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The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity

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Sheehy, John. “The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American

Racial Identity.” African American Review. Fall, 1999. BNET. 10 December 2009.

In this scene from James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the encounter between the young, nameless mulatto boy - who will soon transform into the still nameless "ex-colored man" of the novel's title - and his image in the mirror is both troubling and inconclusive. The boy seeks in this seemingly objective specular image the visible evidence of his identity - a sign or mark which might brand him indisputably as either black or white. He finds instead both "liquid darkness" and "ivory whiteness" contraposed, the blackness of his hair falling over his temples, making his forehead seem "whiter than it really was." In short, for the boy his mirror image is a doubtful proof of his race, as was his former opinion of himself (as white or, more precisely, as blank or without color), or as are the opinions others will later form of him (as white, black, mulatto, etc.). Barred from what for others seems an objective test of identity, the boy is left in a peculiar position: He may choose his race. This choice, of course, is not an uncomplicated one, entailing as it does either the denial of his own history, on one hand, or the acceptance of an unjustifiable but undeniable economic and social subjugation, on the other.

The complex of social, economic, and political considerations involved in this choice - both undergirding it and following from it - are symbolized when the boy looks into the mirror. Does a black man gaze into the looking-glass to find a white man looking back? Or is it the other way around? Johnson never answers these questions, but never stops asking: The question of verifiable and constant identity is as crucial for the white boy in this scene learning that he is "black" as it is, later in the novel, for the black man determined to pass as "white" - and as ambiguous. The passing Negro becomes, in Johnson's novel and in other African American literature of the same period, the conscious, speaking center of what for the rest of the world is a largely unconscious effort to mark the borders of race, class, and self; his struggles with self-definition, with class and race consciousness as both internalized and articulated, are themselves mirrors for the racialized American dialogue of identity that surrounds him. Similar "mirroring" confrontations - both literal and figurative - arise in Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars, another novel in which issues surrounding American racial identity are explored through an examination of the lives of its two "passing" characters, John and Rena Walden. In each of these books, the confrontation between the passing figure and his/her mirror image marks a point at which the enigmatic American dialogue of race is resolved into a single human being, as the complementary notions of alienation and assimilation inherent in that dialogue are balanced on the narrow fulcrum of a constructed and constructing self.

Hall of Mirrors: Lacan and Gates

In order to understand fully the implications of "passing" for identity-formation, it may be useful to examine the passing figure's confrontation with the mirror from two similar, yet distinct, theoretical vantage points: first, from the point of view of Lacan's identity theory, and then from the more racially aware perspective of Henry Louis Gates's theory of "Signification." Certainly, the scene with which I began this essay resonates with Lacan's "mirror stage" - that (to Lacan) crucial stage in a child's development during which the child develops an I:

The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation - and which manufactures for the subject... the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality . . . and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of alienating identity which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development. Thus to break out of the circle of the Innenwelt into the Urn welt generates the inexhaustible quadrature of the ego's verifications. (Lacan 4)

Put simply, the mirror stage as Lacan imagines it is this: The child is held up to a mirror by his mother. Prior to this stage, the child marks no separation between "himself" and what is not himself; the child's encounters with himself and his environment are cognized as an encompassing and undelimited "fragmented body image" - that is, as an image comprising his own hands, feet, and other parts of his body visible to him, as well as his mother and father, and the objects around him. This image is both "fragmented" (in the sense that its parts are not seen as connected to each other in any logical way, since logic itself is figured here as a result of passing through the mirror stage, and not a precondition for it) and holistic (in that it includes everything without differentiation). Placed before the mirror, the child sees himself for the first time in his "totality"; when he moves before the mirror, he discovers that the world is divided into those things which he can move (which will become his body) and those which he cannot (which will become everything else, and which in further encounters at the mirror and elsewhere he will learn to divide cognitively into things and people, the people into parents and brothers and sisters, etc.) (Lacan 1-7).(1)

In other words, the child at the mirror quite literally "re-cognizes" himself, and in so doing lays the groundwork for a cognitive conception of himself as separate from the world, and of that world itself as separable into distinct categories - which are distinct precisely to the extent that they are recognizably "different" from each other. The paradox at the heart of the mirror stage is that the subjective construction of the I is predicated on an objective and problematic icon: the mirror image. This "specular I," according to Lacan, "deflect[s] into the social I." In either case, this I is a projection, a construction, or ultimately something other than the still ineffable "self" (Lacan 5). The desire, then, to be oneself is inextricable from the cognitive function which demands that "self" correspond with the image of self represented by the concretized mirror image, or by the reified social image; i.e., the image of the self is, itself, other:

This moment in which the mirror stage comes to an end.., decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization, through the desire of the other, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence by the co-operation of others, and turns the I into that apparatus for which every instinctual thrust constitutes a danger, even though it should correspond to a natural maturation .... (Lacan 5)

Thus, the I, conceived in the mirror stage, becomes ironically the "alienating armour" of social identity, a construct whose mandate is to correspond to the self, and yet whose very existence involves the subject in a complex and mutually reflective relationship with the "other."

