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African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race

Author(s): Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham


Source: Signs, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 251-274
Published by: University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174464
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African-American
Women'sHistory
and theMetalanguageof Race
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham

PT-P HEORETICAL DISCUSSION in African-American


wom-
en'shistory begsforgreater voice.I saythisas a blackwoman
who is cognizantof thestrengths and limitations of current
feminist theory. Feminist scholarshavemovedrapidlyforward
in addressing theoriesof subjectivity,questionsof difference,thecon-
structionof socialrelations as relations
ofpower,theconceptual impli-
cationsof binaryoppositionssuch as male versusfemaleor equality
versusdifference-all issuesdefined withrelevance to genderand with
potentialforintellectualandsocialtransformations.l Notwithstanding a
fewnotableexceptions, thisnewwaveoffeminist theorists findslittleto
sayaboutrace.The generaltrendhas beento mention blackand Third
Worldfeminists who first calledattentionto theglaringfallaciesin es-
sentialistanalysisand to claimsof a homogeneous"womanhood,"
"woman'sculture," and "patriarchal oppressionof women."2Beyond
thisrecognition,however, whitefeminist scholarspayhardlymorethan

A number ofpeoplereadearlierversions ofthisarticle.I am especially to


grateful
theinsights, andprobing
suggestions, questionsofSharonHarley, PaulHanson,Darlene
Clark-Hine, andCarrollSmith-Rosenberg.
1See,e.g.,Teresade Lauretis,AliceDoesn't:Feminism, Semiotics,Cinema(Bloom-
ington:IndianaUniversity Press,1984),andTeresade Lauretis, ed.,FeministStudies,
Feminist Criticism(Bloomington:IndianaUniversity Press,1986); TorilMoi,Sexual/
TextualPolitics(NewYork:Routledge, 1985);JoanW. Scott,Genderand thePoliticsof
History (NewYork:ColumbiaUniversity Press,1988);Judith Butler,GenderTrouble:
Feminism and theSubversion ofIdentity (NewYork:Routledge, 1990).
2 Bytheearly1980swomenofcolorfrom variousdisciplineshadchallenged theno-
tionofa homogeneous womanhood. A fewinclude:SharonHarleyandRosalyn
Terborg-Penn, eds.,TheAfro-American Woman:Struggles and Images(PortWashing-
ton,N.Y.: Kennikat, 1978); GloriaT. Hull,PatriciaBellScott,andBarbaraSmith, eds.,
ButSomeof Us AreBrave(Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist
Press,1982); BarbaraSmith,
ed.,Home Girls:
A BlackFeminist Anthology (NewYork:Kitchen Table:Womenof
ColorPress,1983); Cherrie Moragaand GloriaAnzaldua,eds.,ThisBridgeCalledMy
Back: Writings byRadicalWomenofColor(NewYork:Kitchen Table:Womenof
ColorPress,1983); BonnieThornton Dill,"Race,Class,and Gender:Prospects foran
All-Inclusive Feminist
Sisterhood," Studies9 (Spring1983): 131-50.
[Signs:Journalof Womenin Cultureand Society1992, vol. 17, no. 2]
? 1992 byThe University
of Chicago.All rightsreserved.
0097-9740/92/1702-0002$01.00

Winter 1992 SIGNS 251

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

lip serviceto race as theycontinueto analyzetheirown experiencein ever


more sophisticatedforms.
This narrownessofvisionis particularly ironicin thattheseveryissues
of equalityand difference, theconstructive strategiesof power,and sub-
jectivityand consciousness have stood at the coreof blackscholarshipfor
somehalf-century or more.HistorianW. E. B. Du Bois,sociologistOliver
Cox, and scientistCharlesR. Drew are onlysome of themoresignificant
pre-1950scontributors to thediscussionof race as a social categoryand
to the refutationof essentialistbiological and geneticexplanations.3
These issues continueto be salient in our own time,when racism in
Americagrows with both verve and subtletyand when "enlightened"
women's historianswitness,as has been the case in recentyears,recur-
rentracial tensionsat our own professionaland scholarlygatherings.
Feministscholars,especiallythoseof African-American women's his-
tory, must accept the to
challenge bring race more prominently intotheir
of
analyses power. The explicationof race entailsthreeinterrelated strat-
egies,separated here merely forthe sake of analysis.Firstof all, we must
definethe constructionand "technologies"of race as well as those of
genderand sexuality.4Second, we must expose the role of race as a
metalanguageby callingattentionto its powerful,all-encompassingef-
fecton the constructionand representation of othersocial and power
relations,namely,gender,class, and sexuality.Third,we mustrecognize
race as providingsitesof dialogicexchangeand contestation,since race
has constituteda discursivetool forboth oppressionand liberation.As
Michael Omi and Howard Winantargue,"the effortmustbe made to
understandrace as an unstableand 'decentered'complexof social mean-
ings constantlybeingtransformed by politicalstruggle."5Such a three-

3 CharlesDrew, in developinga methodof blood preservationand organizingblood


banks,contributedto the explosionof the myththatblacks were physiologically differ-
ent fromwhites.See CharlesE. Wynes,CharlesRichardDrew: The Man and theMyth
(Urbana: University of IllinoisPress,1988), 65-71; and C. R. Drew and J. Scudder,
"Studies in Blood Preservation:Fate of CellularElementsand Prothrombin in Citrated
Blood," Journalof Laboratoryand ClinicalMedicine26 (June1941): 1473-78. Also
see W. E. B. Du Bois, "Races," Crisis(August1911), 157-58, and Dusk of Dawn: An
Essay towardan Autobiographyof a Race Concept (New York: HarcourtBrace, 1940),
116-17, 137; OliverC. Cox, Caste, Class and Race (1948; reprint,New York:
MonthlyReview Press,1970), 317-20.
4 Michel Foucault,Historyof Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans.RobertHur-
ley (New York: Vintage,1980), 127, 146. Teresa De LauretiscriticizesFoucaultforpre-
sentinga male-centered class analysisthatdisregardsgender(see Technologiesof Gender
[Bloomington:Indiana University Press,1987], 3-30). In both cases "technology"is
used to signifythe elaborationand implementation of discourses(classificatoryand eval-
uative) in orderto maintain the survivaland hegemony of one group over another.
These discoursesare implemented throughpedagogy,medicine,mass media,etc.
see RobertMiles, Racism (New York:
5 For discussionof race and signification,
in
Routledge,1989), 69-98; also, Michael Omi and Howard Winant,Racial Formation

252 SIGNS Winter 1992

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THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE Higginbotham

prongedapproach to the historyof African-American women will re-


and
quireborrowing blending work by black whitefeminist
intellectuals,
scholars,and other such
theorists as white male philosophersand lin-
guists.Indeed,the of
veryprocess borrowing and blendingspeaks to the
traditionof syncretismthathas characterizedthe Afro-American expe-
rience.

Definingrace
When the U.S. SupremeCourt had beforeit the task of definingob-
scenity,JusticePotterStewartclaimedthat,whilehe could notintelligibly
defineit, "I know it when I see it."6When we talk about theconceptof
race,mostpeople believethattheyknow it whentheysee it but arriveat
nothingshortof confusionwhen pressedto defineit. Chromosomere-
searchrevealsthefallacyof race as an accuratemeasureof genotypicor
phenotypicdifference betweenhumanbeings.Cross-culturaland histor-
ical studiesof miscegenationlaw reveal shifting, arbitrary,and contra-
dictorydefinitions of race. Literarycritics,as in the collectionof essays
"Race," Writing, and Difference, editedby HenryLouis Gates, compel-
linglypresentrace as the "ultimatetrope of difference"-as artificially
and arbitrarilycontrivedto produceand maintainrelationsofpowerand
subordination.Likewise,historianBarbaraFieldsarguesthatrace is nei-
thernaturalnor transhistorical, but mustratherbe analyzedwithan eye
to its functioningand maintenancewithinspecificcontexts.7
Like genderand class,then,race mustbe seen as a social construction
predicatedupon the recognitionof difference and signifying the simul-
taneous distinguishing and positioningof groupsvis-a-visone another.
More than this,race is a highlycontestedrepresentation of relationsof
power betweensocial categoriesby whichindividualsare identified and
identify themselves.The recognitionof racial distinctions emanatesfrom
and adapts to multipleuses of power in society.Perceivedas "natural"
and "appropriate,"such racial categoriesare strategically necessaryfor
thefunctioning ofpowerin countlessinstitutional and ideologicalforms,
the UnitedStatesfromthe 1960s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge& Kegan Paul,
1986), 68.
Jacobellisv. Stateof Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).
7
AlthoughFields does not use the term"trope,"her discussionof race parallelsthat
of Gates. HenryLouis Gates,Jr.,ed., "Race," Writing,and Difference(Chicago: Univer-
sityof Chicago Press,1986), esp. articlesby Gates,Jr.,"Introduction:Writing'Race'
and the DifferenceIt Makes," 1-20; AnthonyAppiah,"The UncompletedArgument:
Du Bois and the Illusionof Race," 21-37; and TzvetanTodorov," 'Race,' Writing,and
Culture,"370-80. See also BarbaraJ. Fields,"Ideology and Race in AmericanHistory,"
in Region,Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward,ed.
J.Morgan Kousserand JamesM. McPherson(New York: OxfordUniversity Press,
1982), 143-47.

