Disciplinary knowledge, then, is more than the sum of separate inquiries in discrete areas of knowledge. It is part of a historically specific body of knowledge, an episteme, that contains premises, presumptions, and practices that work together to hide the workings of racialized power.
(Crenshaw et al. 2019, 11)

When I began my research and publication activity in what was called Renaissance English literature (this includes Willie Shakespeare), my efforts to argue colorism and racial taxonomies were not anomalies but very much part of early modern English cultural and political ideologies were seen as anachronistic. Race and racism were viewed as products of nineteenth-century scientific and imperialist discourse. From the lofty seat of hindsight, I now realize I was working to articulate the process of racecraft in early modern English culture.

According to Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields, race, racism, and racecraft are distinctive. Race is rooted in the idea of biophysical differences among groups while racism is the social practice or “action” taken based on the idea of race. In other words, “race is the principal unit and core concept of racism” (Fields and Fields 2014, 17). Racecraft, on the other hand, “originates not in nature but in human action and imagination; it can exist in no other way. The action and imagining are collective yet individual, day-to-day yet historical, and consequential even though nested in mundane routine” (17). Importantly, Fields and Fields contend, “racecraft is not a euphemistic substitute for racism. It is a kind of fingerprint evidence that racism has been on the scene” (17). What is obvious is we cannot have one without the other but, and this is an important caveat, without racism there is no race or racecraft.

Fields and Fields’s assertion about the relationship between racism and race reiterates the the arguments put forth in Stuart Hall’s and Paul Gilory’s writings on racism and English colonialism. In “Race the Floating Signifier: What More Is There to Say about ‘Race’,” Stuart Hall reminds us (citing W.E.B. Du Bois), “color, though of little meaning in itself, is really important … ‘as a badge for the social heritage of slavery, the dissemination and the insult of that experience.’ A badge, a token, a sign: here indeed is the idea … that race is a signifier, and that racialized behavior and difference needs to be understood as a discursive, not necessarily as a genetic or biological fact” (Hall 2021, 361). Yet, as both Du Bois and Hall grasped, dismantling the racecraft that insists we start from colorism is not an easy task. Anglo-American racial capitalism sustains itself on a false dichotomy of colorism, which in turn feeds the anti-Blackness so pervasive in contemporary Anglo-American cultures. In essence, as Gilroy observes, “in the way that modern racism works, blackness is the body and whiteness is the mind, you know the way those Manichean pairings, those dualistic couples are organised” (Gilroy et al. 2019, 6).

Romance and Racecraft

Race and Romance: Coloring the Past is an exploration of two genres, race, which is grasped as rooted in nature and marked by biophysical traits (principally color), and romance, a category of fiction-writing with specific aims and properties. What link these genres in my view are discursive practices or conventions that shape their cultural intelligibilty, and it is this “intelligibility,” or understanding, that intrigues me. Two questions center the discussion in this book: How do we recognize race as the product of racism, and not the reverse? And, how do we reach an understanding of romance contributions to racism and white supremacy? I aim to address, if not answer, these questions through an exploration of the ways the romance genre helps to transform “racism into race, leaving black persons in view while removing white persons from the stage” (Fields and Fields 2014, 28). My previous publications explored questions of race-making as an “already in play” ideology. This book is a departure as it attends more carefully to the racecraft at work in early modern romances. Specifically, I examine the “fingerprints” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English racism, attenuated in colorism and anxiety about whiteness and white passing in romance fiction.

Why make colorism the focus of this book the gentle reader might ask? Isn’t romance a genre that celebrates love, despite all obstacles, and happily ever afters? The answer, dear reader, is in the question. Because the romance genre trades in happily ever afters and love, it is easy to overlook its participation in the formation of early modern English white supremacist logic. By the time non-white romance authors became an active presence within the romance industry, romance and whiteness had become nearly synonymous in the arena of love. What attention to the racecraft at work in the writing of romance fiction generates is a portrait of colorism and negation. What I hope to illustrate is beginning with the translation and circulation of Heliodorus’sAethiopica, circa mid-sixteenth century, the romance genre, the idea of “romance,” and colorism have long been intertwined in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Yet, with a few recent exceptions, to read scholarship on the subject, one would assume otherwise. Some of the blame may be laid at the doorstep of “romance is not literary” claims that routinely surface in critical debates.

