[Print edition page number: 89]
Racial identity is always in process and constantly re-created around the dialectical poles of racial essence and/or appearance and racial performance.
(Cutter 2018, 60)
If you have reached this point, dear readers, you will notice Race and Romance: Coloring the Past is an unconventional intellectual meandering. Two of early modern English literature’s favorite tropes are the window and the mirror, objects of inspection, reflection, and potential deception — each piece of “glass” in its own way assumed to be an accurate or a “true” image of what is being reflected because the window or the mirror absorbs and/or projects what touches its surface. Yet, as early modern English writers often lamented, what was reflected or mirrored could also be a deception. Such is the case in Beverly Jenkins’s Forbidden. Rhine is dressed for an evening out and Eddy observes him and his reflection in a mirror: “The tailored black suit, the snow white shirt, jet black hair, and vivid eyes all added up to a man as alluring as a god” (Jenkins 2016, 82). The vision the reader “sees” is mediated through Eddy’s eyes, she provides the eye-witness account. Rhine says one word to her, “Presentable?” When Eddy replies, “Your tie’s a mite crooked,” he walks “to the large standing mirror. Upon seeing nothing wrong with the tie, he glances back at her in confusion.” Eddy says, “just pulling your leg. You look fine” (82). This brief exchange takes place in that most intimate of spaces, the bedroom — specifically, Rhine’s bedroom. This scene intrigues me for it is one of three mentions of a mirror and the only one where our heroine and hero are both present. What Eddy “sees” is a white man, “alluring as a god” and forbidden to her, a romantic impossibility not just because of class but because of his color.
All of the romance texts I have discussed exemplify that appearances are complicated and always performative. The ability to reflect back what is in front of it is the singular purpose of the mirror. What Eddy sees is not what Rhine (and by implication the novel’s reader) sees — his Blackness. Similarly, when Godfrey of Bulloigne’s Clorinda replaces her “silver” armor with black armor she clouds the viewer’s ability to penetrate the veneer of whiteness that obscures her Blackness. The Isle of Pines serves as an acknowledgement that whiteness is not only porous but performative. No matter how they are denigrated, the Phils are whiteness walking and, as the novel makes clear, for white supremacy to sustain itself, it is not enough to regulate visibly Black bodies; whiteness itself must be policed. It is important to note that two of the romance authors analyzed in this book are women. Over three hundred years, and the evolution of modern racial capitalism, separate the publications of Aphra Behn’s romance novels and those of Beverly Jenkins. Yet, what both authors expose are the cracks and fractures of a society governed by racist and sexist ideologies.
In the form of a “brief treatise,” I want to suggest that Behn, caught between competing models of racial performances, was ideally situated to negotiate textually the theater of whiteness. White supremacist anxiety about the purity of whiteness is not localized to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. On the contrary, as Kim F. Hall brilliantly demonstrates, quoting Patricia Williams, in Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Renaissance England, “‘extrinsic sources and intuitive means of reading may be the only ways to include the reality of the unwritten, unnamed, nontext of race’ (117)” (Hall 1995, 15). In effect, it is important to engage in
a practice of resistant reading that seems key to an enterprise of this sort. To claim that there is a “text of race” means at times to refuse to accept both the authority of the writers I work with and to resist the hegemony of white male knowledge in the academy. I use “intuitive means of reading” in the sense that my reading of dominant culture is fundamentally shaped by knowledge that is in fact taught in African-American communities about “white” culture. I also draw from “extrinsic sources” when I suggest alternative readings and viewpoints regarding the subjects of colonial rule that are largely absent in the period. (Hall 1995, 15)
My argument throughout this book follows this mode of analysis. It is an argument based on an “intuitive reading” that anxiety about the potential for “white passing” sits at the heart of white supremacy. Blackness and whiteness as racial categories are intrinsically unstable should be a foregone conclusion and, yet, the ideology of race insists that they are. One of the central premises of white supremacy is its sense of privilege and superiority in that whiteness. However, as Toni Morrison suggests, behind that notion of “superiority” is “[a] companion to this whiteness — a dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of … literature with fear and longing” (Morrison 1992, 80).
