Chapter 4 — Seeing What You Want

[Print edition page number: 55]

What is it about passing that lets it live so large and so long in the public imagination? Passing — both as literary trope and as lived experience — seems to have such an unlikely and extended historical and literary shelf life.
(Elam 2018, 241, original emphasis)

People often times see what you want them to see.
(Galen Vachon [Jenkins 1996, 287])

Romance author Beverly Jenkins was not the first Black American author to make the romance genre her preferred mode of writing. When she penned Night Song (1994) Jenkins joined a small yet growing number of Black women writers (Sandra Kitt, Elsie Washington, writing behind the pseudonym Rosalind Welles, and Francis Ray, to name a few). Most often categorized as “African American fiction,” Black romance until recently has been a neglected area of scholarly research. Whether intentional or not, the collapsing of romance into African American fiction does a diservice to the abovementioned authors’ careers and canon. Of these writers, Jenkins was the only one to focus her writing in the area of historical romance, although over the course of her career, she has moved freely between the historical and contemporary romance subgenres. For the purpose of this chapter, I define historical romance as a subset of the romance genre set prior to the twentieth century. Most of Jenkins’s novels take place between 1850 and 1900. While all of her romance fiction centers Black love and Black communities, two of her historical novels engage the themes of Race and Romance: Coloring the Past: Indigo (1996) and Forbidden (2016), and, as I hope to illustrate, foreground the troubling nature of colorism and the unspoken illogic that sits at the heart of white supremacy.

If, as early modern romance theorists argue, “amongst all the rules which are to be observed in the compositions of these works [romances], that of true resemblance is without question the most necessary; it is, as[56] it were, the fundamental stone of this building” (de Scudery 1952/1674, 3), then Jenkins’s historical romances definitely adhere to this generic tenet. Jenkins is meticulous in her research on the histories of enslaved peoples, the emergence of Black communities post–Civil War in the United States, and the work of racism and sexism involved in the settler colonialism of indigenous lands in what came to be the United States. The result of Jenkins’s attention to history is often a scholarly undervaluing of the literary and romance conventions at work. In other words, the political, social, and economic world-building she does can obscure the romance fiction that, in my opinion, places her alongside the early modern authors I’ve been discussing. The world of her historical romances disrupts readerly expectations about Black people and Black romance. As Jenkins observes, publishers and readers seem to believe “when you write a 19th-century story, featuring Black people, it should center on slavery. So here I come with this story [Night Song], 19th-century Black people living in a small town on the plains of Kansas” (Moody-Freeman 2020).

In ways similar to Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, Jenkins’s historical romances offer readers the unexpected, moving them into a world both historical and imaginative to explore questions of love, identity, virtues, and beauty with a Black couple at the heart of the romance narrative. I focus on Forbidden and, to a lesser degree, Indigo, because the anxiety evident in the racecraft at work in the romances of Heliodorus, Fairfax/Tasso, and Neville is laid bare in Jenkins’s romance novels. White-presenting subjectivites created an unfathomable racial anxiety for English culture especially in the lands subject to its settler colonialist agenda. In these spaces, the non-white body needed to be erased and or policed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the settler-colonialist United States where the enslavement of African peoples fed a white supremacist ideology that continues to plague the nation. While legal and political institutions sanctioned efforts to police Black and white bodies from the inception of English settler colonialism, a history of rape and miscegenation points to the failure of such efforts. Thus, it isn’t surprising that white passing routinely surfaced as a cultural fear in the United States. In ways that acknowledge this fear and the inability to regulate white passing, what Forbidden and Indigo both illustrate is the impossibility of white supremacy to sustain its racial logic. Where white supremacist logic argues that race and[57] its associated colorism are immutable, Jenkins’s novels demonstrate that somatic and physiologically-based notions are illogical, which allows race to become a performative act.