What, then, are we to make of pre- and early modern romance “novels” such as Aethiopica, or Mary Wroth’s Urania, or Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, or odd little novellas such as Henry Neville’s Isle of the Pines, or the “novels” of the “ingenious” Aphra Behn? Do we ignore the occasional “silliness” of plots or storylines and focus on the complexities of the world-building and lyrical prose so that these texts fall out of the category “romance novels” into the cauldron of Literature? Why are these pre- and early modern “romance” novels literary and the romance novels of Beverly Jenkins, Sarah Maclean, Lisa Kleypas, Courtney Milan, or Alyssa Cole (and many others) classified as genre or popular fiction and thus outside the parameters of Literature? In other words, what is the constitutive difference among these authors even though their fiction adheres to the generic conventions of romance?

Race and Romance: Coloring the Past refuses to engage the question is romance literary? I have no interest in playing the problematic “canoncity” game. This book takes as a given that the romance genre is a literary form and one of the oldest literatures. Despite the centuries-long debates about romance (romance versus history, romance versus epic, or finally, romance versus literary fiction), the genre remains the most popular form of literature in the twenty-first century. Rather than treat the literary legitimacy of the genre, I examine the interplay of racism and romance in service of modern white supremacy. Since the late sixteenth century, English language romance as a literary genre and a cultural ideology has been projected through a lens of whiteness, heterosexuality, patriarchalism, and class consciousness. This projection generated a range of complicated social and cultural relationships between romance readers and the genre that remain in place. Although there has been a shift in romance authorship from primarily white writers to a more heterogenous group, especially in the United States, colorism retains its hold on the romance publishing industry.

In large measure this stranglehold can be traced in the tangled web of literary historiography, racism, and publishing practices that marks not just the emergence of the “modern” romance novel but also the service to which the genre has been put in support of racial capitalism. According to Nancy Leong, racial capitalism is described as “deriving social or economic value from the racial identity of another person” (Leong 2013, 2152). In particular, racial capitalism is the process “in which a white individual or a predominately white institution derives social or economic value from associating with individuals with nonwhite racial identities” (2154). Because racial capitalism is also a “systemic phenomenon” (2152) in which “nonwhiteness has … become something desirable[,] for many, it has become a commodity to be pursued, captured, possessed, and used” (2155).

Race and Romance: Coloring the Past makes a claim for seeing colorism as a commodity, and in particular the performative subject positions of white passing and white presenting depicted as as simultaneously valuable and unprofitable in romance fiction. Throughout this book, I make a distinction between white-passing and white-presenting Black peoples. While whiteness is key to both descriptors, white passing is the choice to act on the appearance of white presenting for social, political, and economic advantage. Of the practice, Allyson Hobbs writes,

“passing” is a word that has historically denoted a clandestine and hidden process, designed to leave no trace. Conventional wisdom is that few sources exist because those who passed carefully covered their tracks and left no record of their transgression. The term “passing” suggests a type of instability, a “moving through,” or the lack of a stable home or place. Passing was equated both with opportunity (access to white-collar employment, better neighborhoods, a host of social courtesies) and with death (a forever severing from one’s family, friends, and communities). (Hobbs 2018, 134)

Because the white-passing individual’s color misdirects the observer’s ability to visually locate the passer’s racial identity in terms of skin color, errors and misreadings become functional liabilities and benefits for the passing subject. Furthermore, both romance and passing are premised on the fantastic (and seemingly inexplicable) but very real possibility of the existence of aberrations. It doesn’t matter whether the aberrant is localized in mythic fantasy (fairies, dragons, wizards and so on), or in religious or economic narratives of conquest and settlement, or in the epidermis of a human being.

