Fluidity without Postmodernism: Michelle Cliff and the "Tragic Mulatta" Tradition

by Suzanne Bost
Fluidity without Postmodernism: Michelle Cliff and the "Tragic Mulatta" Tradition
Suzanne Bost
African American Review
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Fluidity without Postmodernism: Michelle Cliff and the "~ra~ic Mulatta" Tradition

I am writing the story of my life as a statue.. . . I wish they had carved me from the onyx of Elizabeth Catlett. Or molded me from the dark clay of Augusta Savage. Or cut me from mal~ogany or cast me in bronze. I wish I were dark plaster like Meta Warrick Fuller's Talking Skull. But I appear more as Edmonia Lewis's Hagar-wringing her l~ands in the wilderness-white marble figure of no home- land-her striations caught within. (Cliff, Land 85)

In "The Laughing Mulatto (Formerly a Statue) Speaks," Michelle Cliff invokes past stereotypes of the mulatto and the sculptors who remolded them. From Edmonia Lewis (1844- 1909)-the half-black, half-Chippewa sculptor who gained inter- national fame with the help of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child-to Augusta Savage (1892- 1962)-the Harlem Renaissance artist who sculpted busts of W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Marcus Garvey-black artists have been reconstructing the images of African Americans. The speaker of "The Laughing Mulatto" identifies with racial "betweenness," yet she also subverts racist conventions that priv- ilege the whiteness within biracial African Americans. She wishes that her skin were darker: onyx, mahogany, or bronze, not white marble (Cliff, Land 85). Her wish implicitly compares race to workable materials, as if racial identity were something that could be chiseled and molded by an artist. The parenthetical "Formerly a Statue" in the poem's title suggests that the figure of the mulatto might no longer be so rigid, no longer cast in stone. Cliff wants to replace the inflexible marble of past biracial depic- tions with more malleable "dark clay," and the speaker (as a light-skinned woman) goes on to lament her own associations with marble. She indicates her revolutionary sympathies by say- ing that she has "striations caught within," possible ruptures in the hard, smooth surface. As a result, both whiteness and marble are denied their privileged status among the different artistic media. Critics have celebrated Cliff's attitude toward flexible subject positions as a sign of her postmodernism. Franqoise Lionnet, for example, has examined Cliff's use of the "double consciousness of the postcolonial, bilingual, and bicultural writer who lives and writes across the margins of different traditions and cultural uni- verses." Cliff's work, argues Lionnet, subverts the boundaries between genres, languages, cultures, and races, and this border- crossing is reflected in her use of "postmodern fictional tech- niques" (324). Although it is important to recognize that Cliff's fluidity reflects the spirit of contemporary theories, her work

Suzanne Bost is Assistant Professor of English and Women's Studies at James Madison University. She holds the Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and is currently working on her first book, Mulattas and Mestizas. Mixed Identity in Women's

Writing of the Americas.

1850-1996,whlch historicizes representations of racial mixture and considers the rela- tionship among m~xed-race identity, gender, and sexuali- ty. Her work focuses on litera- ture by Caribbean, African American, and Latlna writers, including Michelle Cliff, Paule Marshall, ntozake shange, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Cherrie Moraga, and Glor~a Anzaldua.

Afr~can American Review, Volume 32, Number 4 01998 Suzanne Bost

must also be understood within the context of inore than a century of African American biracial artistic expression, since Frances E. W. Harper, William Wells Brown, and other nine- teenth-century writers crossed margins of race and identitv in their literarv and political work. As Lionnet suggests, Cliff "demonstrates that marks of dif- ference and otherness are ambiguous and shifting," and she articulates "a form of multivalent subjectivity capa- ble of resisting shifting networks of power" and moving toward a "para- digm shift" (340-41). Indeed, many crit- ics have picked up on the similarity between biracial fluiditv and uostmod-

i I

ernism, and recent works on the "post- modern" identities in Paule Marshall or the "postmodern" genres of Michelle Cliff reflect this sudden inter- est.' However, studies of biracial litera- ture that use only postmodern lenses miss the other traditions out of which these writers write. Shifting, multiva- lent subjectivity and fluctuating signs of difference have been around at least since Brown's Clotel uassed herself off as a white male slave-owner, and I con- tend that Cliff is less concerned with writing in response to Foucauldian power dynamics ("networks of power," "paradigm shifts") than with analyzing the specific racial dynamics of former British colonies.

This paper charts a lineage of femi- nist biracial heroines and demonstrates that Michelle Cliff's work should be viewed in the context of earlier African American texts. While Cliff is from Tamaica. her travel between different nations and within diverse cultures makes it difficult to categorize her as belonging to any single nationality. My intent is not to claim Cliff as a U.S. African American writer (although she currently warks and resides in the U.S.) but rather to show how her work fits into or responds to depictions of race in the U.S. literary tradition.

Cliff signals her relationship to this tradition by naming one of her hero- ines "Zoe," a name often used to refer to the stereotypical "tragic mulatta." In another work, Cliff's heroine meets Frances Harper face-to-face and criti- cizes her privileging of light skin. While the racial dynamics of Cliff's Jamaica differ greatly from those in the United States, the biracialism of Tamaica's "colored" middle class exem- plifies the privileges, the ambiguities, and the "betweenness" of racial mix- t~re.~

I look back to Harper and Pauline Hopkins as foremothers in this tradition in order to bridge the differ- ence of a century and to emphasize that the blurring of racial bdundaries is a well-established American condition. This lineage could also be carried through Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Dorothy West, and other writ- ers who continue the tradition of bira- cial feminist resistance. Cliff adds to this tradition an enhanced awareness of racial and national duality that is the product of her Afro-Caribbean experi- ence.

Along the margins of the United States, over a century of literary and historical texts reflect an interest in identities that are not founded on a sin- gle cultural center. For example, within Afro-Caribbean and African American literature, one can trace references to African, British, and American cultural practices. A bicultural subject can strategically invoke different cultural idioms to suit varying political needs- speak patois to convey one attitude, English to convey another. Decentered identities-considered characteristic of postmodernism-have been forced upon border subjects by historical cir- cumstances. not derived from a urivi- leged academic trajectory throu h


modernism and deconstruction. From this alternate trajectory, we can recon- ceive ~ostmode;nism without reauir- ing a "foundation" of those theoretical or aesthetic movements that were unique to a few economically privi- leged, powerful cultures. Only now, as bicultural writers are bringing their code-switching and signifyin(@ resis- tance to the literarv forefront. do ~ost-

' I

modern theorists claim such strategies


as products of their own labor: a sort of


theoretical neo-imperialism. Yet the similarities between bicultural and postmodern practices invite a dialogue between the two.

Feminist novelists and critics have been on the forefront of the effort to reclaim biracialism as a positive attribute. Sex and race oppression are both involved in interracial mixing, in the traditional scenario where a white man a woman. In nine- teenth-century white literature, the innocent biracial heroine-the product of this racially imbalanced violation- became a paradigmatic victim. For these reasons, feminist writers have had a stake in rethinking women's relationship to biracialism and in imag- ining ways for their biracial characters to escape victimization. In analyzing contemporary novels that recast racial mixture as empowering, I consider how they are in dialogue with previous models andwith current postmodern visions.

