The Delicacy of Racial Appearance: Blackness and Whiteness in Afromodernism and Post-Black

Much more than a game, the act of passing for white or black involves a dedicated and detailed performance that relies on more than just looks alone.

Much more than a game, the act of passing for white or black involves a dedicated and detailed performance that relies on more than just looks alone.

As demonstrated in The Cotillion and Caucasia, the performances of blackness and whiteness are constructed and rigid enough to be emulated and acted out by a person not included in the actual culture from which the identity was formed.  The extent of that performance is dependent on location, appearance, and circumstance.

(c) Corbis Images, 2013  When did pretending stop being okay and start being something you could only do in the privacy of your bathroom mirror?

(c) Corbis Images, 2013
When did pretending stop being okay and start being something you could only do in the privacy of your bathroom mirror?

The idea of passing as something you’re not is a widely known concept. Games of make-believe compose a huge part of childhood play. Children frequently pretend to be something they aspire to be, such as a movie star, a superhero, or even an older relative or friend that they look up to. It’s not unusual that this concept of playing a role carries into adolescence and adulthood, especially when it becomes a part of improving one’s standing in society. However, the connotation of pretending as an adult becomes decidedly more negative as we age. Pretending transitions to dishonesty and lying. One does not pretend that they’re something they’re not on their resume, they lie about it.

What is the cost of pretending to be someone you are not? The phenomenon of racial passing is a part of our nation’s history, especially during the Jim Crow era when blacks faced severe discrimination and prejudice. Because of this, the concept of racial passing is inherently racist simply because it originated from the “one drop rule” which dictates that a person with an insignificant percentage of black ancestry is black, no matter how great of a percentage of their heritage is white or how white they appear (Khanna, 381). This definition of passing contains notes of deception and falsity and an overall negative connotation; those that are discovered to be passing face the possibility of tremendous consequences. Today, those consequences have diminished but it is difficult to say to what extent. Due to passing being an act of discretion, the overall instances where a person passes as monoracial instead of multiracial is nearly impossible to count.

This 1960 film I Passed for White demonstrates the potential consequences of passing.

How does passing relate to the performance of a racial identity? Those individuals that attempt and/or are successful at passing are in the act of performing the role that is dictated by blackness or whiteness. It is arguable that these roles are the constructs of racial identity which is developed through social interactions among members of the same race and the perception of racial groups by outsiders and insiders. Racial identity is also determined by individuals answering the essential question, “Who am I?” A person’s response to identifying their essential identity can provide better insight into how a person categorizes him or herself racially. More importantly, however, is the social construct of racial identity that is forced upon an individual. While someone may essentially categorize himself or herself as biracial or multiracial, society often attempts to force him or her into the white/black binary. This is problematic, as it relies more on appearance than on actual factors of culture and race.

What is blackness? This is a highly disputed question, much like its pair, “What is whiteness?” There is no cut and dry answer, though there are some qualities that can be generally applied to each term. Blackness at its core is having “black” skin that deviates from white normality. This sets up a new set of characteristics of blackness that are furthered by societal situations. In America – where binaries are constantly promoted by the society, the government, and the economy – having black skin can mean lacking the prerequisite for power in the economical process of production, investment, and politics. Blackness lacks an innate social mobility and the voice with which to protest such outrageous disadvantage. Of course this is not the case with any person who identifies as black, but especially in the case of the two novels The Cotillion and Caucasia, this definition of blackness is reinforced, particularly in Caucasia.

Black women have an even more difficult definition of blackness, as is described in Haryette Mullen’s article “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness”: “The black woman remains in last place within the color/economic hierarchy, her disadvantaged status reinforcing the already existing prejudice against her. She is always the fly in the buttermilk, imagined as the least likely candidate for cultural assimilation” (73). Black women are the farthest members of society from the privileges of being white and being male. Not only do they have racist forces working against them, but they are also impacted by sexism. White males in the times of slavery gained their power by controlling the labor of black men and the breeding and reproduction of women, both white and black.

White power stems from the oppression of blacks and females. Being white is having the ability to function without the limitation of a racial identity. Cue the introduction of the mulatto and the performance of whiteness by a person who would fit the nonwhite binary and thus disproves the stalwart boundaries of race. The act of reproducing the whiteness destroys racial boundaries while also simultaneously fostering the oppression of the black race. Passing assumes that a person would rather be white than black if given the chance, though it is hard to separate whiteness from the privileges and opportunities that come with it (Mullen, 75). This seems to be the case in Caucasia, which details the passing experience of a young girl named Birdie Lee. Birdie is forced to flee with her white mother to escape the FBI and is separated from her black father and her sister Cole, who is darker skinned than Birdie.

What is most interesting about the passing experience in Caucasia is the inability of Birdie to escape her blackness. While she successfully convinces the whites in New Hampshire that she is a white Jew named Jesse Goldman, Birdie holds onto her essential black self and the black family members she left when she fled Boston. She keeps a box of “negrobilia” with tokens and trinkets of her former identity. As time progresses, Birdie continually sorts through her items, taking the time to touch and caress all of the symbols of her black experience; “[I] sifted through my shoe box of negrobilia, staring at the same old dusty objects, fingering the same old plastic pick, the same old Egyptian necklace that was tarnished and needed polishing” (Senna, 272).

