I. Project Statement:
In Contested Identities, I chart the path of the legal and literary discourses on racial identity, codified by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and culturally ascendant in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, a group of American writers produced fiction that implicitly challenged this legal and cultural discourse. My project explores the literary productions of Charles W. Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, and William Faulkner—three writers who undermine, question, and critique the legal and social practices that seek to define and contain individual identities in binary terms. Specifically, in Contested Identities I explore why Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner create characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable, and why they intentionally position these figures in relation to the law.
The characters this study treats are not essentially “black” individuals who pass for “white;” they are racially indeterminate characters who are reductively defined as “black” by representatives of law and through narrative representations of the legal discourse on race. My project specifically examines the ways these writers integrate seminal court cases, represent legal figures (including lawyers, judges, sheriff and police), and dramatize the absorption of the legal discourses on race into social practices. The law ignores, conceals, and simplifies the gaps in knowledge that are inherent in a structure that defines identity by criteria as esoteric as “drops of blood.” Racial indeterminacy is rendered invisible by formal legal discourse; Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner explore and exploit indeterminacy in their novels by charting the lives of individuals whose identities are un-reconciled and un-reconcilable in legal and cultural discourses. In doing so, they each expose the rhetorical boundaries of law, boundaries that are designed to eliminate ambiguity in order to establish authority.
Critics tend to simplify representations of racial indeterminacy by conflating it with mixture, and by reducing mixture to “blackness.” There are two problems with this approach: first, to conflate indeterminacy with mixture is to implicitly assume that racial identity is a knowable and unchanging entity; relatedly, to define “mixture” as synonymous with “blackness” implicitly affirms a one-drop conception of racial identity. By foregrounding mixture at the expense of indeterminacy, critics recognize the “blackness” they already expect to see. In their efforts to make racial identity understandable in their own binary terms, they replace textual ambiguity with a meaning of their own creation.
In Contested Identities, I push the critical conversation beyond these limitations by underscoring the uses of indeterminacy, which I argue enables these writers to undermine the “one-drop” conceptions that dominated the discourse on race in early twentieth century America. My approach combines methodologies from literary and cultural studies, law, and racial formation and critical race theories to explore the ways in which Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner purposefully withhold the very information that makes definitive racial identification possible in law and society.
At the center of each text, there remains a void where racial information might be clearly articulated, defined, or corroborated, but isn’t. This enables Chesnutt, Larsen, and Faulkner to underscore an unresolved tension between what must be true and what cannot be known, a dynamic which throws into relief the maddening complexity of human experience in opposition to cut-and-dry legal and popular definitions of “race,” which operate under the assumption that blood proportions are easily known, and that specific blood proportions determine identity. I argue that it is racial indeterminacy that animates these writers’ explorations of identity, and that it is the fundamental theme that binds these characters and texts together.
II. Chapter Synopses:
Chapter 1 shows how Chesnutt, in the wake of the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, exposes the flaws inherent in a structure that defines individuals by appearance, ancestry, and supposed “drops of black blood.” In The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1921), and The Quarry (1928), Chesnutt exposes the gaps in logic between different (and disparate) racial identity laws, which he shows vary immensely from state to state and over time. In this way, he highlights the conflicting nature of racial identity legislation and dramatizes the identity conflicts that the American legal system engenders. By showing how ancestry and identity are legally synonymous but logically conflicting, Chesnutt reveals “race” to be not a definitively known or knowable quality, but instead an entity that is legally constructed and socially maintained.
Building on this instability of racial identification laws, Chapter 2 explores the connections between a sensational court case and a novel, both of which throw into relief fundamental questions about racial identity. I chart here the lives of two women, one historical and one fictional: Alice Jones Rhinelander, plaintiff of the sensational Rhinelander v. Rhinelander annulment suit (1925), and Clare Kendry of Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing (1929). Both women refuse to square their internal identities with the external forces that seek to define and stabilize them. In Passing, Larsen undermines the defining power of “blood,” revealing other aspects of racial identity that are just as salient. Taken together, the Rhinelander case and Passing show “race” to be at once a deeply personal and emotional sense of affiliation, and an external process of definition via the perceptions and understandings of others.
Chesnutt and Larsen show us that even when racial ancestry is traceable, it isn’t necessarily definable. In Chapter 3, I explore how legal discourse intersects with racial identity in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). I begin by demonstrating the ways that law and racial identity come together for two crucial racially ambiguous figures, Joe Christmas in Light in August and Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!. Much Faulkner criticism is devoted to either race or law; I extend the conversation by reading each in light of the other. Faulkner deliberately withholds information that might legally define Joe’s or Bon’s racial identity, and this withholding is significant in the context of the legal discourse on racial identity: in both texts, it is legal figures (lawyers, judges, marshals, and a national guardsman) who racially define each man for their communities. In both novels, the law can only imperfectly cover over each man’s racial ambiguity, an ambiguity that his community and family see as threatening to the racial order. Once they are defined in this way, neither man survives. Joe and Bon are not simply expelled from society, they are violently murdered.
Chapters 1-3 are focused upon a primary set of racially indeterminate characters whose physical bodies, ambiguous ancestries, social relationships and lived experiences implicitly challenge the racial hierarchy upon which early twentieth century America had come to be based. For these characters, racial definition precipitates death, suggesting that it is impossible to forge and embrace a viable identity outside of the confines of the binary racial structure. In Chapter 4, I explore a secondary set of marginal characters, a younger generation of individuals whose experiences point towards new possibilities. These are the children of our primary characters: Charles Bon’s grandson Jim Bond of Absalom, Absalom!, Clare’s daughter Margery of Passing, John Warwick’s baby Albert of The House Behind the Cedars, and the nameless babies of Light In August and Go Down, Moses. Unlike their predecessors, these characters are able to define themselves subjectively and contextually. For this second generation, ambiguity, indeterminacy, and anonymity provide the freedom of self-definition. Like their predecessors, these characters do not possess knowledge of their racial ancestry, but their identities are not fundamentally defined by their ambiguity, and their lives are not destroyed by it.
American writers were well aware of the legal aspects of “race,” and although many of the relevant statutes and cases have been largely forgotten today, they were central to the common discourse on race in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, the discourse on race developed a kind of “common sense” logic that enabled both law and society to cover over and ignore the gaps and weaknesses in the racial binary structure, to purposefully assimilate racial indeterminacies that undermine the structure, and to eliminate individuals who do not or cannot define themselves in accordance with the structure. It is this “common sense” discourse, explicitly codified in law and implicitly accepted in society, which Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen and William Faulkner challenge in their novels.
To be sure, America was never exclusively composed of individuals who are either black or white. Nevertheless, in the early decades of the twentieth century, American law, literature, and national structure were configured by this limited construction. In spite of the country’s mixed and multi-racial history, and in the face of massive waves of immigration from Europe, Asia, and Africa, the black-white binary gained legitimacy and ascendancy in both legal and cultural discourse. One of the questions my project seeks to answer is why this binary existed, and what kept it culturally salient despite the country’s racial and ethnic heterogeneity.
The black-white racial binary has been powerfully resonant throughout the country’s history, and it persists into this day. The twinned and subconscious rhetorical moves to conflate ambiguity with mixture, and to reduce mixture to “blackness,” continue to shape literary scholarship on racial identity. My project seeks to remedy these conflations and erasures in the critical conversation.