Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture / Edition 1

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In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar, who transformed the way we think about women's literature as coauthor of the acclaimed The Madwoman in the Attic, turns her attention to the incendiary issue of race. Acknowledging the legacy of minstrelsy, she explores cross-racial impersonations and imitations in modern American film, fiction, poetry, painting, photography, and journalism. The fascinating "racechanges" Gubar discusses include whites posing as black and blacks "passing" for white; blackface on white actors in The Jazz Singer, The Birth of a Nation, and other movies, as well as on the faces of black stage entertainers; African-American deployments of myths about the origin of color, especially in the works produced by Anne Spencer, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Zora Neale Hurston during the Harlem Renaissance; white poets, patrons, and novelists from Vachel Lindsay and Nancy Cunard to William Faulkner and John Berryman using ersatz African rhythms and African-American slang; straight and gay artists like Norman Mailer, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Lois Gould fascinated by hyper-sexualized stereotypes of black men; and narrative nightmares as well as utopian visions of families in which mothers of one race give birth to babies who look like they belong to another. With its stunning array of illustrations, including paintings, film stills, computer graphics, and magazine morphings, Racechanges gives us a new perspective on the pervasiveness of racism; but it also holds out exciting aesthetic possibilities for lessening the distance between blacks and whites.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This rich and fascinating study testifies to the long history of white Americans' ingenious and insatiable envy of blackness."--Barbara Johnson,

"Professor Gubar's readings are marvels of precision and insight. This is brillant scholarship of tremendous significance to American Letters."--Toni Morrison

"This is an important book for the way it highlights an active but underacknowledged field of cultural inquiry, and a study bound to prompt further debate."--Kirkus

"To even envision a post-racist society is contingent upon understanding the offensive, dense, and wildly contradictory nature of our racist past and present. Racechanges should be encouragement enough for readers to begin that task."--Gayle Pemberton, The Washington Post

"Susan Gubar's Racechanges is a fascinating study of the fluidity of all of our social identities, especially the supposedly fixed opposition between 'white' and 'black.' Gubar demonstrates that even the most seemingly dissimilar and antagonistic identities are defined through and imbedded in their putative opposites.Racechanges is a major contribution to cultural criticism and to the literature on the idea of race."--Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"The book is best in its chapter on 'Psychopathologies of Black Envy' (5). There Gubar argues that white men's blackface performances register not just homoerotic love and cultural/political/economic theft but also 'an uncanny, different kind of masculinism, an excessively physical masculinity stripped of traditional patriarchal privilege.'"--Signs

Kirkus Reviews
Synthesizing the remarkable work over the last 15 years of scores of cultural historians, theorists, and critics who have been engaged in documenting and analyzing the ubiquitous legacy of blackface minstrelsy and racial posing in 20th-century American culture, Gubar has assembled a comprehensive catalog of cross-racial iconography.

The paradox that despite our preoccupations with social divisions by race, the identities and psychologies of black and white Americans are inextricably interdependent is nowhere more evident than in modern popular culture. Gubar, coauthor with Sandra Gilbert of a groundbreaking work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), examines the pervasive role of cross-racial impersonation in the development of American melodrama (beginning with Uncle Tom's Cabin) and musical theater, motion pictures (D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer), popular radio shows (Amos 'n' Andy), and new journalism (John Howard Griffith's 1960 study Black Like Me), as well as in European experimental literature, painting, and photography. She also clearly identifies the ethical issue at the center: "How can white people understand or sympathize with African-Americans without distorting or usurping their perspective?" Of course, who is the subject and the object of the gaze has a great deal to do with whether the act of "racechange" is transgressive or regressive, but there are persistent ambiguities in the act. Gubar appreciates and articulates multilayered complexities and ironies that evolve along with American cultural expression, although occasionally she comes up with an interpretation that seems overdetermined. Gubar addresses the major issue of why potentially liberating acts of racial masquerade so often end up serving racist ends and are only now being used to envision postracist ways of being and seeing.