As in Lacan's example, the ex-colored boy's confrontation with the mirror is the first literal announcement of what will become, figuratively, a theme for him: his repeated and ultimately inconclusive encounters with himself as image, revealed first in the looking-glass, but later reflected in the less forgiving reflective surfaces of the various social groups through which he must "pass." In a Lacanian moment that takes place immediately after his encounter with the mirror, the boy recognizes (in the special sense in which I have been using this word) both himself and his mother:

I ran downstairs to where my mother was sitting .... I buried my head in her lap and blurted out: "Mother, Mother, tell me, am I a nigger?" ... And then it was that I looked at her critically for the first time. I had thought of her in a childish way only as the most beautiful woman in the world; now I looked at her searching for defects. I could see that her skin was almost brown, that her hair was not so soft as mine, and that she did differ in some ways from the other ladies who came to the house; yet, even so, I could see that she was very beautiful, more beautiful than any of them. She... said with difficulty: "No, my darling, you are not a nigger." ... But the more she talked, the less I was reassured, and I stopped her by asking: "Well, mother, am I white? Are you white?" She answered tremblingly: "No, I am not white, but you - " (Johnson 12)

The boy's mother, of course, never precisely answers her son's question. How could she? And yet this question, or questions - " '... am I white? Are you white?' " - are central to this uncolored boy's later transformation into an ex-colored man, his quest to create for himself an I. The I, for Lacan, is intrinsically alienating, but is also the key to social interaction; conceivably, in "mediating" the encounter between the inarticulable, "instinctual" self and the other, the I contains within it the possibility of a tenable resolution between self and other - all other influences being equal. For the colored and ex-colored men and women of the Autobiography, however, all other influences are clearly not equal.

The main problem one encounters in trying to apply Lacan's mirror-stage model to the "passing" figure is an obvious one: The Lacanian model does not take into account the various ways race distorts - "colors" - the child's confrontation with the mirror. The Lacanian model of I-formation assumes a fairly normative family structure, with both mother and father present, within a fairly normative societal structure; the construction of the I, in an important sense, frees the child to make a series of further resolutions of ambiguity which culminate in his introduction to language, his entrance into history, and his creation of an identity which allows him to function among other people. For the ex-colored man, not only is this "normative" family environment absent - he is raised only by his mother - but, more importantly, his mirror-stage encounter is rendered non-resolvable by the fact that, when he looks in the mirror, what he sees - and the range of possible identities available to be constructed from what he sees - has already largely been determined for him. Lacan's "natural maturation" from specular I to social I is precisely reversed, in that the child has already been labeled, has already been handed a rigid social identity from without, and is for this reason unable freely to construct a personal identity based on the image he sees in the mirror. What does he see in the mirror, after all? Whiteness and blackness. But the racist environment in which this and further encounters take place mandates his creation of an identity which is either white or black. In either case, his view of himself must remain fragmented, must deny some part of what he sees in the mirror, leaving him finally with the unresolvable choice between living either as a physically "white" black man or as a secretly "black" white man.

The failure of the Lacanian model to address the implications of racial difference in the formation of identity leads us, although perhaps through a back door, into what Henry Louis Gates calls the "hall of mirrors" that is Signification:

Thinking about the black concept of Signifyin(g) is a bit like stumbling unaware into a hall of mirrors: the sign itself appears to be doubled, at the very least, and (re)doubled upon ever closer examination. It is not the sign itself, however, which has multiplied. If orientation prevails over madness, we soon realize that only the signifier has been doubled and (re)doubled, a signifier in this instance that is silent, a "sound-image" as Saussure defines the signifier, but a "sound-image" sans the sound. (Gates 44)

Although Gates is in this instance speaking of "Signifying(g)" as a speech act, and not about "passing" per se, the ease with which his central metaphor of "mirroring" dovetails with this discussion is not, I would argue, accidental. To "Signify," according to Gates, is to engage in a manipulation of signs, armed with an awareness that these signs are always already embedded within a social power structure: The Signifyin(g) subject seizes the received sign, the received metaphor - or, in the case of the "passing" figure, the received self - and "repeats it with a difference." The distinction Gates draws between Signification - a primarily African, then African-American mode of discourse - and signification - a primarily European, or "white" mode - is important here: What chiefly distinguishes the two terms is their respective discursive fields. The lower-case term, signification, represents a mode of discourse that operates chiefly in an asocial "semantic" field: The assumptions behind signification are, first, that signs correspond to a closed set of meanings, and, second, that those meanings are neither constructed nor susceptible to construction. When one "signifies," one assumes that the meaning of one's words is fixed, and one uses those words to construct a received - and thus preordained or cliched - picture of "reality." The upper-case term, Signification, proceeds from the (sometimes unconscious) assumption that meaning is not fixed, that all signs are constructions and are therefore susceptible to reconstruction. Thus, Signification operates less as a semantic mode of discourse than as a rhetorical (or "paradigmatic") strategy for redirecting the power of signs: To "Signify" is to detach signs from their received meanings, and to use words not to reconstruct a received notion of reality but to subvert that notion of reality by celebrating the detached sign itself in a state of "free play" (see Gates 44-51).

The notion of Signification can be seen, for the purposes of this discussion, as a necessary corollary to a Lacanian theory of identity formation. Although Lacan can hardly be said to be unaware of the constructed nature of signifiers, his theory still operates largely in what Gates would call the "semantic" field: The theory rests, after all, on a presumably necessary semantic distinction between self and other, even while it attempts to explore the interrelatedness and constructedness of both terms. This gives rise to obvious problems when one attempts to apply Lacan's theory uncritically to the passing figure: While Lacan's theory lays bare the fact that the passing figure's "identity" is always a "mediatization" between his or her own notions of "self" and received notions projected upon him or her from without, it cannot really imagine this situation other than as a tragic impasse - as alienation - and this mainly because Lacan can imagine no way for the individual to counteract the overwhelming power of an already socially constructed sign.