In nineteenth-century literature, biracialism was often conceived as a "tragedy" for African Americans. White abolitionist writers such as Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Livermore, and Dion Boucicault used the "tragic mulatto" as a literary trope designed to represent the supreme injustice of racial hierarchies and the enslavement of women. The name Zoe, borrowed from Boucicault and Livermore, became a shorthand for the beautiful, Christian, near-white heroine between and locked Out of because of the "one drop" of "black blood" that distanced her from tradi- tional sentimental heroines. Despite her attempts to assimilate into the white that is part of her parentage, zoe's tragic admixture leads to a clash of cultures, which often results in her death. Mixed blood is a curse for the tragic mulatto in that it acts as a reminder of an original rape and of the imbalance of power that led to coerced sexual relations between white men and black women. Many African American writers, from William Brown through Charles Chesnutt and Nella Larsen, opposed the tragic mulatto type and developed biracial heroines who are empowered by their ..betweenness,,, Unlike the zoesimagined by white writers, black American writers depict- ed biracial for whom mixed blood did not inevitably lead to a tragic death. early as B~~~~~~ clotel (1853),biracialism enabled fluidity in the realm of identity, Robbed of her freedom and financial stability by being forced into slavery, Clotel has "a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers" at the slave auction (62).Later, she escapes from slavery by passing as a white man, crossing boundaries of both race and gender difference (167-69). Similarly, toward the end of the novel, her daughter also passes as a man in order to liberate her imprisoned lover (226). Other near-white women in the novel choose death or imprisonment to avoid having sex with their masters (206-07). Brown thus constructs a paradoxical image of the mulatto: She is deprived of life and liberty at the same time that she is superior to the darker slaves, able to transcend borders of racial dif- ference, allowed to earn money of her own, and skilled at escap- ing both prison and sexual

Clotel never stays in her played with, but between black and white"
place. So while Clotel kills (90).
herself to save her daueh- if will not be The liminal biracial


ter, Brown's emphasis on erased easily. individual calls into ques- condemnation. Despite her Cliff Seems to apparently tragic compo- suggest that nents, Clotel transcends the Zoe tvve. She is mobile, the tragic rathe; ihan locked out of mulatto opportunity. Although she is victimized bv the racial narrative is One hierarchy, the kulatta in that might be Although their biracial heroines may seem to be "tragic mulattas," the empowerment they often possess, their political activism, and their social mobility undermine the "tragedy" of their racial position and resist any sin- gular enclosure, such as the home and hearth of the white domestic novel.

Carby also emphasizes mobility and subversion, suggesting that the mulatto figure acts as an intermedi- ary who "allowed for movement between two worlds, white and black, and acted as a literary dis- .lacement of the actual increasing separation

her refusal to remain in slavery attributes to her an unexpected degree of agency and sub- version. The racial mixture that con- demns her to self-dispossession, and renders her body the property of another, also enables her strategic resistance to possession with a meta- morphosed identity.

Mary Helen Washington, Hazel Carby, and others have analyzed the mulatto heroine in U.S.literature and have found her character to exceed the dimensions of any simplistic literary label. According to Washington, Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins "reverse the image of the tragic mulat- to heroine, devising ways for their heroines to become political and social activists" (76). Washington emphasizes the ways in which African American women writers work within, and sub- vert, traditional genres of white American fiction, such as the sentimen- tal novel. While they seem to adopt the sentimental conventions on the surface, black women writers have a different investment in destabilizing that genre, encoding the difference of African American women's experience, and finding agency for the doubly oppressed black female character.


tion the separability of

black and white. 1; response to Carby and Washington, Kimberly A. C. Wilson claims that, "since identity for the mulatto lies between existing vrece~ts of racial sin-



gularity," she "deconstruct[s] essential- ist notions of race" (104). These early examvles of anti-essentialism serve as models for contemporary writers, whose biracial characters' fluid identi- ties have been located within the terms of postmodernism.

Frances Harper's Iola Leroy (1892) focuses on the mobility of biracial characters who often have the power to transcend their position through inter- racial marriage. Although Iola has an opportunity to become absorbed into the white race through marriage with Dr. Gresham, she "casts her lot" with those Americans blacker than she and dedicates herself to the education and improvement of recently freed slaves. As a result, she refuses to privilege whiteness and becomes a hero for her race. While Gresham insists that "the color line is slowly fading out" and sees "no use in [Iola's] persisting that [she] is colored when [her] eyes are as blue and complexion as white as [his]," Iola refuses to enter into society "under a shadow of concealment" where she might be mistaken as a white woman. She considers the "black blood" in her veins as a political and social obliga- tion, rather than "an undetected crime" (232-33). In these passages, race becomes, in part, an issue of choice, an identity category that may be hidden or shifting, a construction based on social perception. If race is a trait that can be "concealed" or rejected, then it is no surprise that the "color line" is fading: The possibility of distinguish- ing between the races is undermined by mulattoes like Iola.

While the tendency to regard mulattoes as the natural leaders of the African American race is certainly dubious (because it often implies that "white blood" makes them superior), it is significant that biracialism, in Iola's case, evolves from a source of tragedy to a means of emp~werment.~ Although Harper's mulatto characters do suffer for the initial discovery of their "mixed" racial constitution, this suffering renders Iola "heroic" and fuels her political activism (59). Biracialism is not despised; rather it provides an entry into the "higher" ranks of society, an escape from racial prejudice, and a source of pride and attractiveness. Indeed, the novel begins with Eugene Leroy marrying Iola's mother Marie, with the full knowledge of her biracialism: a subversion of the traditional scenario in which the white man unwittingly marries a light- skinned mulatta (68-69). White ascen- dancy and racial separation continue to unravel as the novel ends with Iola's marriage to Dr. Latimer-who chooses to identify as an African American but has the potential to "pass" for white- and Henry's marriage to the dark- skinned Lucille-which transgresses the color hierarchy that values mulat- toes above non-mixed African Americans (265-66,277-78). Each of these marriages is validated by Marie Leroy, who "is not one who can't be white and won't be black" (278). Through the use of the double negative in this description of Marie, Harper renders racial identity unstable: If the mulatto is not neither black nor white, she becomes eitherlor whatever she chooses.