Performing Whiteness

At the end of Aethiopika, Charikliea is recognized as the daughter of the Ethiopian King, the union between her and Theagenes is sanctioned, and her right to inherit the Ethiopian throne is secure. Patrilineal doubts were put to rest by a simple birthmark that established her Blackness. Because of this narrative detail, Aethiopika contributes to and participates in the idea that “race will tell out” — something we see in the adaptations of the romance. In essence, Blackness, no matter how deeply buried in whiteness, will eventually surface to mark a person’s racial identity. The Isle of Pines demonstrably shows the continuation of this point of view; although the Phils are as white-skinned as the Trevors, Sparks, and Pines, their inherited Blackness surfaces in their behavior (considered inheritable traits from their Black ancestress Phillipa). It is worth it at this point to invoke the 1662 Virginia statute that not only redefined an enslaved person’s patrilineal status but, as Jennifer L. Morgan argues, “systematically alienated the enslaved from their kin and their lineage” (Morgan, 2018, 1). The law read:

Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman shall be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother — Partus Sequitur Ventrem. And that if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act. (Laws of Virginia, 1662 Act XII; Latin added by William Henig, The Statutes at Large, 1819, quoted in Morgan 2018, 1)

For two hundred years, this law and its variations by other states was used not only to sustain the practice of enslavement but also to justify white[58] supremacy’s violent control over enslaved women’s reproduction and any children born as a result of that enslavement. By putting “into code the assumptions about racial inheritance” (Morgan 2018, 3). Virginia and the United States made explicit what had long rumbled beneath the ideology of race in early modern English culture: while it was possible to regulate somatically visible Blackness, it was nearly impossible to regulate somatically invisible Blackness.

It is this context that informs the storyline of Rhine Fontaine, the white-passing hero of Jenkins’s Forbidden. In 1865, Union soldier Rhine Fontaine returns to the planation where he had been born, the offspring of the white plantation owner and “the descendant of an enslaved African queen” (Jenkins, 2016, 6). Seeking information about his sister, Rhine heads to the slave cabins only to find the enslaved had fled and the one person remaining was his father’s wife, Sally Ann Fontaine. The woman’s bitterness and hatred doesn’t stop her from giving him what little information she possesses. As he is about to leave, Sally Ann asks, “[w]hat are you doing in a fancy Yankee uniform?” When Rhine remains silent, she says, “Passing again, are you?” (6).

Rhine’s lack of an answer speaks volumes for the direction of the novel, as is Jenkins’s description: “Rhine’s ivory skin, jet black hair, and green eyes made it easy for him to pass as someone he wasn’t. He was ten years old when he first realized he could do it successfully” (7). Sally Ann’s words evoke a painful memory of being beaten until “he bled.” Yet, during the entire scene, Rhine remains silent. In a striking moment, Jenkins gives Sally Ann the final words: “Andre turns his back on his race, and you turn back on yours. What a wretched pair you are” (7). Having received information about his sister, Rhine departs, trusting that the old African queens whose blood ran in his veins would reunite him with Sable in the near future. With that belief settled firmly in his heart, he heads to his own future — one he planned to live out as “White” (7). At this point (prologue), the reader and Rhine are the only ones aware of his decision.

The word “pass” has a curious and complex socio-lexical history in Anglo-American culture. As defined by Webster’s International Dictionary, “pass” is, “to move or be transferred from one place, state, or condition to another; to change possession, condition or circumstances, to undergo transition or conversion.” In both noun and verb forms, “pass” has also[59] come to signify death. Instead of using dead or died, people often substitute a verbal phrase such as “he passed away” or “he passed on” or, simply, “he passed,” or “his passing was unexpected.” The type of “passing” that is suggested in Weever’s epigram in Chapter Two, which is the theoretical concern of this study, is rooted in all these definitions and yet distinctive in its own right. This passing marks the process whereby a person self-consciously enters into an identity made possible by the instability and uninhabitability of the very ideologies created to prevent such entries. Once entering into this identity, however, the passer must maintain the boundaries of this identity, vigilantly guarding against the slippages, erasures, and exposures which once defined them in terms of another identity. The objective is never to be found out. Modes of passing, whether gender, class, or color, occur in a symbolic economy predicated upon violation of social, political, and juridical norms. Such acts constitute what can be defined as the self-consciously “performative enactment” of social norms, “performative” here having both its theatrical connotation and the reiterative denotation that Judith Butler ascribes to the term (Butler 1993).