What I have suggestively been arguing in this book is that is the source of “fear and longing” is the “white-passing subject.” And, unless the Blackness hidden by a white-presenting shell is exposed and the body policed, whiteness’ invisibility in the face of Blackness when that Blackness is performing whiteness will always be paradoxical. Because, to return to our mirror and window tropes, the passing performance is visible for all to see yet not all will comprehend its significance.
At the conclusion of their thought-provoking essay on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Rob Baum writes “[Behn] pauses a moment to contemplate the shape of her world from the insulation of her female body, with its own black secrets” (Baum 2011, 26). The dancing around the edges of Behn’s relationship to race and racial identities have marked Behn studies for decades. Most often her racial identity is read through the lens of Oroonoko’s Blackness. What if, in addition to Oroonoko, we also read her “white-presenting body” as reflectively mirrored in The Black Lady and The Unfortunate Bride? Simply stated, what if we peel away the layers of performative whiteness to “see” Behn’s “Black body”? A body not mirrored in Oroonoko’s but in Bellamora’s and Moorea’s. To do this is to question, to interrogate, the extrinsic valorization of colorism as a means of reading racecraft.
A “Briefe Treatise” on the Making of Aphra Behn
The literary construction of Aphra Behn is fascinating and, dear reader, I apologize in advance for the meandering I am about to undertake. But making a case for “seeing” Behn as a white-passing subject is best consumed in two parts.
In 1696, seven years after Aphra Behn’s death, the first biographic sketch, The Memoirs of Mrs. Aphra Behn, Written by a Lady of Quality (hereafter The Memoirs), was appended to her posthumously-published play The Younger Brother. Since this initial biographical effort to render an account of Behn’s life and literary reputation, the pre-professional life of Aphra Behn has been revisited, rewritten, expanded, and historically “set in stone” in an attempt to get at the “truth” of Behn’s birth and life: in 1928 by Vita Sackville-West; 1948 by George Woodcock; 1968 by Frederick M. Link; 1977 by Maureen Duffy; 1980 by Angeline Goreau; and 1997 by Janet Todd. Reading any and all of the six biographies, it is readily apparent that the greatest obstacle facing the intrepid scholar interested in Behn’s early life is the absolute paucity of evidence available to abet such an endeavor. In fact, when we subject to careful scrutiny what is available, the situation becomes even more indeterminate despite the certainty with which biographers make use of extant materials to substantiate the reported “facts” of Behn’s birth.
The “truths” of Behn’s early life (the place of her birth, her father’s appointment, her experiences in Surinam) have been gleaned from a mélange of fictive enunciation located in a number of texts written either by Behn, particularly the novella Oroonoko, or within the first decade after her death in 1689 (the Countess of Winchelsea’s poem, Thomas Culpeper’s biographic sketch in his Adversaria, the brief account attached to the posthumous publication of one of Behn’s plays, and The Memoirs). What remains as holographic evidence, letters to the king’s secretary of state, notes to Jacob Tonson, one of her publishers, and a Pindaric on the poet Edmund Waller, were all written post-1665. While these documents provide extraordinary insight into Behn’s life as an unattached woman striving to live independently in a society that did not recognize such independence, they offer limited aid in deciphering the pre-Restoration (or even pre-England) period of her life. Thus, when we compare the evidence for Behn’s life with that of Margaret Cavendish, for example, it becomes obvious that the project of authenticating, or “reconstructing,” a complete life history for the individual named Aphra Behn is daunting to say the least. Even so, there have been six attempts to date.
Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, there have been two possible candidates for the “real” early Aphra Behn: Aphra Amis and Aphra Johnson. Both Aphras were born in Kent in the year 1640. In “An ACCOUNT of the Life of the Incomparable Mrs. BEHN,” we find one of the earliest allusions to Behn’s patrilineal name: “Her Maiden Name was Johnson” (Duffy 1977, 17). This perception remained unquestioned until the nineteenth century when Edmund Gosse discovered a marginal notation in a manuscript of Anne Finch poems. Presumed to be Finch’s own handwriting, the marginalia stated that Behn “was daughter to a barber, who liv’d formerly in Wye, a little market town (now much decay’d) in Kent. Though the account of her life before her works pretends otherwise; some persons now alive do testify upon their knowledge that to be her original.” Gosse’s investigation led him to conclude that Behn was “the daughter of a barber named John Johnson, [and that] she was baptized at Wye, Kent, 10 July 1640” (Duffy 1977, 19).
