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.

As I understand your critiques, you have three main areas of concern that, Venn diagram-like, overlap with each other: 1) that the term has a historical/cultural/legal context that renders it difficult or inappropriate to apply to other times and places in the Americas (Jennifer and Dance make this point, though they disagree as to particulars); 2) that the uses to which the term has been put in the past are so noxious that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to set aside that baggage when using it, no matter the intent–in other words, the “N-word” debate(s) as applied to another word (all three commenters make this point in various way); 3) whether it is appropriate for someone of my ethnicity to address possibility of rehabilitating this word.

Debates over historical usage are tricky, it seems to me. As one example, I’d have to say that it’s a given that homosexual behavior has existed since well before recorded history, but the actual terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality” didn’t come into existence until around the turn of the 20th century. Does that suggest then that it may be inappropriate to use those terms when speculating on, say, whether David and Jonathan (in the Old Testament) might have had a “homosexual” relationship? I have absolutely no opinion on this one way or the other–it’s a question that simply doesn’t interest me; others, though, have raised this question. But even if David and Jonathan themselves would have agreed in principle that they were what we would call “lovers,” would it be appropriate for us to use that word to describe it, given the vast differences between their culture and that which produced the word? It’s hard to know. What did it mean to the members of a given culture when two men or two women declared their “love” for each other or embraced and kissed in the street when meeting each other? And once we’ve got that nailed down, is it acceptable to use current vocabularies to describe it, or do we need to find and unpack the vocabulary of the time to render it visible–that is, to be true to their understanding of it–to our audiences? This is also, I’d say, is the challenge that Huckleberry Finn presents to those who read it and, even more importantly, those who teach it. It’s extremely difficult to separate (and keep separate) our world’s assumptions about certain words from the text’s and its characters’ assumptions about those same words; but, it seems to me, we have to do that to some extent or else we run the risk of ending up with readings that do more to confirm our way(s) of thinking about the world or wishing the world were than to shed light on what that text has to say about its world. I’m no more exempt from that last statement than anyone else.

“Miscegenation” presents a slightly different challenge. Its literal meaning could not be more neutral: “a mixture of races.” Its etymology confirms this: “L miscere to mix + genus race.” Seen from that standpoint, the word would appear to have a transcultural and transhistorical appropriateness to any given circumstance. All three of you, though, argue, to varying degrees and with varying emphases, that you see limits to that assumption. You mention the purposes of its invention and the chief use to which it was put from its very birth: a condemnation and, later, the persecution and prosecution of the very act it names; you also note that its peculiarly U.S. origins might make inappropriate its application to descriptions of racial admixture in the rest of the hemisphere. Those are fair and important issues for you to raise and for me to consider.

Here’s what I’m weighing with regard to all that. The texts I’ll be looking at are literary and historical narratives of people involved in consensual interracial relationships in defiance of the legal and social codes of the communities in which they live or which they come into contact with. I’m especially interested in the rhetoric used in those moments in these texts when these relationships are revealed. These couples (or the narrator, speaking on their behalf) long for, and in various ways devise, if only fleetingly, language which in effect describes a space apart from that of the “real world”–Foucault’s notion of heterotopia (as discussed in his introduction to The Order of Things) is a crucial idea for me here, as is Richard Poirier’s basic thesis in his classic study, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature: that at its essence American literature’s big theme is the attempt to–and the difficulties inherent in–in Emerson’s words, “build your own world.” I had seen using the term “miscegenation” as being something like the intent behind Hester Prynne’s rendering of her scarlet letter in a Laverne-like size: a throwing-back in the face of the law the very language they would use to condemn. In other words, as I mentioned in the previous post, one thing that appeals to me about the term “miscegenation” is precisely that tension–it’s that tension that, given my sources, cannot be exempt from examination. The question I have to ponder some more is whether “miscegenation” is so fraught with baggage that readers can only feel that tension and thus can’t examine it.

As I’ve thought further about this, though, I realized something: I’d have to reread to make sure, but–again, as is the case in The Scarlet Letter, which does not use the words “adultress” or “adultery”–I don’t recall the word “miscegenation” being used by the couples in these consensual relationships, and rarely if at all does it appear in any of the texts I’ve so far read, even in the most blatantly-racist of them, Thomas Dixon’s The Sins of the Father. This is certainly a curiosity that (may) merit some addressing in the project; for now, though, it raises another question of the sort that Dance raises, though framed differently (see my discussion of the vocabulary of homosexuality above): is it appropriate to use vocabulary to describe relationships that the people in those relationships would not have used? What should be the vocabulary of a reader looking at texts of different genres produced in very different places at very different times that all describe in some way the same behavior?

Finally: the question of the appropriateness of someone of my ethnicity using the term “miscegenation” for purposes other than strictly condemnatory ones. I get it that there are some things I will never experience or encounter at a visceral level because I am a white male. But I’m also frankly suspicious of the notion that white males should therefore be consigned to the margins of certain discussions by virtue of their white maleness or, for that matter, by the presumption that a given individual’s possession of chromosomes or genes confers upon him or her greater authority to speak on certain subjects than those of us not in possession of those biological attributes (rendered in such discussions as deficiencies). I’d argue that such reasoning only perpetuates the very de facto segregation of humanistic study that multicultural studies had sought, I thought, to eliminate, or at least mitigate. It seems to me that the best that any of us honest brokers in academe can do is acknowledge what we don’t/can’t know when and where appropriate and then get on with the business of explaining and demonstrating to our readers, with clarity and sensitivity and respect, what we do know. In my own case, I had not been aware of the extent to which “miscegenation” is regarded as a contentious term in the academy; I’d just push back gently on that argument, though, by suggesting that my lack of awareness might possibly suggest that its contentiousness isn’t universally recognized. For good or ill, that lack of recognition certainly seems to be true outside the academy. I’m not claiming that that’s right; I’m just stating what I have found to be true.