White presenting, on the other hand, appears less complicated since there is no deliberate performance of colorism. The white-presenting subject may or may not know there are questions about their skin color, largely because they are perceived as “white,” which in turn informs how they move about the world as a racialized subject. The line between white presenting and white passing is often blurred but, for the sake of this book’s thematic concerns, I want to hold on to a working distinction between the two. My discussion treats white presenting as a factor of social perception rather than a deliberate choice to exploit misperception. The white-presenting subject knows or comes to discover their non-whiteness but that knowledge changes very little about their lives. White passing is always a performative action in relationship to racism and racial capitalism. Both subject positions align with the romance genre because all three are sites of instability. Furthermore, white passing and white presenting expose the idea that we can always perceive the signs of race, and therefore exist as one of racism’s little failures.

As the editors of Neo-Passing: Performing Identity after Jim Crow write, “the aim of the current volume, then, is to understand why passing persists, why it has proliferated, and what might be gained from analyzing its transformations and unearthing the social, political, and economic conditions that spur on and stem from passing in the late twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries” (Godfrey and Young 2018, 17). While there has been a long tradition of scholarly engagement with the act of white passing in the Americas, particularly the United States, the phenomenon has largely been ignored in the context of early modern English culture. Centuries of white supremacy and racial capitalism served to refine the racecraft Mollie Godfrey and Vershawn Ashanti Young refer to as “neo-passing” and the white passing/presenting depicted in the romance texts at the center of Race and Romance. What is important to both studies is that we conceptualize passing

as a performance of identity that — once it is described or revealed as passing — provokes conflict rather than cohesion with social expectations or norms, conflicts that might be felt by the passer, various portions of the passer’s community, or both. As we argue above, passing is not just a matter of how identities are performed but also a matter of how identity performances are policed. (Godfrey and Young 2018, 12)

What Race and Romance seeks to illustrate are the sites of policing and exploitation that mark romance authors’ ideological or political engagements with race-based colorism and white-presenting or white-passing subjects. Chapter One offers a summary of the debates on the romance genre and the impact of Heliodorus’s romance novel Aethiopica on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literary culture. I start with Heliodorus’s Aethiopica because the popularity of this romance novel extended well beyond its Greek origins. Translations, appropriations, and adaptations of the romance of Charikliea and Theagenes kept it present in early modern English culture well beyond Thomas Underdowne’s initial translation. Translations and adaptations of Aethiopica persisted into the eighteenth century, alongside the continued republication of sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries works. Aethiopica is also one of the earliest romance novels that can legitimately be labeled an interracial romance in the modern sense. Finally, the novel importantly cements both the form (novel) and the idea of romantic relationships in the reader’s imagination as expectations of what a romance does.

Chapter Two examines the place of Heliodorus’s romance in early modern English racism and racecraft. My focus on two English adaptations of the central plot in Aethiopica, the romance of Charikliea and Theagenes, highlights how these adaptations of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica are used to ameliorate the racial anxiety associated with the economic and ideological valuation of whiteness within England’s settler colonialist and white supremacy agendas. In this chapter, I look at Edward Fairfax’s translation of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalem Liberata, which Fairfax titles Godfrey of Bulloigne, or Jerusalem Delivered. Where Heliodorus offers a happily ever after ending to his romance novel, the Fairfax/Tasso adaptation does not, thereby disrupting readerly expectations about the end use of romance conventions. Crucial to my reading of this adaptation is the slippage that occurs between white presenting and white passing, and how the early modern adaptation of Aethiopica’s storyline prefigures an Anglo-American preoccupation with whiteness and white supremacy.