Winter 1992 SIGNS 253

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

bothexplicitand subtle.As Michel Foucaulthas written, societiesengage


in "a perpetualprocess of strategicelaboration" or a constantshifting
and reforming of the apparatusof power in responseto theirparticular
culturalor economicneeds.8
Furthermore, in societieswhereracial demarcationis endemicto their
socioculturalfabricand heritage-to theirlaws and economy,to their
institutionalized structuresand discourses,and to theirepistemologies
and everydaycustoms-genderidentity linkedto and even
is inextricably
determinedby racial identity. In theJimCrow Southpriorto the 1960s
and in South Africauntil veryrecently,for instance,littleblack girls
learnedat an earlyage to place themselvesin the bathroomfor"black
women,"not in thatfor"whiteladies." As such a distinction suggests,in
thesesocietiesthe representation of both genderand class is colored by
race. Their social constructionbecomes racializedas theirconcreteim-
plications and normativemeaningsare continuouslyshaped by what
Louis Althusserterms"ideological stateapparatuses"-the school,fam-
ily,welfareagency,hospital,televisionand cinema,the press.9
For example,themetaphoricand metonymicidentification of welfare
with the black population by the American public has resulted in tre-
mendous generalization about the of
supposed unwillingness many
blacksto work.Welfareimmediately conjuresup imagesof black female-
headed families,despitethe factthatthe aggregatenumberof poor per-
sons who receivebenefitsin the formof aid to dependentchildrenor
medicareis predominantly white.Likewise,the drugproblemtoo often
is depictedin themass media as a pathologyof black lower-classlifeset
in motionbydrugdealers,youthfuldrugrunners,and addictedvictimsof
the ghetto.The drugproblemis less oftenportrayedas an underground
economythat mirrorsand reproducesthe exploitativerelationsof the
dominanteconomy.The "supply-side"executiveswho make the "big"
moneyare neitherblack nor residentsof urban ghettos.
Race mightalso be viewed as myth,"not at all an abstract,purified
essence" (to cite Roland Bartheson myth)but, rather,"a formless,un-
stable,nebulouscondensation,whose unityand coherenceare above all

8 MichelFoucault describes function


thestrategic oftheapparatus ofpoweras a sys-
temofrelations between diverseelements laws,architecture,
(e.g.,discourses, moralval-
thataresupported
ues,institutions) bytypesofknowledge: "I understand bythe'term'
apparatus a sortof... formation whichhas itsmajorfunction mo-
at a givenhistorical
mentthatofresponding to an urgentneed.... Thismayhavebeen,forexample, the
assimilationofa floating populationfoundto be burdensome foran essentiallymercan-
tilisteconomy"(PowerlKnowledge: SelectedInterviewsand OtherWritings, 1972-
1977,ed. ColinGordon[NewYork:Pantheon, 1980],194-95).
9 LouisAlthusser,"IdeologyandIdeological StateApparatuses (Notestowardan In-
in hisLeninand Philosophy,
vestigation)," and OtherEssays,trans.BenBrewster (New
York:Monthly ReviewPress,1972),165.

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THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE Higginbotham

due to its function."10 As a fluidset of overlappingdiscourses,race is


as and
perceived arbitrary illusionary, on theone hand,whilenaturaland
fixedon theother.To arguethatrace is mythand thatit is an ideological
ratherthana biologicalfactdoes not denythatideologyhas real effects
on people's lives.Race servesas a "global sign,"a "metalanguage,"since
it speaks about and lendsmeaningto a hostof termsand expressions,to
myriadaspects of lifethat would otherwisefall outside the referential
domain of race.11By continuallyexpressingovertand covertanalogic
relationships,race impregnatesthe simplest meanings we take for
granted.It makes hair "good" or "bad," speech patterns"correct"or
"incorrect."It is, in fact,theapparentoverdeterminancy of race in West-
ernculture,and particularly in theUnitedStates,thathas permittedit to
functionas a metalanguagein itsdiscursiverepresentation and construc-
tion of social relations.Race not only tends to subsumeothersets of
social relations,namely,genderand class, but it blurs and disguises,
suppressesand negatesits own complex interplaywith the verysocial
relationsit envelops.It precludesunitywithinthesame gendergroupbut
oftenappears to solidifypeople of opposingeconomicclasses. Whether
race is textuallyomittedor textuallyprivileged,its totalizingeffectin
obscuringclass and genderremains.
This may well explain whywomen's studiesforso long restedupon
the unstatedpremiseof racial (i.e., white) homogeneityand with this
presumptionproceededto universalize"woman's" cultureand oppres-
sion,while failingto see whitewomen'sown investment and complicity
in theoppressionof othergroupsof menand women.ElizabethSpelman
takesto taskthisidea of "homogeneouswomanhood" in herexploration
of race and genderin InessentialWoman. Examiningthinkerssuch as
Aristotle,Simone de Beauvoir,and Nancy Chodorow, among others,
Spelmanobservesa double standardon thepart of manyfeminists who
failto separatetheirwhitenessfromtheirwomanness.Whitefeminists,
she argues,typicallydiscerntwo separateidentitiesforblackwomen,the
racial and the gender,and conclude that the genderidentityof black
women is the same as theirown: "In otherwords,the womannessun-
derneaththe black woman's skin is a white woman's and deep down
insidetheLatinawomanis an Anglowomanwaitingto burstthrough."12
Afro-American history,on the otherhand, has accentuatedrace by
callingexplicit attention to the culturalas well as socioeconomicimpli-
cationsofAmericanracismbuthas failedto examinethedifferential class
10Roland
Barthes,Mythologies,trans.AnnetteLavers (New York: Hill & Wang,
1972), 118, 120.
11Ibid., 114-15.
12
ElizabethV. Spelman,InessentialWoman: Problemsof Exclusion in Feminist
Thought(Boston: Beacon, 1988), 13, 80-113.

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

and genderpositionsmen and women occupy in black communities-


thusuncritically renderinga monolithic"black community," "black ex-
perience,"and "voice of theNegro."Notwithstanding thatthisdiscursive
monolithmostoftenresonateswitha male voice and as theexperienceof
men,such a renderingprecludesgendersubordinationby black men by
virtueof theirown blacknessand social subordination.Even black wo-
men'shistory, whichhas consciouslysoughtto identify theimportanceof
gender relationsand the interworkings of race, class, and gender,none-
thelessreflectsthe totalizingimpulseof race in such conceptsas "black
womanhood" or the "black woman cross-culturally"-conceptsthat
mask real differences of class, statusand color,regionalculture,and a
host of otherconfigurations of difference.

Racial constructionsof gender


To understandrace as a metalanguage,we mustrecognizeitshistorical
and materialgrounding-whatRussianlinguistand criticM. M. Bakhtin
referredto as "the power of the word to mean."13This power evolves
fromconcretesituationaland ideologicalcontexts,thatis, froma posi-
tion of enunciationthat reflectsnot only timeand place but values as
well. The conceptof race, in its verbal and extraverbaldimension,and
even more specifically,in its role in the representationas well as self-
representation of individualsin Americansociety(what psychoanalytic
is constitutedin languagein which (as
theoristscall "subjectification"),
Bakhtinpointsout) therehave neverbeen " 'neutral'words and forms-
words and formsthat can belong to 'no one'; languagehas been com-
pletelytaken over,shot throughwithintentionsand accents."14
The social contextfor the constructionof race as a tool for black
oppressionis historicallyrootedin thecontextof slavery.Barbara Fields
remindsus: "The idea one people has of another,even when the differ-
ence betweenthemis embodiedin the most strikingphysicalcharacter-
istics,is always mediatedby the social contextwithinwhich the two
come in contact.""1Race came to lifeprimarilyas the signifierof the
master/slave relationand thus emergedsuperimposedupon class and

13
M. M. Bakhtin,The Dialogic Imagination:Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist,
trans.Caryl Emersonand Michael Holquist (Austin:University of Texas Press,1981),
352.
14 Bakhtin
argues: "Language is not an abstractsystemof normativeformsbut
rathera concreteheteroglotconceptionof the world." For mypurposesof discussion,
would conveymultiple,even conflicting
"race," therefore, meanings(heteroglossia)when
expressedby different groups-the multiplicity of meaningsand intentionsnot simply
renderedbetweenblacks and whites,but withineach of thesetwo groups.See Bakhtin
on "heteroglossia"(293, 352).
s1 Fields,"Race and Ideologyin AmericanHistory,"148-49.