To argue that race is performative is to insist on the rejection of the idea that race is constitutively defined in terms of perceptible biological differences: epidermal coloring, hair texture, the shape and size of the body, and other physiological attributes. In addition, a long list of cultural and social behavior have morphed into quasi-biological predicates of race — sexuality, intellect, and morality. Yet, for obvious and complex historical reasons, it is difficult to envision a theoretical discussion of race that does so without resorting to an analysis dependent on the physical appearance of the body that is “racialized.” Even more to the point, it is nearly impossible to treat race in terms other than skin color and as a racializing predicate ideologically ingrained in the collective cultural consciousness of European societies since the Middle Ages. If, as I am suggesting, we view race as a “performative act,” then we need to examine more carefully the ways in which transgressive racial identity, the “color-passing” subject, functions as a “corporeal field of cultural play” that “compe[ls] [us] to live in a world in which [races] constitute univocal signifiers, in which [race] is stabilized, polarized, rendered discrete and intractable” (In recasting Butler’s observations on gender, I’ve substituted “race” for “gender.” Butler 1988, 528).[60]

As Julia Thomas observes, “Our eyes are not simple recorders or receptacles of information: they do not simply mirror a world that exists unproblematically outside them” (Thomas 2001, 4). In fact, she continues,

Perception involves not just the act of looking but decision-making too: the brain searches for the best possible interpretation of the available data. And this idea of ‘interpretation’ is of more than passing significance because in order for the brain to transform what is seen into something recognisable, to create meanings through sight, it relies on learnt assumptions about the characteristics of, and differences between, things. Such distinctions, however natural they seem, are not inherent in sight or even in the visualized world. (4)

Furthermore, Thomas argues, “It is more than biology that dictates how one sees. Seeing is bound up in value judgements (one assesses things by their appearance) and, because it is spatially and temporally limited (one cannot see everything simultaneously but only a certain amount and at any one moment), it involves an element of choice” (4).

White passing arises as the cultural and ideological interlocutor of a concept that insists upon sight as the infallible medium of recognition and knowledge. Generally, one person sees another person and, based upon their physical appearance (systemized value judgments), immediately decides how or whether to categorize their (choice). Of course, this system works well if one can be certain that the interpretation of what one is seeing is valid. For example, a man racially designated as “white” sees a woman whose skin color is dark brown. The man racially categorized “white” draws upon a received body of cultural and linguistic codes designed to aid his interpretation of what he sees: assumptions about color, physiognomy, culture, status, and hierarchy, as well as a cultural lexicon to name what he is about to interpret. As a result, the man “sees” the woman as a “Black” woman, and thus racially different and possibly inferior. Conversely, if the woman “seen” has “white” skin, then the man undergoes the same reasoning process but reaches a different conclusion.

The epistemological problem, I would argue, is extant in the second scenario. Here, we need to recognize that the “white” man may be “reading”[61] the woman’s body both correctly and incorrectly; incorrectly in that the woman was born to parents of African ancestry and correctly because her physical appearance marks her as “white.” If there are no other signs to indicate the woman’s lineal “Blackness,” the man does not question what he “sees.” Moreover, should the woman be joined by two “Black” individuals and she acknowledges a kinship or group relation, or if through some other means the man discovers his mis-reading, then he must question not only the relationship between seeing and knowledge, but also the belief system that constitutes the way in which he interprets what he sees. Finally, should the man remain ignorant of the woman’s genealogy, and the woman is aware of his mis-reading and she does not correct his assumption about her racial identity, then her action constitutes deliberate white passing. As Amy Robinson argues, “[i]f the action of sight requires a subject, then intuition summons a denotation of unmediated access to a truth whose function is the fortification of the subject who looks. It is thus no accident that the eyes are named as the privileged vehicle of intuitive knowledge” (Robinson 1994, 720-21, original emphasis)⁠. What intuition enables is the “visibility of the apparatus of passing — literally the machinery that enables the performance. What the “in-group” sees is not a stable prepassing identity but rather the apparatus of passing that manufactures presumption (of heterosexuality, of whiteness) as the means to a successful performance” (721–22).

