Monday, October 15, 2012

"Tragic Mulatto" Week

“Negro” at sixteen/
A hidden revelation/
We knew all along.  

Carol Channing (b. 1921), by Van Vechten, 1956.

Further clarification: Of course, I am being facetious in terming this "Tragic Mulatto" Week. In my American literature classes, we are discussing the theme of the "tragic mulatto" in 19th and early 20th century American fiction.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing that Carol Channing was "passing"--just one of those stories. In her 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, she confirmed the rumors of her mixed racial ancestry--her father was biracial. 

Her mother acknowledged this when Channing was sixteen years old. "I'm only telling you this," her mother said, "because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a Black baby." Channing goes on to say that her mother stated that her African genes accounted for "why my eyes were bigger than hers (I wasn't aware of this) and why I danced with such elasticity and why I had so many of the qualities that made me me."  

The part of this statement that is unfortunate is the stereotypical assumption of the "elasticity" Channing's mother referred to--as if there is some sort of atavistic "genetic" difference in rhythm between blacks and whites, a view that has been thoroughly discredited. Channing chose to keep this information about her racial ancestry to herself, as it would most likely have harmed her career, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. 

In a 2011 documentary on her life and career (Carol Channing: Larger Than Life) that I saw a few months ago on HBO, she discusses this aspect of her background. Channing is now 91 years old, and still a dynamo!

Channing's mixed-race ancestry highlights the tragic folly of racial classification. What we call "race" is not fixed, and her existence (along with hundreds of thousands of others who have "passed" into "whiteness" especially after  the end of the Civil War) demonstrates that the "essence" of racial authenticity can only be that of destabilizing the very notion of race as a fixed category.

All best,


Left to right: Aunt Glenda, Mom, and Micky




olddoc said...

Rebecca,What a great entertainer. Don't be like Administration; more info please. There would be no stigma now.

Rebecca said...

Hahaha, Doc! I have added the additional information to the post!