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THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE Higginbotham

propertyrelations.Definedby law as "animate chattel,"slaves consti-


tutedpropertyas well as a social class and wereexploitedundera system
thatsanctionedwhiteownershipof black bodies and black labor.16Stud-
ies of blackwomenin slavery, however,makepoignantlycleartherole of
race not only in shaping the class relationsof the South's "peculiar
institution,"but also in constructinggender's "power to mean." So-
journerTruth'sfamousand hauntingquestion,"Ar'n'tI a Woman?" laid
bare the racializedconfiguration of genderundera systemof class rule
that compelled and expropriatedwomen's physicallabor and denied
themlegalrightto theirown bodiesand sexuality, muchless to thebodies
to whichtheygave birth.While law and public opinionidealized moth-
erhood and enforcedtheprotectionof whitewomen's bodies,theoppo-
site held trueforblack women's. SojournerTruth'spersonaltestimony
demonstrated gender'sracial meaning.She had "ploughed,and planted,
and gatheredinto barns,"and no male slave had outdone her.She had
givenbirthto thirteenchildren,all of whom were sold away fromher.
When she criedout in grieffromthe depthsof her motherhood,"none
butJesusheard."17
Wasn'tSojournerTrutha woman? The courtsansweredthisquestion
forslavewomenby rulingthemoutsidethestatutoryrubric"woman."18
In discussingthe case of State of Missouri v. Celia, A. Leon Higgin-
botham,Jr.,elucidatestheracial signification of gender.Celia was four-
teenyearsold whenpurchasedbya successfulfarmer, RobertNewsome.
Duringthe fiveyearsof his ownership,Newsome habituallyforcedher
intosexual intercourse.At age nineteenshe had bornea childbyhimand
was expectinganother.In June1855, while pregnantand ill, Celia de-
fendedherselfagainstattemptedrape by her master.Her testimonyre-
veals thatshe warnedhim she would hurthim ifhe continuedto abuse
her while sick. When her threatswould not deterhis advances,she hit
him over the head with a stick,immediatelykillinghim. In an act pre-
saging RichardWright'sNative Son, she then burnedhis body in the
fireplaceand the next morningspread his ashes on the pathway.Celia
was apprehendedand triedforfirst-degree murder.Her counselsoughtto
lower the chargeof firstdegreeto murderin self-defense, arguingthat

16EugeneD. Genovese,Roll JordanRoll: The WorldtheSlaves Made (New York:


Pantheon,1974), 3-7, 28.
17
SojournerTruth'sspeechappears in BertJamesLoewenbergand RuthBogin,
Black Womenin NineteenthCenturyAmericanLife (University Park: PennsylvaniaState
University Press,1976), 235. For workson slave women,see Deborah GrayWhite,
Ar'n'tI a Woman:FemaleSlaves in the PlantationSouth (New York: Norton, 1985);
ElizabethFox-Genovese,Withinthe PlantationHousehold: Black and WhiteWomenof
the Old South (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press,1988), esp. chaps. 3
and 6.
18
Fox-Genovese,326.

Winter 1992 SIGNS 257

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

Celia had a rightto resist her master's sexual advances, especially


because of the imminentdanger to her health. A slave master's eco-
nomic and propertyrights,thedefensecontended,did not includerape.
The defenserestedits case on Missouri statutesthat protectedwomen
fromattemptsto ravish,rape,or defile.The languageof theseparticular
statutesexplicitlyused the term"any woman," while other unrelated
Missouri statutesexplicitlyused terms such as "white female" and
"slave" or "negro" in theircriminalcodes. The questioncenteredon her
womanhood. The court found Celia guilty:"If Newsome was in the
habit of havingintercoursewiththe defendantwho was his slave,. . . it
is murderin thefirstdegree."Celia was sentencedto death,havingbeen
denied an appeal, and was hangedin December 1855 afterthe birthof
her child.19
Sinceraciallybased justificationsof slaverystood at thecore of South-
ern law, race relations,and social etiquettein general,then proof of
"womanhood" did notreston a commonfemaleessence,sharedculture,
or mere physicalappearance. (SojournerTruth,on one occasion, was
forcedto bareherbreaststo a doubtingaudiencein orderto vindicateher
womanhood.)Thisis notto denygender'srolewithinthesocial and power
relationsof race. Black women experiencedthe vicissitudesof slavery
throughgenderedlives and thus differently fromslave men. They bore
and nursed children and performed domestic duties-all on top
of doing fieldwork.Unlike slave men, slave women fellvictimto rape
preciselybecause of theirgender.Yet gender itselfwas both constructed
and fragmented by race. Gender,so coloredby race, remained frombirth
untildeathinextricably linkedto one's personalidentity and social status.
For black and white women, genderedidentity was reconstructed and
represented indeedantagonistic,
in verydifferent, racializedcontexts.

Racial constructionsof class

HenryLouis Gates arguesthat"race has become a tropeof ultimate,


irreducibledifferencebetweencultures,linguisticgroups,or adherentsof
specific beliefsystemswhich-more oftenthan not-also have funda-
mentallyopposed economicinterest."20 thatthepowerof
It is interesting
race as a metalanguagethattranscendsand masksreal differences lies in
19A. Leon Higginbotham,Jr.,notes: "One of the ironiesis thatthe master'sestate
was denieda profitfromCelia's rape. Despite the court's'mercy'in delayingexecution
untilthe birthof the child,the recordreflectsthata Doctor CarterdeliveredCelia's
child,who was born dead" ("Race, Sex, Educationand MissouriJurisprudence: Shelley
v. Kraemerin a HistoricalPerspective,"WashingtonUniversity Law Quarterly67
[1989]: 684-85).
20 Gates,Jr.,"Introduction:Writing'Race' and the DifferenceIt Makes" (n. 7
above), 5.

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THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE Higginbotham

theremarkable and longstanding successwithwhichit uniteswhitesof


disparateeconomic positions againstblacks.UntiltheCivilRightseraof
the1960s,raceeffectively servedas a metaphor forclass,albeita met-
aphor rifewith For
complications. example, not all Southern whiteswere
slaveowners.Nor didtheysharethesameeconomicandpoliticalinter-
ests.Upcountry yeomen protestedthepredominance ofplanters'interests
overtheirownin statelegislatures, and whiteartisansdecriedcompeti-
tionfromtheuse of slavelabor.21Yet,whileSouthern whiteshardly
constituteda homogeneous class,they united for radically different
rea-
sons aroundthebannerof whitesupremacy, waged civilwar,and for
generationsbemoanedtheLostCause.
The metalanguage of race also transcended thevoicesof class and
ethnicconflictamong Northern whites in the greatupheavalsof labor
during thelatenineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amidtheirop-
position,capitaland labor agreedsufficiently to exclude blacksfrom
unionmembership and frommorethana marginalplace withinthe
emerging industrial
workforce.22 Jobceilings andhiring limited
practices
theoverwhelming majority of black men and womento dead-end, low-
payingemployment-employment whitesdisdainedor werein thepro-
cessofabandoning.23 Theactualclasspositions ofblacksdidnotmatter,
nordidtheacknowledgment ofdifferential statuses(suchas byincome,
typeofemployment, moralsandmanners, education, orcolor)byblacks
themselves.Anentire system ofcultural preconceptions disregardedthese
complexitiesandtensions bygrouping all blacksintoa normative wellof
and subserviency.24
inferiority
The interplayof therace-classconflation withgenderevokedvery
different
socialperceptionsofblackandwhitewomen'sworkroles.This
is exhibited
bytheconcernabout"femaleloaferism," whicharoseinthe

21
Fields,"Ideology and Race in AmericanHistory"(n. 7 above), 156.
22
AbramHarrisand SterlingSpero, The Black Worker:A Studyof theNegro in the
Labor Movement(1931; reprint,New York: Atheneum,1968), 158-61, 167-81; Joe
WilliamTrotter,Black Milwaukee: The Making of an IndustrialProletariat,1915-45
(Urbana: University of IllinoisPress,1985), 13-14, 18, 39-79; Dolores Janiewski,Sis-
terhoodDenied: Race, Gender,and Class in a New South Community(Philadelphia:
TempleUniversity Press,1985), 152-78; JacquelineJones,Labor of Love: Labor of
Sorrow (New York: Basic, 1985), 148, 168, 177-79.
23 See SharonHarley,"For the Good of Familyand Race," Signs:Journal Women
of
in Cultureand Society15, no. 2 (Winter1990): 340-41.
24 PatriciaHill
Collins arguespersuasivelyforthe continuedrole of race in explain-
ing social class positionin her analysisof studiesof contemporaryblack low-income,
female-headedfamilies.In her critiqueof the Moynihanreportand the televisedBill
Moyersdocumentaryon the "vanishingblack family,"Collins arguesthatsocial class is
conceptualizedin both thesestudiesas "an outcomevariable" of race and genderrather
thanthe productof such structuralfactorsas industrialflight,mechanization,inade-
quate schools,etc. ("A Comparisonof Two Workson Black FamilyLife,"Signs 14, no.
4 [Summer1989]: 876-77, 882-84).