Forbidden is a novel about this variation of passing since several members of the Black community “suspect” Rhine’s performance. Rhine deliberately misrepresents his matrilineal heritage, the one that gives him his “Blackness,” although he never allows himself to “forget” his ancestral “Queens.” When we encounter Rhine five years later, he is a wealthy, prosperous businessman living in Virginia City, Nevada and the fact that he is white passing is neither known nor seems to trouble Rhine in ways often depicted in African American literature that features passing narratives. For Rhine, the decision made at the age of ten has borne unexpected fruit not just for him but for his “race” as well. In other words, Jenkins does not cast her romance hero as “the tragic mulatto,” which stems as much from an unwillingness to write “Black trauma porn” as from her research and her authorial awareness of the possibilities of romance (Moody-Freeman 2020). In this, Forbidden is more akin to pre- and early modern romances[62] than the passing narratives of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In most passing novels, the white-passing subject experiences a sense of guilt about what is viewed by both Black and white people as a duplicitous act. Strikingly, this “guilt” is absent in Rhine. What seems to emerge in the novel for Rhine is regret. Regret that “by passing, he’d gained a lot in terms of wealth and prestige,” but “he’d [also] lost a lot,” especially his ability to “participate fully because he was no longer a member of the race” (Jenkins 2016, 105).

When his brother Andrew advises Rhine to “find you someone to love and live out your old age in contentment as I plan to do” (102), Rhine’s response is a simple, “I need to help, Drew” (102). Andrew’s reply speaks to the bond between the brothers despite the genesis of that bond: “There are other men helping in their own way. Leave it to them. I don’t want you lynched or beaten to death” (102). Andrew’s worry doesn’t deter Rhine who believed himself “uniquely qualified to be a voice for those who did care, because of his passion, education, and ability to pass for White. He may have turned his back on being Black, but not on his race” (103). From its inception in 1865, Rhine’s passing has been personal and political. His relationship with his brother brought him education and wealth, both of which Rhine used to advantage his “race.” What is provocative in Jenkins words, “He may have turned his back on being Black, but not his race,” is the suggestion that Blackness is not race. As I have argued elsewhere, race is a “shaping fantasy” (Hendricks 1996) and Rhine’s performance is indicative of that fact. In Rhine, we witness “the performative dimension of racial formation” (Elam 2018, 245). In fact, Michele Elam contends, this “is not to suggest race is play without social consequence or that such a theorization evades the everyday of racism (both common canards); quite the contrary, the performance of passing can often best index the truth of the lie of race” (245).

Until the day he rescues Eddy Carmichael in an unforgiving desert, Rhine does not seem to question the decision he made five years prior. He considers the benefits to the Black community to be worth the sacrifice. Eddy, however, proves to be an unexpected challenge. As Eddy lies in his bed, recuperating from near fatal sun exposure, Jenkins describes Rhine’s reaction:[63]

Rhine surveyed his sleeping guest. He ran his eyes over the clear-as-glass ebony skin, the long sweep of her lashes, and her perfect mouth. While in the tub, she’d taken him by surprise when she opened her eyes, looked deeply into his own, and cupped his cheek as if they’d been lovers. The urge to turn her hand and place his lips against her damp palm had also taken him by surprise. He had a fiancée and was due to be married before year’s end. He had no business thinking about kissing another woman. (Jenkins 2016, 40–41)

What is significant about the final sentence is the absence of “white” self-consciousness about Rhine’s desire for Eddy. I want to suggest that this moment is Jenkins’s subtle reminder that Rhine belongs to the same racial group as Eddy. Ironically, throughout much of the novel, it is Eddy who foregrounds Rhine’s “whiteness” and therefore the impossibility of their growing attraction turning into a relationship: “Eddy had no experience with men, but there was something in his gaze that gave her pause. He was without a doubt the handsomest man she’d ever met, but she knew a man of his race and wealth wouldn’t be interested in a near destitute Colored woman, at least not legitimately” (54). The relationship between Rhine and Eddy builds in a familiar Jenkins’s style — a passionate slow burn. By the end of the first third of the novel, Rhine knows exactly what he wants. The choice he has to make has consequences that affect more than just him.

