The Musings of a Wannabe Intellectual

Month: August, 2012

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Health and Physique of the Negro American (1906)

In 1906 W. E. B. Du Bois published a series of photographs in his study The health and physique of the Negro American to highlight that race mixing was already a fact of life in America.

Learning is fun; Or, the confessions of an online course addict

I am addicted to online courses. It began innocently enough; I discovered iTunesU – more specifically, I discovered a lecture series offered by Stanford-based historian Clayborne Carson on African American history – and I was instantly hooked. (Prof. Carson’s course is amazing – highly, highly recommended)

It is unbelievable how much the internet has contributed to accessible education. At any given time you are one click away from being lectured by the leaders of your chosen field.

If you are looking for lectures to listen to, iTunesU is a good place to start. I love the history lectures presented at Yale, Stanford and La Trobe. But there is a whole movement happening now… Massive open online course (MOOC). The stand out websites are coursera, udacity and edX but it is a growing industry.

I can’t really report on udacity or edX (none of the courses they offer have taken my fancy) but I am enrolled in a couple of courses at Coursera. My first course starts September 10; Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. I’m hoping it will be teach me a thing or two about analysing sources like novels and films. I’m pretty impressed with it already – they have an active twitter, personal website and regular emails.

But if you are more interested in the ‘quick hit’ I can also recommend Udemy or checking out the list of free courses provided by the kind people at OpenCulture.

Regardless, I have a feeling MOOC’s are going to be a game-changer for the academy…

A little explanation…

Racial Passing: Legal scholar Randall Kennedy defined ‘passing’ as “a deception that enables a person to adopt specific roles or identities from which he or she would otherwise be barred by prevailing social standards.”

Passing for white: a black person presents themselves as a white person, which typically required breaking ties with the black community and adopting a new, ‘white’ persona.

Nadir: The years following Reconstruction (between 1877 and the early twentieth-century) have been described as the ‘nadir’ of African-American life. The reassertion of ‘white supremacy’ led to an explosion of racial violence, segregation, economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement. The term was first used by historian Rayford Logan in The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (1954).

“One-drop” rule: The ‘one-drop rule’ was used in Southern courts to determine ancestry. A single drop of ‘black blood’ made a person black.

Jim Crow: an intricate system of segregation. The public lives of blacks were mandated to minimise contact with whites.

“Fancy girls”: This refers to light-skinned young female slaves sold as sex slaves, for a considerably higher price than their darker peers. The Edmonson sisters are perhaps the most famous “fancy girls”.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man


In my previous blog I stated The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man  by James Weldon Johnson was easily the most insightful novel on the “negro problem” I have ever read, and I stand by this. For me Ex-Colored Man has created a deeper understand of life in the era of Jim Crow and the racism confronted by even Northerners as a result of the “one-drop” rule. It also showcases different types of ‘passing’; for example, as a child the main character, unaware of his heritage, unconsciously passed for white until asked to remain with the ‘color children’ instead of the white children.

Consequently, this also means the main character is able to develop a split understanding of race relations in America – though his preference for his black culture is always clear. Unlike many ‘passing’ novels, I feel this creates a more multiracial voice rather than the strict ‘white/black’ dichotomy.

Through the main character’s story were are able to gain insight into a biracial child’s life in the Northern states, a young, colored man’s attempt to gain an education, living, and social life in the South (and eventually New York City) before contrasting his life in the US with his travels through Europe –- especially France.

Although he chooses to return to the US to develop American music (e.g. ragtime) into classical forms of music as a black man, he does end up passing for white permanently. This decision came after he witnessed the brutal lynching of a black man in Georgia. He explain his decision, and I am yet to see an explanation to ‘pass’ that is quite so striking:

 I argued that to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while, I understood that it was not discouragement, or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity, that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.

So often an explanation for passing is found in the financial and political advancements that belonged almost solely to white society but this statement… demonstrates that there is something far deeper there, something that requires significantly more historical context than it is currently given. But I digress… I think the reason I liked The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man more than novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is because it provides an amazing sampler of life (both race and class) during ‘nadir’ in America. It also shows a level of awareness of the state of race relations in the late 19th/ early 20th century (and its future) that I, foolishly, didn’t think existed.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man can be read or listened to online.

Racial Passing as a literary trope

Undoubtedly, the influx of black literature addressing the act of “passing for white” between the 1880s and 1940s has contributed to the fact that the act of passing has been largely explored in literary studies. Despite this, I don’t really plan on spending too much of my thesis discussing passing in literature. This is not because I don’t recognise its usefulness in providing context and direction on the topic, I just think there are other realms to be explored.

That said, I wrote a historiographical-focused essay on passing last semester and essentially dismissed the literary studies because I was focused entirely on actual historical events. However, over the last semester break, I spent a considerable amount of time on the road so I decided to listen some LibriVox and Lit2Go audio books. I’ve listened to Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1912), Passing (1929), and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). So, I can now speak to them;

Clotel was interesting, not focused specifically on passing; it addresses the life of a “mulatto” slave. There is a woman who… I guess you could say she passed – her husband bought her as a slave but they lived as man and wife until he died – even her children had no idea. When the husband/ owner died his wife and children were sold as slaves – the girls (despite being raised as, and being physically, white) were promoted and sold as sex slaves and met unfortunate ends. This introduced me to the concept of ‘fancy girls’ – I’ll be discussing ‘fancy girls’ in another blog.

Passing has the most literary commentary on it, for obvious reasons, I was … I guess a little underwhelmed because of this. Yes, one of the main characters passed as white but for me the central issue was Irene’s anxiety. Still, the novella provided some insight on why (according to Nella Larsen) people would ‘pass as white’ and the loss of community felt.

And finally, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is easily the most insightful novel on the “negro problem” I have ever read (and, yes, I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Also deserving its own blog…

Thesis writing, Or the inability to write a thesis

I am attempting to write a thesis. I’ve been trying for the last two months. Or at least that is what I like to tell myself. I can’t seem to get started. I’ve organised my sources neatly into Mendeley, added notes; already made for previous assessments; and I have listened to/ read/ watched an excessive amount of novels and films related to my thesis. Yet, I’m still not entirely clear on my topic or where to start.

I think I may just have to sink my teeth in at the spot that currently takes my fancy. Choose-your-own-adventure. And see how it goes…

August 28, 12 PM, UTC+10. “From here on in, I shoot without a script. See if anything comes from it, instead of my old shit.”