In her 1900 novel Contending Forces, Pauline Hopkins questions, "Combinations of plants, or trees, or of any productive living thing, sometimes generate rare specimens of the plant or tree; why not, then, of the genus homo?" (87). Hazel Carby, analyzing Hopkins's use of "mixed" characters in this novel, suggests that the mulatto acts as "a vehicle for an exploration of the relationship between the races and, at the same time, an expression of the relationship between the races" (89). Through the biracial character, an author could investigate interracial ten- sions and interracial differences at the microcosmic level. In Carby's words,

The presence of "mixed" characters in the text did not represent an implicit desire to "lighten" blacks through blood ties with whites. Hopkins want- ed to emphasize those sets of social relations and practices which were the consequence of a social system that exercised white supremacy through the act of rape. Her use of mulatto fig- ures engaged with the discourse of social Darwinism, undermining the tenets of "pure blood" and "pure race" as mythological, and implicitly exposed the absurdity of theories of the total separation of the races. (140)

Like Lydia Maria Child before her, Hopkins despised the ways in which racial mixture retold the narrative of the white man's rape of the black woman. A speech delivered by Hopkins's mulatto hero Will Smith addresses the issue of lynching and denies that black men raping white women presents a threat significant enough to merit torture. Rather, by pointing the finger at black men for interracial rape, white men are trying to displace their own guilt for the role they played in the creation of the "mulatto race": " 'Rape is the crime which appeals most strongly to the heart of the home life. . . . Irony of

ironies! The [white] men who created the mulatto race . . . recruit its ranks year after year by the very means which they invoke lynch law to sup- press, bewailing the sorrows of violat- ed womanhood' " (271). Thus, white men have no grounds for claiming moral or biological superiority over black men. In this novel, Hopkins uses the figure of the near-white woman to explore the damage wrought by white men's violations. Yet despite the suffer- ing put upon her noble and educated mulatto characters, they triumph and, of course, marry in the end, forming heroes on the domestic scale, if not the political level that Harper presents.

In Hagar's Daaugh ter (1901-02), Hopkins presents scenes, like the escape of the enslaved mulatto woman (Hagar, in this case) by jumping into the Potomac River, which are based on Brown's Clotel and re~eated in Iola


Leroy. This use of duplicated scenes is characteristic of the formulaic genre that the tragic mulatto story, or the Zoe narrative, became. These repeating types and echoes also prefigure post- modern fiction's penchant for repeat- ing past narratives, cutting and pasting scenes from other novels into narrative amalgamations. It is not uncommon- indeed, it becomes exyected-to see certain scenes resurface in the different literary accounts of biracial identity.7 This repetition is one means by which the genre succeeds: The invocation of familiar tropes and figures drives the narrative and allows the novel to oper- ate in a ~arallel literarv-historical plane. Since Hagar's Daughter was serialized in Colored American Magazine, the familiar scenes not only facilitated the connection between episodes of the novel but also made it possible for readers to understand the plot when presented with serial frag- ments. Rather than existing in isola- tion, each episode was situated in a familiar historical and fictive situation.

The link between lost mothers and lost racial origins is one recurring theme that Hopkins invokes in this magazine novel. Hagar's Daughter thus plays upon the familiar associa- tion of maternal oriein with racial cer-


tainty.8 The discovery of racial heritage occurs simultaneously with the discov- ery of the maternal line. Jewel and Aurelia, two apparently white female characters, represent the contrasting products and conditions of racial amal- gamation. Jewel is a "fair fragrant lily," a "white angel of purity," and a "saint." In the same scene, Aurelia is described as a "tropical flower" with "dusky eyes" whose "bewitching" atti- tudes and "siren charms" are irre- sistible (and later destructive) for men (103-04). In competition for the same man, Jewel is virtuous and chaste, while Aurelia is evil, deceptive, and plotting. Aurelia is "false to the core," with "no soul," indeed no real identity (194). When it is revealed that she is a quadroon, she is considered a "prod- uct" of slavery and a victim of "man's inhumanity to man" (238). When Jewel, too, turns out to be Hagar's daughter, and of mixed racial origin, Hopkins's readers must question if racial mixture necessarily leads to deception and sensuality, as in the case of Aurelia. For Jewel, the disclosure of her racial origins is rendered less tragic by her pleasure at being reunited with her mother. Her discovery is both sweet and tragic. Yet both women, fair and "tropical," are cast out of society because of their origins, and Jewel dies before her lover can either accept or claim her racial status (283).

Although Ellis Enson, one of the novel's heroes, takes up the position that advocates racial amalgamation as an end to racial separation and antago- nism, Hopkins provides no clear answers (270). Indeed, her purpose seems to be to expose the absence of clarity, the ambiguity of racial identity, and the elusiveness of racial origins. As Hopkins uncovers layers of identity to reveal her characters' origins, we find that "black blood is everywhere-in society and out, and in our families even" (160). Again, the inability to sep- arate or to distinguish the races causes initial anxiety, and racial certainty


becomes unmoored from each charac-

ter as "cases of mistaken identity are common enough" (194). No one is

"immune" (266). It seems that anyone, even the whitest character, could dis- cover a hidden racial identity, erasing the binary opposition between black- ness and whiteness, deconstructing the certainty of difference. And "soulless"

characters like Aurelia can construct identities at will. The ultimate image is a complex, shifting network of racial

lineage, in which identity is always an

unfixed unknown.

Michelle Cliff responds to many of these same literarv scenar- ios (interracial rape, the tragic Zoe, the lost mother, racial and sexual passing) and reconceives biracialism with increased theoretical and political radi- calism. The repetition of themes that appear in Harper's and Hopkins's work puts Cliff's work in dialogue with these earlier U.S. writers, whose work has gained more attention than the work of her Jamaican literary fore- mother^.^ Women such as Harper and Hopkins are being reclaimed and incorporated into mainstream antholo- gies and American canons, whereas the literary roots of black Jamaican women-although they may be well- established-have received less recog- nition. According to Laura Niesen de Abruna, Caribbean women's writing did not gain much critical attention until the 1970s, because formerly "the critics' attention was focused on the male writers Wilson Harris, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, V. S. Naipaul, and Edward Brathwaite" (86). Significantly, the first Caribbean woman writer to receive critical atten- tion was the white Jean Rhys. Given Cliff's position as a self-proclaimed feminist woman of color living in the U.S., she understandably refers to the now prominent work of U.S. black women. Indeed, in an interview with Opal Palmer Adisa, Cliff emphasizes the need to draw from the history of black feminism in this country and

claims that she wants to "foreground

those women like Sojourner Truth and

Frances E. W. Harper" (278).

It is important to note that Cliff's

reputation among Afro-Caribbean fem-

inists is somewhat ambiguous. Belinda

Edmondson claims that Cliff's attempt , to revalue blackness, despite her own


technically "white" skin, "is debated

by West Indian feminists and intellec-

tuals": "Many . . . feel that even as Cliff

is described as a black feminist novelist

in America (where she lives and

writes) her novels are not truly part of

an Afro-centric Caribbean discourse,

because her project as a feminist

emanates from an American feminist

sensibility and perhaps more impor-

tantly that her discovery of a black

identity is a foreign fashion that she

has appropriated" (181-82). Light-

skinned Caribbean women like Cliff

experience the privileges of the domi-

nant culture and come to represent,

according to Edmondson, "not simply

both 'First' and 'Third' World sensibili-

ties but also 'male' (white, Euro-

American) colonizing culture and

'female' (black, post-colonial) colo-

nized nature" (182). The biracial indi-

vidual is seen as confounding all'iden-

tity categories. Furthermore, Cliff's sex-

ual politics, her lesbian feminism, is

also often seen as part of her co-opta-

tion by Euro-American feminisms.1°

So Cliff is already "impure," cor-

rupted by foreign influences, as a

model of Afro-Caribbean authority or

feminist authority. Yet this foreignness

supports my argument and adds

nationality to the multiple axes of iden-

tification that the biracial subject cross-

es. Cliff's work, while retaining roots in

Jamaican culture, also moves fluidly

from the Caribbean to Europe to the

United States, crossing not only oceans

but also borders of identity and histo-

ry. She cannot be simply categorized as

black or white, as Jamaican, American,

or European. According to

Edmondson, she creates a location that

is "elsewhere," that emanates from


fitting into many or fitting into none? Cliff explores both possibilities.