Finch’s marginal notation appeared to resolve one of the pieces of the puzzle. A search of the birth records for the area surrounding Wye quickly yielded fruit; an Aphra Amis had been born near Wye in 1640, thus corroborating Finch’s declaration. Some years later, the Reverend A. Purvis checked the complete records, including burial registers, in Wye and discovered a fact that Gosse had overlooked: the child born in or near Wye, Aphra Amis, had died July 12, 1640. Purvis’s finding, not surprisingly, re-opened the investigation of Behn’s origins. Not until Duffy embarked upon her biography of Behn was the Aphra Amis ascription put to rest. In words that have become increasingly familiar to Behn scholars, Duffy writes:
The fictions begin with her birth. The account which you will find in most works of reference, which is that she was born Aphra Amis in the town of Wye in July 1640, is quite untrue. As the present vicar very kindly pointed out to me when I wrote to him and as had already been noticed, that Aphra died a few days after she was born. The whole Aphra Amis legend rested on a note by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, to one of her own poems where she described Apollo lamenting for Aphra Behn’s death .… “From the banks of the Stoure the desolute Wye, / He lamented for Behn, o’er that place of her birth”. (Duffy 1977, 16)
Duffy’s explorations of the birth and burial records produced not only Finch’s Aphra Amis but a second Aphra Amis, the mother of Finch’s Aphra. Duffy also found an Aphra Beane who, she concluded, must have been the person Finch’s native informants had in mind.
Duffy’s work led her back to Aphra Johnson. She soon found an Eaffry (Aphra) Johnson — the daughter of Bartholomew Johnson and Elizabeth Denham — born in the village of Harbledown near Canterbury in 1640. The substantive link between Aphra Behn and “Eaffry” Johnson for Duffy proved to be Thomas Culpeper. In his odd compilation of fact and fiction called the Adversaria, Culpeper writes, “Mrs Aphara Bhen was born at Canterbury or Sturry, her mother being the Colonell’s nurse” (Duffy 1977, 16). The entry goes on to state that he had visited her grave “in the cloister at Westminster near the door that goes into the church,” prompting Duffy to speculate that “perhaps he was even at her funeral.” Taking Culpeper at his word, Duffy notes that “the Colonell” is Thomas Culpeper himself and concludes that “in default of a better candidate Eaffry Johnson seems to fulfill most of the requirements, including Thomas Culpepper’s statement that she was born in Sturry or Canterbury. Harbledown virtually is Canterbury. The Sturry registers record no Aphra Johnson. Culpepper’s suggestion is probably based on the fact that he knew there were Johnsons in Sturry” (23). Since Duffy’s biography, scholars and biographers alike have accepted this version of Behn’s origins.
When skepticism did arise, it did so not over whether Aphra Behn was Aphra Johnson or Aphra Amis, but whether the events, which detailed a bit of Behn’s early life as reported in Behn’s novella Oroonoko, were factual. Ernest Bernbaum challenged both the novella’s and The Memoirs’s validity as evidence that Behn had traveled to Surinam and, as a consequence, the lineage that she posits for herself (Bernbaum 1913). Though Bernbaum is highly skeptical of the value of The Memoirs as factual, he does accept the document’s assertion that John Johnson was Behn’s father. Bernbaum was much more interested in calling into question the truth-claims put forth by Behn in her novella than he was interested in solving the riddle of her birth. Bernbaum’s argument that Behn borrowed heavily from George Warren’s An Impartial Description of Surinam upon the Continent of Guiana in America quickly generated a debate and the problematic issue of Behn’s origins once more took center stage in the scholarly engagement with her writings and life.
