Post-Racial Realities. Passing Narratives in Contemporary U.S. Fiction

by Yulia Kozyrakis

Passing for a member of another race, which in U.S. literature traditionally refers to the practice of passing for white, has always been a part of the American cultural imaginary. The figure of the racial border-crosser, visually ambiguous and bearing the potential to undermine racial distinctions aroused a level of literary fascination that widely exceeded the actual practice of passing. My critical engagement with fictional passers focuses on the question of how the sheer possibility of passing becomes a powerful image of self-invention, of racial and cultural border-crossing and the embodiment of racial anxiety. Fictional engagements with passing provide a space for the articulation of individual claims for recognition from the ambivalent position between blackness and whiteness. As I show in my analysis, by exposing the fluidity of the ideas of whiteness and blackness, contemporary renegotiations of passing reflect upon existing ideologies and racial paradigms, and, in turn, tr y to challenge them by offering the readers fictional worlds for experimenting with alternative frames of thinking about these categories.

My analysis of passing is based on three contemporary novels: Caucasia by Danzy Senna (1998), The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000), and The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers (2004). In close readings, I analyze how fictional narratives fulfil two major functions: On the one hand, through fictional engagement with specific historically situated experiences, novels on passing seek to disclose dominating and dominated cultural ideas, concepts, and ideologies of race. On the other hand, while they reflect upon existing ideas, contemporary novels at the same time create alternative fictional realities which offer new narratives of re-signification, and influence the readers' own processes of identification.