Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law.
WERNER SOLLORS HAS DONE A GREAT SERVICE to scholars and students of history, law, and literature by bringing together a wealth of material on the topics of sexual relationships between members of the races known as black and white, and their multi-racial offspring, known in the nineteenth century as "mulattoes," "quadroons," or "octoroons." The volume is divided into three sections that, interestingly, do not correspond precisely with the disciplines identified in the book's subtitle. The first section, "The History of `Miscegenation' and the Legal Construction of Race," contains both history and law. The second section, entitled "Literature," is the largest, focusing primarily on the figure of the "tragic mulatto." The final and briefest section is "Social Theory and Analysis," consisting primarily of sociological and statistical material.
In his introduction, Sollors addresses the rationale for the collection, asking "What is American about American culture?" (p. 3), and providing an oblique answer, "Could the question of what is American about American culture be answered with `prohibiting black-white heterosexual couples from forming families and withholding legitimacy from their descendants?'" (p. 5). Sollors justifies his claim by pointing out that other nations have not shared the taboo on black-white intermarriage (pp. 7-8), and therefore, hostility to what came to be known as "miscegenation" may well be peculiarly American. To those interested in the topic of miscegenation, however, such large claims are unnecessary. Indeed, any consideration of our continuing fascination with the Civil War and its cultural sequelae, or even our recent popular culture (some of us remember when a mere on-stage handclasp between "white" singer Petula Clark and "black" singer Harry Belafonte caused a sensation), proves that the topic is an important one for contemporary Americans. What is more telling about Sollors's answer to his question is what it reveals about the scope of the materials collected here. First, the collection focuses solely on black-white relations; relationships between whites and members of other races--Native Americans and Asians, for example--are mentioned only in passing. Second, Sollors addresses only heterosexual unions, although he admits that "many legal decisions surrounding interracial marriages have reemerged as possible precedents in debates surrounding same-sex marriages" (p. 4).
While these limits on the scope of the collection enable Sollors to maintain the focus on the central theme, the collection suffers from an additional limitation that has unfortunate results. Sollors regrets the exclusion of materials on the "visual arts" and "film" (p. 12), and indeed, the absence of these materials makes itself felt. Although Randall Kennedy and Jamie Wacks have contributed excellent original essays to the volume (especially noteworthy is Wacks's essay, which draws upon previously unknown trial records of the Rhinelander miscegenation suit), only three of the pieces were published after 1990. Within each of the sections--Law, Literature, and Social Theory--an historical arc is visible, but the relative lack of recent material is especially regrettable in the section on literature, where Sollors includes three old-fashioned literary surveys (from 1916, 1933, and 1945) that are essentially repetitious. Since many readers, students especially, will be more familiar with television and movie portrayals of interracial relationships than with the antislavery novels discussed at length here, Sollors seems to have missed an opportunity to bring his topic up to date.
Perhaps concomitantly with the relative lack of contemporary material, a great virtue of the collection is Sollors's inclusion of a number of classic pieces that might not be conveniently accessible elsewhere, from Charles W. Chestnutt's "What Is a White Man?" (1889) to W.E.B. DuBois's encyclopedia entry on "Miscegenation," written in 1935 but never published, to Hannah Arendt's "Reflections on Little Rock" (1959). The literal and figurative centerpiece of the collection is Sidney Kaplan's 1949 essay, "The Miscegenation Issue in the Election of 1864." Originally published in the Journal of Negro History, this essay will delight historians and literary critics alike. It turns out that the peculiarly American term for interracial marriage, "miscegenation," originated in an elaborate hoax by Copperheads designed to deny Lincoln the election in 1864. The hoax was carried out by means of a satiric seventy-two-page pamphlet published anonymously in New York City late in 1863, entitled "The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro." Purporting to be a legitimate publication of the Republican party, the pamphlet presented a number of purportedly scientific arguments favoring the mixture of the black and white races, popularly known then as "amalgamation." The authors, two Copperhead newspapermen, sent copies of the pamphlet to prominent abolitionists, including the Grimke sisters and Lucretia Mott, who sent approving replies, obviously failing to recognize the satire. The Copperheads used the pamphlet, the abolitionists' approval, and a speech by Lincoln in May 1864 appealing to "the strongest bond of human sympathy ... uniting all working people, of all nations, tongues and kindreds" (p. 248) to fan the flames of racial hatred among recent Irish immigrants to New York City, the same group responsible for the draft riots the previous year. The Copperhead campaign succeeded; not only was Lincoln beaten badly by McClellan in New York City (p. 253), but the neologism proposed by the pamphlet, "miscegenation" (from the "Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race" (p. 221)), became the popular term for interracial marriage, with the older term, "amalgamation," virtually dropping out of our legal and political vocabulary.
Sollors claims, "[T]here is an interdisciplinary spirit at work here" (p. 12), and he specifically notes, "Just as laws shaped and gave themes to literature, literature may also have affected the realm of the law" (p. 11). The claim that literature affects law is a huge one, and one that scholars have been very reluctant to make. Arguably, antebellum antislavery novels did this by furthering the abolitionist cause. But this volume provides no evidence of this effect. Indeed, despite the currency of "law and literature" as an interdisciplinary endeavor (for example, the Cardozo School of Law publishes a journal devoted to law and literature, Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature), no tree work of law and literature appears here, if we define law and literature scholarship to be investigations that demonstrate how literary works and the law participate in common cultural patterns. Both Kennedy's and Wacks's articles highlight rhetorical analyses of legal materials; many of the articles on literature take as a given the legal prohibition of miscegenation. But none of the articles takes seriously the relationship among law, literature, and culture, or more precisely, the relationship of law and literature within a given culture. Even Eva Saks's article, "Representing Miscegenation Law," which begins by invoking the Broadway production of Dion Boucicault's "The Octoroon, or, Life in Louisiana," focuses instead on the law of miscegenation, giving little attention to the literary work.
In conclusion, this collection provides a solid foundation of classic material, while demonstrating the void in interdisciplinary scholarship on interracial relationships and the opportunity for future scholarship in this area.
JUDY M. CORNETT University of Tennessee College of Law
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|Author:||Cornett, Judy M.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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