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Publications Book Reviews
Mar Gallego, Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance: Identity Politics and Textual Strategies

Mar Gallego, Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance: Identity Politics and Textual Strategies (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2003).

This study attempts to shed light on the phenomenon of "passing" in connection to five novels of the Harlem Renaissance. The author, Mar Gallego, clearly states that the theoretical tools she employs are W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of double consciousness, Bakhtin's theory of the dialogic and black feminist criticism. The novels chosen for this discussion are James Weldon's Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, George Schuyler's Black No More, Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Passing, and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun. The layout of the book consists of five chapters with a short introduction and a conclusion.

The introduction provides the reader with a very general and concise overview of the work. In the first chapter the author sets up the theoretical framework of the book and begins by elaborating on Du Bois's notion of double-consciousness and exploring the ways in which it can be approached as a parody of the dominant value system. Moreover, she explains how double consciousness is connected to Bakhtin's theory of the dialogic. Duboisian and feminist discourse are joined in the notion of "divided identity" -- a term coined by Mary Helen Washington which refers to a survival strategy adopted by women who understand the two opposing definitions of their sense of self: one imposed by the male world and one by their own. In the last section of the chapter there are references to current feminist readings that illustrate the multiplicity of the texts written by the women writers included in the study.

In Chapter Two the author examines The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson as a precursor to the passing novels of the twenties and a model for depicting the mulatto condition. She asserts that the novel maintains a connection with two already established modes in the African American canon: a) the autobiographical tendency of the slave narratives, and b) the exploitation of the popular "tragic mulatto" figure. In order to better illustrate the autobiographical elements in Johnson's work, she introduces two other African American texts in the discussion, The Life of Olaudah Equiano and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. All three texts share the marginality of the narrator, the narrator's control over the narrative, and the influence of the sentimental tradition together with those of the adventure novel and the picaresque mode. Also, Gallego establishes the relation of Johnson's work to Du Bois's notion of double consciousness as expressed in the metaphor of the veil; nevertheless, according to Johnson's view, only one identity can prevail in the end, and that is the white one as the resolution of the novel shows. He regards the idea of double consciousness in the same individual as impracticable. Despite references to a bi-cultural paradigm, Johnson's protagonist must choose one of two possible alternatives in the end because of the existence of racial and social pressure towards homogenization. Johnson is also greatly influenced by Du Bois when he stresses the significance of the "talented tenth" in the uplifting of the African American community. In addition to analyzing the consequences of passing in Johnson's novel, the author also examines the relations between the two races and the motivation of the narrator behind the choice of one race.

The third chapter deals with the controversial writer George Schuyler whose novel Black No More takes as its premise the progressive disappearance of the African American community and the consequences this disappearance could cause in American society. Schuyler combines the genres of satire, science fiction, and a parody of the passing novel in order to expose the racist convictions of the white community and to criticize the hypocrisy of the African American community which tends to favor an assimilationist attitude. He deconstructs the two major myths that serve as important principles for the division of society in two layers: a) the biological myth which implies that physical differences correspond to others at a mental or behavioral level, b) the "negro dialect" myth which for a long time constituted a target for many white racists. In the final section of the novel Schuyler proposes a total rupture of the established order and promotes a new mulatto society based on the amalgamation of the races.

As the novel contains a double focus on morality and fantasy, it is also discussed as a dystopia, which is closely related to both satire and science fiction. Despite the estrangement device that characterizes dystopias, the reader is able to recognize the American society of the nineteen-twenties which Schuyler depicts in his work in order to subvert the racial and social code. The depiction of the process whereby African Americans are "whitened" combines the real and the absurd and creates an atmosphere of mystery and death similar to the one in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Moreover, the portrayal of African American leaders of the Harlem Renaissance as caricatures of ambiguous racial allegiance further emphasizes the element of satire.

The issue of miscegenation constitutes Schuyler's major argument against the racial segregation of American society. In his novel he depicts a mulatto society as ideal and questions the legitimacy of the discourse of passing. Through the use of subversion, he deconstructs the racist myths and illustrates that the concept of "race" is another social construction which supports the dominant ideology of his time. Gallego concludes that the novel represents the end of the passing motif, which declines after the Harlem Renaissance, and a turn towards understanding the values of the African American community in the decades to come.

