Privilege and Rejection of Identity through Racial Passing in Iola Leroy; or Shadow’s Uplifted
Considering its initial publication in 1892, during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Frances E. W. Harper employs the meaning of racial uplift through passing. During the era of slavery, the phenomenon of racially passing was a common practice in that it gave way as a means to freedom. Often times, mixed-race subjectivity allowed for passing; if an individual were able to pass as white, they were granted “special” privileges through black eyes, but typical inherent privileges through white eyes such as education and fair treatment. The strategic usage and manipulation of the act of passing throughout the novel symbolizes the racial solidarity that was needed to get through difficult times, while showcasing the lengths at which people were willing to go through to achieve economic success by earning careers. In some ways, passing as white can be viewed as a strategy to acquire knowledge during a period of oppression against minorities; it is also a sheer survival tactic that reflects the power inequities within slavery. The act of passing in Iola Ler oy, or Shadows Uplifted not only signifies an internal longing for inherited privilege but displays a sense of giving up an identity.
The novel promotes this understanding of racial passing most extensively though Iola Leroy’s upbringing and her parent’s decision to raise her as white. Being that she is in fact a mixed-race woman who is remanded to slavery when her white father Eugene unexpectedly dies, the vital decision of her mixed-race mother, Marie, and father, Eugene, to mask her racial identity was one that was selfish and ultimately damaging to Iola’s identity. In speaking with Eugene, Marie states:
“No, no, it is not that I regret our marriage, or feel the least disdain for our children on account of the blood in their veins; but I do not wish them to grow up under the contracting influence of this race prejudice. I do not wish them to feel that they have been born under a proscription from which no valor can redeem them, nor that any social advancement any individual development can wipe off the ban which clings to them,” (72).
Maria and Eugene’s shrewd choice to withhold Iola’s identity stresses the importance of passing during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Not only does Marie vividly express that she wants the best for her children, but she expresses that she does not want them to feel as if they are worthless and can not be compensated by their courage for their black heritage they possess. However, the tradition to pass as white to obtain better social, economic, and political opportunities asserts an inner discontentedness that is evident through thoughts of “whiteness” equating to a “good” life being one characterized by the privilege and affluence of the white upper class and “blackness” affording a life locked up with no escape route. In some cases, whiteness awarded opportunities that people of African descent did not necessarily have, but strategically choosing to pass as white displays a dissatisfaction with life in which nothing can help to alleviate and a denial of self-identity.
Deliberately neglecting or choosing not to identify as half of one’s ethnic identity shows an internal conflict of being in denial of one’s background. The meaning of mixed-race subjectivity is denoting or relating to people whose parents or ancestors are from different ethnic backgrounds. With that, choosing to pass as white symbolizes a concerted effort to reveal one portion of ancestry while concealing and rejecting another. Abandonment of a background, black in many cases during the Civil War era, unequivocally demonstrates an uneasiness with the trials and baggage a culture might afford. Similarly, the reactions from whites and blacks are different based on which ethnicity one chooses to identify with. White counterparts would typically be satisfied if someone of mixed-race subjectivity were to pass and identify as black because they were regarded as such by the one-drop rule, but if they were to identify as white, whites would most likely be discontent and angry because it would signify their privilege and opportunity being stolen from them for someone who is unworthy. If someone of mixed-race subjectivity were to identify as white, their black peers would most likely break all ties no matter what, whereas if they were to identify as black, they would be applauded and accepted through the forces of racial solidarity. This similar but different reaction accounts for the hardships that mixed-race people battled but also displayed the racial unity that was formed out of identifying with a certain race.
The multiple levels of discrimination and racial abuse that African Americans faced during Reconstruction required that later blacks commit themselves to racial solidarity. As a result of systematic discrimination, committing racial solidarity was practically deemed necessary as a means to confide with peers about certain issues within society. In an effort to reclaim the other half of her stolen identity, Iola Leroy claims African-American heritage and blackness as her sole identity. As Dr. Gresham attempts to propose to Iola, she tells him:
“Doctor, I did not choose my lot in life, but I have no other alternative than to accept it. I intend, when this conflict is over, to cast my lot with the freed people as a helper, teacher, and friend. I have passed through a fiery ordeal, but this ministry of suffering will not be in vain. I feel that my mind has matured beyond my years. I am a wonder to myself,” (114).
To be content with the dominant culture’s hostility toward blacks, cultural survival comes to depend less on secret alliances and more on open displays of racial unity. Iola realizes that the only opportunity she has for a good life is not to solely pass as a white person, but to embrace all that her African heritage offers. Despite being white complexioned and blue-eyed, her motivation in passing as black shows her publicly asserting loyalties to her race by taking full ownership. As Iola Leroy explains her longing for a job outside of the social normative like cooking, cleaning, and having children, she covertly symbolizes womanly empowerment. The act of claiming blackness as her ethnic identity not only shows her attempt to gain years of cultural unawareness that was withheld, but influences her want for a fixated job and leadership in the black community.