In The Land of Look Behind, her 1985 collection of poetry and essays, Cliff describes the mulatto as living proof of interracial sex, usually the white man's transgressions outside the color line (41). Because of the preva- lence of this narrative of rape and mis- cegenation, Cliff claims that many of the lighter fathers have broods of "out- side" children who come and go by the back door (26-27). These darker chil- dren are "outside" because thev are produced in extra-marital alliances. They remain outside the realm of man- ners, outside the family-attending different schools, distanced from the light-skinned children in order to hide the shame of their father's border- crossing. This going "outside" is sub- versive in that it questions the superi- ority of white lovers, denies racist re~ilsionon the sexual level, and decenters white-centered power struc- tures by exposing the center's involve- ment with "outsiders." Perha~s the


outside is so fundamental to the status quo that the two are interdependent: The status quo is a product of their hid- den ~roximitv. In a-racial materializa- tion that prefigures the Derridean con- cept, the inside seems to be constructed by its relations with the outside.ll


While darker mixed-race children are ~ositioned outside the "charmed circle" of racial advantage, those mixed-blood children whose lighter skin puts them in a position of poten- tial racial domination among; the "hier-


archy of shades" are expected to advance the whitening, or the center- ing, of the darker-skinned Creoles and toencourage assimilation by adopting the colonizer's culture (59). The process of moving "up" in the racial hierarchy means chGosCng; ~artners within the


lighter-skinned Creole population, looking inside the privileged circle and kee~inethe darker shades outside: an

I "

internal racism exemplified by Charles Chesnutt's story "The Wife of His ~outh."'~

As a result, the mixed-race individual, who inhabits the margins


of a white-centered society, experiences a tension between crossing inside or outside through sex, using reproduc- tion to move the familv into the inner circle of whiteness or to reject that cen- ter and turn outward through further racial mixture. In this wav, incest and


miscegenation, in-breeding and out- breeding, form two sides of the same coin. Yet both directions of "breeding" reproduce the same racist hierarchies at different locations. This tension, or often slippage, between inside and out- side within the mixed-race family questions the distinctiveness of the racial inside from the racial outside, undermining the exclusionary princi- ples that such racism tries to reinforce.

Cliff analyzes the blurring lines of racial demarcation in Jamaica, as the light-skinned or "colored" Jamaicans take over the role of oppressor from the white British colonizers. In her well-known essay "If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire," Cliff considers what happens when the "house nigger" assumes the position of master. In this changing of the guard, the biracial Jamaican crosses the traditional lines of correlation between (white) race and leadership, (European) nationality and conquest. Cliff claims that, at this point, "unreali- ty overtook reality," meaning perhaps that biracial Jamaican "coloreds" con- structed an image of the colonizer in themselves, and a simulation of white dominance overtook the authority of the "real" white colonizer (Land 62). Those with traces of both white and black racial origins also have the privi- lege to come and go between Jamaica, England, and the United States, repli- cating the triangular trade and reflect- ing the triangular patterns of cultural and economic neo-imperialism that exist in Jamaica today. The light- skinned middle class is endowed with a "double vision" (72) much like

W. E. B. Du Bois's "double-conscioas- ness," but more complex in that it includes a view of colonization from both sides of a crumbling racial and national divide. Cliff concludes her essay with an evocation of the multi- plicity of identities within Jamaican subjects: "We/they/I connect and dis- connect," blurring like the Rasta "I and I," self with "Jah" (76). Just as the Rastafarian conceives of his/her identi- ty only in relation to "Jah," a transcen- dental or Godlike being, the biracial subject defines his/her identity in rela- tion to another: an other race, an other self, an other being.

Within this affirmed duality, Cliff echoes Iola Leroy by subverting the traditional "colored" urge to empha- size the white and by wishing that she were darker. In "Artificial Skin," she expresses the wish that she could pur- chase "Artificial Skin" or melanin, cast- ing racial identity as a surface that must be bought, rather than born into. Her desire to metamorphose would transform race into a mutable artifice, prefiguring postmodern identity yet differing from postmodernism by maintaining culturally, politically, and historically specific ties. Cliff notes the historic and demographic accuracy of her racial fluidity and multiplicity. Race is not decentered only in fiction, but in the "real" world, too. Her poem "Europe becomes blacker" claims that not only is the human makeup of con- temporary Europe racially and nation- ally diverse, but it was "always dark" (Land 108). Cliff exposes the ways in which Western culture has been found- ed on multiracialism: Dumas's Haitian ancestry, Pushkin's slave grandfather, the Moors in Europe, Ghanaian facto- ry-workers, a Black cardinal entombed in the Vatican during the Cinquecento (109). Despite racist attempts to define Western culture as white, and to push non-whites to the margins, Cliff reveals the "blackness" at the center of Europe.

In her novel Abeng (1984), Cliff confronts the tragic mulatto narrative head-on and enacts in the realm of fic- tion those theories she avows in her essays. The Savage family is a racial and national hybrid, with origins scat- tered throughout the Miskito Indians, the Ashanti, and the British. The family even attends two different churches: Anglican and Baptist. Clare Savage, Cliff's semi-autobiographical heroine, is both black and white, pale and deeply colored. While her white friend Miss Winifred claims that " 'coons and buckra people were not meant to mix their blood' "and " 'only sadness comes from mixture,' "Clare denies this pessimistic outlook. For Clare, everyone is mixed, and Jamaica is founded on " 'all kinds of mixture' " (Abeng 164). Rather than fearing or attempting to hide this fact-as Hopkins's characters do in Hagar's Daugh ter-Clare, and Cliff, affirm this mixture as the true and empowering nature of Jamaican people. The origins of this culture are polyphonic: a mul- tiracial and multinational subversion of singular notions of nationality and cul- tural origin. In reading Dickens's Great Expectations, Clare identifies with both Havisham (white woman) and Magwitch (dark man), positioning her- self on both sides of racial and sexual borders (36). Although she often feels "split into two parts-white and not white, town and country, scholarship and privilege" (109)-this novel and its sequel, No Telephone to Heaven, trace Clare's eventual reconciliation of these two halves. In No Telephone, Clare ultimately returns to Jamaica after a British education in the classics, claims Tamaica as her home, and converts her wealthy grandmother's property into a base for Marxist revolutionaries. Once she has determined to direct the fruits of her race- and class-based privilege to the cause of the Jamaican people, Clare joins a multiracial band of revolution- aries and sacrifices her life on an American movie set, taking activism far beyond the limits of Iola Leroy.