In Chapter Four Gallego examines two novels by Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, in an effort to explore the controversial issues of sexuality and motherhood as experienced by African American women. The mulatta figure serves as a protagonist and an organizing figure and becomes a psychological embodiment of "double double consciousness" in her search for self-definition and self-expression. Larsen's novels follow the line of the reconstructionist romance, where the protagonists decide to leave their community of origin in search of new horizons in the white world. The mulatta heroines of both novels are haunted by racial ambivalence as they continuously fluctuate between two identities without truly belonging to either of them: they are "outsiders," advocating an in-between space that can include both of them. Larsen deconstructs each of the prevailing stereotypes, the prostitute/exotic woman and the lady/genteel middle-class woman while searching for self-definition and independence. She uses the genre of the sentimental novel so as to subvert the conventional image of women and revise it.

Gallego then focuses her discussion on the issue of motherhood in the two novels and observes that the idealization of marriage and motherhood is never evidenced as in the case of the sentimental novel. On the contrary, Larsen questions the limitations and constraints of both institutions in the lives of the protagonists which lead both of them to reject motherhood as forced upon them by social pressure. Larsen uses both conventions -- the "cult of true womanhood" and "genteel tradition"-- to critique the construction of African American motherhood and to explore the need for black women to create new forms of self-representation. In the end both heroines end up trapped by social rules that destroy them.

The author concludes the chapter claiming that Larsen foregrounds the affirmation of sexuality as an integral part of the everyday life experience of African American women in open contradiction with the prevailing contemporary preconceptions that regard it as anti-natural or anti-feminine; moreover, marriage and maternity are viewed as restrictive institutions that pose obstacles to the development of the heroines. It becomes clear that Larsen offers a valid, even though problematic, feminine vision as an alternative for the definition of African American womanhood.

In Chapter Five Gallego discusses Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun and claims that, in addition to the sentimental and passing traditions, the novel includes fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Fauset's work was criticized for its emphasis on the middle class and its naïve and romantic nature. Angela, the protagonist, wants to be a "permanent passer" not just "convenience or temporary." Fauset inverts the primitivist stereotype of amorality usually connected to African Americans; she also inverts the "blood theory" when she presents white blood, not black, as the element that causes the negative actions of the protagonist. The author also alludes to Fauset's short story "The Sleeper Wakes" which, as a precedent of the novel, is a first approach to the negative influence of fairy tales on the development of an African American woman and her frustrated relationships with the opposite sex because of racial stereotypes; Plum Bun contains a more profound analysis of race and gender factors and their interaction. The importance of appearance, the longing for riches, and the wish for happiness are the three central premises that dominate both heroines' lives.

Yet, the subversive intention is evident in Fauset's treatment of her heroines since she denies any valid application of the fairy tale parameters to her protagonists' lives: because they are mulattas, they do not suit the ideal female model of fairy tales. Moreover, the employment of the nursery rhyme emphasizes the discrepancy between its idealized content and the real world: due to race and gender considerations it is impossible for the mulatta heroine to attain the gratification suggested by the rhyme.

Gallego asserts that Fauset in the end offers the alternative of the independent woman, the woman who is led to self-empowerment and is neither the loving wife and happy princess nor the fallen woman who is punished for challenging the established rules. The "plum bun" is no longer associated with marriage, but rather with the heroine's artistic work and personal freedom. By inverting the racist paradigm, according to which white values prevail over those of African Americans, Fauset celebrates the way of life of the African American community and denounces passing. The novel deconstructs conventional literary traditions and suggests new ways for interpreting African American women's identity and sexuality.

The brief epilogue recapitulates the tools of parody, double consciousness, double narratives and multiple generic covers that were employed by the four writers included in the study in order to deal with the complex issue of passing. In trying to respond to the question of why these writers tried to protect their critiques with multiple layers that concealed their subversive message, the author argues that it was the risky nature of the issues. Also, she records a renewed interest in passing novels in recent years after a period of a lack of publications on the topic: Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's work The Sweeter the Juice (1994) is an example of this rekindled interest as well as the reprinting of most of the works and the publication of new ones that deal with the passing motif.

Gallego organizes and presents her respective arguments and evidence with clarity and meticulousness. The book constitutes a valuable, well-documented, thought- provoking analysis and an important contribution to the trope of passing in the four writers discussed. By exploring the hybridity of these texts, the author emphasizes their critique of race and gender as imposed by the dominant culture and celebrates the African American identity. By elaborating on the critical tools that she uses for a better understanding of these novels, she provides the reader with a solid groundwork from which to embark on a more sophisticated discussion of themes and concepts. The footnotes and bibliography synthesize a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Certainly this book is a significant addition to African American Studies and the Harlem Renaissance.

Youli Theodosiadou
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

 

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