Birdie also struggles to assimilate in musical tastes. She attempts to enjoy the music of her white peers in New Hampshire, but prefers the music from her life in Boston, such as Earth, Wind & Fire: “I had never quite gotten used to the music, or the fact that people didn’t dance…sometimes I would try to move my body to some Pat Benatar song, or a Rolling Stones classic, and the kids would watch me and laugh nervously, saying, “She must think this is a disco” (Senna, 260). In the end, Birdie had fooled the white people, but not herself or the only other black girl in her town. On her last night in New Hampshire, Samantha reveals that she knows Birdie’s secret. When asked what color she is, Samantha responds: “I’m black. Like you.” Birdie realizes that she can’t escape her blackness and returns to Boston seeking the company of her father’s sister and determined to find her father and sister.

John Oliver Killens’s novel The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd has a different scenario of the performance of blackness and whiteness. Yoruba lives in a different world from Birdie, and in Yoruba’s world black is the epitome of coolness. There are still those individuals that attempt to infiltrate and produce whiteness despite their nonwhite heritage, but the trend in Brooklyn is that of the Afro-modern and Black Arts Movements; Black is beautiful and should instill pride, not despair. “Some in-a-hurry free-wheeling freely enterprising cats of Harlem, in the spirit of Black Power, had opened up a Boutique-Afrique selling nylon Afro wigs, rabbit feet, blackening powders and blackening creams…Talismans and amulets, voodoo essence, mojo mumblings, incense and God-and-or-Allah knows what else” (Killens, 67). Yoruba acknowledges that this is not “the real world” but it certainly turns the race relations race “topsy-turvy compared to what it used to be” (Killens, 66).

Yoruba becomes ablackcopy-button-blackisbeautiful-lg part of the modern black movement, despite her enrollment in the white-run Cotillion that has accepted, for the first time, Brooklyn’s elite blacks. Through her relationship with Lumumba, she begins to see her blackness as beautiful. At one point, she stands before a mirror naked, taking inventory of her body and concluding, “I am Black and beautiful, O you daughters of Aunt Hagar…Inside, outside, frontside, backside, I am black and beautiful” (Killens, 144). Her resolution that black is beautiful culminates in her cutting off her hair for the Cotillion debut and showing up to the event with a short, afro-esque hair style dressed in an African garment given to her by Lumumba. Along with the other Brooklyn debutantes, Yoruba and Lumumba break out from under the oppressive rules of the white cotillion and make it a cotillion of black pride, convincing even Lady Daphne that whiteness is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course these two scenarios of the performance of blackness and whiteness differ so greatly because of different variable at play, namely location, appearance, and circumstance. With these factors at play, Birdie and Yoruba found themselves in completely different situations struggling over the production of race and which side of the binary to choose. Perhaps what links Birdie and Yoruba is the ultimate fact that the choice was not really theirs, but an essential inner self intertwined with influences from the outside.

The setting of a performance of race takes place is crucial to the end-result of the situation. New Hampshire was a sterile, white environment; Birdie was the only black person she knew of until Samantha entered the plot of the novel, and Birdie was passing as white the entire time, adding to the overall whiteness of the setting. The whiteness of New Hampshire is different from the whiteness in The Cotillion. It is distinctly middle class, with a focus on the average, if not lower-end, white Americans. This environment stifles Birdie’s blackness and creates the necessity for her to pass as Jesse. Yoruba’s environment is much more stimulating to her blackness. The whiteness of Brooklyn is nearly non-existent. Whites are described as sporting Afros and dating black men. The white women of the cotillion are stodgy, upper-class and have little influence on the black power that is radiating from the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn.

The appearance of Birdie and Yoruba is another area where the two stories diverge. Whereas Birdie is described as light-skinned and having smooth, straight hair, Yoruba is frequently described as a sort of Nubian Queen or African Goddess; “Pure, beautiful, untampered-by-the-white-man Yoruba, as if she’d just got off the boat from Yoruba land in the western region of the then Nigeria” (Killens, 1). Yoruba’s chance of passing for white is slim to none. She inherited her father’s dark skin and possessed the qualities of a beautiful black woman. Birdie, on the other hand, did not fit with the black community or the white community. She felt she belonged with the black community, though she struggled because she did not have the phenotypically black traits. Birdie was more easily able to pass as white; it was the day-to-day performance of a whiteness she did not essentially possess that troubled her most.

Circumstance is the wild-card in Yoruba’s and Birdie’s stories of their performance of blackness and whiteness, respectively. Yoruba happened to have a supportive romantic partner in Lumumba who was heavily involved in the Black Arts movement and who could find beauty in blackness. Birdie only had her mother, who was white and was convinced that they were fleeing from the FBI and therefore forced to assume alternative identities. As soon as Samantha reveal to Birdie that her secret was not as hidden as she had thought, Birdie had reason to give up  the performance and revert to her more true self. The charade was over for Birdie and once she had accepted her blackness, a blackness that tied her to her family despite her light complexion, she had the compulsion to find her father and sister and begin a life of her own.

Beauty comes in many different shades.

Beauty comes in many different shades.

The performance of blackness and whiteness varies on an individual basis and is reliant on several factors of both personal and societal influence. As time progressed from Afro-modernism to the Post Black/Post Soul era, so did the definition of racial identity. No longer was there a set identity of race. Post Blackness called for the scrutiny and interrogation of the black identity as well as the white identity (Taylor, 625). The identity of race is constantly shifting, and the need for questioning identity persists today. It is difficult to say where racial identity stands, as often times society is only aware of trends in blackness and whiteness in retrospect. To some degree, it is safe to say that the biracial and multiracial are more widely accepted and supported, though the binary of black vs. white is still promoted, even in modern times. Time will tell if this binary ever fades.

 

 

 

 

 

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