Initial response to “Miscegenation” post

[Update: some obvious errors corrected; some phrasing now (I hope) a little clearer]

I’m truly appreciative of the thoughtful, thorough, and challenging responses to my previous post. You have given me much to think about and re-think. I’ve been quiet on this end in part because of teaching duties but mostly because I needed some time to think through your comments and compare/contrast them to my own intentions and assumptions, examined and otherwise.

What’s meant here, then, isn’t a rebuttal but more like a sketching out of what I’m thinking about now in response to your critiques–and, of course, how my project can best be informed by those critiques.
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“Miscegenation” as (a) “domestic issue”

It seems felicitous that I’m beginning this post on April 14: 180 years ago today, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. I say this because the word “miscegenation,” whose usage in these pages I’ll be discussing here, is in every sense an American word. More about that later.

I’m writing this post partly out of necessity–one of its concerns is, after all, the vocabulary of its subject–and partly in response to some questions asked of me by Jennifer and a commenter, cvt, over at Jennifer’s blog, Mixed Race America. Each wanted to know whether my choice of the term miscegenation when discussing racial admixture is a conscious one, and Jennifer has a post in which she asks her readers to comment on the efficacy of using loaded language and words and phrases with difficult and painful histories.

Here are the questions Jennifer poses:

Can loaded words and contested terms be rehabilitated? Can they escape, in the case of “concentration camp” the tragic and overwrought associations with one of the worst genocides of the 20th century? Can we use a term, like “miscegenation” to simply mean “inter-racial” without invoking its etymological roots in race baiting and its historic use as a word associated with negativity, rancor, and hatred (because whenever “miscegenation” was invoked in the mid to late 20th century it was usually done in the context of “anti-miscegenation” laws, ie: laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, or white racist Southerners invoking the fear of “miscegenation” as a rationale for school segregation.

I suppose a few more questions to consider are:

*Why is this loaded word or contested term being used in current, contemporary usage?
*What is the purpose of this rehabilitation?
*Who is trying to use this term and for what purpose?
*Is there another term that is as accurate/precise in its meaning as the contested term? Why is it important to use the contested term rather than the less loaded word?

My response is below the fold.
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Forays into the academic blogosphere

In a small exercise in scholarly self-aggrandizement, I’ve created a wiki page for good old Domestic Issue over at the very handy but (so far) modestly-sized AcademicBlogs Wiki. Now, I sit back and watch visits here jump into the tens per day.

It’s via that wiki that I’ve found a couple of blogs with foci that intersect with those of this one.

Mixed Race America is kept by Jennifer, a professor of contemporary lit. and Asian-American lit. somewhere in the southern U.S. Her blog’s banner says that she is interested in “any . . . way you can describe the blending, melding, melting, tossing, turning, churning of race relations in the United States.” That sounds a lot like this place, too.

Dennis Hildago’s blog, Professor of History, is focused on his research interests in comparative and Atlantic world history. His most recent post concerns a research project in which he compares the historiographies of, respectively, U.S.-Mexico and Haiti-Dominican Republic border crossings. This is especially intriguing to me in that I’m interested in seeing how that might intersect with Antonio Benitez-Rojo’s trope of the Caribbean region as a Repeating Island.

As a look ahead to the look of this page, as I find more blogs whose interests intersect more or less directly with those of this one, I’ll add a separate links category for them. Also: plans to jazz up the banner via the magic of CSS.

The “encounter with the Encounter”: New-World-centric reading

Note: This, with a little fiddling around with wording and minus footnotes, is an excerpt from my dissertation’s introduction. Context: The intro. begins with a lengthy discussion of Columbus’s voyages and how his confusion in thinking he was in Asia arose, basically, from not seeing what was around him–by insisting that he could be no place else except Asia. From there, I make the claim that then-current (early-’90s) theory-driven readings of, in particular, Latin American texts often to my mind guilty of the same error Columbus made: that of reading the New World through the lens of the Old World. This produced readings that simply didn’t make any sense when placed within the historical, social and cultural contexts of the hemisphere. This circumstance began to change, ironically, just about the time I was writing my dissertation; Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture appeared in 1993 with its powerful notion of hybridity–something I would have addressed in the dissertation had I known of it. Yet another reason to return to this thing. Anyway, from having declared wrong-headed for the Americas a whole bunch of post-colonial theory, I then propose another sort of reading. That is what follows.

I don’t yet know how much of the introduction I’ll keep. At the very least, it needs some extensive rewriting to account for hybridity and for the ways that idea has been both used and found suspect. That said, the reading of the poem that closes things is the sort of strategy I employ quite often, and I think it still reads well.

This project makes the claim that it is not only possible but necessary to articulate a theory of “New-World-centric” discourse, a theory which does not merely transpose Old World theory onto the cultural realities of the Americas. Such a discourse would both produce and comment upon New World texts in a manner peculiar to (or, if you like, “indigenous to”) the region. It would, like New World culture itself, synthesize discourses from throughout the world into a heteroglossic amalgam that both blends and becomes something other than its components. Like many studies of Latin American literature, this one accepts as given the critical commonplace that New World literature is a literature of encounter, a literature of the meeting and clashing of cultures. But in the recent past many critical texts have pursued this commonplace in an equally commonplace direction. Continue reading

Hither and yon: posts from elsewhere

The links that follow are posts that originally appeared at my “home” blog that touch on this blog’s preoccupations and will probably end up being incorporated into the book project, even if only tangentially. Consider this page, then, as being as much a sort of collections of notes to myself as an actual post that some might find worthwhile. But I also invite you to leave comments, either here or at the original posts.

