Midterm Paper

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Midterm Assignment for my Intro to African American Studies Course (Winter 2010)

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Midterm Paper

  1. 1. Passing for White: A Critical Examination of its Influence in Iola Leroy and The Souls of Black Folk<br />By: Terrance Scotton<br />African American Studies 236-1<br />Professor Michelle Wright<br />January 28, 2010<br />“Well, Captain, when a man’s been colored all his life it comes a little hard for him to get white all at once. Were I to try it, I would feel like a cat in a strange garret…You do not need me in your ranks, and my company does…They have been so long taught that they are nothing and nobody, that they seem glad to prove they are something and somebody” (Harper 43-44).<br />Iola Leroy was once hailed as the first piece of distinguished African American literature until proven otherwise by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It presents readers with two, critical elements amongst several others: a lucid, predictable plot and sociopolitical/philosophical analyses of the correlation between skin color and social hierarchy, or in simpler terms, what a person from a specific race is entitled to. Iola Leroy does an adequate job of introducing the ‘race problem’; nevertheless, its entire argument as a novel is weakened because the author laces many contradictions throughout the text. In order to properly examine the conception of ‘passing for White,’ I will look at how the texts Iola Leroy and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk individually construct this idea. Some of the vital questions applicable to the situation include, “Do they construct passing in the same way?” and “Based on their arguments, are they seriously fighting for freedom from racist restrictions?”<br />Frances Harper’s novel tackles one of the longstanding social constructions in African American history: the tragic mulatto. It is a prevalent theme in other famous works like Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown, Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, and House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chestnutt. The stereotype is that the interbreeding (usually rape) between White males and Black female slaves resulted in children who were inevitably destined to walk the line between Black and White cultures, and yet demarcated from both. The ‘tragic’ in tragic mulatto references the ability to ‘pass for White.’ As evidenced by Iola Leroy, depending on the paleness of a mulatto’s skin—which can be engendered by simple biological coincidence or having more White ancestors than Black in one’s lineage—he or she can pass society’s clear-cut judgement of a person’s race based strictly on skin color. For instance, when Thomas Anderson first tells Robert Johnson about the woman he is enamored with, he describes her as “…putty. Beautiful long hair comes way down her back; putty blue eyes, an’ jis’ ez white ez anybody’s in dis place” (38). Thus, if Iola Leroy was not under the cruel ownership of Marse Tom, therefore making her slave status undeniable, Tom would have most likely believed her to be a White woman. However, Harper makes a detrimental contradiction by failing to challenge the rampant, 19th century social construction/norm that White is beautiful. One could argue that Tom’s comments are just the ardent confessions of a lover; nevertheless, Harper reinforces the contrary idea since she has similar remarks about the glory of Whiteness throughout the text (“Johnson…what is the use of saying you’re a colored man, when you are as white as I am, and as brave a man as there is among us. Why not quit this company, and take your place in the army just the same as a white man? I know your changes of promotion would be better” [43]). This leads to the concept of White privilege and the Veil of Color.<br />Peggy McIntosh wrote an article called “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” a text that theorizes about the racial benefits of being White as opposed to any other race. Although, the list of situations she names were based on one-on-one interviews with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, several are pertinent to 19th century Black Americans. In being a White American:<br />When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is…I can be reasonably sure that if I ask to talk to ‘the person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race…If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have…I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing, or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race (McIntosh 2).<br />For accuracy’s sake, readers should have the cognizance that McIntosh’s construction of White privilege is neither definite nor all-encompassing since it entails the empirical research of the lifestyles of mainly middle- and upper-class Afro-Americans.<br />Of the forty-six exemplifications McIntosh lists on the topic of White privilege, these few establish that there is something, an intangible something, that disconnects humans of assorted races and cultures. Iola Leroy’s father Eugene makes an executive decision that he and his wife Marie would not tell their children about the mixed blood running through their veins. Marie Leroy had a very light skin tone, but she was still unable to pass for White because many civilians (namely Alfred Lorraine) knew her heritage—a morbid omen for the harsh fate of Iola Leroy. Despite this, Harry, Iola, and Gracie attained great, Northern educations and ‘civilized’ upbringings as opposed to other Blacks who lived like ‘savages’, facts that had significant impact on them as they got older. Iola was initially an advocate for slavery, and maybe if her father had died later in life the events of the novel would not have taken place. Thus, Iola Leroy might have remained assimilated in White culture and privileges, unaware that the ‘intangible something’ detaching her from the Black race was a Veil of Color.<br />William Edward Burghardt Du Bois wrote groundbreaking work on the sociological and psychological processes of African-Americans in The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois establishes the Veil of Color in the chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” He writes how he was able to pass for White in his early life because of his light skin but in an unfortunate series of circumstances with a White girl who rejected his visiting card based on his skin color, he realizes that there is something distinct demarcating him from the rest of the White children (Du Bois 8). In essence, he realized that he had become a “problem” (7). <br />Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine (8).