Essay about Black People and Conditions Decoding Essentialism

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Decoding Essentialism: Cultural Authenticity and the Black Bourgeoisie in Nella Larsen's Passing
Author(s): Candice M. Jenkins
Source: MELUS, Vol. 30, No. 3, Personal and Political (Fall, 2005), pp. 129-154
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the
Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029776
Accessed: 01-08-2015 15:35 UTC

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Decoding Essentialism:
Cultural Authenticity and the Black
Bourgeoisie in Nella Larsen's Passing
Candice M. Jenkins
CUNY, College of Staten Island
[T]he Negro is not born per se but reborn out of the detritus of
American racialism. It is not so much a matterof deracinationas reracination,the productionof the Negro as a markerof the universal and the cosmopolitansuch that even the 'whitest' individual(the mulatto) might proudlyproclaim, 'I am a Negro American.'
-Robert Reid-Pharr
"CosmopolitanAfrocentricMulattoIntellectual"(52)

Adrian Piper's 1992 essay "Passing for White, Passing for
Black" recounts her experiences as a self-identified African
American woman with "white" skin, and the resultant alienation from both whites and blacks which she has experienced throughout her life. At one point in the essay, she describes what she calls the
"Suffering Test of blackness" (236), administered by primarily working-class, darker-skinned blacks, who "recount at length their recent experiences of racism and then wait expectantly, skeptically, for me to match theirs with mine" (236). Piper's initial compliance with these expectations is based on the assumption that these acquaintances hoped to bond via shared experience, but she soon discovers otherwise:
I realized I was in fact being put througha thirddegree. I would share some equally nightmarishexperience along similar lines, and would
MELUS,Volume 30, Number3 (Fall 2005)

This content downloaded from 165.123.34.86 on Sat, 01 Aug 2015 15:35:32 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

130

CANDICE M. JENKINS

then have it explainedto me why thatwasn't reallyso bad, why it wasn'tthe same thingat all, or why I was stupidfor allowingit to happento me. So the aim of theseconversations was clearlynot mutual supportor commiseration.(236)

Piper's fair skin here provides, for some blacks, evidence of her racial inauthenticity;her experience of racism as a "white-looking" black person, ratherthan indicating her similarityto other blacks, instead is dismissed as inevitably less severe or is used to markher as foolhardyfor willingly subjectingherself to such treatment.
Piper recounts an entirely different experience with middleclass blacks, however. Noting that it wasn't until her college years that she "reencounteredthe middle- and upper-middle-classblacks who were as comfortablewith [her] appearanceas [her] family had been" (238), Piper goes on to suggest that this group of blacks had an entirely different reaction to and attitude towards her racial identity: "SufferingTest exchanges almost never occur with middle-class blacks, who are more likely to protest, on the contrary, that 'we always knew you were black!'-as though there were
some…