“American Aesthetics I: Bingham’s Lion”: In which I argue that this hemisphere’s aesthetic sensibilities are based in pastiche and not electicism or egalitarianism.

“Ellison and (American) Public Space”: A discussion of Ellison’s essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”–in particular its proposal that we view “the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and scene upon which and within which the action unfolds” and the further, equally-provocative claim that “[i]t is not accidental that the disappearance of the human Negro [as opposed to stereotyped Negroes] from our fiction coincides with the disappearance of deep-probing doubt and a sense of evil.”

“Some comments on The Fathers: A reading of Allen Tate’s 1938 novel as something of a rewriting of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936), though one that doesn’t deal quite as honestly with its subject as Faulkner’s does with its subject.

“More on Arc d’X: A short discussion of Steve Erickson’s 1993 novel, in which I promise to return but, at least over there, did not. That’ll happen here and in the book project.

“Denial on the Mississippi?: The strange career of the narrator in Show Boat and “Denial on the Mississippi?: Part II–the river as engine of nostalgia in Show Boat: Two posts that contain the germ of an article I’m writing on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel that is near completion and which I will wrap up this summer. Each explores how the characters and even the novel’s narrator are strangely (willfully?) reticent on the theme of certain characters’ racial ambiguity, even though its most famous scene is the “outing” of Steve and Julie as a miscegenated couple and the action Steve takes to make himself “black” according to the letter of the law. Meanwhile, “Blankness: On unselfconsciousness in narrative” is an offshoot of those posts.

Melville’s “isolatoes” and mulattoes: a query

First, a couple of passages to consider.

From The Cambridge History of American Literature:

If black characters possess a double consciousness [see: W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk], would mulattoes be trebly conscious? On an individual level the mulatto’s fortunes seem to reflect the larger society: as blacks can’t belong to mainstream America, so mulattoes struggle to fit in with black America. Often seen as doomed wanderers of the racial borderlands, the mixed-race character had been popular since the nineteenth century. Few of these stories had optimistic endings. White writers generally saw the mulatto figure simplistically, as the tragedy of a white person trapped in a black body. African Americans knew the shallowness of such a reading, and often used the double whammy of black race and female gender to get at the nature of such liminal figures. To be mixed race was not simply not to be white. Such individuals struggled to belong anywhere. (318)

And this, from Melville’s conclusion to his description of the crew of the Pequod:

How it is, there is no telling, but Islanders seem to make the best whalemen. They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were! An Anacharsis Clootz deputation from all the [119] isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the pequod [sic] to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.

My Norton Critical Edition (2nd ed.) of the novel footnotes “Isolatoes” this way: “Apparently a word invented by Melville to play on ‘isolated’ and ‘island'” (107). However, given this blog’s central preoccupations, and given the fact that Melville thought as deeply as Faulkner would later about the meaning of slavery and questions of race, it’s difficult not to wonder if Melville, for “isolato,” also had in mind something of a thought-rhyme with “mulatto.”

I’ve done some online searching for explicit discussions of these two terms in relation to each other but without success. I’m headed to the library today to look at some older criticism and articles; in the meantime, though, I wanted to post this little query on the off chance someone who knows about such things might bump into it. To perhaps heighten the chances of someone finding this post via other interests: In my dissertation, I have an extended comparison of Joe Christmas in Faulkner’s Light in August and Octavio Paz’s discussion of the pachuco in El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). The protagonist of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man would fit here as well. The book project will retain that material and develop it further; just off the top of my head, though, those figures seem to bear more than a little resemblance both to nineteenth-century treatments of mulattoes in literature and to Melville’s Isolatoes.

Feel free to comment as you see fit, even if to tell me I’m wrong-headed.

Some good news

My sabbatical application was approved by my college’s committee for the coming fall. So, beginning this summer the content here, such as it will be, will increase apace.

My site director (the administrator in charge of the management of the location of the college where I teach) actually learned of my sabbatical before I did (those gossipy administrators!), and today he said I should always feel welcome to come into the office and work there if I wished. Most gracious of him.

So: in addition to readin’ and writin’, what now? Most of the time I’ll be in Wichita: most of my materials are either already here in my study or should be pretty easily available through interlibrary loans and JSTOR. But I also have a couple of trips in mind: one to Denver to visit the Mayer Center‘s collection of colonial-era casta paintings (the painting at the head of the previous post is from that collection), and one to Mexico to take some images of buildings and art objects that also express, in material ways, an early acknowledgment of the reality of miscegenated culture. Finally, part of the terms of my sabbatical is the creating and presenting of some materials (a media presentation, a videotaped interview, a lecture) on aspects of my work. Of all that I’ll be doing this fall, the lectures and other presentations may pose the greatest challenge, but I admit to looking forward to that work: I want the work I do to serve as a kind of demonstration to my colleagues–and, yes, my students–that community colleges can be (and should be) supportive of scholarship as well as of good teaching.

Anyway. Now it (really) begins.