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Wayward reproductions Genealogies of race and nation in transatlantic modern thought
By Alys Eve Weinbaum
Duke University Press
Chapter One Genealogy Unbound: Reproduction and Contestation of the Racial Nation
Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression.-Friedrich Nietzsche The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.-Ernest Renan Forgetting, like miscegenation, is an opportunistic tactic of whiteness. -Joseph Roach
"Desiree's Baby," the turn-of-the-century story by the southern author Kate Chopin, revolves around a white-looking, fair-haired woman who is remorselessly disciplined for her alleged participation in the wrong kind of reproduction. The ironically named Desiree is a foundling taken in and raised by a childless Louisiana planter family. She grows up to be a Southern belle, and when she comes of age, she marries a neighboring plantation owner, who, although warned of her sketchy origins, throws caution to the wind. A blissful marriage ensues until Desiree and Armand's first child arrives. Initially regarded as a blessing and a suitable heir, it soon becomes apparent to everyone who lays eyes upon the infant, and then finally to Desiree, that her son is not "pure" white. Subsequently, Armand castsDesiree off for shaming and dishonoring his family name and decrees that Desiree is not herself white, as evidenced in her baby's complexion. Although Desiree's adopted mother begs her to return home, Desiree refuses, choosing instead to disappear with her child "among the reeds and willows that grow thick along the banks of the deep, sluggish bayou." The tragedy does not end with Desiree's disappearance and the specter of infanticide, however, but with a characteristic Chopinesque twist. As Armand burns Desiree's belongings he also destroys a fragment of a letter he has found at the back of one of her drawers. This letter, written in Armand's mother's hand, thanks "the good God for having so arranged [life] that [her] dear Armand will never know that his dear mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery" (176).
Recent critics have argued that this story testifies to the difficulty of constructing racial categories, and to the power of male prerogative-specifically white men's ability to demarcate racial boundaries in their own interest. The reading of "Desiree's Baby" offered here builds on this argument and suggests that the unstable racial formation that the story explores can also be read as a precarious national formation-for, as we shall see, Chopin's tale is as much about the difficulties of taxonomizing race as about the problems that beset nation-states that depend on racial classification in disciplining, organizing, and defining their populations as national. Indeed, the reproductive body at the center of Chopin's text also resides at the center of the discourse on the composition of the nation that the drama engages: Chopin represents race as reproducible, national belonging as maternally orchestrated, and the maternal body as the repository for imbricated racial and national identities. Although a cursory reading leaves readers assuming that Desiree is white and Armand a so-calledmulatto, a second reading confounds this glib (il)logic, revealing that both parents-the orphan woman (who can be read as a racial "wild card") and the biracial man-as well as their visibly mixed-race child are all equally implicated in an interrupted line of descent in which the possibility of racial "purity" is perpetually deferred. Ultimately, there are no white people in this text, whose deepest meaning pivots on recognition of the pretense that neither the "pure" racial origins of individuals nor those of nations can ever be discerned.
The vexed search for ontological certainty in which "Desiree's Baby" engages readers can also be read against the grain, as a genealogical quest for information about descent, whose failure allegorizes the difficulties of securing racial identity in a past that cannot be accurately known. Whenever a white self fabricates a coherent racial identity in Chopin's tale, it is always already a ruse, since racial "purity" emerges as a genealogical impossibility. In depicting the problematic nature of genealogical inheritance as one made visible on the surface of the body, Chopin's story defies readers who would label it "racist" or racially prescriptive in any simple sense; for the faint traces and hints of color that are readily discerned in Desiree's infant's complexion liberate an infinite profusion of lost events that reveal the constructedness of the notion of racial belonging, rather than the solidity of regimes of racial ascription or the security of genealogical guarantees.
