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The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930.

The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880-1930. By Jolie A. Sheffer. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013. Pp. 240. $24.95.)

Many mainstream Americans grudgingly concede that racial and ethnic minorities are entitled to equal rights in politics, education, employment, and residency but still draw the line where marriage, family, and sexual relations are concerned. Driving this deep-seated prejudice is the incredibly bizarre belief that the United States was founded entirely by "racially pure" white people, who regarded everyone else as "The Other." Therefore, it follows, quod erat demonstratum, that such paragons would never have sexual relations with anyone who was not also "pure white." In her fascinating, path-breaking study, Jolie A. Sheffer convincingly argues that one of the earliest and boldest challenges to that insulated worldview came from female writers and reformers of color. They contributed to this paradigm shift by forthrightly depicting mixed-race women as an integral part of American life and identity and as members of an interracial nuclear family. They intentionally shocked genteel readers by portraying interracial sexual encounters, including incest, as pervasive, usually clandestine, liaisons between white men and nonwhite women that ultimately produced today's mixed-race nation.

To explicate her thesis, Sheffer explores the work of four female writers of color, each of whom focused on a different interracial category: Pauline Hopkins, whom the author regards as perhaps the most influential African American female writer of that era; Winnifred Eaton, who wrote "Orientalist" romances under the Japanese pen name Onoto Watana; Mexican American Maria Cristina Mena, who analyzed the complications of "Mestizo" women involved in love affairs with "Anglo" men; and Christine Quintasket, a Native American woman of mixed Okanogan and Colville ancestry, who called herself Mourning Dove and made readers aware of the frequent sexual intercourse between "half-breeds" and "homesteaders." They redefined African Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and European immigrants as "brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives through the common language of racial romance." Their publications impacted nationwide audiences in popular novels, magazines, and newspapers, and played an important role in "nudging public opinion through their emotional stories of romantic unions and familial reunions" (171).

By way of contrast, the author also critiques Jane Addams and her Hull House Labor Museum's "reification of the color line," in which many ethnic minorities effectively "become white" while other people of darker hues "were explicitly deemed Other and inassimilable." Despite their best intentions, Addams and other settlement residents unwittingly exacerbated the awesome power of "whiteness." Nonetheless, the author makes a powerful case that, "by utilizing the familiar and irrefutable language of shared blood," they nudged their readers toward a more inclusive understanding of both nation and family. By confronting the clandestine sexualities that enmeshed various racial communities in a common lineage, Sheffer insists, they "revealed the instability at the heart of the concept of Otherness" (172).

John D. Buenker

University of Wisconsin-Parkside
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Author:Buenker, John D.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2015
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