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Passing and the Fictions of Identity

Passing and the Fictions of Identity

by Elaine K. Ginsberg

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Passing refers to the process whereby a person of one race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation adopts the guise of another. Historically, this has often involved black slaves passing as white in order to gain their freedom. More generally, it has served as a way for women and people of color to access male or white privilege. In their examination of this


Passing refers to the process whereby a person of one race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation adopts the guise of another. Historically, this has often involved black slaves passing as white in order to gain their freedom. More generally, it has served as a way for women and people of color to access male or white privilege. In their examination of this practice of crossing boundaries, the contributors to this volume offer a unique perspective for studying the construction and meaning of personal and cultural identities.
These essays consider a wide range of texts and moments from colonial times to the present that raise significant questions about the political motivations inherent in the origins and maintenance of identity categories and boundaries. Through discussions of such literary works as Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, The Autobiography of an Ex–Coloured Man, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Hidden Hand, Black Like Me, and Giovanni’s Room, the authors examine issues of power and privilege and ways in which passing might challenge the often rigid structures of identity politics. Their interrogation of the semiotics of behavior, dress, language, and the body itself contributes significantly to an understanding of national, racial, gender, and sexual identity in American literature and culture.
Contextualizing and building on the theoretical work of such scholars as Judith Butler, Diana Fuss, Marjorie Garber, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Passing and the Fictions of Identity will be of value to students and scholars working in the areas of race, gender, and identity theory, as well as U.S. history and literature.

Contributors. Martha Cutter, Katharine Nicholson Ings, Samira Kawash, Adrian Piper, Valerie Rohy, Marion Rust, Julia Stern, Gayle Wald, Ellen M. Weinauer, Elizabeth Young

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Passing and the Fictions of Identity is timely in its interrogation of the construction of racial identity, sophisticated in its uses of contemporary theoretical formulations, and insightful in its analysis of provocative, often relatively little discussed novels, memoirs, and textual moments which explore the crossing of racial boundaries.”—Michael Awkward, University of Michigan

“By pulling together analyses of race/gender/nation/sexuality ‘passing,’ and taking up extended treatments of a range of texts, Passing and the Fictions of Identity makes an important statement about U. S. identity formation.”—Dana Nelson, University of Kentucky

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Passing and the Fictions of Identity

By Elaine K. Ginsberg

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8202-7


The Subaltern as Imperialist: Speaking of Olaudah Equiano



I have invoked my positionality in this awkward way so as to accentuate the fact that calling the place of the investigator into question remains a meaningless piety in many recent critiques of the sovereign subject. Thus, although I will attempt to foreground the precariousness of my position throughout, I know such gestures can never suffice.—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 1988

If, then, the following narrative does not appear sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication. I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from it either immortality or literary reputation.... Let it therefore be remembered that, in wishing to avoid censure, I do not aspire to praise. — Olaudah Equiano, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789

Positionality, place, foreground: one would think Gayatri Spivak were writing a travel narrative. A narrative, perhaps, like that of Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo African and a former British slave who served sea captains most of his life. Instead, Spivak sidles up to the "theoretical," whereas Equiano heads for the "conversational," to cite an opposition Spivak invokes (to undo) in the same essay (272). But the geographical lilt to the first epigraph is an excuse for suggesting that her project echoes his. Clearly, both writers share a melancholy anticipation of errors yet to come, endeavors for which they've risked their "I."

And for both, divided as they are by two hundred years, one danger is that "I" will come to stand for "Imperialist." Equiano's narrative, ostensibly intended to convince the British Parliament to make slavery a crime throughout its territories, is fodder for the premise that "abolition contained the seeds of empire," in the words of Patrick Brantlinger (186). Spivak's theorization drags that premise into the present by suggesting that all Western intellectual discourse is imperialistic, in the sense that it silences those it would represent. Does "the subaltern cannot speak" (Spivak 308) mean that anyone who speaks is no longer a subaltern? It is the purpose of this essay to "use" The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Fossa, the African, Written By Himself to consider this question as it relates to the phenomenon of passing in its original sense — passing for white. I conclude that Equiano's text, while it may pass as an imperialist production, also exists outside the category of imperialist discourse.

This is not to claim the same status for the argument here. Quotation marks around my "use" of this "prototype" (Gates, "Introduction" xiv) do not redeem this effort's exploitative aspect. The self-incriminatory edge to Spivak's conclusion that "the subaltern cannot speak" thus adds an element of discomfort to the attempt to speak about it. To consider one's disquisition implicated in another's silence should be upsetting for anyone who does more than listen.

How, then, is somebody who has committed herself to a discursive act, newly discomfited by its hazards, to do the right thing? Can an introductory apology, like the two that open this essay, manage to stick to "regret" without turning into apology's other meaning, "defense," further evidence of the aggression for which one is apologizing?