In Chapter Three, I turn to Henry Neville’s Isle of Pines. Normally viewed as a poltical allegory on Charles II’s rule, I argue that Neville’s novel is very much informed by early modern romance genre conventions, plotlines, and characterizations that would be quite familiar to the text’s readership. My reading of the novella through the lens of romance genre and its conventions examines the racecraft at work in the novel, esepcially as it relates to English white supremacy and settler colonialism. I argue that in Isle of Pines, the process of race-making reshapes the romance narrative to align itself with making whiteness visibly invisible. That is, whiteness becomes percerptible only in relation to the white-presenting natives born of a Black woman. These “natives” (the Phils) serve as both a racialized and an indigenous model for white settler colonialist ideologies of assimilation or genocide. Thus, while the idea of reading Isle of Pines politically is important, this chapter endeavors to reassess the racism and racecraft coded into the patriarchal ideals in light of romance conventions embedded in a settler colonialist narrative.

The previous chapters of Race and Romance sought to illuminate one of the most problematic issues in thinking about race, colorism, and more specifically, white presenting. Prior to the establishment of settler colonialism and the enslavement of African peoples as part of modern capitalism, English racism privileged somatic perception when it came to whiteness and non-whiteness. Translations of Heliodorus’s romance such as Thomas Underdowne’s An Ethiopian History and William Lisle’s verse rendering, The Faire Ethiopian, underplayed the disruptive effects of white-presenting Africans, while adaptations and borrowings such as Fairfax/Tasso’s Godfrey of Bulloigne highlight a growing awareness of the fault lines of racism’s use of colorism to code race in the service of an ideology of white supremacy. It is these fault lines that Neville’s Isle of Pines make visible and that the romance novels of Beverly Jenkins and Aphra Behn push to a logical terminus.

In Chapter Four, I argue for seeing Beverly Jenkins’s romance novel Forbidden as the disruption of the terrain cultivated by the romance texts of Heliodorus, Fairfax/Tasso, Lisle, and Neville. In essence, Jenkins’s character Rhine Fontaine is the metamorphosis of the white-presenting figure into the white-passing subject with all its conflicting intersectional social narratives. In Rhine Fontaine, romance meets white supremacy and the logic of white supremacy implodes. Unlike Clorinda or the Phils, Rhine’s Blackness and his whiteness may be policed but not erased precisely because it is a performative identity. Jenkins interrogates the colorism that marked not just the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans but also the presumption that whiteness is always white. In Chapters Five and Six, I return to early modern romance fiction with an analysis of Aphra Behn novellas and the specter of a white-passing authorial subjectivity. In particular, I read Behn’s novellas as both exempla of white-passing romances and as an excavation of a racially performative identity by the novellas’ author. In my reading of Behn and her work, I argue that what these texts reveal is the fragility of not just white supremacy but any racial formation based on colorism because duplicity is ever possible.

If there is a goal or an aim to Race and Romance: Coloring the Past, it is to cast light on the racecraft that went into the making of romance a conduit for white supremacist illogic about the inherent stability of race. With the translation and publication into English of the first interracial romance novel, Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and its subsequent adaptations, the romance genre has often been deployed to further English racism in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Yet, with a few recent exceptions, it is rare to read scholarship on the complex intersection of race and romance even if we might assume otherwise given the advent of cultural studies, gender studies, and critical race studies and their impact on literary analysis. Much of this oversight may be laid at the doorstep of the “popular fiction versus literary fiction” debates that have shaped critical reception of the romance genre for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Fighting such “literary wars” obscures what is strikingly similar about the racial politics of early modern romance and the recent debates on racism and the twentieth and twenty-first century English-language romance publishing industry. Namely, from the late sixteenth century forward, romance as a literary genre and a cultural ideology is projected through a decidedly “white,” heterosexual, patriarchal, and classist lens. And, until recently, this reflection also seemed “writ in stone” within the romance reading and publishing industry. What hasn’t been attended to, except tangentially, is the tangled web of historiography, racism, and colorism that mark not just the emergence of race and racial capitalism with respect to the romance genre, but the service to which romance novels have been put in fostering notions of white supremacy even as early as the sixteenth century. It is this “service,” or racecraft, that is the central focus of Race and Romance: Coloring the Past.


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Race and Romance: Coloring the Past 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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