The American construction of whiteness and blackness as dichotomous racial categories and subsequent black refashioning of the one-drop rule as a method of empowering and mobilizing African Americans have meant that whiteness has developed in terms of purity (and not-blackness) while blackness has absorbed mixture into one racial category. However, since the Civil Rights Movement and the Multiracial Movement (begun shortly after the Loving v. Virginia decision invalidated anti-miscegenation laws in 1967), American treatment of racial mixture has undergone slow but consistent change. Shades of Gray addresses how literature at the turn of the millennium engages with the long and complicated history of racialization in American culture and literature while ultimately offering a new exploration of black-white identity. This recent literature arises out of a political history in which society depended on a race binary and, consequently, a literary history of slave narratives and passing novels. But now, at a time when the first generations born into legal interracial families are writing, literature can explore the possibilities of identifying (mixed) race in ways that were formerly impossible. Indeed, the twenty-first century offers an unprecedented opportunity to debate and claim identities of mixture with social and political sensitivity. My discussion examines theoretical and literary production of the past twenty years, but I analyze five literary texts in detail: Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1998), Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish (2001), Emily Raboteau’s The Professor’s Daughter (2005), Rachel Harper’s Brass Ankle Blues (2006), and Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010).
Shades of Gray begins by outlining the development of racial blackness in the U.S. and tracing the possibilities and limitations of racial identity for mixed figures throughout African American literary history. With this literary and racial history as a foundation, I analyze the development of and existing discourses in Critical Mixed Race Studies and multiracial advocacy to establish and critique the state of current discourses surrounding (multi)racial identity. I also examine the ways in which contemporary writers depict the negotiation of racial identity within a new social climate that permits self-identification but still clings to recognized labels. Because racial identity is so dependent on the social practice of race, this project is greatly concerned with how multiracial individuals negotiate both whiteness and blackness. Through the lens of Critical White Studies and an understanding of the historical development of racial whiteness in the U.S., I analyze how contemporary writing is transforming the apparent homogeneity of whiteness into a heterogeneous classification. Largely through Hispanicness and Jewishness, recent literature diversifies and racializes whiteness in order to undo the traditional practice of whiteness as a generic, normative category and make whiteness available to multiracial subjects. Similarly, within the context of black racial identity politics, I analyze the ways in which multiracial figures find they can or cannot claim blackness. The fact that many figures must navigate the dilemma of being “not black enough” to claim blackness on the one hand, or of being “race traitors” for not claiming monoracial blackness on the other, suggests that blackness can be as difficult for multiracial individuals to claim as whiteness. Lastly, I examine the ways in which ethnicity and race might be pried apart and how they might inform current considerations of mixed ethno-racial identities and their representations in literature.
Ultimately, the project argues that by claiming both blackness and whiteness, rather than a hybrid or “multiracial” identity, contemporary authors are changing the way we have conventionally thought of whiteness (as an inherently unmixed category) and blackness (as an inherently mixed category) as well as mixed identity itself (as a hybrid category). While the texts do not articulate a specific or nameable mixed racial identity, they demonstrate the connection between social consciousness and cultural production. Writers’ inability or unwillingness to fix multiracial identity in a constant form does not demonstrate a failure on the part of authors or society but rather illustrates how the new multiracialism resists compartmentalizing. Unlike previous literary depictions of multiracialism, which balanced on the formerly stable color line, new depictions blur that line and impede the formation of new lines. The literature exemplifies the shifts currently taking place in the U.S. around race and (multi)racial identity, and Shades of Gray detects and analyzes how these writers are participating in contemporary multiracial discourse that has the potential to see American multiracial identities in an unprecedented way.