The sheer strength with which the American discourse of race insists upon a simple racial duality - "whiteness" vs. "blackness" - complicates any attempt to apply a simple Lacanian model to identity struggle in a racialized context. Since both categories are to a certain extent imposed from the outside, and to a certain extent constructed from the inside, the dividing line between the imposition and the construction (that is, between Lacan's Urn welt and Innenwelt) is difficult to fix - even for those, like the ex-colored man, whose lives depend on finding and living in that margin. But, for Lacan, self is always a weaker term than other - is indeed only a subset of other, and when Lacan's theory is applied to an individual for whom the "other" is not merely an inscrutable presence but also an overwhelming and obviously oppressive force, it can only lead the reader to an imaginative reconstruction of a cliched "tragic mulatto."

In his theory of Signification, Gates might be said to repeat Lacan with a difference: Gates's theory, like Lacan's, is an attempt to examine the constructed nature of the sign - and thus the constructed nature of the self, the sign from which all other signs proceed. But while Lacan confronts the mirror always with trepidation, seeing in it always the "inexhaustible quadrature of the ego's verifications," and thus always an image of dizzying alienation, Gates enters his "hall of mirrors" first with the same trepidation, but his trepidation later transforms into a kind of joy. Gates recognizes implicitly that the "mirroring" Lacan sees as only problematic represents, for the African American, a profound opportunity to refigure - to Signify on - the white "ownership" of meaning. Gates shifts the discursive terms, and makes of Lacan's semantic impasse a rhetorical - and thus implicitly political - opportunity: in fact, a political and rhetorical necessity - "What did/do black people signify in a society in which they were intentionally introduced as the subjugated, the enslaved cipher? Nothing on the x axis of white signification, and everything on the y axis of blackness" (Gates 47).

When a reader encounters, or a writer imagines, a "passing" figure, he or she is thrust, perhaps unwillingly, into Gates's "hall of mirrors," forced to confront a sign that doubles and (re)doubles itself, shifting in meaning and challenging all received racial categories. "Orientation" does not always prevail over "madness" in this circumstance. The passing figure - in the minds of both the writers who create him, and the readers who encounter him - continually oscillates not only between black and white racial poles, but also between two distinct ways of reading: The passing figure must always be read simultaneously on the "x axis of white signification" and on the"? axis of blackness." Both the reader and the writer must attempt to balance these two axes, which implies that they must recognize that "identity" in the passing novel is always simultaneously susceptible to a straightforward Lacanian reading (with all its inherent "tragic" dualisms stemming from the semantic split between self and other) and a Gatesian reading which Signifies upon the first reading, and transforms the tragedy of passing into a seizure of rhetorical and political power.

Consciousness Doubled: Passing and Double-Consciousness

When he faces the mirror, the ex-colored man confronts precisely this fundamental ambiguity in American racial identity, an ambiguity that proceeds from what seems a fairly simple dualism ("blackness" vs. "whiteness") but which always eventually "doubles and (re)doubles." This ambiguity is an explicit problem for the "passing" Negro, but the same ambiguity is implicit in the "double-consciousness" W. E. B. Du Bois asserts as the sine qua non of all African American experience. Du Bois's discussion of Negro consciousness indeed anticipates what Lacan would call the relationship between the "specular" I and "social" I:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois 3)

Johnson's ex-colored man is clearly as aware as Du Bois of this strange "twoness." "This," writes Johnson, in a passage that might have been lifted wholesale from The Souls of Black Folk,

is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates on each and every colored man in the United States .... He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man .... And it is this, too, which ... gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only to the freemasonry of his own race. I have often watched with interest and sometimes amazement even ignorant colored men under cover of broad grins and minstrel antics maintain this dualism in the presence of white men. (Johnson 14)

The ex-colored man is the epitome of "two-ness": Like those "ignorant colored men," he maintains the color-line, veiling his "blackness" not under the cover of "broad grins and minstrel antics," but under a veneer of a constructed whiteness which, while rationalizable, is always open to his own profound questioning. What marks him as different from the colored men he mentions here is that his identity as a Negro who is "passing" necessitates not only that he must live the color-line with everyone else, but also that he must articulate it with every gesture, every utterance, every thought. Being the physical embodiment of the color-line complicates further his quest for a workable identity: Incapable of convincing himself that he is white, unwilling to accept what follows from being black, he is seemingly relegated - or, rather, unwittingly relegates himself, in complicity with a racist social dialogue that sanctions the relegation - to the zero-space between the poles of his and his society's constructions of race. To use Lacan's terms, in "passing" he becomes no more and no less than the face of the mirror - nameless, colorless, and invisible; to use Du Bois's, his is the voice of the veil, his role to articulate and give shape to the problem of the color-line itself. The central question of The Souls of Black Folk - How does it feel to be a problem? - an be answered only by the voice of the ex-colored man, speaking from the margin between the races.

