F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Final Project] Transatlantic Identity Formation: Imperial Anxieties, Colonial Hybridities, and Slippages of Power in Female Literary Figures

When Faith Smith writes of the taboo of miscegenation as at the crux of the axiomatics of empire in the New World, she highlights at its contradictory valences.  While that contradiction comes out it in the ways in which the region has “scoffed at or celebrated this perceived sin” (2) in its anti-colonial discourses of creolization over the last century, she also gestures to the way in which imperial discourses during the long eighteenth century conceptualized the taboo precisely because miscegenation was a common occurrence in the colonial milieu as “blood mixture is at once the source of both degeneration of the superior Aryan race and its compulsion” (5).  Many of the same discourses surrounding “white degeneracy and unnatural combinations of species” (2) in fact “were ‘covertly’ stories about desire” (4) that was at the heart of imperial anxieties.

These anxieties read miscegenation not only on a literal reproductive level but also on a broader cultural valence.  As Rex Nettleford conceptualizes the term “negrification” to “impl[y] a metropolitan European perspective of the African essence in the New World and more generally of creole culture” that reads the colonial project in terms of anxiety surrounding contamination (184).  Thus, “the creole […] whites are no less confused in perceiving themselves as identical with their metropolitan counterparts only to discover that they in turn have been ‘negrified’ or transformed in the special way into a Euro-African” – and this imaginative sense of slippage and impurity functions as a kind of metaphysical miscegenation (Nettleford 184).  This dynamic’s valence of pollution caused anxiety as to not only what was happening in the colonial space but also as to how it might affect the metropolitan center.  As Gretchen Gerzina notes, the fact that “the black population was steadily increasing and an active black community was forming” contributed to “the developing fear of the black presence in Britain” and anxieties surrounding threat of contamination to the British cultural imaginary (Gerzina 24).

This syllabus unit thus studies three texts from the long eighteenth century as to how they interpret, contain, or rupture anxieties within the British imaginary.  In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason becomes an emblem of those anxieties, which is aesthetically reflected in her portrayal through a poetics of Gothic horror as Jane's dark mirror.  In The Woman of Colour, Olivia Fairfield’s biracial identity renders her an actual, not merely metaphorical, threat to the organizing systems of race and class in the British imaginary, though perhaps in some ways her return to Jamaica at the end of the text “contains” that putative menace.  In The Female American, Unca Winkfield’s white/Native American hybridity in the service of an adventurous Robinsonade undermines several narrative conventions, though her Christianity and her self-exile from Britain perhaps also mitigates her place in the British social order.  Nonetheless, the fact that such figures were explored in the literature of the time demonstrates the degree to which they occupied the contemporaneous British imagination.

Works Cited

Gerzina, Gretchen. Black London: Life before Emancipation. Rutgers UP, 1995.
Nettleford, Rex. Mirror Mirror: Identity, Race and Protest in Jamaica. 1971. LMH P, 2000.
Smith, Faith. Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean. UVA P, 2011.

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