In this century-long investigation into the life of Behn, one of the consistent links between the different scholarly perspectives has been the rhetoric of historical speculation. That is, whenever a scholar or critic embarks on a discussion of Behn’s life, they perforce must use conditional phrases and language whenever they discuss Behn’s genealogy and, to a great degree, the details of her non-professional adult life. Todd’s The Secret Life of Aphra Behn is emblematic of this tendency; her commentary is replete with words or phrases such as “speculation,” “probably,” “might have been,” “possible,” “perhaps,” “seems,” “appears,” “apparently,” and “so forth” (Todd 1997). For example, in a discussion of the Emily Price who is a recipient of one of Behn’s letters, Todd writes: “[Behn] did not like the fervour of her feeling for Hoyle, knowing what a drug obsessive love could become. Her safety valve, besides writing and humour, was, perhaps, emotional promiscuity” (189). According to Todd, “this she may have indulged with the pretty young Emily Price.” We quickly learn that the biographer is uncertain as to the exact identity of Price, perhaps the daughter of an actor, Joseph Price, or “a Captain Warcup, circulator of scurrilous works, a man perhaps known to Behn through her copying activity” (190). While Todd notes that she has “used the words ‘perhaps’ and ‘possibly’ and kept to the subjunctive,” she also admits that her rhetoric occasionally has “lapsed and left speculation in the declarative. Not everything here is ‘true’; nor is it likely to be proven one way or the other” (6).
A cool fog settled over St Hilda’s College. The intrepid scholars made their way into the college’s Senior Common Room, where the object had resided since being gifted to the college. “It’s kind of small, not exactly what I expected.” The pair peered behind the frame; it was screwed on. Gently removing the painting from its place on the wall, giggling as they worked, the Behn scholars carefully turned the frame over and read the inscription. Smiling at each other, the pair returned the portrait to its resting place and left, leaving only invisible traces of their presence — the visit to be recorded at some future date by one of them. (For Julia Briggs)
“A Painting ought to change as you look at it, and as you think, talk, and write about it. The story it tells will never be more than the part of the stories you and others tell about it” (Berger 1994, 87). There are three extant, presumptive portraits of Aphra Behn: one attributed to Peter Lely, one to his student Mary Beale, and a third attributed to John Riley. There are two questions I immediately asked when I first viewed the portraits. The first question was why the inconsistency in representations if Behn sat for each of the portraits? My second question prompted the interrogation that is this book — how do these images definitively prove the author of Oroonoko, The Black Lady, Abdelazer, and The Unfortunate Bride was white and not white passing? What Berger cogently postulates in his observation is the performative aspects of sitting for a portrait:
In terms of what we assume about the actual painting and posing process, the portrait gives us a selectively abstracted and idealized image of posing. It creates a referential illusion. What it pretends only to reflect and refer to is in fact something it constitutes. Thus it represents the three-way diachronic transaction between painter, sitter, and observer in a purely fictional field. This is the basic plot, scenario, or fiction of Early Modern portraiture, and I call it the fiction of the pose. (Berger 1994, 99 original emphasis)
Illusion. Fiction. Pose. The first two terms patently figure in Behn’s self-representation as well as her construction of characters capable of disrupting the illusions and fictions of race, gender, and class.
Let’s begin by looking at the portraiture that provides a visual validation of Aphra Behn’s whiteness. Figure 1 is attributed to Peter Lely; Figure 2 is an engraving by John Riley; and Figure 3 is attributed to Mary Beale. Figure 2 has the most illusive history as it is considered a lost portrait and what remains is a 1716 drawing by Robert White which is based on Riley’s engraving.
At first glance, the portraits of Behn (for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are actual evidentiary representations of her) fall squarely in the “she is a white woman” camp. None of the stereotypical physical traits that have come to be associated with Blackness in the early modern period are visible — the broad nose, thick lips, and dark brown skin color. On the contrary, all three images offer a spectrum of presumptive whiteness, including the straight nose, thin lips, and pale coloring. Additionally, two of the portraits clearly share some resemblance (Figures 1 and 2); while the third is markedly different in depicting a woman whose facial features include fuller cheeks, slightly more elegant clothing and a necklace, and a cascade of ringlets.
