Translation, Migration, & Gender in the Americas, the Transatlantic, & the Transpacific
5-8 Jul 2017 Bordeaux (France)

Participants > Panelists > Dennihy Melissa

Making Race Audible: Linguistic and Racial Performativity in Danzy Senna's Caucasia
Melissa Dennihy  1  
1 : Queensborough Community College, the City University of New York

Passing literature and mixed-race literature are liminal spaces within the American literary canon; by their very nature, these works resist racial and literary categorization by crossing, confusing, and redefining boundaries of race often used to classify American writers and their works. Danzy Senna's 1998 novel Caucasia, a contemporary mixed-race passing novel, is one such work of literary liminality. However, Caucasia is unique even among passing texts in that it challenges past representations of passing in American literature by suggesting that passing is not a permanent crossing of the color line, but rather a position of liminality and continual boundary-crossing in which one moves among multiple racial and ethnic identities. In this talk, I discuss how Caucasia portrays the liminality and fluidity of both passing and racial identity by portraying passing as a linguistic act, dependent as much upon the audible as the visible. Language usage functions as an important nonvisible way through which racial identities are performed and perceived in Caucasia: while physical appearance remains central to how individuals construct and define racial identity (their own and others'), how an individual performs race in other ways—especially through language, speech, and communication—makes that identity an ongoing work-in-progress, a series of transitions and transformations rather than a fixed sense of self. In contemporary America, the text implies, passing is not a means of “becoming” white or privileging one racial identity over another; rather, it is an act of potentiality and possibility which allows individuals to explore multiple selves as they negotiate different settings and circumstances. Caucasia's passing characters do not merely pass from black to white, but instead occupy a threshold space from which they transition into and out of varied racial roles—including different blacknesses and whitenesses, as well as racial identities that fall between or beyond categories of black and white.

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