Both the "awkward" Spivak and the "not so vain as to expect" Equiano exclude the latter definition to the extent that they foreground humility and vulnerability. As a result, however, both end up proclaiming their modesty, an oxymoronic venture if ever there was one. But while these initial displays can't prevent the silencings that subsequent textual politics will bring about—they aren't much good as amulets—they do invite me, as reader, to remember that something is lost as I proceed and that, being lost, the reader is not to know what it was. I would like to invoke the same privilege for what follows.


"Passing" is possessed of many likenesses: impersonation, masquerade, drag, crossing over. Why, then, has recent criticism displayed a need to appropriate this abbreviation for "passing for white," resituating it in contexts of sexual as well as racial trauma? How does passing satisfy us in a way no other word can? One answer, I think, is that it evokes something the others with the possible exception of crossing over, revoke: namely, a quality of loss. Like its overlapping signs, passing describes an act of simulation, in which two states, being and not–being, assumption and revocation, inhere. But although words like the above synonyms enfranchise the former—the act of putting on, be it a mask or a pair of women's stockings or men's suspenders—it is the melancholy privilege of passing to foreground the latter—what is lost that's there. Indeed, as Judith Butler notes in a gloss of Nella Larsen's novel Passing, the word itself is a pun, which in addition to the common definition of "cross ... the color line undetected" (Madigan 524) also signifies the ultimate turning away, death (Butler, Bodies That Matter 183). When one thinks of passing in this light, its recent adoption seems less strange than the persistent, almost manic euphemism of terms once employed in its stead. Passing also mocks our melancholy, ridiculing essentialist notions of a "true" self preceding, and corrupted by, its subsequent enactments. In a sense, passing foregrounds what is between—between origin and enactment, body and gesture— calling into question all such fixed ways of determining identity.

As such, passing is like the water in Olaudah Equiano's text. Equiano—ex–slave and purchaser of slaves; African and Englishman; slave cargo turned sailor—is consistently engaged in the phenomenon we call passing. He is also consistently passing through the oceans that divide one geographic homeland from another. Water becomes the most important place in his Life not only because that's where he spends the most time but also because it's where he obtains the greatest authority. Rules that exclude him from full membership in London society don't apply there; for instance, black men and white women can marry "on the water," but not on land (86). Thus when he labels a ship called the Royal George "a little world" (65) because it has everything on it that he could find on land, one is also reminded that it's the only world where, occasionally, he gets called "Captain." Equiano may learn navigation so as to find his way to "Old England" (89), but through it, he also navigates a subjectivity that Old England would have inaugurated into oblivion.

The synecdochic relationship of water to this essay is reflected in the religious and philosophical import of water in Equiano's West African Igbo homeland. The Igbo, like many other West African peoples, attribute divine characteristics to what John Mbiti calls "major objects of nature," among them, seas, rivers, and lakes. As forms of spiritual being, these bodies of water are thus part of an intermediate sphere between the "Sasa" realm of the living and the "Zamani" realm of the afterlife: Mbiti claims that such objects "are 'closer' to men, than is God." For Equiano, then, water may have served as a transitional medium in both physical and spiritual terms and a semidivine one where his greater powers might be understood as concordant with his greater nearness to an omnipotent Creator (Mbiti 77, 163).

Whatever its spiritual associations, however, water's pragmatic function— as a medium for the transportation of goods to buyers—seems to have predominated in Equiano's motivations as he records them. Near the end of his seafaring days, he even includes slaves in the bargain, which suggests the degree to which he has approximated imperialist economic ethics: "Our vessel being ready to sail for the Musquito shore, I went with the Doctor on board a Guineaman, to purchase some slaves to carry with us, and cultivate a plantation" (Life 154). In so doing, he approaches the limit of his precarious self–articulation as both African and European. But no matter how skilled Equiano's articulation of English imperialist ideologies, enough ruptures and silences remain in his text finally to subvert those same ideologies. Silence becomes a form of speech in Equiano's Life; and it is that silence we must read to gain fully his significance to an understanding of the effect of imperialist ethics on those who both benefit from and despise them.


Olaudah Equiano's case is an interesting one because he plays the role of the speaker and of the silenced. As a former slave and a black man, denied privileges accorded whites even after purchasing his freedom, he is an obvious candidate for subalternity. As a writer representing himself to thousands (the Life appeared in eight British editions and one American during his lifetime [Gates, "Introduction" ix]), as a black who repeatedly exercises authority over other blacks, as an international merchant who includes slaves in his cargo, and as a man who perceives women as means to the fulfillment of his sex, he closely approximates the elitist ideologies of his white male mentors. Equiano positions himself as a student, when not a servant, throughout the text: while he is quick to credit all the masters from whom he has learned everything from hairdressing to the French horn, he never mentions teaching anyone else. Nevertheless, in "dedicating" the narrative, "the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave– Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen," to the lords and commons of the Parliament of Britain (3), Equiano educates; he participates in the "Western intellectual production" that Spivak acknowledges is, "in many ways, complicit with Western international economic interests" (294, 297). That this transition occurs in the name of ending oppression reaffirms the difficulty of speaking from a position of innocence. That it is never complete but results in an uneasy tug–of–war that fractures subjectivity suggests that the snail–like "track of ideology" glimpsed by Spivak is more than a single line (272): viewed, perhaps impossibly, from the seat of oppressor and subaltern simultaneously, it is a web.