But when we see the ex-colored man as "marginal" (Gates would say "liminal"), we must recognize that his voice then occupies a unique rhetorical space in our literature: Because he articulates the margin, the veil, his is the only voice that can speak simultaneously from the "x axis" of whiteness and the "y axis" of blackness. The unavoidable question, then, is how to read this voice. Johnson, as do many writers of passing novels in this period, seems to tip the scales of our reading toward a tragic Lacanian dualism: As most critics of the Autobiography have noted, by choosing to write his novel within a "sentimental" genre, Johnson must reinscribe the "rules" of sentimentality. As Priscilla Ramsey, whose argument regarding passing represents a consistent critical theme in the criticism on the genre, writes,

... the melodramatic form has a religiously didactic motive .... Those who transgress (the presence of evil) must be brought to repentance or at least taught not to transgress (goodness triumphing over all). According to sentimental prescriptions, the "passing" character functions as the transgressor who suffers for his acts. Johnson's hero sells his "birthright for a mess of pottage" which, in its biblical allusion, implies spiritual rather than physical death for the hero .... The sentimental novel seems to denigrate rather than extol the virtues of "passing" as it consistently punishes its transgressors. (Ramsey 4)

According to this reading, the moral dualism inherent in the sentimental genre - "good" vs. "evil" - finds its mirror image in the racial dualism - "black" vs. "white" - inherent in the passing genre: The two dovetail in such a way as to reinforce the idea that a "transgression" of race becomes a moral transgression. Even when readers approach the novel from a different theoretical perspective, however, they still tend to reinscribe the black-white duality that the very idea of "passing" calls into question. Merrill Horton, for instance, speaking of Nella Larsen's Passing, focuses not on the novel's sentimentality, but on the Freudian implications of the passing figure's identity. The black-white duality, however, remains in place, and Horton ultimately sees Larsen's Irene as trapped between something called "black culture" and something else called "white culture." Horton's dictum: "Passers seek to return to a culture which they knew in childhood" (Horton 42).2

Although both Ramsey's and Horton's readings are justified by Johnson's novel, and by the passing genre in general, there is still a dimension of the passing character these readings do not address. Consider, for example, the Autobiography's final paragraph, from which Ramsey derives her reading of Johnson:

My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage. (Johnson 154)

This passage clearly aligns with both the theme of transgression and "spiritual" punishment Ramsey identifies as its center, as well as with Horton's idea that the passing figure fantasizes a return to childhood culture. It is difficult, however, to overlook the profound and unresolved ambivalence the passage still reflects. Even at the end of his sentimental narrative, Johnson's ex-colored man remains a profoundly liminal figure. The biblical reference here to Jacob and Esau tends to reinforce a reading of his character in terms of polar oppositions - the chosen vs. the unchosen, the white world vs. the black - yet beneath and beside the dominant chord of racialized angst in this passage is a subtle, subversive note. When the ex-colored man declares "I am glad that I am what I am," he moves beyond the language of the color-line, declares for himself, finally, an identity that is neither black nor white. Clearly this identity is marginal, ambiguous (the words, after all, if we are to continue to look for biblical references, are those of God) - but it is his own, both a reflection and a creation of his own experience, and thus what Gates would call a true Signification on his "white" identity. The creation of such an identity, with all its ambiguity, is crucial in allowing the ex-colored man to work through the complexities of the dialogue of race in America: It is the seizure of a power to create what he sees both in the mirror and beyond it, and the recognition of what even the most fundamental received notions of identity design to repress. It is important to stress, though, that this dimension of the ex-colored man exists simultaneously with a more conventional sentimental reading: Beside and within the story's obvious preoccupations with transgression and punishment is always another story that celebrates the ex-colored man's transgressive identity.

The simultaneous existence of two diametrically opposed readings of the same text should lead to the question of authorial intent; in this instance, however, such a question is inevitably misleading, since The Autobiography only points to the fact that Johnson himself was ambivalent about the ex-colored man's "transgression." It may be more useful, then, to consider the ex-colored man as Johnson's perhaps unconscious evocation of the Signifyin(g) trickster figure, whom Gates figures as the Yoruba "Esu," the androgynous inhabitant of the crossroads, the master of language and Signification, the (semantic) liar who speaks only (rhetorical) truth. What Johnson has perhaps stumbled upon in the ex-colored man is a liminal figure who can speak from within a melodramatic structure without, ultimately, falling victim to that structure's moralistic constraints. And whether he does so because of, or in spite of, Johnson's intent is somewhat beside the point. The passing figure as Signifyin(g) trickster breaks the bounds of the text, Signifies upon and subverts it. As Tejumola Olaniyan has said in a different context, "Whenever there is any attempt to congeal [racial] identities... Esu unfailingly lies in ambush, sharpening h(is)er deconstructive arrows" (538).

Consciousness Redoubled: The House Behind the Cedars

When we begin to see the passing figure as an Esu / trickster, we begin also to realize three things: first, that the passing figure always functions to explode dualities, whether they be sentimental ("good" vs. "evil") or racial ("white" vs. "black"); second, that the passing figure, once imagined, is capable of exploding these dualities even in spite of the efforts of the author who creates him/her to reinscribe them; and, finally, that the subversive nature of the act of passing itself means that our reading of passing characters is always double - we must read them as fundamentally transgressive of and fundamentally capitulative to both moralistic and racial dualisms. This simultaneity, as we have seen, has clear implications for reading Johnson's ex-colored man, and we can profitably keep it in mind when we consider a novel like Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars, in which the implicit dual personality of the passing figure is made explicit: Chesnutt offers us not one passing figure, but two. The first, John Warwick/Walden, plays the role of the fully transgressive (and unapologetic) Signifyin(g) passer, while the second, Warwick/Walden's sister Rena, ultimately capitulates both to received notions of race and, ultimately, to the constraints of the sentimental novel in which she finds herself.