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yearsimmediatelyfollowingEmancipation.JacquelineJonesvividlyex-
poses the ridiculeand hostilitymeted out to black familieswho at-
temptedto removetheirwivesand mothersfromtheworkforceto attend
to theirown households. In contrastto the domesticideal for white
womenof all classes,thelargersocietydeemedit "unnatural,"in factan
"evil," forblack marriedwomen"to play thelady" whiletheirhusbands
supportedthem. In the immediatepostwar South, the role of menial
workeroutsidetheirhomeswas demandedof black women,even at the
cost of physicalcoercion.25
Dolores Janiewskicalls attentionto theracializedmeaningof class in
her studyof women's employmentin a North Carolina tobacco factory
duringthe twentiethcentury.She shows thatrace fracturedthe division
of labor by gender.Southernetiquettedemanded protectionof white
women's "racial honor" and requiredthattheywork underconditions
to thedrudgery
describedas "suitableforladies" in contradistinction and
dirtyworking conditions considered acceptable for black women. Jan-
iewskinotesthatat leastone employerfeltno inhibitionagainstpublicly
admittinghis "brutetreatment"of black femaleemployees.26
The most effectivetool in the discursiveweldingof race and class
proved to be segregationin its myriad institutionaland customary
forms.JimCrow railroad cars, for instance,became strategicsites of
contestationover the conflatedmeaningof class and race: blacks who
could afford"firstclass" accommodationsvehementlyprotestedthe
racial basis forbeingdeniedaccess to them.This is dramaticallyevident
in the case of ArthurMitchell,Democratic congressmanto the U.S.
House of Representatives fromIllinoisduringthe 1930s. Mitchellwas
evicted from first-classrailroad accommodations while traveling
throughHot Springs, Arkansas. Despite his protests,he was forcedto
join his social "inferiors" in a Jim Crow coach with no flushtoilet,
washbasin,runningwater, soap. The transcript
or of thetrialrevealsthe
followingtestimony:

When I offeredmyticket,the trainconductortook myticketand


toreoffa piece of it,but told me at thattimethatI couldn'tridein
thatcar.We had quitea littlecontroversy about it,and whenhe said
I couldn'tridethereI thoughtit mightdo some good forme to tell
him who I was. I said . . : "I am Mr. Mitchell,servingin the
Congressof the UnitedStates."He said it didn'tmake a damn bit
25Fordiscussion of"femaleloaferism,"seeJacqueline 45, 58-60.
Jones,
26
DoloresJaniewski,"Seeking'a New Day anda NewWay':BlackWomenand
Unionsin theSouthernTobaccoIndustry,"in "To Toil theLivelongDay": America's
Womenat Work,1780-1980,ed. CarolGroneman andMaryBethNorton(Ithaca,
Press,1987),163.
N.Y.: CornellUniversity

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ofdifference
whoI was,thatas longas I was a nigger
I couldn'tride
in thatcar.27

Neithertheimprimatur of theU.S. House of Representatives nor the


to
ability purchase a first-class
ticket affordedMitchell themore privi-
legedaccommodations. The collective imageofracerepresented Mitch-
ell,theindividual, justas he singularly theentireblackrace.
represented
the
Despite complicating factor of his representingthefederalgovern-
mentitself, Mitchell,like his sociallyconstructedrace,was unambigu-
ouslyassigned to the second-class car,ergo lower-classspace.
A longtradition ofblackprotest focused on suchtreatment ofwomen.
During the latenineteenth century,segregatedrailroad wereemblem-
trains
aticofracialconfigurations ofbothclassandgender; thefirst-class
railroad
caralsowascalledthe"ladiescar."Indeed, segregation's
meaning forgender
wasexemplified inthetropeof"lady."Ladieswerenotmerely women;they
representedcass, a differentiated
a statuswithinthegeneric category of
"women."Nor didsociety confer suchstatuson all whitewomen.White
prostitutes, alongwithmanyworking-class whitewomen,felloutsideits
rubric.Butnoblackwoman,regardless ofincome, education,
refinement, or
character, enjoyedthestatusof lady.JohnR. Lynch,blackcongressman
fromMississippi during Reconstruction, denounced thepractice offorcing
blackwomenofmeansandrefinement outoffirst-class
accommodations
and intosmoking cars.He characterized thelatteraccommodations as
"filthy... withdrunkards, gamblers, andcriminals."Arguing insupport of
theCivilRightsBillof 1875,Lynchusedthetropeof "lady"in calling
attention to race'sinscriptionuponclassdistinctions:
Underourpresent system ofracedistinctions a whitewomanofa
questionable social standing,
yea,I maysay,of an admitted im-
moralcharacter, can go to anypublicplace or upon anypublic
conveyance and be therecipient of thesametreatment, thesame
courtesy,andthesamerespect thatis usuallyaccordedto themost
refinedandvirtuous; butletan intelligent,
modest,refined colored
ladypresent herselfandaskthatthesameprivileges be accordedto
herthathavejustbeenaccordedto hersocialinferior ofthewhite
race,and in ninecasesoutoften,exceptin certain portionsofthe
country,shewillnotonlybe refused, butinsultedformakingthe
request.[Emphasis added]28
27 Mitchellv. United
States,313 U.S. 80 (1941), app.; also see CatherineA. Barnes,
JourneyfromJimCrow: The Desegregationof SouthernTransit(New York: Columbia
University Press,1983), 1-2.
28 See
JohnR. Lynch'sspeechon the Civil RightsBill of 1875 in U.S. Congress,Con-
gressionalRecord (February3, 1875), 944-45.

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Early court cases involvingdiscriminationin public transportation


revealthatrailroadcompaniesseldomifeverlooked upon black women
as "ladies." The case of CatherineBrown,a black woman, was the first
racial publictransportation case to come beforetheU.S. SupremeCourt.
In February1868, Brown was denied passage in the "ladies car" on a
traintravelingfromAlexandria,Virginia,to Washington,D.C. Brown
disregardedthe demand that she sit in the "colored car" instead.Her
persistencein enteringthe ladies car was metwithviolenceand verbal
insults.29The resultantcourtcase, decidedin herfavorin 1873, indicated
not an end to such practicesbut merelythe federalgovernment's short-
lived supportof black civil rightsduringthe era of radical Reconstruc-
tion. The outcome of Brown's case provedto be an exceptionto those
thatwould follow.
Withina decade, Ida B. Wellssued the Chesapeake,Ohio, and South-
westernRailroad forphysicallyejectingherout of the"ladies" car.When
the conductorgrabbedher arm,she bit him and held firmly to her seat.
It took two men to
finally dislodge her.Theydragged her into thesmok-
ing car and (as she recalledin her autobiography) "the white ladies and
gentlemenin thecar even stood on the seats so thatthey could a
get good
view and continuedapplaudingthe conductorforhis brave stand."Al-
though her lawsuit was successfulat the lower court level, the state
SupremeCourtofTennesseereversedtheearlierdecision,sustainingboth
thediscrimination and thebodilyharmagainsther.30The racistdecision,
like others of the courts,led to Plessy v. Fergusonin 1896 and the
euphemisticdoctrineof "separate but equal."

Racial constructionsof sexuality


The exclusionof black women fromthedominantsociety'sdefinition
of "lady" said as muchabout sexualityas it did about class. The meta-
languageof race signifies,too, the imbricationof race withinthe repre-
sentationof sexuality.Historiansof women and of science,largelyinflu-
enced by Michel Foucault,now attestto thevariablequalityof changing
conceptionsof sexualityover time-conceptionsinformedas much by

29 Railroad Co. v. Brown,84 U.S. 445 (Wall) 445 (1873).


30 Crusade forJustice:The Autobiographyof Ida B. Wells,
See Ida B. Wells-Barnett,
ed. AlfredaM. Duster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1970), 18-20; forfulldis-
cussionof thiscase and those of otherblack women on buses and streetcars,see Willie
Mae Coleman, "Black Women and SegregatedPublicTransportation:NinetyYears of
Resistance,"Truth:Newsletterof theAssociationof Black WomenHistorians(1986),
reprintedin Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Womenin UnitedStatesHistory(Brooklyn:
Carlson, 1990), 5:296-98.