Armand and Desiree have each fabricated coherent selves (they believe themselves white), but in Chopin's narrative all selves are products of interracial reproduction. Miscegenation is the over-determined origin that is finessed by all projections of subjective coherence that are grounded in the idea of a "pure" or knowable origin or ancestor. The white subject's ontological certitude conceals nothing less than the pervasive history of racial mixing in the United States. And even though this revelation does not mitigate the story's complicity in feeding racist anxiety about interracial sex, it does suggest that the idea of genealogy can be deconstructed such that race becomes an ambiguous category, and the racially "pure" nation a ruse.
I begin this methodological chapter with a reading of Chopin's allegory about racialized reproduction and racial nationalism for two reasons. First, this story concisely assembles the major themes that are treated by this book. These include the demarcation of racial categories and the gendered and sexed power relationships that underpin regimes of racial ascription; the centrality of notions of genealogical inheritance to the construction of racial and national identities; the differential power of mothers and fathers-reproductive vessels and inseminators-in shaping notions of first racial and then national belonging; the politics of the figuration of the maternal body as either a repository of racial identity or a racializing force; the dependence of modern nationalism and notions of national belonging on the idea that race is something that can be reproduced; and, finally, the centrality of the conceptual pair-what I have previously referred to as the race/reproduction bind-to those modern thought systems developed in the context of transatlantic racial nationalism as either contestations or critiques of its logic. "Desiree's Baby," like the range of texts treated in subsequent chapters, binds race and reproduction so tightly to each other that the figuration of the racializedmaternal body comes to index the mechanism and meaning of the color line that characterizes and simultaneously contours the nation in which that body resides.
The second reason this chapter opens with Chopin's allegory is that the story can be read against the grain, to theorize the methodology or reading strategy I mobilize throughout this book to expose and cut through the race/reproduction bind that subtends the various texts I treat. In other words, in Chopin's tale genealogy is simultaneously an object of analysis, a concept to be explored, and an active principal that allows for critical engagement with the racial and reproductive logic of the text. Consequently the reading of "Desiree's Baby" offered here is self-reflexive and double-edged: it exposes genealogy as a raced and reproductive object, and it transforms genealogy into a critical theoretical tool that can be used to contest the same biological "truths" that conventional notions of genealogy claim to trace, identify, and sanction.
When Chopin wrote "Desiree's Baby" the instability of purportedly white and black bodies as visual markers of inclusion within, or exclusion from, the newly unified nation had particular resonance. In the 1890s, as racial violence and legal wrangling over questions of race and citizenship engulfed the newly reunited states, Chopin's antebellum drama implicitly joined popular discussions, particularly those about the legal system's dilemma over how to classify and treat freedmen and freedwomen in the wake of the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction. Although miscegenation statutes date back to the 1660s, instructively the focus of jurisprudence on miscegenation was most intense in the aftermath of the Civil War. In fact, Chopin's story comes on the heels of some of the period's watershed Supreme Court decisions regarding miscegenation. In 1883 Pace v. Alabama upheld a ruling that favored punishment for interracial sex, justifying this verdict by arguing that it punished blacks and whites equally. In turn, Pace was one of several cases that served as precedents for the "separate but equal" rhetoric that informed Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In this sense Chopin's story anticipates the Supreme Court's ruling in Plessy, in which the nation's highest court upheld the constitutionality of separate treatment of black and white citizens by defining blackness in terms of "one drop of black blood" and then effectively transforming dual constitutional citizenship into dual racial citizenship based on this "fact."
I situate "Desiree's Baby" in relation to the legal debates by which it was surrounded, to draw attention to the special temporality of fictions that meditate upon the intersection of race, reproduction, and nation. Set during slavery but written shortly after its end, Chopin's story negotiates a legally sanctioned political shift in the relationship between nation and miscegenation from the antebellum to the postbellum period. By reflecting and refracting its moment of production Chopin shows readers the process by which historical continuities between a mythologized past and projected future are imagined. In "Desiree's Baby" Chopin casts the racial formation of the nation as continuously white and as reproducible as such.
