Dec 302010

Martin, Charles D. The While African American Body. Amazon

There’s a “missing link” I still need to find, the historical point at which people started thinking about white people as slaves. I found it, or one point of it, in the eroticized parodies of mid-19th century slave narratives published in the late 19th century. I still need to find more evidence to strengthen this point, where black shades into white.

Martin’s book explores this strange borderland between the races. Europeans were fascinated by “white negroes” or “leopard children” in scientific or entertainment venues, which could be Africans with conditions like albinism or vitiligo, or Africans in partial or total whiteface, or white people with partial blackface. The separation of the sign (“white skin”) from the signified (the social construction of “whiteness”) was both fascinating and terrifying, particularly to new American immigrants who were not secure in their “whiteness”.

Another kind of white negro were persistent myths of white people (sometimes whiter than white Americans or Europeans) located in far off or imaginary lands.

Circassia, the mythical white utopia, carried some importance for racial theorists…. Throughout the nineteenth century, the romance of a perfectly white eastern European people continued to reinforce the supremacy of whiteness…. The advent of the Crimean War spurred further images of exotic eastern European whiteness and tales of the dark-skinned Turk abducting perfectly white Russian Eves and enslaving them in the pasha’s harems. The resulting literature of abduction fed upon the erotic lure of the sexually available white women threatened by dark Turkish male bodies that somehow mirrored domestic American fears of miscegenation.

Pg. 103-4

PT Barnum sent his agent John Greenwood to get some of these supposed Circassian beauties from the slave markets in Turkey for exhibition. Barnum later claimed in his biography that Greenwood posed as a Turkish slave trader and saw beautiful Circassian girls and women in the market. Whether this actually happened, Barnum did exhibit an alleged Circassian Beauty, Zalumma Agra, supposedly rescued from the auction block, though more likely recruited from Hoboken, New Jersey. “Zalumma Agra” and her numerous imitators were “attired in peasant dresses white scalloped hems and fringes or embroidered with flowers. Later, to capitalize further on the erotic lure of the harem slave, the costuming shrank to scanty boudoir displays with short pants and form-fitting bodices. The crowning feature of each Circassian exhibit was the hair, washed in beer, teased out to kink and frizz into what was essentially a large Afro. The ethnic kink supplied a visible bridge between the normalized, exalted whiteness that conferred citizenship and the distinguishing marks of racial difference that facilitated slavery. The emancipated white body still bore the evidence of its dark-bodied captivity.” (Pg. 104)

A different kind of white negro appears in Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (1853), by escaped slave William Wells Brown. The novel tells of two mulatto daughters of Thomas Jefferson, who are treated as white until Jefferson’s death and then they fall into the slave market. This was before Jefferson’s black children were confirmed, and also at a time when mixed race people were widely thought to be weak, ugly hybrids inferior to either parent race. Brown presented the white beautiful Clotel, a quadroon, as a refutation, but also as a living proof of the rape and adultery enabled by the institution of slavery. Further confusing the issue, Clotel is referred to as a “real albino” on the auction block, while the audience gawking at her is depicted as lower class and therefore less white than she is. “The display of so-called tainted white skin on the auction block tenders fantasies of seduction and and the seraglio, Circassian women powerless before the bidding pashas, the fiendish and lustful Turk now located in the body of the southern plantation slave master.” (Pg. 131)

This passage links the American-African axis of slavery with the European-Oriental axis of slavery, suggesting that in popular imagination they muddled together. The mulatta in Brown’s novel became a prototype for other black novels. Clotel is also linked to the impossibility of the “marriage plot” (i.e. heterosexuality, monogamy, nuclear family) for her. “The reduction of Clotel to the status of an eroticized albino stands as an emblem for this perversity [i.e. slavery]. Like Barnum’s Circassians and his albino beauties, she is confined by her exotic whiteness, chained, so to speak, to the exhibition. Her audience of plantation owners lust after the pale skin of the mulattoes and quadroons they buy and breed, neglecting in their profligacy their own wives an families.” (pg. 132)

While Brown and other writers make slavery the enemy of “normal” sexuality (for blacks and whites), it does open up sexual possibilities of polygyny, homosexuality and other tabooed subjects.

The closest thing to this in present day culture is our era’s erotic fascination with pre-op male-to-female transgenders, or “shemales”, “futanaris”, “new halfs”, “khatooeys”, etc. We are fixated by people who have all the signs of femininity but retain the one final sign of masculinity. We also have a lingering, often erotic fascination for mixed race hybrids, like the black Caucasians Elvis Presley and Eminem and the white Negro Michael Jackson. What is Nicole “Coco” Austin but a white woman with a black woman’s (possibly artificial) ass?

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