The Need for a New Mix: Literature and Cultural Representation
Posted on: Wednesday 29 August 2007
My academic research has brought me to a problematic theme in the literary tradition: the disappearance of mixed race individuals, who are caught between racial worlds and are represented as neither here nor there, unable to 'survive' conflict, able to exist only when slotted into one racial category or another. My studies in English Literature - as well as literary theory - have brought me to realize that much contemporary Western literature is unable to conceptualize of the mixed race individual who inhabits a 'marginal space' - perhaps because they in fact serve to defy all margins.
Part of my findings have discovered that the problem also lies in the simple cultural reality that most mixed race figures are written in by writers who are not of a mixed race background. Without delving into the politics of cultural appropriation, I think it's a valid vantage point to investigate the role of race and how it's been represented in literary texts.
As well, to look into the concept of marginalization as a set of specific political and cultural practices regulated, governed, and normalized through modes of representation, because representation, even in fiction, matters. And of course before we pick up any literary text, we need to critically examine the history and present of the power structures that have allowed oppression to develop.
For example, the controversy surrounding the "tragic mulatto" archetype has still not eliminated itself from being a source of truth for the mixed race experience. To be mixed is somehow to be 'tragic', to be trapped in a permanent state of liminality. Such an archetype resonates in texts as early as Shakespeare, in which there is a sense of interracial marriage as ultimately doomed.
It's no wonder that being mixed race translates into being a 'strange' category, mainly because we see mixed race figures as ultimately estranged from themselves; the concept cannot be defined for itself. They must pass for something else, or else they lose everything. Mixed race individuals, either as actual persons in history or characters in literary texts, are always in a 'problematized' state. The problem is, however, that we're not willing to look into why, in a political and cultural (rather than aesthetic) sense.
The absence of mixed race figures from literary and cultural discourses at large may seem to be a paradox in our age where we like to view subjectivity as open and complex. To call ourselves multicultural or postmodern, it seems natural that the life experience of mixed race individuals be brought into the critical spotlight because such an experience would resonate in the midst of these politics. Such hasn't been the case.
The mixed individual is always 'ambiguous', thus preventing systems from functioning on an either/ or basis. Thus, to delve into the potential identity politics of being mixed race is to open up new ways of seeing "race" in its representative aspects, ways that may very well contribute to a revisioning of identity politics as a whole. That academic discourse has largely recoiled from delving into the politics of mixed race, primarily because the resources just aren't there, prevents a new politics of identity to emerge in a time where being mixed is no longer an anomaly. We are living in a time where the 'one-drop theory' which dominated racial discourse until the late 20th Century in the States and made 'mixed race' an obsolete category.
It's about time we stop thinking in black and white terms and imagine a world where one's subjectivity doesn't have to be subject to one category or another; that one can effectively be more than one thing.
Ideas we may want to engage with:
- culture: the organization/ regulation of social practices that influence our conduct and give meaning to people, objects, events
- the element of 'construction', present through substitution, performance (such as racial 'passing')
- constructions of 'blackness' in the early 20th Century - key representational theme of the 'tragic mulatto'
- to look at the mixed raced subject through representation, classification, motivation, interpretation
- to (de)construct the subjectivity of the mixed race character as a figure of historical contingency
About the author
Adebe DeRango-Adem is a third-year student in York University's English program in Toronto, Canada. Her current research is looking into the mixed race experience from a literary and cultural focus. In addition to her academic interests, she currently holds the honour of Toronto's Junior Poet Laureate. She is working on both a collection of her own poems, as well as an anthology of young, mixed race authors, in a collective effort to explore and document the turbulent (and wondrous) experience of growing up with a mixed race background.