Rhine and Eddy dance around their deepening attraction to each other, although it is clear that it is a wasted effort. Eddy, believing Rhine is white, has the most difficult time dealing with her feelings: “… instead of leaving he stood there silently, just as he had last night, his gaze holding hers, and the sensations shimmering over her were getting harder and harder to ignore” (68). When a date with Zeke Reynolds (the town’s Black carpenter) reveals the depths of Eddy’s conflicted emotions about Rhine, she confesses to Sylvie, “How can I possibly want to be with someone I know is forbidden and will probably break my heart?” (270). Later, while Eddy waits for Jim to arrive, Sylvie asks only one question: “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” (285). Eddy’s reply is a single word, “yes.”[64]

That single word, “yes,” is imbued with more than emotional weight. Eddy hasn’t just consented to dinner with Rhine. She has also opened the possibility for a relationship, whether she admits it to herself or not: “Sylvie smiled. ‘No honey, but you’ll have to be discreet — both of you will.’” Eddy’s reply, “‘We’re only going to have dinner this one time,’” rings hollow to Sylvie, the novel’s readers, and to Eddy (285). The dinner and its aftermath leaves Eddy even more emotionally complicated, especially after Rhine’s marriage proposal. When she realizes he is serious, she chooses “her words carefully” and says, “You know what we’d be facing. It might look to be an easy road from where you sit, but it isn’t. You’re not Colored and I’m not White. Us being together is against the law almost everywhere” (295). Rhine’s confession, “But I’m not White either,” earns a chuckle. Eddy assumes that his words were a reflection of “all the good she was told he’d done on behalf of the city’s Colored community,” and says, “Maybe not inside” (295).

At Rhine’s “Not outside either,” Eddy’s reason takes hold and she realizes what he is admitting. Jenkins reveals Rhine’s white passing simply, saying, “I’d like to tell you a story.” It is in this chapter we learn the full extent of Rhine’s life since the war ended — his birth, the reunion with his brother Andrew, the acquisition of his wealth (Andrew “gave me half that stack of winnings”), and Rhine’s decision to settle in Virginia City. As Rhine recounts, “When we left St. Louis, I came to Virginia City, bought stock in the mines, made myself even more wealthy. He [Andrew] went on to San Francisco, invested his money, made himself even more wealthy, too, and now he’s a banker” (297). The more Eddy learns about Rhine, the more she understands yet she cannot refrain from asking the question, “Why didn’t you change your name? Don’t most people who pass do that?” (297). Rhine tells her he wanted his sister Sable “to be able to find [him].”

In everything he has done since he chose to perform whiteness, Rhine’s actions have been driven by love — love for his sister, for his “race,” and for the “Old Queens.” It is obvious that Rhine’s white passing proved beneficial except to his ability to marry for love.  His engagement to Natalie Greer was a pragmatic decision, one based on political aspirations, not love. Rhine’s decision to end the engagement, Jenkins makes clear, is born of his love for Eddy and the recognition that he no longer wants to live as a passing subject. Once he makes the decision to reveal his racial heritage[65], he is determined to protect Eddy and the Black community of Virginia City. Rhine sends a coded message to his brother Andrew with the news that he’s “had a change of heart.” He reassures Eddy “his business holdings and money won’t be affected” since “it isn’t against Nevada law for me to own land or a business” (298). Eddy understands that behind the words is something far greater than a mere “change of heart.” Her joy at becoming Rhine’s wife is muted by what his revelation means:

The next few weeks were going to be trying for him. Turning his world upside down and having to face those who’d undoubtedly denounce him and maybe even threaten his life would take an incredible about of strength. That he was willing to do so in order for her to be his wife — she had no words to describe how special and loved it made her feel or how much she loved him in return. As long as he didn’t expect her to give up her dreams — and she knew he wouldn’t — she saw no reason to say anything but yes. (300)

Unlike most passing narratives, Forbidden ends according to the conventions of the romance genre. With the central obstacle to the lovers’ happily ever after resolved, Rhine’s public declaration that he has been white passing triggers competing reactions among the people of Virginia City. For the Black population, most of whom speculated on Rhine’s racial heritage, there is a sense of relief. For the white population, there is anger. For the most part, that anger is muted, localized in an act of vandalism,[66] the insistence that Rhine resign from the city’s council, and the loss of support among members of the town’s white Republican party. In a moment of irony, “abolitionist” Lyman Greer angrily demands Rhine hand over the deed to Greer’s house. When Rhine asks, “Do you have what you owe me in exchange,” Greer refuses to pay and says, in reply to Rhine’s “a debt is a debt,” “not when it’s owed to one of you” (326).