This is an important book for the way it highlights an active but underacknowledged field of cultural inquiry, and a study bound to prompt further debate.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195134186
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/28/2000
  • Series: Race and American Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 356
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Susan Gubar is Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. She has co-authored and co-edited a range of books with Sandra Gilbert, from The Madwoman in the Attic (a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award) to The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


[H]ow difficult it sometimes is to know where the black begins and the white ends. —Booker T. Washington

[N]ot only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man. Some critics will take it on themselves to remind us that this proposition has a converse. I say that this is false. The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. —Frantz Fanon

Can human beings (and the cultures they create) be defined as either black or white? Or are most human beings (and the cultures they create) both black and white? These are the questions that seem to be posed by fascinating artifacts about race which survive from ancient times in the form of Janiform vases depicting the heads of Europeans and Africans. Dating back to 510 B.C., the two faces on one such Italian urn embody a study in racial contrast which is constructed by juxtaposing, feature by feature, a white and a black woman (Fig. 1.1). Seen in profile, hair, nose, lips, chin, jewelry (or its absence), and neck suggest that racial difference—not merely skin deep—dictates physiognomy, perhaps even psychology. Antithetical, the abutting heads seem to set the women at odds, for each looks out from her own perspective in a direction that dooms her never to see the other. Hardly a melting pot, the vessel portrays the races as distinct, separate, unamalgamated. Yet the burden of the ornamented pail shared by the two heads signifies a commonality eerily echoed by the two handles that come into view when the artifact is presented in either frontal position(Figs. 1.2 and 1.3). The white face now hides the black, the black the white. Somewhat like two sides of one coin, the dual faces constitute one head, one being, whose mysteriously doubled features speak to the complementarily of Western and African images of womanly beauty, of domestic supportiveness, or even of the biological capacity of the female to contain life as well as life-giving fluids. In this context, the salient, silent form of the urn communicates a teasing truth about racial comingling, fusing, intermixing.

As in Keats's famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the vase from ancient Tarquinia—or what we see as contemporary viewers looking at the vase—could be said to tell us all we know and all we need to know, in this case about the contradictory disposition of racial representation in Western art. On the one hand, European and American artists have stressed the rigid boundaries separating race from race, while, on the other, they have documented racial interconnectedness and mutuality. Similarly, the two epigraphs for this chapter juxtapose the view (of Frantz Fanon) that race constitutes a rigid bifurcation with the belief (of Booker T. Washington) that race needs to be understood as a graduated spectrum. Imagining race—a category that has promulgated stories about civilization and nation, about family and identity—spawns an absorption with purity and pollution, integrity and hybridity, unity and plurality, sameness and difference. Throughout modern times, artists in virtually all media have meditated on racial relationships using multifaceted figures composed of ethnic comparisons, contrasts, and metamorphoses.

Though certainly conceptualizations of race have not remained static since the creation of the Janiform pail in ancient times, reading the vase now demonstrates how configurations of corporeal traits contributed to a black/white divide that paradoxically provoked in people on each side of it various transgressive maneuvers, much as has the arranging of the world into male and female. Indeed, to Simone de Beauvoir, a thinker as obsessed with the inequality consigned to the Other as Fanon and Washington were, the urn might suggest "deep similarities between the situation of woman and that of the Negro," though it also implicitly challenges the all-too-common assumption that "woman" is white, "Negro" male (xxiii). Just as numerous sexual narratives were used to justify or explain the subjection of women, by the end of the nineteenth century stories about civilization and nation, about family and identity generated by racial imaginings exploited ideas about purity and pollution, integrity and hybridity, unity and plurality, sameness and difference that contributed to the subordination of whole populations. By the twentieth century, when images of transvestism, androgyny, hermaphroditism, and transsexuality multiplied to negotiate the gender gap, what I am calling racechange had become a crucial trope of high and low, elite and popular culture, one that allowed artists from widely divergent ideological backgrounds to meditate on racial privilege and privation as well as on the disequilibrium of race as a category.

Racechange: The term is meant to suggest the traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality. Over the past several decades, Americans have been repeatedly informed by psychologists and sociologists that the classification of peoples into Asians, blacks, Hispanics, and whites has no basis in science or biology, but such "folk taxonomies" persist, indicating how many individuals have not really been able to internalize such a proposition. Racechange provides artists in diverse media a way of thinking about racial parameters. Just as the Tarquinian urn can be said to stress the rigid borders separating the races as well as the easy commerce between them, representations of racechange test the boundaries between racially defined identities, functioning paradoxically to reinforce and to challenge the Manichean meanings Western societies give to color. To begin with its most ambivalent and thus benign twentieth-century manifestation, racechange may be best viewed outside the American context that will elsewhere take precedence in this chapter and this book, specifically through a glance at the work of two Continental visual artists. For the experimental photographs and photomontages of Man Ray and Hannah Hoch exemplify the instability and centrality of racechanging iconography in the modern period, and they do so by continuing to meditate on the relationship "between the situation of woman and that of the Negro."