Of course, the passing figure's Signification on the simplistic American black-white duality is possible only because this duality has never been quite so simple as it appears, and to understand how this Signification operates in Chesnutt's novel, one must note the extent to which the terms black and white complement, underwrite, even create each other. In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison asserts that the American literary imperative has always been toward the construction of a "new white man" (Morrison 15). This construction - in both its "newness" and its "whiteness" - owes its existence and its continued vigor to the "blackness" which it takes as its antithesis:

. . . the image of reined-in, bound, suppressed, and repressed darkness became objectified in American literature as an Africanist persona. . . . the duties of that persona - duties of exorcism and reification and mirroring - are on demand and on display throughout much of the literature of the country and helped to form the distinguishing characteristics of a proto-American literature. . . . Emerson's call for that new man in "The American Scholar" indicates the deliberateness of the construction [of the black "other"], the conscious necessity for establishing [racial] difference. (Morrison 38-39)

There is perhaps more than an ironic connection between Morrison's "new white man" and John Warwick/Walden's description of himself and his sister as "new people" in Chesnutt's novel. Speaking to George Tryon, his sister's white suitor, he says,

"I think you ought to know, George[middle dot].. that my sister and I are not of an old family, or a rich family, or a distinguished family; that she can bring you nothing but herself; that we have no connections of which you could boast, and no relatives to whom we should be glad to introduce you. You must take us for ourselves alone. We are new people[middle dot]" (83)

Since Warwick/Walden exemplifies every trait of the spirit Emerson calls for in "The American Scholar," his very existence can be read as an ironic Signification on Emerson's theory of American identity. A new man on new soil, Warwick/Walden has made a break with his past, rejected inherited paradigms so that he might seize his opportunities and make the most of them. We might extend Warwick/Walden's Signification by pointing out that he can also be seen as the "new white man" Morrison argues the American tradition - or at least that tradition descended from an Emersonian ideal - is destined to produce.

Warwick/Walden's seeming unending ability to Signify on both received notions of "race" and received notions of "America" is important here. More than Johnson's ex-colored man - and more than his sister Rena - Warwick/Walden seems to enjoy an unambiguous identity. His easy assumption of this identity stems largely from his refusal to accept the imposed category of blackness, coupled significantly with his ability to reimagine himself and the society of the post-bellum South on his own terms. His is the mind of a lawyer, a rhetorician, and as his mentor Judge Straight points out, "Lawyers go by the laws - they abide by the accomplished fact; to them, whatever is, is right" (170) - which is to say that Warwick/Walden, perhaps more than any passing character in the literature, is aware that the "problem" of race is ultimately a problem of signification and meaning, and is thus open to Signifyin(g) reconstruction. What is right, and what is this: Warwick/Walden is white, by appearance, by blood, and, more importantly, by law. Warwick's power as a Signifyin(g) voice stems from his power to manipulate these signifiers - "appearance," "blood," "law" - that is, to make them mean what he wants them to mean, by seizing control of the rhetorical context in which they must be understood.

If this seems a neat sidestepping of the identity crisis faced by the ex-colored man, it is - but not simply so. Even when it is backed by the legitimacy of South Carolina law, within the sentimental structure of The House Behind the Cedars Warwick/Walden's "whiteness" can never be an attribute gained without loss - the loss, in Warwick/Walden's case, of both his mother and his given name, "Walden." His repression of his mother can be seen in two ways, however: On the one hand, it is merely "denial," part of a larger tendency in Warwick/Walden's character to ignore the issue of his race altogether. For instance, after his first encounter with Judge Straight, during which he declares, "'From this time on I am white,'" (172) Warwick/Walden refuses to use even the words black, white, negro, etc., translating instead all possible conversation about racial identity into a less problematic Emersonian dialogue which turns on less loaded words - chiefly, history, pedigree, and past.

But again our reading is doubled: What looks, seen through a sentimental lens, like Warwick/Walden's "denial" of his genetic history can be seen, simultaneously, as a profound challenge to an easy semantic equivalence between the words race and past. Operating always in Warwick/Walden's "denial" of race is his ability to Signify on race - to shift the rhetorical grounds from which his audience must consider his racial status. And, as is clear even in the paragraph quoted above, whatever Warwick/Walden is "hiding" is not, to him, his race that, for him, is already a settled matter - but his "past," his "connections," his "pedigree."

Of course, implicit in Warwick/Walden's shift from race to pedigree is the very repressive gesture which, in Morrison's terms, marks him as a truly "new white man," and this gesture lays bare the moral implications of his assumption of a "white" identity - at least from the point of view of the novel's sentimental paradigm. Warwick/Walden's mother is, in this reading, quite literally the "reined-in, suppressed and repressed darkness" (Morrison 38-39) that funds his comfortable whiteness. Later, Warwick/Walden's sister will play the same role; and, according to the rules of the sentimental passing novel, neither of them, once identified as "black," can have any place in Warwick/Walden's life - for the repression of their blackness is the hallmark of his whiteness.