In his classic account of the 1880s and 1890s, the southern historian C. Van Woodward argues that during the period of reconciliation between North and South, the national literature was Southern and Confederate in sympathy; the image of the South often combined the New South with the Old: "along with the glittering vision of a 'metropolitan' and industrial South to come developed a cult of archaism, a nostalgic vision of the past. One of the significant inventions of the New South was the 'Old South.'" Woodward insightfully includes Chopin among those authors responsible for the southern literary revival that recuperated and celebrated the Old South and its aristocratic ways. He is at the same time critical of Chopin and other revival authors for failing to offer "a realistic portrayal of their own times."
It is certainly evident that Chopin's writings, which were primarily patronized by northern literary establishments and readers, provided a local view of the South that made it assimilable within an emergent national logic insistent on southern absorption. It is also possible to build on Woodward's historical work by interpreting Chopin's glance backward as a pointed commentary on her present. From this perspective her text emerges less as a poor reflection or myopic mystification of its moment of production than as a literary narrative directly involved in the complex staging of desire. In mingling a vision of the antebellum South with her postbellum present, Chopin performs a historical straddling act in which an immemorial past mingles freely with a mythologized present and is then projected into a limitless future. In this way Chopin's story effectively, if never intentionally, reveals the violent and continuous construction of the United States as a white nation in the past, in the present, and in the projected future. In so doing Chopin's historically indeterminate tale highlights and then theorizes the special temporality of nationalisms founded on reproductive and racial thought.
In the 1850s, when "Desiree's Baby" is set, legislation retained slave status for interracial children, ensuring that all children born to enslaved black women became slaves. In the 1890s this same legislation began to function differently. In the aftermath of the Civil War white southern property was assaulted: whites (including Chopin's family) lost their property, Confederate money became worthless, land values dropped, and land redistribution threatened. In other words, in the 1890s, although miscegenation law again stabilized the holdings of white property owners, this time rather than ensuring that a mother's blackness rendered her children salable (like her own body), the legal apparatus attended to the complicated task of investing white blood with value-rendering whiteness a rare inalienable commodity-and then arresting its circulation in the body politic. As legal scholar Cheryl Harris observes, "The concept of whiteness was carefully protected because so much was contingent upon it. Whiteness conferred on its owners aspects of citizenship that were all the more valued because they were denied to others."
The upshot of the broad legal and social valuation of whiteness in which Chopin's work participated was that so-called white people were compensated for their losses with a new form of personal property. As Eva Saks explains in an important article on miscegenation law, jurisprudence restricting interracial sex and marriage always represents social practices as biological essences. In unwittingly exposing the gap between social and legal definitions of race and property, "the miscegenous body" that is the object of miscegenation law comes to stand "for the threatening clash and conjunction of difference: of black and white, of owner and owned ... of legal and social forms of representation itself." Extending this line of argument, Harris traces the transvaluation of whiteness from skin color and/or blood to what she calls "status property." Whiteness, she notes, "shares the critical characteristics of property even as the meaning of property has changed over time. In particular, whiteness and property share a common premise-a conceptual nucleus-of a right to exclude." In the Reconstruction and immediate post-Reconstruction period, Harris concludes, "white identity became the basis of racialized privilege that was ratified and legitimated in law as a type of status property."
Harris's and Saks's work has profound implications for the theorization of U.S. racial nationalism and is amply backed by the work of historians of whiteness such as Matthew Frye Jacobson and David Roediger. Together these scholars show us that whiteness, a concept initially used to differentiate the citizen from the slave, became the basis of racial citizenship, such that ownership of personal whiteness enabled one to claim membership in the white nation. Where a white person's ownership of property in the form of land, animals, and slaves had been the criterion used to differentiate those entitled to the benefits of citizenship from those denied such benefits, after the Civil War, as blacks entered the national population as citizens, property instead came to reside in the body in the form of whiteness. In the period in which Chopin wrote, whiteness was no longer simply a matter of reputation but something that had retreated further out of reach through its legal consolidation, such that whiteness understood as inalienable "status property" worked as a principal of exclusion of new black nationals from the full entitlements that were their right as a consequence of their recent enfranchisement.
Excerpted from Wayward reproductions by Alys Eve Weinbaum Excerpted by permission.
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