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raceand classas by gender.31 Sexuality has cometo be defined notin


termsof biologicalessentialsor as a universal truthdetachedand tran-
scendent fromotheraspectsof humanlifeand society. Rather,it is an
evolving conception appliedto the but
body givenmeaning and identity
byeconomic, and
cultural, historicalcontext.32
In thecenturiesbetween theRenaissance andtheVictorian era,West-
ernculture constructedandrepresented changing andconflicting images
ofwoman'ssexuality, whichshifted diametricallyfromimagesoflasciv-
iousnessto moralpurity. Yet Westernconceptions of blackwomen's
sexuality resistedchangeduring this same time.33Winthrop Jordan's
nowclassicstudyofracialattitudes towardblacksbetween thesixteenth
and nineteenth centuries
arguesthatblackwomen'sbodiesepitomized
centuries-long Europeanperceptions of Africans as primitive,animal-
like,and In
savage. America, no less and
distinguished learneda figure
thanThomasJefferson conjectured thatblackwomenmatedwithorang-
utans.34Whilesuchthinking rationalized slaveryand thesexualexploi-
tationofslavewomenbywhitemasters, italsoperpetuated an enormous
divisionbetween blackpeopleandwhitepeopleon the"scaleofhuman-
ity": carnalityas opposed to intellectand/orspirit;savageryas opposed
tocivilization;
devianceas opposedtonormality; as opposed
promiscuity
topurity;passionas opposedtopassionlessness. Theblackwomancame
to symbolize,according to SanderGilman,an "iconforblacksexuality
in general."35This discursivegap betweenthe raceswas if anything
greaterbetweenwhiteand blackwomenthanbetweenwhiteand black
men.
Violencefigured preeminently inracializedconstructions
ofsexuality.
Fromthedaysof slavery, thesocialconstruction and representation
of
blacksexualityreinforced violence,rhetoricaland real,againstblack
31 For work
by historianson sexuality'srelationto class and race, see the essaysin
KathyPeiss and ChristinaSimmons,withRobertPadgug,eds., Passion and Power: Sex-
ualityin History(Philadelphia:TempleUniversity Press,1989).
32 Foucault,Historyof
Sexuality,1:14, 140, 143, 145-146, and Power/Knowledge
(n. 8 above), 210-11.
33
Nancy Cott calls attentionto the role of evangelicalProtestantism and, later,sci-
ence in contributing to the image of "passionlessness"forAmericannorthernwomen
("Passionlessness:An Interpretation of VictorianSexual Ideology,1790-1850," Signs4,
no. 2 (Winter1978): 219-36); forchangingWesternrepresentations, see Thomas
Laqueur,Making Sex: Body and Genderfromthe Greeksto Freud (Cambridge,Mass.:
Harvard University Press,1990).
34 See discussionof and largerdiscussionof Westernviews towardblacks in
Jefferson
WinthropD. Jordan,Whiteover Black: AmericanAttitudestowardtheNegro, 1550-
1812 (New York: Norton, 1977), 24-40, 151, 154-59, 458-59.
35 See SanderL.
Gilman,"Black Bodies, WhiteBodies: Toward an Iconographyof
FemaleSexualityin Late Nineteenth-Century Art,Medicine,and Literature,"in Gates,
ed. (n. 7 above), 223-40.

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

women and men.36That therape of black women could continueto go


on with impunitylong afterslavery'sdemiseunderscoresthe pervasive
beliefin black femalepromiscuity. This belieffoundexpressionin the
statementof one Southernwhitewoman in 1904: "I cannotimaginesuch
a creationas a virtuousblack woman."37
The lynchingof black men,withitsoftenattendantcastration,reeked
of sexualized representationsof race.38The work of black feministsof
the late nineteenthcenturymakes clear thatlynching, while oftenratio-
nalized by whitesas a punishmentforthe rape of whitewomen,more
oftenwas perpetratedto maintainracialetiquetteand thesocioeconomic
and political hegemonyof whites.Ida Wells-Barnett, Anna J. Cooper,
Mary Church and
Terrell, Pauline Hopkins exposed and contrastedthe
specter of the whitewoman's rape in the case of lynchingand the sanc-
tioned rape of black women by whitemen. Hazel Carby,in discussing
theseblack feminist writers,establishedtheirunderstanding of theinter-
sectionof strategiesof power withlynchingand rape:

Their legacy to us is theoriesthat expose the colonizationof the


black femalebody by white male power and the destructionof
black maleswho attemptedto exerciseanyoppositionalpatriarchal
control.When accused of threatening the whitefemalebody,the
repositoryof heirs to property power,the black male, and his
and
economic,political, and social advancement,is lynchedout of ex-
istence.Cooper, Wells, and Hopkins assertthe necessityof seeing
the relation between histories: the rape of black women in the
36
JacquelynDowd Hall, RevoltagainstChivalry:JessieDaniel Ames and the Wom-
en's CampaignagainstLynching(New York: Columbia University Press,1979), 129-
57, 220; Ida Wells-Barnett, On Lynching,reprinted. (New York: Arno Press,1969);
JoelWilliamson,A Rage for Order (New York: OxfordUniversity Press,1986), 117-
51; Howard Smead, Blood Justice:The Lynchingof Mack CharlesParker(New York:
OxfordUniversity Press,1986).
37
"Experiencesof the Race Problem:By a SouthernWhiteWoman," Independent,
vol. 56 (March 17, 1904), as quoted in Anne FirorScott,"Most Invisibleof All: Black
Women's VoluntaryAssociations,"Journalof SouthernHistory56 (February1990): 10.
Neil R. McMillen observesforthe earlytwentiethcenturythatcourtsdid not usually
convictwhitemen forthe rape of black women,"because whitesgenerallyagreedthat
no black femaleabove the age of pubertywas chaste" (Dark Journey:Black Mississippi-
ans in the Age of JimCrow [Urbana: University of IllinoisPress,1989], 205 -6).
38 A numberof writershave dealt withthe issue of castration.For historicalstudies
of the earlyslave era, see Jordan,154-58, 463, 473; also discussingcastrationstatutes
as part of the slave codes in colonial Virginia,South Carolina,and Pennsylvaniais
A. Leon Higginbotham,Jr.,In the Matterof Color: Race and theAmericanLegal Pro-
cess (New York: OxfordUniversity Press,1978), 58, 168, 177, 282, 413, n. 107. For
discussionof castrationduringthe twentiethcentury, see RichardWright,"The Ethicsof
LivingJimCrow: An AutobiographicalSketch,"in his Uncle Tom's Children(1938; re-
print,New York: Harper & Row, 1965); and TrudierHarris,ExorcisingBlackness:
Historicaland LiteraryLynchingand BurningRituals (Bloomington:Indiana University
Press,1984), 29-68.

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ninetiesis directlylinked to the rape of the femaleslave. Their


analysesare dynamicand not limitedto a parochialunderstanding
of "women's issues"; theyhave firmlyestablishedthe dialectical
relation between economic/political power and economic/sexual
power in the battleforcontrolof women's bodies.39

Througha varietyof mediums-theater, art,thepress,and literature-


discoursesof racismdevelopedand reifiedstereotypes of sexuality.Such
representationsgrew out of and facilitatedthe largersubjugationand
controlof the black population.The categorizationof class and racial
groups accordingto culturallyconstitutedsexual identitiesfacilitated
blacks' subordinationwithina stratified
societyand renderedthempow-
erlessagainsttheintrusionof thestateintotheirinnermostprivatelives.
This intrusionwenthand in hand withtherole of thestatein legislating
and enforcingracial segregation,disfranchisement, and economic dis-
crimination.
JamesJones'sBad Blood: TheTuskegee
Syphilis
Experiment
provides
us witha profoundlydisturbingexample of such intrusioninto blacks'
privatelives. Jones recountshow a federalagency,the Public Health
Service,embarkedin 1932 upon decades of tests on black men with
syphilis,denyingthemaccess to its cure in orderto assess the disease's
debilitatingeffectson the body.40The federalagencyfeltat libertyto
make the studybecause of its unquestioningacceptanceof stereotypes
thatconflatedrace,gender,and class. By definingthishealthproblemin
racial terms,"objective scientific
researchers"could be absolved of all
Some evenpositedthatblackshad "earned theirillnessas
responsibility.
just recompenseforwickedlife-styles."41
The PublicHealth Service'swillingnessto prolongsyphilisdespitethe
discoveryof penicillindisclosesnot onlythefederalgovernment's lack of
concernforthehealthof themenin its study,but its evenlesserconcern
forblack womenin relationships withthesemen.Black womenfailedto
receiveso muchas a pretenseof protection,so widelyacceptedwas the
beliefthatthespreadof thediseasewas inevitablebecause black women
were promiscuousby nature.This emphasison black immoralitypre-
39 Bettina
Aptheker,Woman'sLegacy: Essays on Race, Sex and Class in American
History(Amherst:University of MassachusettsPress,1982), 53-77; Hazel V. Carby,
"'On the Thresholdof Woman's Era': Lynching,Empire,and Sexualityin Black Femi-
nistTheory,"in Gates, ed., 314-15.
40 JamesH.
Jones,Bad Blood: The TuskegeeSyphilisExperiment(New York: Free
Press,1981), 11-29.
41 Ibid., 22. ElizabethFee
arguesthatin the 1920s and 1930s, beforea cure was
foundforsyphilis,physiciansdid not speak in the dispassionatetone of germtheory
but,rather,reinforcedthe imageof syphilisas a "black problem" (see her studyof Balti-
more,"VenerealDisease: The Wages of Sin?" in Peiss and Simmons,eds. [n. 31 above],
182-84).

