Mar Gallego. Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance: Identity, Politics and Textual Strategies.
Until very recently, novels of passing that appeared during the Harlem Renaissance had been viewed as either assimilationist or collaborative with racist ideology. Mar Gallego's Passing Novels in the Harlem Renaissance offers an opposing view by providing a detailed account of the subversive and parodying strategies employed in novels by four representative and controversial African American writers: James Weldon Johnson, George Schuyler, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Fauset. Gallego considers these authors' parodying strategies as responses not only to social realities but to the idea of double consciousness and other literary traditions.
Gallego's book opens with a rereading of Du Bois's theory of "double consciousness" that reveals both the positive and the negative perspectives contained in the theory and connects it with the motif of passing. The positive refers to the notion of the "third self," which results from the union of an African American ethnic identity and an American national identity, a notion that implies the possibility of a society in which African culture and American culture co-exist. The negative refers to the metaphor of the "veil," which means the distorted and stereotypical image imposed upon African Americans, a metaphor that may produce negative duplicity in African American life. Gallego's account of these contradictory perspectives achieves a dual purpose. First, it explains Du Bois's inner conflict between his realistic conception of American society and his idealistic notion of double consciousness. Second, it alludes to the multiple and indeterminate character of double consciousness and links this notion to the Yoruba tradition of Esu-Elegbara, in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr. locates the "Signifying Monkey," and finally the idea of double-voicedness central to Bakhtin's theories of "heteroglossia" and "dialogization." Such connections expose the parodying nature of double consciousness in spite of the inner conflict contained in it. Gallego's reading of the notion of double consciousness constitutes a reasonable starting point and a convincing rationale for Gallego's argument that the novels of passing under study respond in a complex way to double consciousness and strategically hide their negative attitudes toward racism under the cover of various means of seemingly cooperative representations. Gallego also lays out a theoretical framework of exploration in his subsequent chapters, each of which locates a writer's parodying strategies in the historical context of the representation of African Americans and in the literary context of the genres of Western literature employed and subverted by the writer.
To incorporate issues of race and gender, Gallego also identifies in the first chapter double consciousness with the feminist notion of "divided identity," designating, as Mary Hairston McManus does, the latter as "double double consciousness." Reviewing earlier African American feminist criticism, Gallego concludes that this discourse involves "the subversion, inversion or variation of other discourses that marginalize African American women." This summary anticipates his statement that the characterization of Larsen's and Fauset's mulatta figures of passing also involves the subversion, inversion, or variation of other racist or sexist discourses in literary tradition.
Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one of the four authors. In chapter two, Gallego argues that James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) innovates the tradition of slave narratives by endowing it with subversive and ironic overtones, and revises Du Bois's notion of double consciousness by calling into question the negative perspective of the theory. For Gallego, Johnson's novel represents a new stage of the narrative tradition that traces its origin to Equiano's "integrated narrative," which integrates different voices, and Douglass's "generic narrative," which makes the narrator eventually dominate the different voices integrated by the narrative. Johnson uses such techniques as duality of voices, control over the narration, fictionalization of the narrative "I," and rhetoric as a mask for subversion, techniques often found in either Equiano or Douglass. With these techniques Johnson effectively but trickily conveys his ironic and multivocal vision and makes his narrator successfully write himself into the text. The connection discovered by Gallego between Johnson's text and Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk leads to the conclusion that Johnson's novel negates both the positive image of the "Talented Tenth" and the idealistic possibility of a "third self." Gallego states that Johnson's representation of the phenomenon of passing questions cultural and racial categories and promotes heterogeneity. With abundant historical and textual evidence, Gallego defines Johnson as an important African American writer who initiates a model for the depiction of the mulatto condition and anticipates other novels of passing in the following decade.
Responding to a distinguished group of studies on George Schuyler that read him as assimilationist, Gallego in chapter three associates Schuyler's novel Black No More (1931) with the genres of satire and dystopia. For Gallego, the satirical and dystopian elements available in the novel provide a negative vision of reality, and facilitate Schuyler's parallel representations of white racism and African American hypocrisy. Gallego further analyzes Schuyler's parody of the sub-genre of the passing novel and interrogates the phenomenon of passing itself. Substantiating this analysis is not only an inquiry into Schuyler's satirical essays but a detailed explanation of the protagonist's ambiguous position as trickster and as deviant, and of the central idea of miscegenation that allows multiple interpretations. Ultimately, Gallego characterizes Schuyler's novel as a simple story that contains "an enormous discursive potential," and that simultaneously uses "passing" as an ironic strategy and also concludes the passing motif originating with the Du Boisian perspectives of double consciousness.
Chapter four sets the feminist discourse in Nella Larsen's novels Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) in opposition to male literary tradition. Also methodically parodic and skillfully disguised, Larsen's revolt, unlike Johnson's or Schuyler's, however, is expressed through her protagonists' search for a sense of the self and through Larsen's embodiment of an alternative identity for African American women, an identity of "double double consciousness." Tracing the representation of African American female sexuality to the era of slavery, Gallego associates Larsen's novels with the tradition of the romance or the sentimental novel, and interprets her application of these traditions as a parodic revision and re-elaboration. He explores how Larsen's characterization rejects simple representations of women as either genteel or vulgar, as typified in romance and sentimental novel traditions. The dilemma of virgin and whore that Larsen's protagonists face symbolizes "the muddy terrain of the sexual profile of African American women," and implies at the same time a racialized masking strategy that conceals a female sensibility. Each protagonist manages to transgress both racial boundaries and sexual restraints by affirming her own individual identity and sexuality. Furthermore, Larsen challenges the idealized discourse of marriage and maternity, another feature of the sentimental novel. Similar in function to the protagonists' deviation from the norms of African American femininity, their final controversial destruction also covers Larsen's innovative, yet not necessarily problem-free, feminist and anti-racist vision.
Gallego also sees Jessie Fauset's mulatta protagonist in Plum Bun (1928) as a metaphor of double consciousness, of African American women, and of the problematic definition of both their identity and their sexuality. Fauset's dramatization of the "mulatta" protagonist's desire to pass as white, however, exposes the white world as materially and morally corrupted, and idealizes Harlem as morally and culturally solid. For Gallego, Fauset's characterization in such contrasting social backgrounds aims to reveal the materialist and racist roots and motivations of the action of passing and the destructive consequences of such action. As interpreted by Gallego, the action itself also constitutes a disguising strategy that conceals Fauset's critique of racist ideology. Other means of disguising include the genres of the fairy tale, the romance, and the nursery rhymes. By strategically employing these means, Fauset parodies fairy tale motifs in African American life and devises a strategy of survival rooted in "double double consciousness." In spite of their endowments of beauty and their longing for riches and happiness, both protagonists, contrary to their idealized fairy-tale models and the conventional images of African American women, possess assertive personalities, materialistic attitudes that confound their emotions, and a desire for happiness rendered difficult by racial and gender categorizations. The discrepancy between the African American women's ruthless reality, on the one hand, and conventional childhood's pleasures and hopes, on the other hand, is also rewritten, as Gallego explains, in the Mother Goose nursery rhyme that shapes the structure of the novel. The "plum bun" obtained by the speaker in the rhyme and metaphorically achieved by Angela, one of the protagonists, appropriately supplants marriage and the fallen woman with a work of art at the conclusion of the novel.
Gallego's study is well researched and complexly structured. It draws interesting and illuminating connections between and among four authors well-chosen for an assessment of the phenomenon of passing. Mar Gallego's book is undoubtedly a persuasive addition to current studies of passing novels.
Xiamen University, China
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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