Even this reading finds its double, however. Warwick/Walden is not a man given to moral qualms - or at least Chesnutt does not invest him with many. It would be easy to assume that his repression of his "blackness" - or, in his terms, his "past" - comes as easily to him as all other aspects of his "white" identity. Such a simple moralistic reading, however, must always fail to account for the fact that the entire first half of Chesnutt's novel centers around Warwick/Walden's attempts to reclaim both his history and his family embodied in his sister Rena - as his own. While this could be said to point to Horton's dictum that the passing character is inevitably drawn to his/her "childhood culture," it is significant that Warwick/Walden undertakes to disinter this "buried" black culture without ever apologizing for "passing," and without ever abandoning his argument in favor of passing - that is, without ever giving up, either in the eyes of the novel's characters or in those of the reader, his liminal status as a "new man."

Because he does not seem to believe in his society's distinction between "white" and "black" - or, at least, refuses to accept this distinction in its conventional form - the moral tension implicit in Warwick/Walden's return to his mother, and in his later project of "whitening" and "improving" Rena, is palpable but hard to qualify - mainly because of the manifest difficulty the character of Warwick/Walden poses for Chesnutt. Warwick/Walden is in many ways a counterpoint to Johnson's confessional and contemplative ex-colored man: We are not invited to share his thoughts, his feelings, his impressions. More even than Johnson's character, the character of Warwick/Walden appears to be composed entirely of reflective surfaces, of reactions and responses. But the impact of these reactions and responses on Warwick/Walden's inner life is only to be guessed at; he is, in this respect, as blank as a wall.

Warwick/Walden's inscrutability in this respect probably arises from two sets of tensions. First, and most obviously, since Warwick/Walden represents all the rewards "passing" holds out to the black man of his time and place, the equanimity with which Chesnutt treats Warwick/Walden intervening in the text to defend him from overly harsh criticism, allowing the recesses of his character to remain unplumbed, while Rena's every thought (as well as those of other "black" characters in the novel) is published - points simply to Chesnutt's own deep ambivalence with regard to the morality of "passing." Ultimately, though, it is Warwick/Walden's intractable "doubleness" - and the simultaneous readings that doubleness gives rise to - that poses the greatest problem for Chesnutt. The novel is never quite able to fold Warwick/Walden, or the troubling Signification he embodies and gives voice to, neatly into a sentimental framework - he refuses to play the victim, and he does not seem to be plagued by the moral reservations about "passing" that plague other passing figures. Warwick/Walden, in fact, continues to insist that he is not "passing" at all - that he simply is what he is - and his argument for this position is compelling enough to upset both the conventional racial morality of his social universe and the conventional sentimental constraints of his fictional universe. Given this intractability, it is perhaps not surprising that Warwick/Walden simply disappears two-thirds of the way through the novel, never to be heard from again. The irony inherent even in Warwick/Walden's disappearance, however, is a testament to the power of this "doubled" figure to refigure conventional notions about race. Operating in this disappearance, after all, is another version of Morrison's repression of the other; that is, just as Warwick/Walden's whiteness is substantiated by his repression of a black mother, Chesnutt's own notion of racial identity is invested in the repression of the successfully passing Negro. The irony is that the "other" that is ultimately repressed in Chesnutt's novel is neither the voice of the "black" mother nor that of the "white" father - the rhetoric of race and that of sentimentality collude to handle this kind of repression - but rather the voice of the one character in the novel who speaks defiantly from the margin between the two. What the unapologetic Warwick/Walden Signifies in this text proves, in the end, too potentially explosive to be handled within the confines of the novel's sentimental structure.

After Warwick/Walden disappears, the reader finds a much more tractable figure occupying the role of "passing Negro": Warwick/Walden's sister, the unambiguously single-named Rena Walden. Rena's protracted moral struggle with her own racial identity contrasts sharply with Warwick/Walden's seemingly easy assumption of the passing identity. Rena's assumption and ultimate rejection of "whiteness" in many ways parallels the similar struggle of Johnson's ex-colored man, and when Rena confronts her mirror, their stories parallel each other nearly exactly:

She stood before an oval mirror brought from France by one of Warwick's wife's ancestors, and regarded her image with a coldly critical eye. She was as little vain as any of their sex who are endowed with beauty. She tried to place herself, in thus passing upon her own claims to consideration, in the hostile attitude of society toward her hidden disability. There was no mark upon her brow to brand her as less pure, less innocent, less desirable, less worthy to be loved, than those proud women of the past who had admired themselves in this mirror. (76)

Rena's confrontation with the mirror lays bare the same political and economic issues involved in racial "recognition" we noted in Johnson's novel. But while the ex-colored man looks into a looking-glass in the same way, it is specifically his looking-glass. In Rena's case, however, the mirror has been "brought from France by one of Warwick's wife's [white] ancestors"; in other words, the mirror - the icon of objectivity itself - has already been implicated in a complex relationship with politics, economics, and race. The mirror - at least in Rena's mind - cannot be separated from the "proud women of the past" who had admired themselves in it before, and who symbolically still own the mirror, still skew the images it presents. For Rena, the mirror is "white."

The mirror is white for Rena, significantly, because of its "pedigree" - and nothing could be more indicative of the difference between Rena and her brother than their respective attitudes toward this crucial term. For Warwick/Walden, the term pedigree can be separated from the word race; for Rena, as this scene makes obvious, these terms are inevitably equivalent. And because Rena is unable to separate the two terms, she must tacitly accept the chain of linguistic consequences that follow from their equivalence. The mirror, for instance, is white because of its "pedigree," but here the idea of "pedigree" is inextricable from an imputation of white/European "ownership." Absent Warwick/Walden's ability to control these terms, the words pedigree and ownership are everywhere conflated in this novel, as they are in the passage quoted above. While Warwick/Walden is both able and willing to break these terms apart by reimagining their relationship, his sister Rena is not. And in implicitly accepting the link among ownership, history, and race, Rena ultimately assents to assuming an "owned" identity, historically predetermined and founded on European notions of race: Ironically, this "received" identity masquerades for Rena as an image of her "essential" self.

