Event Title

Nella Larsen’s Passing And The Tragedy Of The Oppressed: Trauma, Race, Identity, And Reading Resistance

Location

SU 124

Start Date

19-4-2019 9:40 AM

Department

English

Session

Session 4

Description

Through an analysis of identity and race, this paper suggests a new way of reading strategies for resistance in the tragic literature of African Americans. Critics have recognized the tragic arc of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novella of African American identity in the Harlem Renaissance, yet few have recognized the revolutionary tactics that can be read in the ways in which she plays with her fluid racial identity. Although the plot conforms to what theatre/performance theorist Augusto Boal calls “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy” in that the racist power structures of the time are ultimately upheld, Larsen encodes a script for overthrowing those structures in her characterization of Claire. By examining Claire’s actions through the lens of African American scholar Sheldon George’s novel Trauma and Race, Larsen’s strategies can be recovered for modern readers. George claims that even when one takes “pride” in an African American racial identity, that identity forces the subject to confront the “trauma of slavery.” Through a Lacanian analysis of the signifiers of race, George argues that these signifiers are formidable obstacles to an African American’s ability to construct the “very fantasies that sustain subjectivity,” or in other words, a stable and secure sense of self. Readers who are familiar with the character of Clare Kendry, or the act of a person of color “passing” for white, may rightly point out that her adoption of a white racial identity is both an impractical and to say the least, problematic, strategy for escaping the trauma of slavery; however, this is not my assertion. I argue that Clare does not wholly adopt either a white or black racial identity, and that by letting go of an adherence to race as the Lacanian object a upon which to base her fantasies of being, she is able to achieve happiness. While the tragic structure of the novella punishes her for attempting to break out of the rigid racial hierarchy, in George’s view, her ability to construct a stable identity is a critical first step in dismantling the racist systems of oppression that she was unable to defeat on her own. This leaves us with some important questions which I argue merit further study: how do tragic works by other marginalized authors offer similar and disparate revolutionary strategies embedded into narratives that otherwise reinforce the status quo, and what other theoretical frameworks, besides George’s psychoanalytic take, might we use to uncover them?

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Apr 19th, 9:40 AM

Nella Larsen’s Passing And The Tragedy Of The Oppressed: Trauma, Race, Identity, And Reading Resistance

SU 124

Through an analysis of identity and race, this paper suggests a new way of reading strategies for resistance in the tragic literature of African Americans. Critics have recognized the tragic arc of Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novella of African American identity in the Harlem Renaissance, yet few have recognized the revolutionary tactics that can be read in the ways in which she plays with her fluid racial identity. Although the plot conforms to what theatre/performance theorist Augusto Boal calls “Aristotle’s coercive system of tragedy” in that the racist power structures of the time are ultimately upheld, Larsen encodes a script for overthrowing those structures in her characterization of Claire. By examining Claire’s actions through the lens of African American scholar Sheldon George’s novel Trauma and Race, Larsen’s strategies can be recovered for modern readers. George claims that even when one takes “pride” in an African American racial identity, that identity forces the subject to confront the “trauma of slavery.” Through a Lacanian analysis of the signifiers of race, George argues that these signifiers are formidable obstacles to an African American’s ability to construct the “very fantasies that sustain subjectivity,” or in other words, a stable and secure sense of self. Readers who are familiar with the character of Clare Kendry, or the act of a person of color “passing” for white, may rightly point out that her adoption of a white racial identity is both an impractical and to say the least, problematic, strategy for escaping the trauma of slavery; however, this is not my assertion. I argue that Clare does not wholly adopt either a white or black racial identity, and that by letting go of an adherence to race as the Lacanian object a upon which to base her fantasies of being, she is able to achieve happiness. While the tragic structure of the novella punishes her for attempting to break out of the rigid racial hierarchy, in George’s view, her ability to construct a stable identity is a critical first step in dismantling the racist systems of oppression that she was unable to defeat on her own. This leaves us with some important questions which I argue merit further study: how do tragic works by other marginalized authors offer similar and disparate revolutionary strategies embedded into narratives that otherwise reinforce the status quo, and what other theoretical frameworks, besides George’s psychoanalytic take, might we use to uncover them?