<br />He goes to vent how he will somehow, someway, work to take back some of their White privileges. “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in my own house?” (8) he challenges, and by house he means America. <br />Du Bois eloquently conveys the inner turmoil of African Americans by attributing much of their psyche to a theory he dubs double consciousness. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. [A]n American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts;….two warring ideals in one dark body” (9). What Du Bois does not factor into his theory is choice. For example, when Iola Leroy discovers that she has Negro blood, the quintessence of her identity is shocked with electricity. It is at this pivotal moment that Iola Leroy is able to identify with the multitude of African American slaves because it is here that her double consciousness is generated. <br />In an almost Shakespearian irony, Iola was brought up ignorant and therefore believes herself to be White, and like other Whites she did not share the Negro consciousness. When she discovers that she has mixed blood, she is brought to an impasse: she must now choose a race, choose between two cultures, and live with that fact no matter what moralizing or romanticizing she does to justify her choice. And therein lies Du Bois’ flaw. Lighter-skinned African Americans like Du Bois have a choice of whether to associate themselves with White culture or Black culture. Although Iola gracefully fails to completely pass once her heritage is discovered, it does not weaken the argument enough for it to crumble because darker-skinned African Americans have no choice. They are Negro because the ocular skin color test by White Americans will perennially stamp F’s on their foreheads. This notion of choice is reminiscent in Iola Leroy when the tragic mulatto Iola “[a]lmost wild with agony, [paces] the floor, as the fearful truth [breaks] in crushing anguish upon her mind. Then bursting into a paroxysm of tears succeeded by peals of hysterical laughter, said:—‘I used to say that slavery is right. I didn’t know what I was talking about” (Harper 105-106). Although not explicitly stated, this moment highlights Iola’s near-immediate transition from double consciousness and confusion to identification as a Black woman. It can most likely be presumed that between this time and her selling to Marse Tom, she recognized herself as a Black and only Black American. Harper again underlines the choice factor when the mulatto Harry is asked by a White officer, “What kind of regiment would you prefer, white or colored?” (125). Conclusively, W.E.B. Du Bois’ construction of double consciousness is incomplete since it assumes the African American totality suffers from it, when many do not because of choice.<br />Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy may perhaps have a simplistic plot by 21st-century standards, yet it is noteworthy because it ignites discourse on the African American condition. Passing is important because it reveals that not all African Americans can be judged by the same trope, and that historically many mulattos may have benefited from White privileges as much as many were dislocated from both Black/White cultures. Its narrative frames a character who fails at passing for White; however, by ‘becoming Black’ she makes for a more dynamic character, and in the minds of 19th-century folk, a dynamic human being. This construction of passing for White slightly differs from Du Bois’. Already established that his double consciousness theory garners holes in itself because of its presumptive notions, his solution to combat of the Veil of Color leads to an interesting argument: <br />Work, culture, liberty,—all these we need, no singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack (Du Bois 14). <br />A large word that sticks out in this passage is conformity. Whether Du Bois meant in the smallest or largest degree, one cannot excuse his defective wording. He preaches that African Americans should conform to the greater ideals of the American Republic and yet the American Republic’s ideals are those established by White Englishmen. He wants White Americans to develop the traits and talents of the Negro and yet the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Movement, blues, and a majority of the Civil Rights Movement were the efforts of Black Americans to build themselves up (I recognize these events as opposed to ones the past because Du Bois was speaking to a different audience). Finally, when Du Bois notes that “there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes” (15) he does not take into account that early documents like the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were drawn for the benefit of a White aristocracy, meaning that only those who were White or could pass for White could seek advancement in society. <br />Du Bois’ ideas of racial unification are a very rational concept but human beings are not rational creatures: pride of one’s culture, pride of one’s heritage, etc. make for detrimental elements that reinforce the Veil of Color. Black Americans have made innumerous contributions to the advancement of their race, but many of them have been done by integrating White institutions such as schools, universities, the nuclear family, business, and industry. Just the same, it is difficult to argue that White Americans have given “[these] characteristics both so sadly lack” (15) when Whites sit far above on the trophaeum of America and Black Americans (today other minorities are included as well) have a majority at rock bottom, when descriptions of cultural history have a prefix—Black, Asian, Latino—in front of them and Whites’ is ‘American History,’ and when the ubiquitous terror racism has evolved from a binary to a trinary (Black-White vs. Whites/Honorary Whites/Collective Black). Indubitably, Du Bois’ case on passing for White and the African American psyche is lacking.<br />Despite the contentious flaws within the two pieces of literature, Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy and William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk are still paramount pieces of African American literature. These texts invoke political and public discourse about race and directly present readers a challenge of how to address the race problem. Solutions are far from being recognized and implemented, but as historically evidenced in African American history, Du Bois’ hope for human brotherhood has not fallen on false ears. Indeed, asking more critical questions may prove to be more auspicious than an answer with an air of verisimilitude. <br />Works Cited<br />Harper, Frances. Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.<br />Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.<br />McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege and Male Privilege.” University of Dayton Academics. William Richards. 26 Jan 2010 <http://academic.udayton.edu/williamrichards/Ethics%20essays/McIntosh,%20White%20Privilege.htm>.<br />

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