Feb. 22, 1999
Volume 51, No. 21
Adding up preoccupations about color, race in literature
The class listed in Emory's spring course atlas as "The Calculus of Color" might at first sound like an art class on color theory, but instructor Cassandra Jackson intends for her class to explore mulatto figures and miscegenation in 19th and 20th century American literature.
The course takes its title from a chapter in Werner Sollors' book, Neither Black Nor White, a thematic exploration of biracial characters in European and American literature.
Jackson said students were drawn to the course for specific reasons. "A number of my students felt as though biracial people are very much a part of American culture and history, yet they hold an invisible space. Personal history also had an influence. A few are biracial or have a biracial parent. The students work hard and are really committed. Many of them feel a personal investment in the class because they see race issues as relevant to their lives."
She and her class of 31 undergraduates are not only reading mulatto fiction but tracing conversations that emerged among 19th century African-American and white writers. "They frequently knew and read each other. I want to consider intertextual relationships that were part of a larger conversation about race."
Both black and white 19th century writers used mulatto figures in anti-slavery fiction to humanize blacks. They also wrote to each other. They were very concerned about the black community and the place of blacks in America before and after the Civil War. "The rise in racism at the turn of the century also motivated white authors who might not have experimented with biracial characters to explore race relations through mulatto figures," Jackson explained. "William Dean Howells, a white male writer, centered An Imperative Duty around a mixed race figure. Literature became a tool to talk about relationship problems."
The psychology of color is complex. Some writing from the period typified a genre of racialized pornography. For example, in Richard Hildreth's novel, The White Slave, slavery became the context within which both the writer and reader could indulge in racialized fantasy. "In class we are discussing what it means to represent these people as passionate and sexual in the 19th century," Jackson said. "Some of the passages are titillating-they are pornographic in that sense. They also teach us about cultural perspectives of that time."
As racial constructs, mulatto characters represent not only the rapport between races but a concession to traditional Eurocentric conceptions of beauty. Other ideas Jackson will explore with her class include a preoccupation with "passing," race propaganda and tabloid tactics in fictional writing about mixed-race characters.
This past fall Jackson taught a course on representations of slavery in 20th century African-American literature. In 1997 she introduced Emory students to the portrayal of female life in turn-of the-century novels and the significance of popular culture in America. She's been published in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, and her writing will be included in the upcoming Cambridge Guide to Women's Literature.
Next month, at the Collegium for African-American Research Conference in Muenster, Germany, Jackson will present the paper "Tools of Resistance: Mulatto Figures in Frances E.W. Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice and Thomas Detter's The Octoroon of Cuba."
Jackson received her BA in English from Spelman College in 1994. "It was while reading texts like Clotel and different anti-slavery tracts that I discovered many biracial characters. I began wondering what role they played in the anti-slavery movement. I'm interested in how literature affects culture. I wanted to investigate what these characters meant in the context of African-American literature and life."
Jackson's dissertation, "Barriers Between Us: Re-examining Mulatto Figures in American Fiction from 1826-1903," questions the notion of the 'tragic mulatto' and explores mulatto figures as vehicles of social, cultural and political ideas in American literature, beginning with James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and concluding with Pauline Hopkins' Of One Blood.