No matter our race, gender or class, all of us shape and are shaped by culture: thankfully, the one social space most resistant to policing. I say this because another argument I will make in my project is that the rhetoric of these consensual relationships I mentioned above is also strikingly similar to that often employed to discuss the cultural space of the New World (which, in a future post, I’ll distinguish from the historical space of the Americas). Again: assuming I acknowledge and allow for those things I can never experience, I don’t see why I (or anyone) should be excluded from attempting to frame the very culture s/he is a participant in, in a way that seems to him/her to be an accurate or helpful way of thinking about that culture.

It is absolutely true that there is an American Narrative of racial admixture inseparable from the legacy of slavery and prejudice and bigotry and rape that began with Columbus’ arrival in this hemisphere and that, most unfortunately, has yet to reach a conclusion. It is also absolutely true that, running almost exactly contemporaneously with that more-familiar narrative but relatively less-examined, is another narrative of race relations, a New World Narrative of consensual racial admixture, one in which the people involved seek, in various ways and with varying degrees of success, to remove themselves from History, to not be ruled. Without at all denying or attempting to mitigate that former narrative’s power and horror or our need to understand and condemn its vestiges in today’s culture, my aim is to find a way to talk about that second American Narrative and suggest how all of us, through that Narrative, might be able to understand this New World. I’d like to think that’s worth thinking and writing about and that someone out there might think it worth reading. Thanks to all of you, I have both a little more clarification of some things and some further questions to consider.

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5 Responses

  1. How are we supposed to comment and have the comment be shorter than the post.

    :)

    Seriously, there’s a lot to talk about here — too many conversation starters. That’s not a complaint, BTW. I’m just still pondering two posts ago.

    Cheers.

  2. Randall,
    How do you think I felt as I was writing this thing? And all the above is really just some throat-clearing: some of these, I’ll just say here in case it’s not clear in the post, I have a greater investment in than I do in others. I’m not unreasonable.

    Thanks for reading and pondering. I’ll be posting a little something on the Melville query in the near future.

  3. Pushing you a little bit more….this is not a long-pondered response, just fyi:

    1) As opposed to a negative defense disagreeing with points made against using miscegenation, this is only positive defense of using miscegenation that I see you make: I had seen using the term “miscegenation” as being something like the intent behind Hester Prynne’s rendering of her scarlet letter in a Laverne-like size: a throwing-back in the face of the law the very language they would use to condemn.

    I’d like to see much more discussion of the *advantages* of using miscegenation, instead of rebuttal of perceived disadvantages. The above is not enough for me. Especially since whether the law at the time is using “miscegenation” to condemn seems debatable, based on your post. How is using miscegenation going to help the reader, forward your argument, clarify your theoretical innovations, etc? What is it doing *for* you?

    Similarly, I don’t see the point of reclaiming miscegenation when the neutral “race-mixing” is easily available—what does reclaiming it (which you seem to be trying to do), do for culture today? (“Queer” would be a good parallel here—it embodies similar tensions)

    3) Your last paragraph is very intriguing. Okay (as I read it), American Narrative (slavery/rape) vs. New World Narrative (consensual race-mixing). Neat. A useful distinction. I don’t know know, though—to me, conventionally, those two narratives are basically summarized as miscegenation vs. mestizaje. I don’t see the point of applying the term miscegenation to mestizaje—although, for instance, I could see a big advantage in selecting mestizaje as a general term for black/white intermixture in the US South, as in that context it would be constantly disconcerting in a way that constantly re-emphasized your argument that consensual race-mixing is strong in the US as well (although Latin Americanists might not appreciate such an appropriation, and it would be ahistorical, it could do valuable things). So I appreciate the technique of what you are doing, but not seeing how it is new and valuable in this manifestation.

    3) looking forward to this: cultural space of the New World (which, in a future post, I’ll distinguish from the historical space of the Americas). Also to figuring out what you mean by this: a New World Narrative of consensual racial admixture, one in which the people involved seek, in various ways and with varying degrees of success, to remove themselves from History, to not be ruled, as “remove from History” (with a capital H!) makes me raise an eyebrow. Similarly, I’m not confident that the cultural space of either your subjects or of any of us today is “resistant to policing.”

    Full disclosure—I don’t work on race-mixing, exactly, but I work around it, have done a little bit on it in the past, and at some point I’ll teach on it. Also, I’m a historian (if you can’t tell), and it’s very difficult to comment here without being sure of the historical context for the texts you will be writing about. That is, if you are comparing Malinche and Sally Hemings, vs. writing about Imitation of Life and Nella Larsen’s Passing, then while the questions around “miscegenation” may be the same, the answers are not.

  4. Damnit, fixing italics.

    3) looking forward to this: cultural space of the New World (which, in a future post, I’ll distinguish from the historical space of the Americas). Also to figuring out what you mean by this: a New World Narrative of consensual racial admixture, one in which the people involved seek, in various ways and with varying degrees of success, to remove themselves from History, to not be ruled, as “remove from History” (with a capital H!) makes me raise an eyebrow. Similarly, I’m not confident that the cultural space of either your subjects or of any of us today is “resistant to policing.”

    Full disclosure—I don’t work on race-mixing, exactly, but I work around it, have done a little bit on it in the past, and at some point I’ll teach on it. Also, I’m a historian (if you can’t tell), and it’s very difficult to comment here without being sure of the historical context for the texts you will be writing about. That is, if you are comparing Malinche and Sally Hemings, vs. writing about Imitation of Life and Nella Larsen’s Passing, then while the questions around “miscegenation” may be the same, the answers are not.

  5. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation :) Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Pagan!

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