to the building of American identity. Sometimes called biological essentialism, the conversion of a vast array of people from the continent of Africa with rich and distinct tribal cultures were reduced to one thing: an object called a N*gger. This distortion of a human with a distinct language, identity, and culture to a piece of cargo is made clear in figure 1.1 of a diagram of the Brookes slave ship.

Here the cold practicality of storing live humans (who all look identical to each other and are pictured with no distinguishing characteristics) is seen in a similar way to canned goods, stored for maximum profit. In fact, at first glance, you don't realize they are people; they are simply property to be exchanged. Once this creation of the black sprung out of the slave ship, it needed defending through propaganda, stories, songs, biblical proof, and pseudoscience.

In the early days of the founding, the notion of blackness and whiteness was deeply entrenched by the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, in which enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and white indentured servants bonded together to protest the current governor of the colony; their uniting successfully into a political force left the English nervous about the potential of this new group. If these dispossessed groups formed an alliance, they would seize control — after all, many of them had reason to be dissatisfied with their status and were hostile toward the elites. A divide and conquer strategy was created and made into law with the Virginia slave codes of 1705.

Before that, people were referred to by their country of origin, their free or slave status, or by their Christian or "heathen" status. Theodore Allen in his The Invention of the White Race argues that the "white race" category was invented as a means of social control. From that point on, white indentured servants were encouraged to identify with the elites as fellow white people and not with blacks or Native Americans. Blackness became equated with slavery, contamination, and inferiority; and whiteness with freedom, privilege, and superiority. These codes forbid blacks and slaves from bearing arms, congregating in large numbers, exacted harsh punishments if they assaulted Christians or attempted escape, and black servants were made slaves for life. Later came antimiscegenation laws, forbidding blacks from marrying or having sex with whites. Blackness became a kind of contamination and the one-drop rule assured whites that they would always be separate even from those who were ambiguous phenotypically. Even in states where this was not translated into law, the belief that the mixing of races was unnatural became widespread. Any African ancestry made you black, so free men from Africa were suddenly pulled into the vortex of that chasm of blackness too. The rule of hypodescent ensured that any child born to a white parent and a black parent was automatically black — useful for slave owners to increase their property. The child always followed the condition of the mother, so this legislation was key for keeping the number of enslaved robust.

Although western art had shown the nobility and prestige of African people as evidenced in the five-volume collection The Image of the Black in Western Art (which includes sculpture, paintings, drawings of the vast array of black figures since the time of the pharaohs), these images were not seen by most of the inhabitants of the early colonies. Instead, the new drawings of black people were to entrench the belief that they were animal like and identical in character or more precisely in their lack of character. Figure 1.2 shows Nott's "scientific" drawing of skull shape, which attempted to connect blacks to monkeys, a trope about blackness that is still very much alive today.

Although the pseudoscientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries published extensive "evidence" to prove the fixedness of racial categories, these ideas were still being recycled as late as 1994 in The Bell Curve, which looked at, among other things, racial differences in intelligence. Long buried are the race scientists such as Linnaeus, Meiners, and Cuvier who created these first taxonomies of humans, along with their charts of flowers and animals, but their ideas still operate powerfully.

Once these categories were created for the purpose of justifying imperialism and slavery from the mid-seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, they needed to be controlled. Borders needed to be drawn and the law needed to have clear criteria for placing someone in or ousting someone from a racial category. Most white and black people were taught to believe race was something you could see whether it was in the moons of the fingernails or simply darker pigmentation on the skin. Because it was believed that different species were not supposed to interbreed or it would reverse evolution and degrade mankind into a mongrel race, many did. Jim Crow in the United States after the Civil War did its best to separate and reinforce this ban on miscegenation, but because of a high incidence of white men raping black women as well as illicit consensual relationships between races, a racially ambiguous people emerged. This necessitated creative legal ways to keep people in their human categories even if those categories were becoming less clear.