Any essential definition of whiteness or blackness, of course, is challenged by Warwick/Walden's Signification. An essentialist reading of race is still powerfully present, though, both in the Autobiography and in The House Behind the Cedars - and it is precisely their affinity for essential definitions of blackness and whiteness that inhibits both Rena Walden and the ex-colored man in their attempts at "passing." Both characters are troubled by the "white" identities they have assumed, and both are haunted by the idea that they are, in fact, black - that the whiteness they have claimed as their own is no more than pretension and sham. In Rena this tendency is particularly acute; unlike her brother, who is demonstrably comfortable in seeing himself as simply "white," Rena constantly figures herself as a "black" woman who is passing, or has passed, and defines herself not along the lines of her physical whiteness but rather in terms of her "hidden disability," the skeleton in her closet. The essentialist logic that undermines her tenuous passing identity, and which at bottom opposes the more fluid approach to language and meaning embraced by her brother, is problematic for Chesnutt as well. The convoluted relationship between Rena's essentialism and her brother's Signification becomes ironically clear when Rena returns to the black community to teach: "The teacher [Rena] commanded some awe because she was a stranger, and some, perhaps, because she was white; for the theory of blackness as propounded by Plato could not quite counterbalance in the young African mind the evidence of their own senses" (244).

Ironically, in this community Rena seems to be "passing" as black. The unshakable, essential definition of blackness that is the skeleton in her closet is here refigured as a Platonic racial ideal - that is, as a signifier corresponding to a fixed meaning. Chesnutt's skepticism regarding this kind of idealism is exemplified by the fact that it can "not quite counterbalance in the young African mind the evidence of the senses." The issue is further complicated by Chesnutt's introduction of the character Plato - a young black child, extremely agile but not very bright, whose very presence seems to mock the Platonic idealism at the heart of Rena's moral dilemma. The fact that Plato is essentially bound to a larger economic reality - is in fact the plaything and messenger boy for the white [read 'monied'] community, and is thus as much an "owned" object as the mirror itself - alls into question the essentialism he parodies, and makes the sentimentally constructed moral struggle Rena engages in - intimately tied, as it is, to her belief in her own essential identity - seem as much a pretense as "passing" itself. Nor can it be ignored that young Plato quite literally leads Rena up the garden path, where he abandons her to a moral sickness unto death (268-71).

But, again, a doubling - it could still just as easily be argued that Rena must die to satisfy the needs of the novel's sentimentalism, that her death is the inevitable penance exacted by both races for her attempt to pass - by the white race for pretending to a station for which her "blood" renders her unfit and by the black race for her treason, again, against her own blood. The repeated emphasis in Chesnutt on the "sins of the fathers" (or, more accurately in an American racial context, the "condition of the mother") motif provides an ample basis for such a reading, which would make of The House Behind the Cedars either a simply sentimental novel, as has been suggested by Ramsey and others, or a tragedy in the Greek sense: the visitation of an unavoidable fate upon an innocent, and the implication of that innocent in the great sin of racism. But, while such a reading is available, it seems reductive; and it does little to account for the extremely complex delineation of the problems of racial identity that Chesnutt gives us. In Rena's case, as well as Warwick/Walden's, the moral issues involved in passing are issues about which Chesnutt is, ultimately, profoundly ambivalent. Moreover, even though Rena - given, as she is, to moral qualms in keeping with her role as sentimental heroine is a much more tractable character than Warwick/Walden, as a passing figure she retains the potential to disrupt all sentimental conclusions. Rena's death at the end of the novel has an abrupt quality: It seems to the reader too easy, too neat, probably because our reading of her character throughout the novel has always been - perhaps without our precisely knowing it - double. And while her death at the end of the novel brings our sentimental reading to a neat close, it leaves the novel's simultaneous Signification on its own racial preoccupations spinning in space, unresolved and unresolvable.

Conclusion: Unreconciled Strivings

The simultaneous readings suggested by the "passing" novels we have considered are not accidental; in fact, they seem unavoidable in any sustained effort to explore American racial polarities. In his "Forethought" to The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois implies a distinct separation between what he sees as the two American racial worlds:

Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, - the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggles of its greater souls. . . . Before each chapter, as now printed, stands a bar of the Sorrow Songs, some echo of haunting music which welled up from black souls in the dark past. And, finally, need I add that 1 who speak here am bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of them that live within the Veil? (vii-viii)

It is interesting to note in this context the strange rhetorical stance Du Bois adopts here: On the one hand, placing himself squarely within the camp of "them that live within the veil," while on the other placing even this - his own fundamental declaration of racial identity - in the form of a question. The rhetoric notwithstanding, Du Bois here and elsewhere in Souls gives his white readership what they expect: two racial worlds, distinct and separable. Even the form of the book, each chapter headed by a bar from the Sorrow Songs, tends to reinforce this view of the American racial landscape. Between the white reader and "them that live within the veil" Du Bois maintains an implicit separation; the musical notations, familiar yet indecipherable to the un-initiated, mark the boundaries of racial understanding. Du Bois invites his white readers to take a peek beyond the veil - but he never ushers them in, never lets them forget that the veil is there. Essential categories of race are preserved by this structure. The line between the white world and the black is clearly demarcated, and membership in either world is predicated upon physical qualities rendered as metaphysical: "flesh," "bone," and "blood" are reinscribed as the physical manifestations of an eternal and "natural" separation.