In Abeng,Clare spends winters in Kingston and summers in rural St. Elizabeth. After having lived in both worlds, she learns to prefer the more fluid cultures of the country. In St. Elizabeth, funeral processions bring together an amalgamation of nations and cultures with African chants, British hymns, and Red Stripe torch bottles (50).Schools teach the works of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay alongside Wordsworth and Tennyson (89). In this multiplex society, Clare learns to transcend cultural divisions and follow in the path of her Uncle Robert, an outcast who defies social laws rdgarding the superiority of whiteness. Robert transgresses conven-


tion along multiple axes-race, nation, and sexuality- by loving a dark- skinned United States man (125). Clare, too, crosses lines of race, class, and sex- uality in her love for the darker- skinned Zoe, whom she meets in St. Elizabeth. In this relationship, Clare learns to bridge the multiple compo- nents of her identity and to challenge the idea that difference is insurmount- able. Communities and friendshim in Brown, Harper, and Hopkins rarely cross lines of racial difference, and only Brown considers sexual ambiguity, but never homoeroticism. Thus, Clare and Zoe's boundary-crossing friendship is something new.13

There is little doubt that Cliff responds both to the nineteenth-centu- ry "Zoe" narratives and to early-twen- tieth-century revisions of that narra- tive. lust as the name Zoe invokes the tradition of Livermore and Boucicault, the name Clare recalls the character in Larsen's Passing.Cliff's Zoe is the fatherless, nutmeg-colored daughter of a poor market woman, Miss Ruthie (91). Significantly, Zoe is not separated from her maternal origins or ignorant of her "black blood," as in the case of previous Zoes. Yet she is still marginal- ized, literally cast out to the margins of "lighter" biracial society. Clare's grandmother Miss Mattie allows them to "squat" on the fringes of her proper- ty, and she tells Ruthie to send Zoe to keep Clare entertained during the sum- mers (81,93). As Clare's playmate, the parameters of Zoe's existence expand by association with the more socially mobile Savages. Together, Clare and Zoe present different sides of the Zoe/mulatta narrative: light and dark, privileged and outcast. Their differ- ences invoke both the positive and the negative aspects of the literary biracial experience, presenting two sides of the same story. While biracialism repre- sents advantage for some (Clotel and Iola Leroy, for example), it also repre- sents alienation for others (Jewel and Boucicault's Zoe). Yet together Clare and Zoe are not alienated or passive victims of oppression. The depth of the friendship between the girls, along with their strength and independence, challenge previous visions of the tragic mulatto. The image of the two girls running after wild pigs, swimming naked in the river, and shooting a bull with a gun subverts not only Jamaican standards of "women's work" but overturns the literary tradition in which Zoe, the biracial woman, had to assume white standards of domestic morality in order to gain literary visi- bility (115-23).

The significant barrier between Clare and Zoe is not race, since Zoe is only slightly darker than Clare's moth- er Kitty. The real distinction between the two is more social, constructed by convention: Clare belongs to a different class, she attends a different school, and her grandmother has economic power over Zoe's family. The distinc- tion between them is not "neat"; their identities both meet and diverge (121). Their friendship temporarily decon- structs their differences and erases


lines of social inequality. In fact, their differences are the basis for their friendship. The original power imbal- ance that forced Miss Ruthie to send Zoe to Miss Mattie is not reproduced between the girls; rather, their union pushes social distinctions into the background, behind the foreground of the imaginary landscapes where they play (95).Together Clare and Zoe cre- ate pictographic languages and imitate the Aztecs and Mayans in their games (94).They create a multinational world, a simulation of interracial dynamics that becomes more "real" than the real world outside their imaginations. Indeed, Cliff describes the world of the rest of the island as equally "make- believe" and ignorant of its own histo- ry (96).14

Cliff restores history to Jamaica in her contextualization of the narrative, in which she depicts many layers of "reality": fiction, history, politics. As with the images on the wallpaper in the old "Paradise Plantation," the cul- ture of the colonizer presents a repeat- ing backdrop, a "white background" covered in a pattern of white women, white children, and red dogs "in a park in a city somewhere in Europe" (24). This seemingly out-of-place scene "is repeated again and again across the wall" and throughout the novel: the insistent British background "against which" the history of Jamaica and the history of the novel are cast. Yet as the paper ages it darkens and peels, reveal- ing different layers underneath. Cliff gives us glimpses of various levels that lie beneath the present, but the new layers do not replace the old. Instead, they pile up into a thickness that exposes the palimpsest that makes up the whole. Images from the time when the island rose and sank before it was inhabited through the rise of native societies, the Conquest, Triangular Trade, slavery, maroon societies, the revolts of Granny Nanny, Cuffee, and Cudjoe, Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association- even the Nazi takeover of Germany- present parallel narratives to the

1 Savage family history (14-21,80,88). The constructed fictional trajectory lies alongside the historical chain of events.

I Cliff also emphasizes cultural diversity throughout Abeng. Her cul-

' tural references retain African origins and beliefs: obeah, one-breasted war- riors, Brer Anancy (20,34).Cliff's vocabulary is patois, constantly reminding the reader of the multiple origins of Jamaican society. She includes a glossary to help the reader translate words like fiam, smaddy, and wunna and to highlight the extent to which Jamaicans stretch their language beyond standard English. As Cliff intersperses fragments of history with the novelistic "present" of the same locations, she depicts the various lin- eages and the evolution of the culture that produced families like the Savages. Boy and Kitty Savage repre- sent different lines of this heritage, the light-skinned conquerors and the dark- er-skinned natives. One can never for- get the repeating background of the plantation wallpaper. Yet like the social background that Clare and Zoe defy with their fantasy worlds, this background is now "faded" from cen- turies of revolution, from Granny Nanny to Clare (24)."The danger to Clare was that the background could slide so easily into the foreground" (25).Cliff keeps the background at bay by emphasizing the foreground of resis- tance. In "If I Could Write This in Fire," she maintains that the oppressors "like to pretend we didn't fight back," but "we did: obeah, poison, revolution" (Land 67).Within the dual society of Jamaica, Cliff consistently emphasizes the trans- gressions of those conventions that attempted to divide race from race and to put whites at the center. She decon- struct~that center-in her refusal to privilege light skin, her emphasis on mixing, and her stories of resistance- to counter the history of racism, con- quest, and separation. Cliff is able to go beyond the gestures of resistance in Harper and Hopkins by invoking tra- ditions of West Indian rebellion and twentieth-century historical and politi- cal developments.

African piano (92-93). But the daugh- ter's nariative comes close to that of the tragic mulatto. She is described as "half-them" and a "white nigger," the white blood degrading her and alienat- ing her from herself (97,93). Her narra- tive blends with that of "the half-breed daughter" kidnaped by "some crazy Apaches": "polysyllabic and clean and calicoed when the Apaches seize her, dirty and monosyllabic . . . and violat- ed, dear Lord, violated out of her head" after the attack (102). In this sce- nario, the multiply endowed hybrid woman becomes violated and is driven crazy just as was the tragic mulatto in nineteenth-century U.S. fiction.15 Ultimately, Cliff's "girl" loses her sani- ty and has nightmares of drowning in a pond and turning green (103). Since the racial origin that condemns the mulatto woman in this case is white, and she eventually fears turning green, Cliff does subvert the conventional narra- tive in which black is the threatening color. Traditionally, the drop of black blood presents the curse, and the appearance of African features consti- tutes the primary fear.

