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All the difference...

All the difference: Race passing and American individualism
Pfeiffer, Kathleen Anne. Proquest Dissertations And Theses 1995. Section 0021, Part 0591 183 pages; [Ph.D. dissertation].United States -- Massachusetts: Brandeis University; 1995. Publication Number: AAT 9532713.

Abstract (Summary)
"All the Difference: Race Passing and American Individualism" examines passing for white as a legitimate expression of American individualism, predicated as it is on one's desire to manipulate one's identity as a means to achieve success. Such self-fashionings in terms of class, intellect, religion and family history have been hallmarks of our most celebrated national myths--equal opportunity, social mobility, and individuality. When considered in this tradition, protagonists who pass for white participate in a more complex drama than a mere rejection of race: they embrace American individualist mythology and push its potential to the limit. Likewise, authors who thematize passing engage in a more charged issue than racial tension: they implicitly critique the segregationist logic which forms a barrier to individual success.

In all of the protagonists I analyze, two races diverge and each character is then forced to choose a race: that choice makes all the difference. In titling this work and subtitling its three sections with excerpts from Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," I mean to evoke and critique the binary logic of the U.S.'s racial ideology.

The first section, titled "Way Leads on to Way," examines how notions of racial group loyalty inevitably limit individual choices. This section proposes that the literary conversation which took place between William Dean Howells's An Imperative Duty and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy shaped a debate about the morality, practicality, and political import of race loyalty.

The second section, "One Traveler," begins by considering the consequences of race loyalty: it first examines Jean Toomer's life and career in relation to Toomer's renunciation of his categorization as both a black man and a passing figure. It then reconsiders James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by tracing the Ex-Colored Man's expressions of racial ambivalence towards blackness as well as whiteness; my reading also explores how these expressions have been suppressed or ignored in previous readings of the novel.

Section three, "The Better Claim," explores the tension between the individual and society in Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun and Nella Larsen's Passing. Both novels depict the passing figure as a self-generated character, and both also suggest the degree to which writing and book culture participates in this self-creation.

Each section suggests that our culture's assumptions about racial authority, racial authenticity, and authorship participate in the social construction of a sense of race which has heretofore been divorced from claims to American identity. Taken together, these sections show that our current assumptions about racial identity have been influenced by apparently impermeable segregationist logic.

"All the Difference" suggests a strategy for redirecting such binary ideology, by uncovering the individualist urges in novels about passing. This study highlights the arena where races and cultures merge and blend, forming one road to an individual American identity


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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