Along with this insistence on race came the struggle against the values placed on this concept. From early slave revolts like the Stono Rebellion in 1739 to more famous ones such as the one led by Nat Turner in 1831 to the sustained organization of the Underground Railroad for over several decades in the mid-nineteenth century, blacks and sometimes whites insisted on the equal humanity of the races. Sojourner Truth asked "Ar'nt I a woman" in 1851, calling attention to the fact that black women had been erased from the women's suffrage movement. Nearly a century later during the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, black men still needed to declare on placards "I am a man" when their rights and masculine identity had been taken away.

In the 1900 Paris Exposition, W. E. B. Du Bois attempted to counteract the toxic and powerful effect of the human zoo exhibits by showing a counter-narrative based on real black people's lives in photographs (see figure 1.3). His exhibit displayed photographs of successful black people with different features, different hair, different bodies — proving there was no common denominator or monolith to blackness — the polar opposite of the image of blacks that was contrived and manipulated to promote colonialism. Although he won an award for his exhibit, the crowds still flocked to the "African" village, which hired black people to play savages while whites standing behind a fence or glass wall observed them.

These performances of blackness soothed the beliefs of white people that all was as they thought it was: black people were simple and wild in contrast to the great culture makers, white Europeans. The world fairs that housed these zoos were held in the great cities of North America and Europe and often stayed open all summer, with an estimate of one and a half billion people flocking to celebrate the spoils of colonialism. In figure 1.4, a woman leans over a fence to feed a small black girl like one would a goat or cow. The white woman's thrill is a different world from the object of her attention, a small child of about three, seemingly unaware of what is being done to her. Figure 1.5 shows "gentlemen" leering at the grown versions of the little girl, who stands topless behind glass. The expression on these women's faces shows they understand exactly what is happening even as the gentlemen's dress and stance show they are charading as cultural sophisticates.

Three cultural works that did the most for this early propaganda and helped sustain the idea of the black were Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and D. W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation (1915). All were extremely popular and their "types" of blacks still influence racial definitions today. Jefferson gives a full description of the differences: "Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable." Along with this verdict, he explains they are lustful, unimaginative in the arts, pick up tunes easily, and have less need of sleep. All of these qualities help justify overworking them (need less sleep), raping them (they are lustful), and not educating them (reason much inferior). His account is quite exhaustive, at times comparing them to the Native Americans as well and finding them lacking.

Stowe's novel with its use of melodrama created pity in its readers, which promoted the cause of white abolitionists particularly by allowing the white child Eva to convert the black child Topsy, but also in her urging her parents to give Tom his freedom. Tom (who now is the source of the pejorative term Uncle Tom) was unthreatening and faithful to his white masters, which assuaged the fear that blacks who were freed would want revenge. Stowe's image of Tom was to incite pity, but not sympathy or equality. Although she was against slavery, she was against miscegenation and hoped that once slaves were freed, they would repatriate to Africa. It also created the idea of the pickaninny or wild devil-like black child in the form of Topsy, an immoral and animalistic child in contrast to the angelic white child Eva. These would later set the stage for the grown-up versions of these two female tropes: the voracious black woman whose sexual appetite could justify white men raping her and the virginal white Southern belle.

The first American full-length feature film, Birth of a Nation, taken from the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., was so popular that President Woodrow Wilson showed it in the White House. It depicted the imagined nightmare that would ensue if blacks were given rights and privileges after the Civil War — they were either animals turning civilized life into a barnyard with their filth and lawlessness or sexual predators who needed to be kept away from that prized commodity: the white Southern virgin woman. In the film, the white Flora encapsulates these Southern values and shows she would rather kill herself than submit to the touch of Gus, a black man. Gus is eventually lynched by the newly founded Ku Klux Klan. The glorification of the Klan in the film, who are emissaries of Jesus Christ himself, resulted in a 1920s revival of the Klan. These toxic images and racial tropes were built into children's dolls and games as well as adult movies and books. People were being fed this binary on a conveyor belt of popular culture.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s grew out of the black Christian church's insistence on everyone equally being God's children. Martin Luther King understood how large the task was ahead, knowing change couldn't happen immediately. As he famously stated, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Because of increased ownership of television, everyone could see the contrast of violent white police and white racists bullying and beating black people who were practicing passive resistance. This shifted the racial trope of black people as unruly children or threatening predators to black people as strong, faithful, and noble.