During the first half of the twentieth century, Man Ray returned to the Janiform design to depict the juxtaposition of black and white faces because this aesthetic form could sustain doubleness, based, as it was, on the idea of the two-faced god Janus, a deity who stood at (and for) portals. A modernist riff on the Tarquinian urn, Man Ray's Noire et blanche (Black and white) series of images (1926)—with its juxtaposition of Anglo and African, light and dark forms of beauty—simultaneously postulates and traverses a gulf between African and European races and cultures. In the most distinctive of the photographs with this title, the illuminated, pale skin of Man Ray's model (Kiki de Montparnasse) can be read as an either/or statement about race since it contrasts with the dark, obdurate stone of the black head she holds with her hand (Fig. 1.4). Whereas the living face has all the marks of European urbanity—the flapper's tight cap of lacquered hair as well as her penciled brows and lashes, powdered lids, lipstick bow-mouth, and hint of an earring—the sculpted mask displays its African difference: With its symmetrically designed hair or helmet, its almost nonexistent mouth, and its half-opened, half-closed eyes, this artifact appears markedly less realistic, more stylized than the photograph Ray takes of it. An objet, the dark talis hints that, as Fanon speculates, black subjectivity has no ontological reality for whites. Thus, Kiki possesses the fetish—her hand exhibits it—because the picture counterpoints Noire with blanche, savage with civilized, black with white, the fad of negritude during the twenties with the art of photography which enabled modernist artists to appropriate or assimilate the crafts of alien and presumably primitive cultures.

But of course this photograph (as well as the others Man Ray produced on this theme) also emphasizes the et of his title, the both/and of race, suggesting the interchangeability or fungibility of model and mask. Light and dark heads alike cast shadows on the surface upon which they rest. Given Kiki's closed eyelids, both are blind, the objects rather than the subjects of the gaze. If anything, the stone head contains more agency than the person since its verticality appears to decapitate her. Though Kiki presumably has the superior consciousness of humanity, she is horizontal, as if asleep or dead, while the upright mask appears paradoxically more alert. In addition, Kiki's make-up, hairdo, and modeling mean she is just as constructed as the African icon, just as "framed" by Man Ray's "shot." Indeed, consenting to her erotic objectification, she endorses a colonization as complete as that of the exotic object. Nor, given his pseudonym, could this photographer be unself-conscious about man's (voyeuristic) rays. Or so Kiki's prone face—"made up" like a Japanese mask—suggests, since it looks like a rare shelved artifact. From this perspective, the hand of Kiki represents less an act of ownership than an indication of bonding or camaraderie, a touching connection that links two fetishized objects of otherness, the beauty of blackness and of white femininity killed into art.

The negative version of Noire et blanche—switching lights and darks—graphically emphasizes the photographer's accord with Booker T. Washington's point that it is sometimes "difficult ... to know where the black begins and the white ends" (267): Here the now illuminated mask is foregrounded, as if it might be slipped over Kiki's face (Fig. 1.5). As in several other "solarizations" Man Ray produced, the effect is spectral, even apocalyptic. The inanimate object gains animation while the presence of the living model is reduced to a ghostly absence. Hannah Hoch, a friend of Man Ray's and a theorist of cultural hybridity, extended his experimental variations on the Janus form which reinforce even as they challenge normative racial polarization. In Entfuhrung (Abduction, 1925), Hoch cut out a photograph of a roughly carved African animal statue on which several figures sit, placed it on a larger base, and substituted a New Womanly face for one of the primitive heads; eclipsing the original Other, an image of the self—the modern profile—stands out with startling whiteness, positioned backward on the sculpted body of an African female (Fig. 1.6). Paradoxically, then, the native travelers are facing forward, while the amazed modernist looks backward (as indeed Hoch does) to a primitive past she seeks to excavate even as she criticizes how her contemporaries—artists and anthropologists—have reconstructed it. Despite modernist quests for an Urmythology grounded in the physicality of ancient, exotic cultures, Hoch's New Woman remains a self divided, cut off from the body, a talking head.