Greer is stunned to discover not only is the debt in full force but owed to Rhine’s banker brother, who “counts some of the city’s finest lawyers and judges among his clientele” (326). As if that fact wasn’t enough, Rhine adds, “And for the record, he’s White just like you. I’ve been kind enough not to ask you for payments. My brother will not be” (326). For the most part, the reaction of the town’s white people is limited to an act of vandalism against Rhine’s saloon and enraged glares. The Black community, however, comes together for one of their own. Although Zeke’s resentment is understood, Rhine is unwilling to engage in a “pissing match” in order to have the damaged windows of his saloon replaced. Unable to fathom Rhine’s actions, Zeke asks, “So are you really Colored?” Rhine answers, “I am,” and Zeke cannot help but ask, “Why change races now? You had life by the tail. Wealth, respect, and all the privileges that go with it.” In a moment guaranteed to send any romance reader into a swoon, Jenkins writes, “Rhine decided he [Zeke] might as well know. ‘So I can marry Eddy.’ Zeke froze. ‘To have her, it was an easy choice’” (337).

What follows for the next two chapters is a familiar scenario in passing narratives where the protagonist’s Blackness is “exposed.” Rhine’s reveal becomes the talk of the town and he is subjected to the racism he’d witnessed directed at other Black citizens. The most telling moment comes when he enters the bank he had patronized since he settled in Virginia City. The young white male clerk informs Rhine “he hadn’t the time to give Rhine a list of the transactions that had recently crossed his account” and “suggested Rhine wait until Whitman Brown came to work the next day” (342). His temper already frayed, Rhine insists on seeing the bank’s president. The clerk declares, “Mister Peyton doesn’t deal with you people.” Rhine ignores the clerk and makes his way to Peyton’s door. To the clerk’s utter humiliation, Peyton merely says, “in a voice that held quiet fury, ‘As you already know, Mr. Fontaine is one of this bank’s biggest and most loyal depositors. Shall I fire you to prove that point?’” (343). The banker’s words make clear that money talks. This is something that Rhine understands quite well.

The critical moment in the novel comes soon after, when a deranged Natalie Greer kidnaps Eddy. When Eddy asks, “Where are we going?,” Natalie replies, “To the place where Rhine found you, and this time you’re going to die” (351). From the moment Rhine revealed the pass, Natalie has been in denial. She believes he is “lying” and she tells Eddy, “You’re the only reason he denounced his race, but he can’t marry you if you’re dead … and once you are dead, he’ll tell the truth about being White, and he and I can marry the way we were supposed to” (352). Spying the rescue party, Eddy and the driver, who refuses to “take part,” take off in a run. Despite her Eddy’s prayer that Natalie was ignorant of the weapon[67] she held, both Eddy and the driver are shot. The driver is dead but Eddy is badly wounded. Rhine and Jim commandeer Lyman Greer’s buggy and hurry Eddy back to town.

While Rhine waits the outcome of Eddy’s surgery, a train conductor enters accompanied by two young Black girls, “their shabby dresses were stained and both girls appeared tired and wan” (355). The conductor asks for Eddy and Rhine recognizes them, “Regan and Portia?” In a heartbreaking scene, we learn the sisters have been “mailed … by train” to Eddy (355). After asking if the girls want food or to sit, Rhine is shocked by Portia’s demand that he “just leave us alone, okay.” Not knowing the sisters’ background, Rhine recognizes their wariness and asks if they prefer he and Jim stepped outside. When Regan says, “Yes,” he and Jim sit out on the back steps (356–57).

Once Eddy regains consciousness, she sees her nieces. After a painful hug, she reassures them she’s not dying and asks how they came to be in Virginia City. Portia tells her and says there’s a letter from the girls’ mother. Assured the girls are staying with her and Sylvie, Eddy asks for Rhine. When the girls back away from the bed, Portia’s expression “sour[s],” and Eddy wonders but decides to wait to investigate. As her health improves, Eddy tells Rhine about her nieces’ background. After he departs, she discovers why the girls are with her in a letter addressed to her: “It read: I’m getting married. My new husband doesn’t want the girls because they aren’t his, so they’re yours now. It was the coldest, most callous thing Eddy had ever read” (361).

