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Interracial Encounters

Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896-1937

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    Interracial Encounters
    Book Description:

    Why do black characters appear so frequently in Asian American literary works and Asian characters appear in African American literary works in the early twentieth century? Interracial Encounters attempts to answer this rather straightforward literary question, arguing that scenes depicting Black-Asian interactions, relationships, and conflicts capture the constitution of African American and Asian American identities as each group struggled to negotiate the racially exclusionary nature of American identity. In this nuanced study, Julia H. Lee argues that the diversity and ambiguity that characterize these textual moments radically undermine the popular notion that the history of Afro-Asian relations can be reduced to a monolithic, media-friendly narrative, whether of cooperation or antagonism. Drawing on works by Charles Chesnutt, Wu Tingfang, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Younghill Kang, Interracial Encounters foregrounds how these reciprocal representations emerged from the nation's pervasive pairing of the figure of the Negro and the Asiatic in oppositional, overlapping, or analogous relationships within a wide variety of popular, scientific, legal, and cultural discourses. Historicizing these interracial encounters within a national and global context highlights how multiple racial groups shaped the narrative of race and national identity in the early twentieth century, as well as how early twentieth century American literature emerged from that multiracial political context.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-5257-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-X)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    In a speech delivered to the Cleveland Council of Sociology in 1906 on the subject of the “problem” of race, Charles Chesnutt describes the nation’s attitude toward African Americans by comparing them to another racial group: “The Negro is a hard pill to swallow. The Chinese we have sought to keep out—the Negro is too big to throw up” (“The Future American,” 248). Chesnutt’s enshrinement in the canon is based in part on his fiction’s nuanced and complex representations of black-white race relations, but this quotation is striking because it suggests that African American identity is structured in part...

  5. 2 The “Negro Problem” and the “Yellow Peril”: Early Twentieth-Century America’s Views on Blacks and Asians
    (pp. 22-47)

    In 1907, Howley, Haviland and Company released the sheet music for a song titled “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon.” The piece was from the wildly popular musical comedyA Trip to Coontown,which opened on Broadway in 1898 and ran for more than three years. The cover image contains three figures. A Zip Coon, in flashy clothes and wearing a broad smile, holds the hand of a Chinese woman with slanting eyes; her costume is festooned with cherry blossoms, and her hair is held in place by what look like chopsticks. Between them stands the black-faced minister...

  6. 3 Estrangement on a Train: Race and Narratives of American Identity in The Marrow of Tradition and America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat
    (pp. 48-80)

    The encounter between the Chinese and African Americans inPlessy v. Fergusontakes place on a train, a setting that I will suggest in this chapter is not irrelevant to the Afro-Asian encounter. Despite their differences in genre, politics, and intended audience, both Charles Chesnutt’s novelThe Marrow of Tradition(1901) and Wu Tingfang’s memoirAmerica through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat(1914) contain a scene in which an African American man encounters a Chinese man on a segregated train; both imaginePlessy v. Ferguson’s scene of interracial conflict on the train otherwise. Chesnutt’s and Wu’s restaging of the...

  7. 4 The Eaton Sisters Go to Jamaica
    (pp. 81-113)

    If Asian American literature were a family drama, the Eaton sisters would no doubt be its stars. The daughters of a penniless but aristocratic British artist and his English-educated Chinese wife, the Eaton sisters are widely considered to be the first authors of Asian American literature. There is also no doubt who would play the heroine and who would be cast as the villain in this family drama. In Asian American literary history, Edith Eaton is often represented as the “good” sister, while Winnifred, if she is mentioned at all, is relegated to the role of the “bad” sister (Hattori,...

  8. 5 Quicksand and the Racial Aesthetics of Chinoiserie
    (pp. 114-137)

    The very first paragraph of Nella Larsen’sQuicksanddescribes the novel’s biracial protagonist, Helga Crane, surrounded by objects from China and the Orient.¹ This initial description of Helga sitting amid oriental finery, unhappy with her life at a technical school for African American children, establishes a motif that recurs with surprising frequency throughout the novel: the constant textual linkage between oriental objects and Helga Crane. Oriental knickknacks adorn Helga’s homes; Asian-inspired objects arouse her admiration and appreciation for beauty; Chinese silks embrace her body and upholster her furniture. Yet this particular trope has not aroused much interest from Larsen’s numerous...

  9. 6 Nation, Narration, and the Afro-Asian Encounter in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Princess and Younghill Kang’s East Goes West
    (pp. 138-168)

    What happens when a novel refuses to act like one? What might be the purpose behind such an act of rebellion against the genre of the novel? W.E.B. Du Bois’sDark Princessand Younghill Kang’sEast Goes Westare two novels that offer ambitious if uneasy answers to those thorny questions. The resistance that both works demonstrate against fulfilling the expectations of genre can be thought of as a meditation on the relationship between literary form and the political possibilities of a global African-Asian alliance. The fluid relationships that both novels build up between African American and Asian characters—and...

  10. 7 Coda
    (pp. 169-174)

    East Goes WestandDark Princessshow us that re-imagining racial relations means restructuring the political space in which they operate; this reconfiguration of the relationship between racial difference and the nation-state necessitates the writing of a different kind of novel to tell a different kind of story. These novels make clear that time—the relationship between the past, present, and future—matters in articulating the significance of Afro-Asian connections over the span of a century. The purpose of this coda is to ruminate briefly on the present of Afro-Asian relations, but I would like to begin by thinking about...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 175-194)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 195-208)
  13. Index
    (pp. 209-220)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 221-221)