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

cluded any sensitivityto congenitalsyphilis;thusinnocentblack babies


bornwiththediseasewentunnoticedand equallyunprotected.Certainly
the officialsof the Public Health Servicerealizedthatblacks lived amid
staggering poverty,amid a socioeconomicenvironment conduciveto dis-
ease. Yet thesepublic servantsencoded hegemonicarticulationsof race
into thelanguageof medicineand scientific theory.Theirperceptionsof
sexuallytransmitted disease,likethoseof the largersociety,wereaffected
by race.42 Jones concludes:

The effectof theseviewswas to isolate blacks even further within


Americansociety-to removethemfromtheworldof healthand to
lockthemwithina prisonofsickness.Whetherbyaccidentor design,
physicianshad come dangerouslyclose to depictingthe syphilitic
black. As sicknessreplacedhealthas the
black as therepresentative
normalconditionof therace,somethingwas lost fromthesenseof
horrorand urgencywithwhichphysicianshad defineddisease.The
resultwas a powerfulrationaleforinactivity in theface of disease,
whichby theirown estimates,physiciansbelievedto be epidemic.43

In responseto assaults upon black sexuality,accordingto Darlene


Clark Hine, there arose among black women a politics of silence, a
"culture of dissemblance."In order to "protectthe sanctityof inner
aspectsof theirlives,"black women,especiallythoseof themiddleclass,
reconstructedand representedtheir sexuality throughits absence-
In so doing, they sought to
throughsilence, secrecy,and invisibility.
combat the pervasivenegativeimagesand stereotypes. Black clubwom-
en's adherenceto Victorianideology,as well as theirself-representation
as "supermoral,"accordingto Hine, was perceivedas crucialnot onlyto
the protectionand upward mobilityof black women but also to the
attainmentof respect,justice,and opportunityforall black Americans.44

Race as a double-voiced discourse


As this cultureof dissemblanceillustrates,black people endeavored
the
not onlyto silenceand conceal but also to dismantleand deconstruct
42 For a studyof the social constructionof venerealdisease, fromthe late nineteenth
centurythroughtheAIDS crisisof our own time,see Allan M. Brandt,No Magic Bullet:
A Social Historyof VenerealDisease in the UnitedStatessince 1880 (New York: Ox-
fordUniversity Press,1987); also see Doris Y. Wilkinsonand Gary King,"Conceptual
and MethodologicalIssues in the Use of Race as a Variable: PolicyImplications,"Mil-
bank Quarterly65 (1987): 68.
43JamesH. Jones,25, 28.
44 Darlene Clark Hine, "Rape and the InnerLives of Black Women in the Middle
West:Preliminary Thoughtson the Cultureof Dissemblance,"Signs 14, no. 4 (Summer
1989): 915.

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dominantsociety'sdeploymentof race. Racial meaningswere neverin-


ternalizedby blacks and whitesin an identicalway.The languageof race
has historicallybeen what Bakhtincalls a double-voiceddiscourse-
servingthe voice of black oppressionand the voice of black liberation.
Bakhtin observes: "The word in language is half someone else's. It
becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his [or
her]own intention,his [or her]own accent,when he [or she] appropri-
ates the word, adaptingit to his [or her] own semanticand expressive
intention."45Blacks took "race" and empoweredits languagewiththeir
own meaningand intent,just as the slaves and freedpeoplehad appro-
priated white surnames,even those of theirmasters,and made them
theirown.46
For African-Americans, race signifieda culturalidentitythatdefined
and connectedthemas a people, even as a nation.To be called a "race
leader,""race man,"or "race woman" by theblack community was not
a signof insultor disapproval,nor did such titlesreferto any and every
black person. Quite to the contrary, theywere conferredon CarterG.
Woodson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida Wells-Barnett,Mary McLeod Bethune,
and the othermen and women who devotedtheirlives to the advance-
mentof theirpeople. WhentheNational Associationof Colored Women
referred to its activitiesas "race work,"it expressedboth allegianceand
commitment to the concernsof black people. Througha rangeof shift-
ing, even contradictory meaningsand accentuationsexpressedat thelevel
of individualand groupconsciousness,blacks fashionedrace into a cul-
turalidentitythatresistedwhitehegemonicdiscourses.
The "two-ness"of beingbothAmericanand Negro,whichDu Bois so
eloquentlycapturedin 1903, resonatesacross time.If blacks as individ-
uals referred to a dividedsubjectivity-"twowarringideals in one dark
body"-they also spoke of a collectiveidentityin thecolonial termsof a
"nationwithina nation."47The manyand variedvoices of black nation-
alismhaveresoundedagain and again fromtheearliestdaysof theAmer-
ican republic.Black nationalismfound advocates in Paul Cuffee,John
Russwurm,and Martin Delany in the nineteenthcentury,and Marcus

45 Bakhtin
(n. 13 above), 293, 324.
46 On slave surnames,see HerbertG.
Gutman,The Black Familyin Slaveryand Free-
dom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon,1976), 230-56; also GeorgeP. Cunningham,
"'Called into Existence':Desire, Gender,and Voice in FrederickDouglass's Narrativeof
1845," Differences1, no. 3 (1989): 112-13, 117, 129-31.
47 MartinRobison
Delany wrotein the 1850s of blacks in the UnitedStates:"We are
a nationwithina nation;-as the Poles in Russia, the Hungariansin
Austria,the Welsh,
Irish,and Scotchin the BritishDominions" (see his The Condition,Elevation,Emigra-
tionand Destinyof the Colored People of the UnitedStates,
reprinted. [New York:
Arno, 1969], 209; also W. E. BurghardtDu Bois, The Souls of Black Folks [New York:
WashingtonSquare Press,1970], 3).

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Garvey,Malcolm X, and StokelyCarmichael in the twentieth.48 We


know fartoo littleabout women's perceptionsof nationalism,but Pau-
lineHopkins's serializednovel Of One Blood (1903) counterposesblack
and Anglo-Saxonraces: "The dawn of the Twentiethcenturyfindsthe
Black race fighting forexistencein everyquarterof theglobe. Fromover
thesea Africastretches herhandsto theAmericanNegro and criesaloud
for sympathyin her hour of trial.... In America,caste prejudicehas
receivedfreshimpetusas the 'Southernbrother'of the Anglo-Saxon
familyhas arisenfromtheashes of secession,and liketheprodigalof old,
has been gorgedwithfattedcalf and 'fixin's.'"49
Likewise Hannah Nelson, an elementaryschool graduateemployed
most of her lifein domesticservice,told anthropologist JohnLangston
Gwaltneyin the 1970s: "We are a nation.The bestof us have said it and
everybodyfeelsit. I know thatwill probablybotheryourwhitereaders,
but it is nonethelesstrue that black people thinkof themselvesas an
entity."50Thus, when historianBarbara Fields observes that "Afro-
Americansinventedthemselves,not as a race, but as a nation," she
alludes to race as a double-voiceddiscourse.51For blacks,race signified
culturalidentity However,Fields's
and heritage,notbiologicalinferiority.
discussionunderstatesthe power of race to mean nation-specifically,
race as the sign of perceivedkinshipties betweenblacks in Africaand
throughout thediaspora.In thecrucibleoftheMiddle Passageand Amer-
ican slavery,the multiplelinguistic,tribal,and ethnicdivisionsamong
Africanscame to be forgedinto a single,common ancestry.While not
See, devotedto the subjectof nationalism,JohnH. Bracey,Jr.,AugustMeier,and
48

ElliottRudwick,eds., Black Nationalismin America(New York: Bobbs-Merrill,1970);


SterlingStuckey,Slave Culture:NationalistTheoryand the Foundationsof Black Amer-
ica (New York: OxfordUniversity Press,1987), and The Ideological Originsof Black
Nationalism(Boston: Beacon, 1972); WilsonJeremiahMoses, The Golden Age of Black
Nationalism,1850-1925 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon,1978).
49 Pauline
Hopkins, "Heroes and Heroinesin Black," Colored AmericanMagazine 6
(January1903): 211. The originalpublicationof Of One Blood was serializedin issues
of the Colored AmericanMagazine betweenNovember1902 and November1903. See
the novel in its entirety,along withHazel Carby's introduction to the Oxfordedition,in
PaulineHopkins,Magazine Novels of PaulineHopkins (New York: OxfordUniversity
Press,1988); also Hazel V. Carby,Reconstructing Womanhood:The Emergenceof the
Afro-American WomanNovelist(New York: OxfordUniversity Press,1987), 155-62.
50 See JohnLangstonGwaltney,"A Nation withina Nation," in Drylongso:A Self-
Portraitof Black America,ed. JohnLangstonGwaltney(New York: Random House,
1980), 3-23; and PatriciaHill Collins,"The Social Constructionof Black Feminist
essential-
Thought,"Signs 14, no. 4 (Summer1989): 765-70. For a critiqueof race and
ism, see Diana Fuss, EssentiallySpeaking:Feminism, Nature, and Difference(New
York: Routledge,1989), 73-96.
s5 RobertMiles (n. 5 above) arguesthatboth race and nationare "supra-classand
supra-genderformsof categorisationwithconsiderablepotentialforarticulation"(89-
90). Also, see BarbaraJeanneFields,"Slavery,Race, and Ideologyin the UnitedStatesof
America,"New LeftReview,no. 181 (May/June 1990), 115.