When Regan declares, “Mama doesn’t want us, so we don’t want her,” Eddy recognizes she would be the one to bring her nieces some happiness. She tells the sisters about her relationship with Rhine, and her forthcoming marriage to him. She explains that the sisters will live with her and Rhine. Eddy is surprised, although she shouldn’t be, when Portia asks, “how long will he stay with you?” Eddy reassures them her marriage to Rhine is for life and she “will only have relations with him” and it doesn’t involve him paying for sex (362). The final question appalls Eddy — “Will we have to have relations with him?” When Eddy learns the reason behind Portia’s question, “Mama said she was going to sell Portia’s cherry for money,” she stares at the sisters, “so angry … she wanted to walk to Denver and beat her [sister] to death.” Instead, Eddy says, “Here you’re both[68] safe from anything like that. I promise. Okay? I’m not going to let anyone hurt you, and neither will Rhine” (363).

The novel concludes with the celebration of Rhine and Eddy’s marriage once Eddy is fully recovered from her injuries. With his brother Andrew at his side, Rhine and Eddy listen to the sheriff recite the words of matrimony. When the sheriff asks if anyone has issues with the marriage, a female voice offers her objection. “Both Rhine and Eddy turned in shock and a woman walked up. She was as fair-skinned and as green-eyed as Rhine, and beside her was a big dark-skinned man wearing a scowl. Rhine’s eyes widened, ‘Sable?’” (365). After a joyous reunion, it is Sable’s husband Raimond LeVeq who brings real closure to Rhine’s complex life when he states, “‘I see your bride’s a woman of color, Sergeant Clark [Rhine’s pseudonym while serving in the US Army]. Hope this means you’re back on the right side of the road.’ Rhine drops his head and chuckles” (365) before he and Eddy embark on their happily ever after.

Jenkins’s representation of white passing is atypical because she refuses to allow her characters to perform the trope of the “tragic mulatto.” In Indigo, Jenkins has Galen Vachon interrogate the ideologies of race and colorism just as effectively as Rhine. However, unlike Rhine’s decision (which is economically driven), Galen treats white passing entirely as a performative act and not as an attempt to avoid his Blackness. He tells the heroine Hester Wyatt that he routinely passes as white in his abolitionist efforts:

Because of my ancestry, impersonating a French Creole from New Orleans was a fairly easy task. Back then I passed myself off as foreign every time I stepped on American soil. It was my way of ridiculing the Black Code restrictions on travel and accommodations. You’d be surprised how many people are impressed when you claim to be a Brazilian ambassador or a crown prince of Portugal, especially when I can speak the language and they can speak nothing but a backwater drawl. I even posed as an Italian-speaking Hai­tian count one even to dazzle the registration clerk at one of Baltimore’s finest hotels …. People often times see what you want them to see. (Jenkins 1996, 286–87)[69]

Galen’s performative act is a necessary part of his political activism to rescue and aid enslaved people seeking freedom. In fact, when he and Hester first meet it is because Galen has been injured when he reveals his “passing” performance. Throughout the novel, Galen uses his skin color, his proximity to whiteness, to undermine not just the actions of the men and women who hunt the escaped enslaved, but he also exposes the fallacy of white supremacy. Elam’s observation is worth noting here:

those who can pass not only inherit the legacies of mixed race heritage; they put that heritage into practice in a way that marks the transgression of, and thus lays bare, the paradox of unequal entitlements in the land of equality. This is why passing creates such cultural anxiety and yet why, too, it holds so much progressive potential. …by understanding the performance of passing as always politically implicated in the larger possibilities for social change. (Elam 2018, 245)

In other words, both Galen and Rhine shine “a spotlight on not just the constructedness of but also the purposes to which race is put” (245).

As Marcia Alesan Dawkins notes about Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy,

access to reality is sometimes based on fiction rather than fact and that identities are understood best in terms of the stories we tell about who we are. Harper reveals how fiction can sometimes ring more “true” than fact and that what we call facts are sometimes simply eloquent and persuasive fictions — fictions we deem most reasonable and expedient” (Dawkins 2012, 79).