Obviously Du Bois knew his white readership - knew both what they expected from him, and what they would be willing to accept. But one should not draw from his rhetoric the conclusion that Du Bois was blind to the real implications of his project in Souls. His famous thesis - that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line" (10) - is at bottom a subversive proposition, and one that no amount of gentle rhetoric or structural manipulation can soften much. Clearly, the twentieth century has proved Du Bois right in this respect - our problems have been, largely, the problems of the color-line. But - and this perhaps because of that gentle rhetoric - his thesis was probably misread by Du Bois's contemporary white readers, and continues to be misread today. The white conversation about race in America has been consistently deflected toward the poles of two seemingly opposed discourses: that of "segregation," on one hand, and that of "integration," on the other. Beneath the seemingly diametrical opposition of these two discourses is a largely unexamined common thread: Each assumes a rigid and "natural" division between races, and each is therefore fundamentally invested in recreating the color-line. Our public discourse, even today, generally revolves around how permeable we want that line to be; seldom, though, does it question the legitimacy of the line itself.

Clearly, though, this is the question Du Bois - and it is at this point that his work intersects with that of the "passing" novelist - is pushing us to confront. Any examination of race in America - whether the goal of this examination is to discover what it means to be black or white here - must begin with an exploration of the color-line itself. Unfortunately, the strength of our racially categorized discourse militates against such an exploration: Again and again we find ourselves confronted by the Veil, find ourselves speaking from socially constructed "black" and "white" perspectives. Arguing about the color-line in these terms only tends to reinvent it endlessly. The key to moving beyond this impasse is to listen to the voices not only of those who speak from the "other" side of the veil, but also to those who speak the words of the veil itself: the voices of these marginalized figures - sometimes "tragic," often simply defiant, but always double - speak to us from the pages of the "passing" novels. In speaking for and to both sides of our constructed racial spectrum simultaneously, these characters by their very existence question all assumptions about what constitutes "blackness" and "whiteness" in America. As we have seen, the "passing" character can be read as an attempt to reconcile the two poles of American racial dialogue, an attempt always in danger of being quickly truncated by the reimposition of hallowed moral and/or racial polarities. But the attempt itself is important, since its implications are never quite buried by the dominant polar discourse. Embodied in the passing figure is the possibility of a discourse of racial identity which moves beyond the terms of both our racial antipathies and our racial sympathies.


1. Although I am troubled by my own generic use of the masculine pronoun in this discussion of Lacan's theory, I have decided to leave it as it is - mainly because it seems that Lacan is, himself, assuming that the "child" in question here is male. The assumptions about family and society that underlie Lacan's descriptions of the mirror stage are problematic. These problems are well established in the academic record, but I have found no better analysis of them than Raymond Tallis's somewhat vitriolic, but well reasoned, "The Mirror Stage: a Critical Reflection." Tallis points to the fact that Lacan not only assumes a normative family, but also a certain prescribed order of events as essential to the mirror stage: The child must be held to the mirror by its mother, so that her displacement by the father can lead to the oedipal confrontation and resolution that is the stated result of the mirror stage. The theory can be further complicated, according to Tallis, by the introduction of "siblings and child minders" into this scenario; furthermore, the child's later phallic identification seems to assume a male child, and to say little about what the mirror stage might entail for a female (see Tallis 5-44).

I use Lacan's mirror stage, then, not as the definitive theory on identity formation (although others may argue it is), but rather as an interesting and useful point of access to the complicated quest for identity represented by the notion of "passing." As we shall see, this notion is too complex to be approached from one viewpoint alone, and itself tends to complicate any theory with which it is approached.

2. I am oversimplifying both Ramsey's and Horton's readings here, mainly for the sake of space and coherence. Horton's argument regarding the "game" of passing, in particular, is both provocative and worth more exploration than I am giving it here. My point about both Ramsey and Horton, however, is that their arguments tend to take for granted the tragedy of passing, and tend therefore to gloss over the ambiguity fundamental to the gesture of passing itself. That this is something that the authors they consider would seem to encourage hardly needs to be pointed out. Still, my argument is that the passing characters in these novels remain fundamentally ambiguous, in spite of - or perhaps because of - the efforts of their writers to control their voices and the context in which they speak.

Works Cited

Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars. 1900. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1988.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Horton, Merrill. "Blackness, Betrayal, and Childhood: Race and Identity in Nella Larsen's Passing." CLA Journal 38.1 (1994): 20-31.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage." Ecrits: A Selection. London: Tavistock, 1977. 1-7.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. "African-American Critical Discourse and the Invention of Cultural Identities." African American Review 26 (1992): 533-45.

Ramsey, Priscilla. "A Study of Identity in 'Passing' Novels of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries." Studies in Black Literature 7.1 (1976): 1-8.

Tallis, Raymond. "The Mirror Stage: A Critical Reflection." Trivium 21 (1986): 1-45.

John Sheehy received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington, and is currently an assistant professor at Marlboro College in Vermont, where he teaches literature and composition.

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