Many of Hoch's other collages in her Ethnographic Museum series mix so-called primitive sculptures of dark materials given traditionally African shapes with photographed white body parts. Framed within their frames by sculptural bases, pedestals, or platforms, Hoch's discordant montages display "the arbitrariness of all canons of beauty, both familiar and exotic," as Maud Lavin puts it (166). According to Lavin, Hoch's "humanistic linking of the subjecthood of Western and tribal peoples through montaging body parts" enabled her to consider the uncanny relationship between women commercialized as commodity fetishes, exhibited as mannequins, and primitives commercialized as ethnographic fetishes, exhibited as freaks (167-68). Denkmall II: Eitelkeit (Monument II: Vanity, 1926) features the legs of a naked, posturing white woman attached to what looks like an ancient black, androgynous fetish (Fig. 1.7); Mutter (1930) creates a number of facial plains in a cubist portrait that reveals the interplay of multicultural forms that seem to muffle or suppress subjectivity; Fremde Schonheit I (Strange Beauty, 1929) presents a seductively posed nude topped by a wrinkled (looming but possibly shrunken) head whose eyes look magnified through the oversized spectacles that underscore the viewer's own act of voyeurism. In all these works the juxtapositions between human and other-worldly body parts, symbolic and realistic corporeal configurations, combine to create sometimes funny, sometimes grotesque aliens. Using biracial imagery to meditate on the mind-body problem, Hoch sought to confront the difficulty of knowing "where the black begins and the white ends," even as she studied the appropriation of the primitive that marks the ways in which race is codified when the African blatantly lacks "ontological resistance" or interiority.

If ambivalence distinguishes the Janiform design as well as its namesake, the Roman god of portals, Janus, whose doorways stand as entrances or exits, contradiction resides in the character of the racechanger, a shape-shifter who took center stage in the modern cultural arena. "I want to be your African girl," croons the blond-haired heroine of Ernest Hemingway's Garden of Eden (begun in the 1940s), explaining to her white lover the tanning process she has utilized to darken her skin. The experimental photographs of Man Ray and Hannah Hoch may seem far removed from Hemingway's cross-racial impersonator or from Vachel Lindsay exploiting purportedly black rhythms to recite his popular poem "The Congo" (1914) or from the reincarnation of the dead, white Patrick Swayze in the living, black body of Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Ghost (1990); however, the shifty iconography of racechange has enabled artists working in diverse media and with quite different purposes to traverse racial boundaries and question racial presuppositions. The "trick" of racial metamorphosis participates in the illicit, the liminal, the transgressive, the outre, the comic, or the camp. Not simply mimetic, racechange is an extravagant aesthetic construction that functions self-reflexively to comment on representation in general, racial representation in particular. To the extent that racechange engages issues of representation, it illuminates the power issues at stake in the representation of race.

In the chapters to come, the permutations of racechange provide a means to measure altering societal attitudes toward race and representation. Of course racial crossover and ventriloquism have long been recognized in music, especially in the history of popular music. One thinks immediately of what Andrew Ross calls "miscegenated" musical productions generated by the interaction of white performers and African-American traditions—Benny Goodman's swing, Elvis Presley's rock 'n' roll, or Vanilla Ice's rap—as well as those created by black artists (say, Charley Pride and Living Color) whose productions "don't sound" black to an astute listener like Marlon T. Riggs, who is led to ask, "What is the marker of blackness in our pop culture?" (Ross, 68; Riggs, 104). Julie Dash's movie Illusions (1983) emphasizes the cross-racial dynamics at work in the music industry by presenting a behind-the-scenes view of a black singer's voice dubbed onto footage of a white, lip-synching actress. But what about the other, earlier aesthetic forms racechange often took? More specifically, how did the legacy of slavery and discrimination in the history of the United States shape the patterns racechange acquired among Man Ray's and Hannah Hoch's American contemporaries?