Through Iola’s role as playing a staunch advocate for racial equality, she ultimately works to become a motivating and strengthening force for the black race. Harper also exudes feminist qualities in which Iola’s independent spirit and desire to work outside the home as a teacher, accountant, nurse is explicitly noted. For Iola Leroy, “blackness” and “whiteness” mean much more than a social construct and instead dictate an entire world view. The phenomenon of racially passing as black shows Iola’s attempt to reunite with a culture once stolen from her, but also shows her banding together with her fellow African-American peers over a shared oppression. Thus, Shadow’s Uplifted must be understood as a book that uses passing not only as a central theme but also as a paradigm for analyzing the ongoing hardships of black life in the postbellum United States.
Works Cited Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins. Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2010. Print.
Non-Traditionally Tragic Mulattas: Defying Notions of Denial and Self-Hate
Inheriting the vices of both the black and white race, traditionally tragic mulatto characters have been comfortably depicted in much of abolitionist literature as intricately, and inextricably, conflicted individuals; miserable and without race “worshipping the whites and despised by them… despising and despised by Negroes.” Fundamentally defying stereotypical notions of self hatred and denial are the Mulatta characters Cassie and Iola. For while both characters do to a degree display a capacity to be analyzed through the conventional tragic Mulatta literary lens, both, to a higher degree, dramatize the eradication of the bulwark that is self-hatred and consequent denial—clearing the way for self-actualization, and subsequent liberation. The Stereotypical Mulatta, craving nothing more than to find a white lover and then go down, accompanied by slow anguished music, to a tragic end, is defied, most literally, by Iola Leroy. Raised white, Iola cultivates a pro-slavery attitude. One that is quickly overturned post the crude and sudden manner through which the truth of her heritage is exposed. Immediately after having been thrown into slavery, the complicated relationship between the notions of biology and culture surface, Iola ultimately not only accepts and embraces her black heritage but, more importantly (or rather, most defiantly) manifests this embracement by marrying , not the white Dr. Gresham, but rather the mulatto Latimer. In an instance in which the “tragic” nature of the traditionally tragic Mulatta should have surfaced, one finds Iola Leroy’s character anything but homogenized. For, while she later in the novel is hesitant in revealing her black identity to employers she not only later does reveal it, she genuinely does identify as black, and is unwilling to live under a shadow of concealment, “which I thoroughly hate as if the blood in my veins were an undetected crime of my soul.” This exemplifies the very things that aid in the direct refutation of feelings of self-hate and self-despise. For, while the traditionally depicted literary Mulatta would have illustrated to her audience the many altogether contrary elements of things like fear, rejection, elitism, blame, and shame swarming deep inside her, Iola does not. Her conviction is palpable; she publically asserts herself as black and devotes her life to the empowering of the black community through education and subsequent political activism. Supplementing the illustration of the defiance of traditional portrayals of tragic Mulattas is Iola’s role as a teacher. It is this role that proves to be an integral part of black resistance as well as an integral supplement reifying Iola’s black identity. Education encouraged a better class of blacks, and challenged racial stereotypes. And yet, a problem surfaced. For, “while the insistence of a ‘better class of blacks’ challenged racial stereotypes, it also helped promote them by characterizing the masses as degenerates whose salvation depended on the more privileged,” i.e. a person of a uniquely privileged background like Iola . Mulatto teacher characters exemplified the cultural conflict between black middle-class leaders and the black masses. Mulattos dramatized, because of their resemblance to whites, the potential to abandon black social causes and ‘pass’ as white. Iola does not do this. Iola does not ‘pass’ as white. Iola transcends her victimization as a slave, and is endowed with the strength and conviction that allows her to powerfully affirm her black roots—transcending the traditional self-hate of the Tragic Mulatta character and opening the path toward self-realization. Seemingly antithetical to Iola is Stowe’s complex Cassie; a slave of mixed race who falls from privilege to degradation and despair. Primarily characterized through a stereotypically literary Mulatta lens, Cassie admits to at first wanting only one thing: “I wanted him to marry me.” Irrevocably in tune with traditional depictions of tragic Mulattas and irrevocably in love Cassie devotes herself to her seemingly sincere white suitor only to experience rejection, betrayal, and the selling of her children. And thus the juncture at which Cassie ceases to be the traditionally tragic Mulatta is marked. Cassie outraged and crazed strikes back with dangerous resistance; becoming, in her own way, a political character. “Cassie’s reaction can be seen as a transformation of the conventionally internalized and self-destructive madness of the literary Mulatta.” Her insolence becomes a form of protest. The form in which her story is told, furthermore exemplifies her role as a political figure. She tells her story. She is her own narrator. She is the focus of an entire chapter. Reinforcing a deep connection between her role as a political agitator. The literary portrayals of the characters of Iola and Cassie are incongruous with cliché depictions of tragic Mulattas. For both characters represent a drive that thirsts for autonomy and liberation. And while each of their stories is tragic, neither is the stereotypically submissive tragic Mulatta. Both are heroines. BibliographyBrown, Sterling A. ―Negro Character as Seen by White Authors.‖ The Journal of Negro Education 2, no. 2 (April 1933): 179–203 Harper, Frances E. W. Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Garrigues, 1893. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Jackson, Cassandra. Barriers Between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Raimon, Eve A. The “Tragic Mulatta” Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.