Maybe the most obvious symbol of the interdependence of abolition and imperialism in this text is the means by which Equiano obtains "freedom" : he buys it. In so doing, he takes a step from the mode of production characteristic of his African homeland (which as he describes it is consistent with Marx's definition of "use–value") to the capitalist dependence on "exchange – value" (that is, profit) of his European destination. Another way to view these two economic realms is through Samir Amin's differentiation between capitalism and everything prior: "In all earlier social systems, the economic phenomenon is transparent. By this I mean that the destination of that which is produced is immediately visible: The major part of production is directly consumed by the producers themselves.... Market exchange and wage labor are, of course, not entirely absent, but they remain limited in their range and marginal in their social and economic scope" (1). Equiano himself suggests a metaphor for the economic community he leaves behind as the space defined by the Igbo "New Year" celebration: "We compute the year from the day on which the sun crosses the line, and on its setting that evening, there is a general shout throughout the land; at least I can speak from my own knowledge, throughout our vicinity" (20). Igbo economic exchange extended, similarly, as far as one could make actual human contact: there were few, if any, middlepeople. It was a form of interaction for which "science of economics," in Amin's language (1), or "philosophy," in V. Y. Mudimbe's, would not be as accurate as Mudimbe's word for African precolonial or "traditional" ways of knowing, gnosis, which includes the element of "acquaintance with someone" (ix).

In The Invention of Africa, Mudimbe links colonialism with imperialism, alternately considering the latter the cause of the former or the two as a single phenomenon, "colonial imperialism" (2—3). It seems fair, then, to use one of the three "main keys" he devises to account for "colonial organization" in a discussion of Equiano's insertion into the imperialist order. Number three is "the manner of managing ancient organizations and implementing new modes of production" or "the integration of local economic histories into the Western perspective" (Mudimbe 2), and Equiano demonstrates precisely this when he discusses his purchase of freedom after describing the economic ways of his homeland. In sharp contrast to the international exchange market already characteristic of late–eighteenth–century Europe, Equiano depicts the Igbo economy as local, dependent on trade rather than purchase, and dedicated to "improving," rather than transforming/exploiting, natural resources: "As we live in a country where nature is prodigal of her favors, our wants are few, and easily supplied; of course we have few manufactures.... In such a state money is of little use.... All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature" (16—17). The Igbo "mode of production" is also communal rather than competitive: when a house is to be built, "the whole neighborhood afford their unanimous assistance" (16). Even their dealings with slaves seemed, by contrast with those of the European, oriented to "acquaintance" rather than profit: "How different was their condition from that of the slaves in the West Indies! With us they do no more work than other members of the community, than even their master: their food, clothing, and lodging, were nearly the same as theirs" (19). Equiano shares the "shock" of his master, then, to see slaves sold by the pound in the European-controlled islands (79).

To escape being weighed, Equiano learns the way of the masters, which is to view objects as signs, markers in an international economy. It is only by learning the difference between "provisions" and "cargo" that Equiano "acquires a sum of money sufficient to purchase" his manumission (96). His last owner is the first to point out the change a "thing" undergoes when it is exchanged for cash: "He thought by carrying one little thing or other to different places to sell I might make money" (92). In fact, Equiano has already been doing just that, starting with a glass tumbler that he bought for a half bit in St. Eustatia and sold for a bit in Montserrat and working his way up to "near three hundred percent, by four barrels of pork I brought from Charlestown" (97).

The loving detail Equiano bestows on each transaction suggests the significance to him of his "mastery" of international capitalism: when he exclaims at "finding myself master of about forty–seven pounds" (99), the choice of label suggests that he is not only purchasing manumission but also legitimacy within the world into which he has been kidnapped. Simultaneously, he is coming to see his former peers as distinct from him, calling them by the names used by the imperialist traders whom he now includes in his own syntactic subjecthood: "We took in a live cargo, as we call a cargo of slaves" (98). Merchanthood continues to serve as the shield between him and slavery, as he dedicates page after page to his skill at turning a profit.

Not only does active participation in colonial imperialism enable Equiano to purchase his own freedom, but it is also key to his argument for an end to British trade in African slaves. Equiano gives the lie to the self-satisfaction of those British who view abolition as a Utopian aim, a step away from crass mercantile interests, when he concludes his narrative with a direct appeal to the pocketbooks, and not the hearts, of the lords and commons and their charge. Africans can't be "civilized," he argues, until they are no longer victims of "the inhuman traffic of slavery" (175). The trick is, that once they are, they will become willing participants in all other forms of British "traffic."


Excerpted from Passing and the Fictions of Identity by Elaine K. Ginsberg. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Elaine K. Ginsberg is Professor of English at West Virginia University.

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