The Problem of the Prism: Racial Passing, Colorism, and the Politics of Racial Visibility
Wong, Edlie L.
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In The Problem of the Prism, I argue that activist writers challenged the normalizing of white supremacy and imagined black futurity within the intersections of racial visibility, nation, and culture by transforming and repurposing racist and colorist ideologies. Through a wide range of cultural materials, I recuperate overlooked discourses on race and color by broadening the parameters through which we understand the black-white color line. Focusing on neglected texts by understudied authors allows for a deeper consideration of how assumed ancestry and legal segregation impact America’s construction of citizenship and social hierarchies. For this reason, I consider how critical attention to skin complexion and visible ancestry illuminates institutionalized feelings of inferiority. I call these the politics of racial visibility. In the first chapter, I consider Albion Tourgée’s 1890 novel Pactolus Prime and the ways in which it offers readers an examination of how the black-white color line fosters notions of inferiority within both races. In chapter two, I argue that Sutton Griggs inspires the “New Mulatta,” a revision of the “tragic mulatta” trope, that inspires race pride throughout the Black Diaspora by rejecting colorist ideologies. In chapter three, I recover the works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks and Sylvester “Chief Buffalo Child” Long Lance as critical lenses through which to deconstruct black separatism by considering African-Native American identities within New Negro philosophy. I argue that their works reconceptualize the “tragic mulatta/o” outside of the confines of the black-white binary while acknowledging the fraught relationship between African Americans and Native Americans. Thus, their works reveal a black-red color line that disables anti-racist and anti-colonialist collaboration. In the final chapter, I argue that 1940s and 1950s Ebony magazine articles shift readers’ attention to racial anxieties within the “white” appearing spectrum of the black-white color line to critique internalized racism. By addressing social implications anticipated within racial ambiguity in the space of the home, this commercial magazine allows readers from all socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with pressing concerns over racial visibility. Ultimately, Ebony magazine’s persistent focus on colorism and racial passing brings the efforts of nineteenth and early-twentieth-century authors full circle.