Cliff is never fully celebratory of biracialism, and her readers are unable to forget that racial mixture often began (and begins) with rape. Indeed, despite the foreground that imagines strategies for resistance, conquest remains in the background.

The repeated incidents of rape in these narratives make the story of the tragic mulatto a primary target for fem- inist analysis. Cliff returns to the tragic mulatto and criticizes the gendered oppressions of miscegenation, which targeted women as the objects of sexu- al desire and as the sources of "bas- tard" and "mixed-breed" reproduction. She also re-imagines the biracial woman, through both Clare and Zoe, as independent, empowered, resisting, and woman-loving. Their mothers are dark and teach them to love, rather than to feel alienated by, dark skin. Thus she exposes and condemns the tragedy, while envisioning a feminist alternative to tragedy. A feminist bira- cial subject would take advantage of her duality, her multiple potential, and play between different realms. Women like Clare use their biracial advantage to benefit the revolution with economic resources and knowledge from two cultures. In addition, they subvert sin- gular categories of identity and chart new space for shifting, multiple, femi- nist subjectivities.

In the late twentieth century, cultural, social, and sexual circulation across racial boundaries has increased tremendously. Each race borrows musical styles, fashions, traditions, even physical traits from others to such a degree that it has become difficult to circumscribe any single race as such. Some consider racial mixture and mis- cegenation to herald the end of racial distinction. and thus the end of racism: a utopian endpoint for colonization, abolition, and equal rights. William Wells Brown beeins his famous 1853


exploration of the effects of miscegena- tion by noting Henry Clay's theory that the "amaleamation of the races" would


lead to the necessary abolition of slav- ery (55). This position, also given voice in other nineteenth-century texts, such as Hopkins's Hagar's ~au~hter,

was uncommon for the period, but it is beginning to resurface in contempo- rary "multicultural" media images that privilege light-skinned African Americans in interracial groups.16 For example, recent ads for CK One, Calvin's Klein's new perfume that sup- posedly transcends boundaries of race and gender difference, feature mixed- race erou~s of men and women who

u L

look very much the same, with the same clothes, the same hair, and almost the same faces. If skin color difference is thus almost imperceptible, all races might tend toward blending and becoming "one." The blurring of racial boundaries (or the threat thereof) is a long-standing American condition, a recurring fantasy that has produced a variety of responses, ranging from cele- bration to repulsion, from heralding amalgamation as an end to difference or as; means of enforced assimilation and domination.

1. For example, Judith Raiskin studies the ways in which Cliff and Gloria Anzaldua "each offer Notes
complex postmodern challenges to modern identity categories of sexuality, race, and nationhood"  
(156). At recent conferences I have attended, almost every session on "ethnic" literature has included  
a paper claiming that someone like Sandra Cisneros or Toni Morrison is "postmodern." The similari-  
ties between postmodernism and biculturalism-decenteredness, fluidity, liminality-have inspired  
these connections between Euro-American philosophy and "ethnic" studies.  
2. Although the Caribbean and the United States have different histories of slavery, colonialism,  
miscegenation, and racial stratification, their differences revolve around the common factor of a  
color-based hierarchy. Despite the fact that Jamaica has a larger percentage of "colored" or mulatto  
citizens, I would contend that the United States is as completely biracial (or multiracial) as Caribbean  
culture, for the U.S. is composed of a broad spectrum of racial and cultural differences. And while the  
United States' role as a colonizer makes it absurd to view most U S. citizens through the lens of post-  
colonial theory, the relationship between people of color and whites within the U.S. is as "postcolo-  
nial" as racial dynamics in the Caribbean.  
3. Michele Wallace claims that African Americans have already experienced something like post-  
modernism throughout their history in the U.S. because of their undermined civic status and their  
experience with unreliable signifiers such as "freedom" (78-79). Similarly, Guillermo Gomez Peiia  
says that Latinos have "always had postmodern, only ours was involuntary" (qtd. in Yarbro-Bejarano  
4. 1 am referring, at this moment, to the conventional definition of race as something "more" than  
culture. While cultural traits are assumed to be social constructions, race is often assumed to be an  
essential, definitive component of physical identity. Yet biracialism undermines the gap between  
racial stability and cultural fluidity.  
5. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr., are often criticized for their deconstructions  
of race, since their acceptance of poststructuralism is seen as an apolitical, ahistorical forgetting of  
their specific racial context. In Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, Baker criticizes those  
"reconstructionist" critics of the "New Black Middle Class," who adopt the standards, postures, and  
vocabularies of white theorists, betraying their own vernacular tradition (88-89). He includes Gates  
with this group. Although he praises Gates's emphasis on Signifyin(g), he attacks his apolitical  
careerism and allegiance to white or "high cultural" models for theory (I II). Later, in a three-way  
exchange published by New Literary History, Joyce Ann Joyce criticizes both Baker and Gates for  
their use of the "pseudoscientific," "distant and sterile" poststructural language which bears no rela-  
tionship to "Black lives," "Black realities," and "Black literature" (338-39). See also Barbara Christian's  
"The Race for Theory."  
6. Washington says of lola Leroy that, "though it has a highly melodramatic plot, complete with ide-  
alized mulatto heroes, sudden reversals of fortune, the bad punished and the good rewarded,  
[Harper] gives its main character a . . . powerful and unambiguously heroic role" (77).  
7. Toni Morrison duplicates this technique in Beloved (a novel that is often called postmodern for  
its non-linear, fragmented form and stream-of-consciousness), when she retells the story of a slave  
woman who crossed the Ohio River to freedom, killed one child, and attempted to take the lives of  
two other children. Harper tells this same story in lola Leroy (98). In this way, stories that are based  
on historical reality get "passed on," added to, and revised through literature.  
8. Legal theorist Luther Wright analyzes the first U.S. statute to define race: a 1662 Virginia law  
that attempted to pin down ambiguous racial identities. According to this rule, the status of a child's  
mother determined the child's status (Wright 523). Most mothers of mixed-race children were black,  
and this law ensured that biracial children were classified as black, guaranteeing slave status to the  
products of master-slave rape and resewing the designation "white" for those of "pure" ancestry. In  
the traditional scenario where the black woman was raped by the white man, any children produced  
would get no more than an outsider's glimpse of the "white world," to which fifty percent of the biracial  
child's blood belonged. The mother takes on the full burden of racial parentage and comes to sym-  
bolize racial origin, although her elusive ancestry only tells half of the story. During slavery and dur-  
ing the Civil War, when families were frequently fragmented and scattered, the search for the lost  
mother paralleled the drive to resolve anxiety about uncertain racial status.  
9. While Jamaican women activists, such as Granny Nanny, do figure prominently in Cliff's work,  
one finds few references to Jamaican literary women.  
10. According to Paula Rust's analysis of race and sexuality, "Because homosexuality represents  
assimilation, it is stigmatized as a 'white disease' or, at least, a 'white phenomenon.' Individuals who  
claim a bisexual, lesbian, or gay identity are accused of buying into white culture and thereby becom-  
ing traitors to their own racial or ethnic group" (65). Cherrie Moraga addresses this dynamic in the  
context of Chicano culture, where Chicana lesbianism is construed as "being used by the white man"  

and being traitorous to Chicanos since "homosexuality is his disease with which he sinisterly infects Third World people" (1 14).