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adheringto "scientific"explanations of superior and inferiorraces,


African-Americans inscribedthe black nationwithraciallyladen mean-
ings of blood tiesthat bespokea lineageand culturemoreimaginedthan
real.
Such imaginingswere not unique to African-Americans.52 As nation
statesemergedin Europe duringthefifteenth and sixteenthcenturies,the
conceptof "race" came increasingly to articulatea nationalistideology.
Racial representations of nationincluded,on the one hand, "cosmopol-
itan" viewsthatcharacterizedeach nationalgroupingas contributing its
own "special gift"to the complementarity of humankind,and, on the
otherhand,viewsof hierarchicaldifference thatjustifiedtheexistenceof
nation states and the historicaldominance of certaingroupingsover
others.Hence, Thomas Arnoldcould speak of theAnglo-Saxon'slineage
in an 1841 lectureat Oxford: "Our Englishrace is theGermanrace; for
thoughour Norman forefathers had learntto speak a stranger'slan-
in
guage, yet blood, as we know,theywere the Saxons' brethren:both
alike belongedto the Teutonicor Germanstock."53Such culturalcon-
ceptionssurelyinformednineteenth-century African-American percep-
tionsof the black nationas a siteof group uniqueness.
Throughoutthenineteenth blacksand whitesalikesubscribed
century,
to what George Fredricksonterms"romanticracialism."54Blacks con-
structedand valorizeda self-representation essentiallyantitheticalto that
of whites.In his article"The Conservationof Races," publishedin 1897,
Harvard-trained W. E. B. Du Bois disclosedhis admirationforwhat he
believedto be the "spiritual,psychical"uniquenessof his people-their
"special gift" to humanity.55Twentieth-century essentialistconcepts

52
See BenedictR. Anderson'sdiscussionofnationas "imagined" in thesenseofits
beinglimited (notinclusive
ofall mankind), sovereign,anda community, inhisImag-
inedCommunities: Reflectionson theOriginandSpreadofNationalism (NewYorkand
London:Verso,1983),14-16.
53 Arthur Penryhn TheLifeand Correspondence
Stanley, ofThomasArnold, D.D.,
12thed. (London1881),2:324,quotedandcitedin ReginaldHorsman, RaceandMani-
festDestiny:TheOriginsofAmerican RacialAnglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, Mass.: Har-
vardUniversity Press,1981),66.
54 George Fredricksondiscusses"romantic racialism"withinthecontext of"benign"
viewsofblackdistinctiveness.Thisviewwas upheldbyromanticism, abolitionism, and
evangelical andshouldbe distinguished
religion from"scientific"explanationsor cul-
turalinterpretations
thatvilified
blacksas beastsandunworthy ofhumandignity (The
BlackImagein theWhiteMind[NewYork:Harper& Row,1972],97-99, 101-15,
125-26).
55W.E. B. Du Boisstated:"Butwhileracedifferences havefollowed mainly physical
racelines,yetno merephysical distinctions
wouldreallydefine or explainthedeeper
differences-thecohesivenessandcontinuity ofthesegroups.Thedeeperdifferences are
spiritual,
psychical,differences-undoubtedly basedon thephysical butinfinitely
tran-
scendingthem"("TheConservation ofRaces,"in W.E. B. Du BoisSpeaks:Speeches

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

such as "negritude,""soul'" and mostrecently"Afrocentricity" express


in new and alteredformthe continueddesireto capturetranscendent
threadsof racial "oneness."FrantzFanon describedthequest forcultural
identityand self-recoveryas "the whole bodyof efforts made bya people
in the sphereof thoughtto describe,justifyand praise action through
whichthatpeople has createditselfand keepsitselfin existence."56 These
effortsseek to negatewhitestereotypes of blacksand in theirplace insert
a black worldviewor standpoint.Of criticalimportancehere are the
dialogicracial representations effectedby blacksthemselvesagainstneg-
ative representations-ormore precisely,blacks' appropriationof the
productivepower of languageforthepurposeof resistance.57
Such a discursiverenderingof race countersimages of physicaland
psychicalrupturewithimagesof wholeness.Yet once again, race serves
as mythand as a global sign,forit superimposesa "natural" unityover
a plethora of historical,socioeconomic, and ideological differences
among blacks themselves.This is not to understatethecriticalliberating
intentionimplicitin blacks' own usage of the term"the race," when
referring to themselvesas a group. But the characterizationobscures
ratherthanmirrorstherealityof black heterogeneity. In fact,essentialist
or otherracialized conceptionsof national culturehardlyreflectpara-
digmaticconsistency. Black nationalismitselfhas been a heteroglotcon-
ception,categorizedvariouslyas revolutionary, bourgeoisreformist, cul-
or
tural,religious,economic, emigrationist.58 Race as the signof cultural
identityhas been neithera coherentnor staticconceptamong African-
Americans.Its perpetuationand resiliencehave reflectedshifting, often
monolithicand essentialist
assumptions on the part of thinkersattempt-
ing to identifyand definea black peoplehood or nation.
Acceptanceof a nation-based,racializedperspectiveeven appears in
theworkof black womenscholars,who seek to grounda black feminist
standpointin the concreteexperienceof race and genderoppression.
Notwithstanding the criticalimportanceof thiswork in contestingrac-
ism and sexism in the academy and largersociety,its focus does not
permitsufficient explorationof ideological spaces of difference among

and Addresses,1890-1919, ed. PhilipS. Foner [New York: Pathfinder, 1970], 77-79,
84); see also Appiah's critiqueof Du Bois (n. 7 above), 23-29.
56
FrantzFanon offersthisdefinition of nationalculturein contradistinction to one
based on "an abstractpopulismthatbelievesit can discoverthe people's truenature"
(The Wretchedof the Earth [New York: Grove, 1968], 233).
57 RaymondWilliamsasserts:"Language has thento be seen as a persistentkind of
creationand re-creation:a dynamicpresenceand a constantregenerative process"
(Marxismand Literature[New York: OxfordUniversity Press,1977], 31).
58 See Bracey,Meier,and Rudwick,eds. (n. 48 above), xxvi-xxx; Winantand Omi
(n. 5 above), 38-51.

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blackwomenthemselves. Forexample,sociologist PatriciaHill Collins


an ethicofcaringandan ethicofpersonalaccountability
identifies at the
rootofAfrocentric valuesand particularly ofAfrocentric feministepis-
temology, yetshedoesnotinvestigate howsuchvaluesandepistemology
areaffected bydifferingclasspositions.5s Inshort, shepositsbutdoesnot
accountforthesingularity of an Afro-American women'sstandpoint
amiddiverseand conflicting positions of enunciation.
The rallyingnotionof"racialuplift"amongblackAmericans during
thelatenineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries illustrates
theproblem-
atic aspectsof identifying a standpointthat encompassesall black
women.Racialuplift was celebrated in themottooftheNationalAsso-
ciationof ColoredWomen-"lifting as we climb."The mottoitselfex-
a
pressed paradox: beliefin black womanhood's commoncause and
recognition of differentialvalues and socioeconomic positions.Racial
while
uplift, invokinga discursive ground on which to explodenegative
stereotypesofblackwomen,remained lockedwithinhegemonic articu-
lationsofgender, class,and sexuality.Black women missionar-
teachers,
ies,and clubmembers zealouslypromoted valuesoftemperance, sexual
and
repression, polite manners the
among poor.
"Race work"or "racialuplift"equatednormality withconformity to
whitemiddle-class modelsof genderrolesand sexuality. Giventheex-
tremely limitededucationaland incomeopportunities duringthelate
nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, manyblackwomenlinkedmain-
streamdomesticduties,codesof dress,sexualconduct,and publiceti-
quettewithbothindividual successand groupprogress.60 Blackleaders
argued that and
"proper" "respectable" behavior provedblacksworthy
of equal civil and politicalrights.Conversely, nonconformity was
equatedwithdevianceand pathology and was oftencitedas a causeof
racialinequality and injustice.S. W. Layten,founderof theNational
League for the Protectionof ColoredWomenand leaderofone million
blackBaptistwomen,typified thisattitudein herstatement of 1904:
"Unfortunately theminority or bad Negroeshavegiventheracea ques-

59E. FrancesWhite'sperceptiveanalysisof African-Americans' contestationof the


discursiverepresentation of Africacalls attentionto the conservativeimplicationsof
Afrocentric feminism.See E. FrancesWhite,"Africaon My Mind: Gender,CounterDis-
courseand African-American Nationalism,"Journalof Women'sHistory2 (Spring
1990): 90-94; PatriciaHill Collins,"The Social Constructionof Black Feminist
Thought" (n. 50 above), 765-70, and Black FeministThought:Knowledge,Conscious-
ness,and the Politicsof Empowerment(Boston: UnwinHyman, 1990), 10-11, 15. Also
fora good critique,see bell hooks, Yearning:Race, Gender,and CulturalPolitics(Bos-
ton: South End Press,1990).
60
EvelynBrooks Higginbotham,"Beyond the Sound of Silence:Afro-American
Womenin History,"Genderand History1 (Spring1989): 58-59.