The pages that follow spotlight white actors sporting burnt cork in pioneering twentieth-century films; black artists investigating the origins of color in literature and the visual arts; white poets exploiting black vernacular to speak as if from an African-American subjectivity, as well as white patrons representing themselves through the language of the Harlem Renaissance writers they supported; white journalists blackening their faces in political pranks; and novelists, essayists, and painters envisioning sexually deviant whites as queerly colored or imagining parents of one race giving birth to babies who look like they belong to another. These are the phenomena I will use to identify the centrality of racechange in twentieth-century literature and art. As in the Tarquinian vase, the Man Ray photographs, and the Hannah Hoch photomontages, racechanging imagery deploys sexual iconography to create a host of provocative connections and tensions between conceptions of race and those of gender. In any case, however, such figures are hardly the ones that first come to mind when the subject of racial impersonation is addressed.

On the one hand, the most notorious and arguably the most influential instance of racechange—one that still remains taboo because of its overt racism—appeared on the nineteenth-century minstrel stage, where white actors ridiculed African Americans. On the other hand, the most morally acceptable representation of racechange—indeed, the only one that has received extensive attention from literary scholars—surfaced in so-called "passing" novels, in which African-American characters masqueraded as white so as to assimilate into mainstream culture. I begin with such black figures transforming themselves into whites because, as the writers to be discussed in this chapter demonstrate, this type of racechange functions as the crucial subscript of a supremacist society. Even before the passing novels of the Harlem Renaissance, black-to-white racechange played a decisive role in American culture. That we sympathize with light-skinned blacks passing as white to gain their rights and responsibilities and that we revile white people masquerading as black to mock African-American culture: This asymmetry clearly speaks to the devaluation of blackness, the overprivileging of whiteness in European and American culture.

Yet regardless of which race engages in the charade and with what motive, twentieth-century performances of racechange depend on the two factors this introduction seeks to establish: first, the ways in which a culture that systematically devalues blackness and establishes whiteness as the norm effectively endorses, even enforces, black-to-white racechange; second, that historically such racial metamorphoses nevertheless (and paradoxically) constituted a crucial tactic used by civil libertarian activists and artists as a means of disentangling the category of race from skin color. In a society that teaches "If you're white, you're right" but "if you're black, get back," adventures in the skin trade often involve politically progressive blacks and whites trading places: blacks to gain the privileges of whites, whites to dramatize the privations of blacks, and both to unmask the arbitrariness of the system that accords those privileges. What, then, of the modernist ambiguities Man Ray and Hannah Hoch achieved in photomontages which recapture the teasing equivocations of the Janiform urn? What, too, of the label of prejudice that has firmly (and rightly) attached itself in contemporary times to minstrelsy?

Although racism necessarily influences American thinking about racechange, just as it has contaminated the reputation of racechange, we will see the ways in which even—and perhaps especially—in the context of racism, racial impersonation can operate as a saving strategy, one that enabled African Americans' survival and fueled their satire. Indeed, this chapter attempts to demonstrate that artists from Claude McKay to Adrienne Kennedy depict African-American characters effectively instructed by American society that they will be inducted into it as full citizens with complete personhood only if (in the words of George Schuyler's title) they manage to be "black no more." In addition, writers from Charles Chesnutt to Virginia Woolf suggest that whites can understand the effect of this lesson on African Americans only if they temporarily become "black like me" (to adopt the phrase John Howard Griffin borrowed from Langston Hughes to entitle a bestseller about Griffin's venture across the color line). This liberal traffic across the color line makes us appreciate why and how throughout the twentieth century white impersonations of blackness functioned paradoxically both as a deeply conservative (even racist) as well as a shockingly radical (sometimes anarchic) mode of cultural production, one that has played a complicated role in film, fiction, poetry, painting, and photography.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Adventures in the Skin Trade 3
2 Spirit-Murder at the Movies: Blackface Lynchings 53
3 Making White, Becoming Black: Myths of Racial Origin in the Harlem Renaissance 95
4 De Modern Do Mr. Bones and All That Ventriloquist Jazz 134
5 Psychopathologies of Black Envy: Queer Colors 169
6 What Will the Mixed Child Deliver? Conceiving Color Without Race 203
7 The Edible Complex: A Postscript 240
Notes 263
Works Cited 293
Index 313
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