  1. In Of Grammatology, Derrida claims that "the outside bears with the inside a relationship that is, as usual, anything but simple exteriority. The meaning of the outside was always present within the inside, imprisoned outside the outside, and vice versa" (35). In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," he describes the center as that which closes off the infinite play of signifiers, and decentering that center allows everything to become play (84). 1 would not claim that the inside equals the outside, because such a simple paradigm misses the unequal power rela- tions between inside and outside and the processes through which the two sides are involved. Yet decentering the center endows the system with greater flexibility.
  2. Although Chesnutt does not deal with literal incest in this story, his protagonist Mr. Ryder initial- ly looks for a wife within his elite society of the "Blue Veins," a pseudo-family dedicated to the "improvement" of the light-skinned persons of the race (i.e., themselves).
  3. In Clotel, the slaves have separate church services and fraternize only among themselves. While Clotel and her daughter both cross-dress, Brown never depicts possible erotic love without a definitely heterosexual pair. In Contending Forces, the light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans attend separate churches and cooperate only reluctantly when preparing for the fair. And the close friendships Hopkins depicts in this novel are all between mulattoes. Perhaps the relation- ship that comes closest to Clare and Zoe's in Cliff's novel is the potentially homoerotic friendship between Clare and Irene in Nella Larsen's Passing (1929).
  4. This blending of history and fiction suggests that all reality is a form of simulation-another very postmodern conceptualization.
  5. This image recalls Xarifa's story in Lydia Maria Child's "The Quadroon" and Sappho's story in Hopkins's Contending Forces, most directly. It also recalls the threat most feared by the mulatto women in Clotel and by Zoe in Boucicault's The Octoroon, who kill themselves to avoid violation.
  6. In Hagar's Daughter, the hero Ellis Enson claims that amalgamation will inevitably overpower and defeat attempts at racial separation (270).

Works Adisa, Opal Palmer. "Journey into Speech-A Writer Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Cited Michelle Cliff" African American Review 28 (1994): 273-81 Baker, Houston A,, Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Berzon, Judith. Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. New York: New

York UP, 1978. Boucicault, Dion. The Octoroon. 1859. Upper Saddle River: Literature House, 1970. Brown, William Wells. Clotel, or, The President's Daughter. 1853. New York: Arno P, 1969. Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Chesnutt, Charles Wadell. The Wife of His Youth, and Other Stories of the Color Line. 1899.

Ridgewood' Gregg P, 1967. Child, Lydia Marla. Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories. New York: C. S. Francls, 1846. Christian, Barbara. "The Race for Theory." The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Ed. Abdul

JanMohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 37-49. Cliff, Michelle. Abeng. 1984. New York: Plume, 1995. -. Bodies of Water. New York: Dutton, 1990. -. Free Enterprise. New York: Dutton, 1993. -. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1985. -. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Vintage, 1989. Cudjoe, Selwyn R., ed. Caribbean Women Writers. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1990. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

UP, 1976

-. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Trans. Alan Bass. Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986. 83-94.

Edmondson, Belinda. "Race, Privilege, and the Politics of (Re)writing History: An Analysis of the

Novels of Michelle Cliff." Callaloo 16.1 (1993): 180-91
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Plum Bun. 1929. London: Pandora P, 1985.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Harper, Frances. lola Leroy. 1892. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.


Hopkins, Pauline. Contending Forces: A Romance illustrative of Negro Life North and South. 1900. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

-. The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Joyce, Joyce Ann. "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism." New Literary History 18 (1 987): 335-84. Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994. Lionnet, Fran~oise. "Of Mangoes and Maroons: Language, History, and the Multicultural Subject of

Michelle Cliffs Abeng." De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 321-45.

Livermore, Elizabeth. Zoe, or the quadroon's triumph. Cincinnati: Truman and Spofford, 1855.

Moraga, Cherrie. Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso por sus labios. Boston: South End P, 1983. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. New York: Signet, 1991. Niesen de Abruna, Laura. "Twentieth-Century Women Writers from the English-Speaking Caribbean." Cudjoe 86-97. Raiskin, Judith. "Inverts and Hybrids: Lesbian Rewritings of Sexual and Racial Identities." The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 156-72. Rust, Paula C. "Managing Multiple Identities: Diversity Among Bisexual Women and Men." Bisexuality; The Psychology and Politics of an Invisible Minority. Ed. Beth A. Firestein. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1996. 53-83.

Wallace, Michele. Invisibility Blues. London: Verso, 1990.

Washington, Mary Helen. Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women, 1860-1960.Garden City: Doubleday, 1987. West, Dorothy. The Living Is Easy. 1948. New York: Feminist P, 1982. Wilson, Kimberly A. C. "The Function of the 'Fair' Mulatto: Complexion, Audience, and Mediation in

Frances Harper's lola Leroy." Cimarron Review 106 (1994): 104-13. Wright, Luther. "Who's Black, Who's White, and Who Cares: Reconceptualizing the United States's Definition of Race and Racial Classifications." Vanderbilt Law Review 48 (1995): 513-69. Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. "The Multiple Subject in the Writing of Ana Castillo." Americas Review

20.1 (1 992): 65-72.

Frostburg State University
Assistant Professor of English

Frostburg State University seeks a tenure-track Assistant Professor of English to begin Fall 1999. RESPONSIBILITIES: Teach four courses per semester, including two classes of composition theory and one or more of developmental writing. MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS: Ph.D. in English with dissertation in composition theory; record of excellence in teaching composition at the university level. Experience in technical communication will be an asset. Service to the department and university is expected, as are active research and commitment to program development. Send letter of interest, curriculum vitae,transcripts, and three letters of recommenda- tion by March 15,1999, to: Frostburg State University, Office of Human Resources, ATTN: Assistant Professor of English (Position #99-1021), Frostburg, MD 21532 or e-mail to fparks@fre.fsu.umd.edu.

FSU Is An AA/EOE. Appropriate Auxiliary Aids and Services For
Qualified Individuals W/ Disability Will Be Provided Upon Request.
Please Notify In Advance. WWW.FSU.UMD.EDU

If the interpenetration between races has lead to an erosion of racial differentiation, it has also caused an erosion of racial categories themselves. For example, "mulatto" has disap- peared as a distinct identity category today and instead describes most African American identities, blending and destabilizing racial identification. It still holds power as a concept, how- ever, and it carries a cultural memory that influences our perceptions of bira- cialism today. Once we get beyond the idea that biracialism is a tragedy, once we look forward to and imagine a future in which biracialism need not tell a story of rape and exclusion, we can develop new political strategies based on multiple identities. Biracial writers such as Cliff have access to multiple spheres of reference-lan- guages (French, English, and patois), powerful traditions (obeah, African goddesses, Christianity), and histories of resistance (Granny Nanny's slave revolt, maroon colonies)-that are as yet unrecognized by most Americans. The non-singularity of biracial identity resists circumscription by a monocul- tural power structure that cannot accommodate multiplicity in a single subject, that does not attend to the actions of non-whites, and that cannot interpret the language and traditions of the "outside" group.