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

tionablereputation;thesedegeneratesare responsibleforeverydiscrim-
inationwe suffer."61
On a host of levels,racial upliftstood at odds withthedailypractices
and aesthetictastes of many poor, uneducated,and "unassimilated"
black men and women dispersedthroughoutthe rural South or newly
huddledin urbancenters.62 The politicsof "respectability" disavowed,in
oftenrepressiveways, much of the expressivecultureof the "folk,"for
example,sexual behavior,dressstyle,leisureactivity, music,speechpat-
terns,and religiousworshippatterns.Similarclass and sexual tensions
betweenthediscourseof theintelligentsia (the"New Negro") and thatof
the "people" (the "folk" turnedproletariatin the northernurban con-
text)appear in Hazel Carby'sdiscussionof black womennovelistsof the
Harlem Renaissanceduringthe 1920s.63
Today,themetalanguage ofracecontinues to bequeathitsproblematic leg-
acy.While its discursiveconstruction of realityintotwo opposingcamps-
blacks versus whites or Afrocentricversus Eurocentricstandpoints-
providesthe basis forresistanceagainstexternalforcesof black subor-
dination,it tendsto forestallresolutionof problemsof gender,class, and
sexual orientationinternalto black communities. The resolutionof such
differencesis also requisiteto theliberationand well-beingof "the race."
Worse yet,problemsdeemed too far astrayof respectability are sub-
sumed within a cultureof dissemblance. The AIDS crisisserves as a case
in point,withAIDS usuallycontextualizedwithina Manichean opposi-
tionof good versusevilthattranslatesintoheterosexuality versushomo-
sexualityor wholesome living versus intravenous drug use. At a time
a
when AIDS is leading killer of black women and their children in
impoverishedinner-city neighborhoods, educational and support strate-

61 National
BaptistConvention,Journalof the Twenty-fourth Annual Session of the
National BaptistConventionand the FifthAnnual Session of the Woman's Convention,
Held in Austin,Texas, September14-19, 1904 (Nashville:National BaptistPublishing
as both subversiveand
Board, 1904), 324; also, I discussthe politicsof respectability
conservativein EvelynBrooks Higginbotham,RighteousDiscontent:The Women's
Movementin theBlack BaptistChurch,1880-1920 (Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard Uni-
versityPress,1992), in press,chap. 7.
62 Houston A. Baker,Jr.,in his discussionof the black vernacular, characterizesthe
"quotidian sounds of black everyday life" as both a defiantand entrancingvoice (Afro-
AmericanPoetics: Revisionsof Harlem and the Black Aesthetic[Madison: University of
WisconsinPress,1988], 95-107); see also Houston A. Baker,Jr.,Blues, Ideologyand
Afro-American Literature:A VernacularTheory(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1984), 11-13. Similarly, JohnLangstonGwaltneycalls the "folk" cultureof today's
citiesa "core black culture,"whichis "more than ad hoc synchronicadaptivesurvival."
Gwaltneylinksits values and epistemologyto a long peasant tradition.See Gwaltney,
ed. (n. 50 above), xv-xvii.
63
Carby,Reconstructing Womanhood(n. 49 above), 163-75; also HenryLouis
Gates,Jr.,"The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the
Black," Representations 24 (Fall 1988): 129-55.

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THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE Higginbotham

gieslag farbehindthoseof whitegaycommunities.64 Blackwomen's


and
groups community fail
organizations to tackletheproblemwiththe
priorityitmerits.
Theyshyaway from public discussion
inlargemeasure
becauseofthehistoric ofdiseaseandracial/sexual
association stereotyping.

Conclusion

Byanalyzing whiteAmerica's deployment ofracein theconstruction


ofpowerrelations, perhaps we can betterunderstand whyblackwomen
historians havelargelyrefrained froman analysisof genderalongthe
linesofthemale/female dichotomy so prevalentamongwhitefeminists.
Indeed, some blackwomen scholars adopt theterm womanist insteadof
in of
feminist rejection gender-based dichotomies that lead to a false
homogenizing of women. so
By doingthey follow in the of
spirit black
scholarand educatorAnnaJ. Cooper,who in A VoicefromtheSouth
(1892) inextricably linkedherracialidentity to the"quiet,undisputed
dignity" of her womanhood.65 At the threshold of the twenty-first
century, black women scholars continue to emphasizetheinseparable
unity of race and gender in their thought.They dismissefforts to
bifurcate theidentity of blackwomen(and indeedof all women)into
discretecategories-asif culture,consciousness, and livedexperience
couldat timesconstitute "woman"isolatedfromthecontexts of race,
class,and that
sexuality give form and contentto the particularwomen
we are.66
On theotherhand,we shouldchallenge boththeoverdeterminancy of
racevis-a-vis socialrelations among blacksthemselves and conceptions
of the blackcommunity as harmonious and monolithic. The historic
realityofracialconflictinAmerica hastendedto devalueanddiscourage
attention to genderconflict withinblackcommunities andto tensions of
classor sexuality amongblackwomen.The totalizing tendency ofrace

64 See Bruce
Lambert,"AIDS in Black Women Seen as LeadingKiller,"New York
Times (July11, 1990); ErnestQuimbyand Samuel R. Friedman,"Dynamicsof Black
MobilizationagainstAIDS in New York City,"Social Problems36 (October 1989):
407-13; EvelynnHammonds,"Race, Sex, Aids: The Constructionof 'Other,'" Radical
America29 (November-December1987): 28-36; also Brandt(n. 42 above), 186-92.
65 Anna JuliaCooper stated: "When and whereI enterin the
quiet,undisputed
dignityof mywomanhood withoutviolenceand withoutsuingor special patronage,
thenand therethe whole Negro race enterswithme" (A Voice fromthe South,reprint
of the 1892 ed. [New York: Negro Universities Press,1969], 31).
66 Alice Walker,In Search of Our Mothers'Gardens: WomanistProse
(New York:
Harcourt,Brace,Jovanovich,1983), xi-xii; also see, e.g., Elsa BarkleyBrown'sintro-
ductorypages and historicaltreatment of Maggie Lena Walker,black Richmondbanker
in the earlytwentiethcentury, whichreflectthisperspective("WomanistConsciousness:
Maggie Lena Walkerand the IndependentOrder of Saint Luke," Signs 14, no. 3 [Spring
1989]: 610-15, 630-33).

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Higginbotham THE METALANGUAGE OF RACE

precludesrecognitionand acknowledgment of intragroupsocial relations


as relationsof power. With its implicitunderstandings, shared cultural
codes, and inchoate sense of a common heritage and destiny,the meta-
language of race resounds over and above a of
plethora conflicting voices.
But it cannotsilencethem.
Black women of different economic and regional backgrounds,of
different skin tones and sexual orientations,have found themselvesin
conflictover interpretation of symbolsand norms,public behavior,cop-
ing strategies,and a varietyof micropoliticalacts of resistanceto struc-
turesof domination.67Althoughracializedculturalidentityhas clearly
servedblacksin thestruggleagainstdiscrimination, it has not sufficiently
addressedthe empiricalrealityof genderconflictwithinthe black com-
munityor class differences among black women themselves.Historian
E. FrancesWhitemakes thispoint brilliantly when she assertsthat"the
siteof counter-discourse is itself contestedterrain."68 By fullyrecognizing
race as an unstable,shifting, and strategicreconstruction, feministschol-
ars must take up new challenges to inform and confound many the
of
assumptionscurrently underlying Afro-American history and women's
history.We mustproblematize much more of what we take forgranted.
We mustbringto lightand to coherencethe one and the manythatwe
always were in historyand stillactuallyare today.

Departmentof History
of Pennsylvania
University

67I am using"micropolitics"synonymously withJamesC. Scott'sterm"infrapoli-


tics."Accordingto Scott,the infrapoliticsof subordinategroupsnot onlyconstitutethe
everyday, to overt
prosaic,"unobtrusive"level of politicalstrugglein contradistinction
protestsbut also constitutethe "culturaland structuralunderpinning"of morevisible
discontent(Dominationand theArtsof Resistance:Hidden Transcripts[New Haven,
Conn.: Yale UniversityPress,1990], 183-92).
68White 59 above), 82.
(n.

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