Along with this activism that fought against biological racism, biological race was being debunked in academia. As early as 1950, UNESCO deemed race a myth. Decades later, Winant and Omi's Racial Formation in the United States showed how the fiction of race was constructed and sustained as a powerful creation myth of the United States that enabled the enslavement and exploitation of a designated group now called black. Intellectually, race is now understood by many to be a "lived experience of a people" or "a series of networks and a set of relationships," but "not anything organic to humans biologically." This was further emphasized when the Human Genome Project 29 proved that all humans come originally from Africa and are 99.9 percent the same in their DNA. It made it hard for anyone to claim there is such a thing as biological race.

Many humanists believed the black/white binary wouldn't last, but new Afrocentric movements reinforced them. The Harlem Renaissance had already begun to give vigor to the idea of biological race again, ironically through the celebration of black culture in Harlem. Although blacks had been deemed inferior and had felt this status since slavery, it was now reinvented as superior in some ways; black people were cooler, more creative, more soulful than whites. Black literature, art, textiles, and dance became honored and praised through publishing houses, performance venues, and films. Whites were under the influence of a "Negro Vogue" in the 1920s where the so called primitivism of black arts was "discovered" by whites like writer Carl Van Vechten, who would go to Harlem and exploit his experiences in his novel N*gger Heaven. Whites flocked to Harlem to jazz clubs to have blackness rub off on them. In Alain Locke's The New Negro, he presented a new version of Negroes, no longer degraded and submissive, but fully embracing their folk roots and boldly creative.

In the 1970s, the Black Power Movement, backed by the Nation of Islam, claimed that the black race was superior. Malcolm X, inspired by Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad, preached a new creation story of whiteness. A black scientist named Yacub selectively bred a separate white species, sometimes called the white devil, that could never be trusted. Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, this period was a celebration of black culture: arts, dance, textiles, food, music, and reconnection to Africa such as choosing African names, wearing dashikis, and celebrating the newly created hybrid holiday Kwanzaa. What came with Black Power was a deeper entrenchment of black community and a belief that separation from whites was the best way forward. This movement was powerful in counteracting the image of black as ugly. Black women were encouraged to grow out their afros, celebrate their curves and facial features, and not try to mimic the look of white women by straightening their hair.

Defining blackness was a subject not just for these writers and theorists, but the legal world. This was particularly important for the race trials of the nineteenth century that helped define who was enslaved and who was free. In Ariel Gross's essay "Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South," she lists the five determinants in these trials: physical markers (skin color, hair, nose, lips); documented ancestry (birth certificate, parentage); performance (how one speaks, dresses, gestures, speaks about the past); ascriptive identity (reputation, community and reception in society); and "science" (this involved superstitions such as looking at the angle of a foot). Performance and ascriptive identity were complex categories that were discussed and analyzed in these trials. They included how others saw you because of your lived experience of membership, work, and social life. In other words, the most important criteria were how others recognized you and determined your authenticity. It was believed that someone's race showed up in their behavior, caused by the blood of their birth race. Even if you couldn't see race clearly on the face, the behavior would out your biological nature or black blood. Later in important Supreme Court cases like Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the law took on questions such as: Is a black person a citizen or property? How much black ancestry makes you black? Do black children have an equal right to education?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Fading Out Black and White"
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Copyright © 2018 Lisa Simone Kingstone.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments / List of Illustrations / Preface / Introduction / Overview of the book / Terminology / Chapter 1: Tracing Race: A tour of the Racial Binary / Chapter 2: The Trial of Rachel Dolezal: The First Transracial / Chapter 3: Obama as Racial Rorschach: The First Blank President / Chapter 4: Casting Color: Black Barbie and the Black Doll as Racial Barometer / Chapter 5: Really Black: Black-ish and the Black Sitcom as Racial Barometer / Chapter 6: Talking about Race: Black, White and Mixed Focus Groups / Coda / Appendix / Bibliography

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