Cliff characterizes the Caribbean as "a confused universe, . . . with no cen- ter and no outward edge. Where almost everything was foreign" (Free Enterprise 6). In this vision, Caribbean culture is a composite of foreign cul- tures, with no governing center and no line of demarcation. In the Caribbean and in the U.S., the colonizer is at least as foreign as the darker-skinned peo- ples it has pushed to the margins. Cliff's paradigm forces us to rethink the history of cultural domination. The distinction between inside and outside


becomes "confused" when no single


culture can claim central status or delineate an outer boundary. The for- eignness within problematizes the attempt to exclude "foreigners." Cliff bridges margin and center in her post- colonial universe (which exposes the exteriority of the dominant culture), in her transnational politics (which exceed singular concepts of the nation), and in her biracial characters (who sub- vert rigid concepts of racial identity). Looking backward, Cliff juxtaposes history and fiction, amplifying some events and decentering others.

As this essay has demonstrated, the duality that allows Cliff to view history from both sides of racial, national, and temporal borders is not the sole prerogative of the postmodern. Other artists who have been "decen- tered" in different political and histori- cal circumstances-Augusta Savage, William Wells Brown, Frances Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Nella Larsen-have also unsettled history and reimagined traditional narratives, preeminently the narrative of the tragic mulatto. Most important, these visionaries imagine decentered identities and inessential racial constructions without letting go of powerful identity politics that are rooted in culturally and historically specific moments. In this way, they provide an answer to the question of whether postmodern paradigms are always ahistorical or apolitical. Perhaps the decentering that fuels bira- cial resistance could be applied in anal- ogous situations by other people at the margins of race, sex, or class difference. Both before and after postmodernism, biracialism was and is regionally, con- textually, and historically variable. This variability creates space for re-imagin- ing the significance of the raced body and for resisting absorption by a great white cultural center. For Clotel, for Iola, for Clare, and for Annie Christmas, biracial identities translate into fluidity, mobility, and empowerment.

In Free Enterprise (1993), Cliff con- tinues to explore the meaning of bira- cialism, to celebrate the Africanist ele- ments within the mulatto tradition, to emphasize resistance (Granny Nanny, John Brown), and to criticize'the bour- geois gens inconnu (unknown people) who deny their black ancestry and efface their own histories. Her light- skinned heroine Annie Christmas, like Clare Savage before her, rejects the European pretensions of her family and applies Mr. Bones's Liquid Blackener to "her carefully inbred skin" (9). In the case of Annie, the rebellions of one daughter overturn the racial breeding of her ancestors. In this text, Cliff addresses the mulatto tradi- tion directly: Annie echoes Brown's Clotel as she cross-dresses to help instrument a slave revolt (136). She meets Frances Harper face-to-face and criticizes her privileging of the "light- skinned female Christian octoroon" (Iola Leroy) because she ignores "the vast majority of our people." While Harper required recourse to the "exceptional" biracial subject in order to "wring hearts dry; white ones, at least," Cliff rejects this tendency. Annie denies these Iola-esque elements of her identity with skin blackener, "her back turned on gens inconnu," and a careful association with rebels and lepers, rather than the "Talented Tenth" (11). Cliff favors those characters who, although they are "for all intents and purposes, white," seek out blacks and long for darker skin (111).She also emphasizes those elements of disguise that empower her characters and enable them to construct fluid identi- ties. For example, Mary Ellen Pleasant passes for Mammy, blacksmith, house servant, jockey, and middle-aged woman of African American descent. Annie and Mary Ellen use disguise to "pass through the nets," to move from North to South to West, to transport guns and fugitive slaves, to enter dif- ferent realms without being expelled (194). Their light skin and their protean Dower to transform themselves enable


them to belong as insiders in many dif- ferent racial, cultural, and class-based milieus.

Cliff's collection of stories Bodies of Water (1990) also forces a reconcep- tualization of racial constitution, while remaining more clearly rooted in the tragic Zoe tradition. "Burning Bush" envisions a woman, the Girl from Martinique, who is biracial, black and white, because she paints patches on her body with whitewash in order to attract a crowd at the circus (77). Although she tries to pass her dual color off as an exotic practice from her native land, it is really a form of self- camouflage, designed to earn a liveli- hood. The "~atchwork" woman con- siders this means of self-exhibition as a way to escape prostitution, as a more empowering form of economically motivated self-exploitation. The skin color is a way out for her. This "parti- colored" "checkerboard of a woman" produces a baby whose racial duality also reflects "certain practices of her native land" (76,78). But these prac- tices seem more real. The baby is born light-skinned, and the mother hopes that her skin will darken with age, per- haps to efface the traces of the "prac- tice" of misceeenation.


I would suggest that the circus woman's whitewash mimics earlier biological "whitenings." While cen- turies of miscegenation have produced mulatto "circus freaks," the Girl from Martinique takes control over that pro- duction,-constructin her own biracial


subjects, who simulate, mock, or paro- dy the biological production of half- black, half-white children. Indeed, her whitewash paints right over the previ- ous narrative, turning racial mixture to her own economic advantage, and re- imagining biracialism as a constructed, self-chosen artifice. If it is merely paint- ed on, it can be washed off.

The half-breed daughter returns in the story "Screen Memory," where she is taught by her black grandmother to reclaim the "black part" inside of her and learns to play her grandmother's


"the geo-political space of memory," that goes beyond existing categories (185). In this intermetation, it is thro&h memory ;hat ~liff'maintains geo-political and historical ties at the same time that she transcends the existing categories of reality. She cre- ates "an alternative 'reality' . . . which both extends and engages West Indian and European representations" (190). Much like some postmodern literature, Cliff's narratives combine multiple his- tories and places in order to imagine an alternative-mace in which different worlds coexist. The multiple compo- nents of Cliff's texts, picked up from her travels between nations. races, and cultures, refuse to fit into any one of the existing nations, races, and cul- tures. The question then inevitably arises: Does not fitting; into one mean

Because race has often been associ- ated with the essence of identity, bira- cialism is of particular interest to me. Biracial subjects challenge our defini- tions of identity even more than do those subjects whose cultural duality is limited to non-biological social ,-us- toms.4 Mulattoes do not fit simply into any single identity category, They exist on the cusp of dual belonging or dual alienation: Either they are both white and not-white, or they are neither white nor not-white, a result of the uncertainty of classification surround- ing the biracial subject, and the fiequent difficulty of ascertaining racial ancestry through exterior appearance, race becomes ambiguous, unmoored from biological essence. This racial flu- idity, which often allows the biracial subject an opportunity to "pass" and choose a racial identity, predates con- temporary theories of racial construct- edness.j Biracial figures have always possessed decentered identities forced upon them the circumstances, politics, and racial dynamics of their times.

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