Mary Jemison, though born white, is adopted by a Seneca family and thereby becomes a Seneca woman. In U.S. stage productions, Othello’s blackface makeup rubs off on Desdemona, making her “begrimed and black.” In Kate Chopin’s story, Desirée’s obviously mixed-race baby makes her, retrospectively, a mixed-race heroine. The processes of race-making evidenced in nineteenth-century U.S. literature evidences how race was imagined not only to transfer from a genealogical past to future descendants, but differently, through non-biological relations of adoption, “horizontal” relations of sexual kinship, and “backward” genealogies of racial reflection from children to parents. These genealogies might best be understood as creating a “queer temporality” of racialization, refusing what queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman calls the “chrononormative” structuring of time in their teleologies of racialization and re-racialization.
Just as they do not follow normative chronologies, genealogies of interracial kinship are not necessarily patrilineal. The notion of hypodescent most prominent in the United States – the “one drop rule” for designating someone with any amount of black ancestry as black, regardless of other racial genealogies – does not follow a patrilineal model of inheritance. Just as a mother’s enslaved status alone determined her child’s, only one parent’s identification as black is sufficient to racialize children as such. We might also regard hypodescent as a queer genealogy of race that aligns with black feminism in its resistance to patriarchal and even heterosexual notions of race’s biological transfer.
Race is relational in these alternative genealogies: produced not within individual people, but by relations between them. Race is formed through genealogies of racial inheritance, relations of racialized domesticity, and in larger structures of racial belonging. To show how race is not individual but formed in relation, I turn to literature describing interracial kinship, reading narratives in which we can observe race’s directional flow between people, across generational time, and through ever-expanding spatial scales. In these texts, we see how racialization occurs not simply within individual bodies and through racial self-articulation, but also through familial recognition. Race is produced – and reproduced – in relation, in the connections between bodies, in domestic spaces, through literary genre and in practices of racialized reading.
This Friday Humanities Lunch talk is based on Brigitte Fielder’s book-in-progress, Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America, which presents this alternative theory of how race is constructed. This theory of race makes it apparent how race (and racism) are made and matter beyond the bodily scale, in the domestic spaces of family and nation that reveal race’s structures in their future-oriented trajectories of racial production and reproduction.
Brigitte Fielder is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently working on two book projects, one on queer genealogies of interracial kinship in nineteenth-century American literatures, and one on overlapping discourses of race and species in the long nineteenth century. Her work has appeared in journals including American Quarterly, J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, Studies in American Fiction, Early American Studies, and Theatre Annual, as well as in various edited collections, including Who Writes for Black Children: African American Children’s Literature before 1900, Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire, and American Beasts: Perspectives on Animals, Animality, and U.S. Culture, 1776-1920.
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