Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2005

Abstract

Passing has once again become a hot topic in contemporary popular culture and a major trope for our critical and professional activity. One thinks of Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998); Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) and the 2003 film version directed by Robert Benton; and in literary and cultural criticism, Gayle Wald's Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (2000), Kathleen Pfeiffer's Race Passing and American Individualism (2003), and Brooke Kroeger's Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are (2003), to name only a few examples. In Passing and Pedagogy I explore this concept largely in terms of contemporary culture and criticism. Yet the echo of Johnson's words in Lawrence's disavowal—I don't want to be John Collier—has led me to consider more carefully the emergence of passing, as I have refigured it, in modernism. In that Newberry seminar, I was struck by how the difference between the artistic and the touristic use of other cultures was often lost upon students as it was upon many modernists themselves. For example, in the 1920s, artists, writers, art patrons, anthropologists, and entrepreneurs came together in the southwest to promote "a romantic mix of archeology, art, tourism, and politics," as Desley Deacon writes in her biography, Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life. While they sought ways to incorporate native art and culture into Western lives without "patronizing, appropriating, or destroying" it, such a project was necessarily fraught with ambiguity: cultural preservation depended on Western tourism, and spiritual renewal meant "going native." In the Newberry seminar, we read works by and about Elsie Clews Parsons and D. H. Lawrence in Taos; Sergei Eisenstein and Langston Hughes in Mexico; Claude McKay and Josephine Baker in France; and Zora Neale Hurston and Melville Herskovitz in the Caribbean. We studied the music of John Alden Carpenter, the photography of Edward Weston, the drawings of Miguel Covarrubias, and the dance of Katherine Dunham. And the more we read, the more important and the more difficult it became to distinguish those who were appropriately self-aware in their representations of others from those who were shamelessly appropriative. I came to see passing and the anxieties it arouses, as well as the border crossings (both literal and imaginative) that at once enable and express it, as the peculiar identification at the heart of modernism—and not just in the sense that the androgyne and the mulatto served as cultural icons of the modernist generation. Rather, I would argue that the fluidity of identity boundaries that we have come to identify with postmodernity—especially a postmodern notion of subjectivity as constructed, discursive, and fluid—has as much or more to do with the historical conditions in which modernist art was produced as with the textual theories of post-structuralism. But first I need to explain the various ways the term "passing" has been used and how I have refigured that concept.

Comments

Copyright © 2005 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Modernism/modernity 12.3 (2005) 385-406. Reprinted with permission by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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