What links these figures is the fact that both Beale and Riley apparently were trained in Lely’s studio, and thus all of the paintings reflect the influence of Lely’s training. In other words, the paintings are highly stylized and reflect not the actual appearance of the sitter, but rather, as Berger suggests, the represented image “of the act of portrayal” (Berger 1994, 98). None of these women can be nor are represented as they actually are because the very medium of early modern representation (painting or engraving) has an understood notion of what “likeness” means at different historical moments. This is not to say that the image of Behn is not Behn but to suggest that how that likeness is constituted varies according to the extant theories of visual representation governing the moment of portraiture.
To illustrate this point, let us look at an example of white passing that proved successful. In 1848, William and Ellen Craft fled the horrors of enslavement through Ellen’s performative white passing. Ellen’s successful performance as a white male was aided by her white-presenting appearance.
Trained to read the surface, to “see” what is reflected, few viewers of the portraits would doubt the sitter’s presumptive whiteness. More to the point of this book, even fewer would ask or wonder whether she is performatively white passing. Within the contours of white supremacy, the viewer would have no reason to challenge the veracity of the skin color, or to ponder whether the intertwined ideologies of race and skin colorism that inhere in white supremacist logic don’t skew the mirror. Whiteness, within this logic, is WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”). Under those conditions, each of these representations of Behn would unquestioningly be read as white in Anglo-American culture — as long as her inherited Blackness remained invisible. It is also this subsequent realization, I would argue, that sustains the white passing subject’s awareness of her Black lineage.
Joseph Roach has argued that, “while a great deal of the unspeakable violence instrumental to” the “creation of the culture of modernity” “may have been officially forgotten, circum-Atlantic memory retains its consequences, one of which is that the unspeakable cannot be rendered forever inexpressible; the most persistent mode of forgetting is memory imperfectly deferred” (Roach 1996, 4). Did mortality trigger the “deferred” memories that bring Behn again and again to the matter of race even as she struggled to forget? Perhaps, while sitting for her portrait(s), seeing the Blackness painted over once more, she comes to realize that the multiple stories of her lineage may not be evident in the painting(s) left behind. Perhaps, she understood that her familial and cultural memories would be forever lost if not told or endlessly deferred unless mirrored in some other way — in the birthplace of Oroonoko, in the story of a pregnant, unwed young woman, and in Moorea, the Black woman whose husband left her wealthy and a Lady. Or even in her name.
According to Behn’s biographers, the name Aphra is fairly common in the Kent area. Duffy writes:
There indeed are two more Mrs Aphra Bean(e)s among the Canterbury marriage licences whom [Anne Finch] could have had equally in mind. Bean in all its variant spellings is a fairly common name in Kent in the seventeenth century and Aphras are thick upon the ground, also with many variant spellings. These two were spelt Afry and Alfery. Aphra, which is to us so exotic a name, seems to have been very popular roughly in what was the lathe of St Augustine and particularly along the banks of the Sour. It was spread through the whole social range. (Duffy 1977, 17)
The name “Aphra” is unusual, despite Duffy’s attempt to make it appear a common English name. When we interrogate the name Aphra Behn, what we discover is quite interesting. The word “Aphra” (and its variant spellings) has its genesis in biblical history. In 1 Chronicles, 3.20, Ophrah is noted as the offspring of Meonothai; while in Micah 2.10, the word “Beth-leaphrah” appears in an interesting comment: “in Beth-leaphrah / roll yourselves in the dust” (New Revised Standard Version). In the first usage, Ophrah, the word signifies in Hebrew a young mountain goat or a young deer, and it is used for both masculine and feminine case. In the second usage, “Beth-leaphrah” refers to a place name and “aphrah” means dust.