Furthermore, Dawkins argues,

passing ultimately exposes the inability of law to contain racial property in the face of persuasive and powerful rhetorical performances. Passing unmasks our desire to crystallize racial identities as property because they are something we want to possess even though we somehow know we never can. Upholding and obtaining racial property rights becomes a matter of principle in[70] a world that says some identities are better or worse than others. (Dawkins 2012, 155)

Like many of the theorists whose work I have cited, I believe white passing is rife with competing rules of recognition. And, because of the illogic of white supremacy, these rules are predicated on oppositions tied to a set of normative standards associated with epidermal, behavioral, or cultural difference. Moreover, the fact that one group can “recognize” the performance of white passing while another is completely ignorant is what makes the pass successful. This awareness is always known to the passing individual, but how does the “in-group,” the community capable of recognizing the “performative act,” become the “in-group”? In other words, how do we recognize the “pass” when the passing subject is in middle of the pass, and how does that passing subject create an informed community to recognize the pass even when the passing subject needs to remain in the performative act? In Forbidden, Rhine’s biological siblings both know about his white passing and, especially his visibly Black sister, argue for an end to the performative act.

What happens, however, when there is no “Black” or familial “in-group” to keep the white passer’s secret? How does the passer, if they wish to leave evidence of their lineage, their Blackness, ensure traces of history remain beyond to tell “their story”? The next chapter embraces these questions as a speculative and heuristic framework for engaging the writings and biographical/autobiographical history of the early modern English author Aphra Behn. As part of complicating, disturbing, muddying the waters of racial ideologies, white supremacy, and racism, I ask the question, what if Behn was white passing, and explore answers through the narrative lens of several of her romance novels. Before the Behn acolytes rise up in arms, let me state that my discussion isn’t an attempt to document a Black Aphra. Rather, Behn becomes a template to expose the fallacy of race as colorism. There is some difficulty in what I propose: in order for a pass to be successful, there has to be a relationship of complicity between the passer and an “in-group,” usually a person (or persons) who has the ability to recognize the signs of performative white passing and acquiesces to the pass by not exposing it. When the pass is exposed, either by the passer or a member of the “in-group” or by someone from[71] the “duped group,” it ceases to be a passing performance. Success, therefore, comes when only the duped group remains ignorant.

The presumed “visibility” of whiteness is the source of the passer’s ability to convince the “duped group” that what it sees is “true.” In effect, passing is acutely dependent upon the idea that what is visible is “an epistemological guarantee” of a historical racial identity. Yet, as the literature of passing indicates, no matter how successful the pass is in public, the passing subject is always burdened by the past they strive to conceal. In literature, this “burden” is often articulated in moments of doubt, internalized fears of discovery (especially when the passing subject is married), and distrust of the very community the passing subject figures as the “in-group.” In what follows, I read Aphra Behn’s depiction of her life as a performative act of white passing and that her success represents the recognizable signs of that performance.

The thought that floats before me, that has sat with me the many years I have read, pondered, and analyzed the writings of Behn is whether, in the silent space of the poet’s room (even when, as may have been the case with Behn, it is a chamber filled with people), the author’s own subjectivity came into existence as a memoir of a moment that was a remembrance of a racialized past? Did Behn glance out a small window overlooking a busy street in St Bride’s Parish and see a dark-skinned woman of African ancestry struggling to deal with the life of servitude engendered by the color of her skin? Did Behn mentally strip the blouse from the woman’s back and see the evidence of the woman’s resistance to slavery, to rape? Did Behn imagine the African man who had fathered the woman’s first child and died trying to prevent both from becoming property of the Portuguese, Dutch, or English slaver? Did Behn unconsciously perceive in the woman the liminal figure of a daughter whose “mestizaje” (mixedness) drew the sexual attention of a white planter in Barbados? Are these the constitutive images, the “secret ciphers,” along with her own passing subjectivity, inscribed in her representation of Moorea or the pregnant Bellamora? Are these the representations of “self” that constitute Behn’s “other”?


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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past Copyright © 2022 by Arizona Board of Regents for Arizona State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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