The Arabic name for what we now know as Tunisia is Ifriqya, which was Latinized as Africa, I believe owes its etymology to Arabic’s linguistic kinship to Hebrew. In other words, the prefix Afra (however it might be spelled) and Afri mark a specific geographical and, I would contend, ethnic identity. With respect to Behn, is it possible that it might equally be a variant on “ben” as it is presumed to be a variant on “Beane?” And if so, does this signal the possibility of a Jewish lineage? This question has been raised by Behn’s biographers, only to be discounted in favor of a Dutch or (in Todd’s view) German lineage. So much of what is known about the name Behn occurs in The Memoirs, a text that, in my view, should be viewed with the greatest skepticism. The answers, of course, elude us. We can only speculate whether what we are given is accurate, let alone true.
The Memoirs of Mrs. Aphra Behn is a narrative whose status as historical evidence should be viewed as no more or no less accurate than Behn’s novella, Oroonoko — for, as all of Behn’s biographers since this one have acknowledged, The Memoirs draw far too heavily upon Behn’s novella. In fact, The Memoirs is constructed along the generic lines of a romance novella and it is this generic decision that undermines the text’s authoritativeness. Perhaps, when The Black Lady, The Unfortunate Bride, Oroonoko, and The Memoirs are read as interlocking narratives, we can get closer to what Baum calls Aphra Behn’s black body (Baum, 2011). In tandem with these texts, was there a decision to make Behn the white-passing subject as a “deferred memory”? Aphra can also be spelled as “Afra” or “Aphrah.” Did a young woman of African and, perhaps, Jewish lineage, choose Aphra and Behn because they would serve as constant reminders of an invisible lineage? Did she write Oroonoko as an attempt to resolve her own internal struggle over the “unspeakable violence” that engendered her? Did Behn deliberately assume the mantle of the white-passing subject and then, as she neared the end of her life and when the economic and cultural policing of the Black body was no longer significant to her survival, leave the written traces of her subjectivity? Inscriptions like a birthmark to bear witness to the lineage that her whiteness concealed?
Marginality, displacement, alienation, loss, desire, nostalgia — these are the tropes that usually define the literature of white passing. These are also the tropes of exile. María Rosa Menocal, speaking about poetic exile, writes,
[the exile eventually] must finally face the harsh winter night when [she] knows, in that full solitude, that [she may] never again see the [place of her birth]. In that cold and darkness, the solitary voice asks what [she] will do about it. Among the thousands of different answers that have come with the morning, one singular and unexpected one [writing the autobiographical narrative] has been a powerful and charming defense, a form of resistance commonly taken for retreat. (Menocal 1994, 91–92, emphasis added)
Rarely perceived as a type of exile, white passing necessitates the same type of psychic dissociation that poets and novelists have described in their depictions of the exilic state. Persons who engage in color passing generally must sever all ties to the community of their birth, their families, and, most importantly, erase all social and cultural traces of a “pre-passing” identity.
It is a rare occasion when critics and scholars of early modern English culture ask what happens to those children of miscegenation who weren’t slaves. Perhaps it is time we start and, in doing so, we also might want to query whether or not it is anachronistic to infer that the white-passing subject is of real concern in early modern England. In the end, it is the “fair Clorinda” and the “handsome Black Phillipa” who gesture from their literary graves at the margins of Behn’s deferred remembrance. It is this twined wraith who stands looking over the poet’s shoulder, guiding her quill as Behn embeds the codes of intelligibility, the lines of her white passing. Like the Phils, Behn is the racialized subject whose body houses the contradictions of race, and whose own subjectivity can never be fully realized because she will always be neither Black nor white yet Black and white. And, always a subject existing in exile.
The time spent in Surinam, in Antwerp, and in those self-imposed exiles (retreat) into the English countryside all left their marks on Behn’s writings; writing cannot suppress the exilic anxiety conjured by the loss of an originary community. What is not discarded (as passing literature demonstrably illustrates) are the “mnemonic traces” of connection, of kinship, of belonging, which form the basis of a desire to recreate if not the originary community itself at least a simulacrum. What these exiles discover is that the substitute can never stand in for the original. For the white-passing subject there is no easy return home.
I have no conclusive answers to the speculations that guide this chapter on Behn’s racialized identity, or the racecraft that permeates all of the romance texts touched on. The only point I would insist upon, the only conviction I hold dearly, is that the illogic of white supremacy and its color-based racism should not seduce us into forgetting.