Fantasies of identification : disability, gender, race by Ellen Samuels

By Ellen Samuels

In the mid-nineteenth-century usa, because it grew to become more and more tricky to tell apart among our bodies understood as black, white, or Indian; able-bodied or disabled; and male or girl, extreme efforts emerged to outline those identities as biologically exact and scientifically verifiable in a actually marked physique. Combining literary research, criminal background, and visible tradition, Ellen Samuels lines the evolution of the “fantasy of identification”—the robust trust that embodied social identities are mounted, verifiable, and visual via sleek technology. From birthmarks and fingerprints to blood quantum and DNA, she examines how this myth has circulated among cultural representations, legislation, technology, and coverage to develop into probably the most powerfully institutionalized ideologies of contemporary society.

Yet, as Samuels demonstrates, in each case, the fable distorts its claimed medical foundation, substituting subjective language for claimed goal truth. From its early emergence in discourses approximately incapacity fakery and fugitive slaves within the 19th century to its newest manifestation within the query of intercourse checking out on the 2012 Olympic video games, Fantasies of Identification explores the roots of contemporary understandings of physically identity.

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Without disability to function as bodily supplement, the play finally constructs race as an inescapable and confining fact, the “drop of black blood” in William and Ellen’s veins binding them inexorably to racial otherness. We may contrast this portrayal with that of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s William and Ellen Craft: A Play in One Act, published in 1935. Johnson portrays the Crafts speaking in dialect, reflecting a newfound valuation of African American cultural specificity and language traditions (McCaskill in Craft and Craft 106).

Yet in the case of Ellen Craft, it appears at first that the performative, constructed nature of both disability and gender contrast with the seeming inherency of race. For Ellen must don bandages and spectacles to pass as disabled and must cut her hair and wear a suit to pass as a man, but apparently she need do nothing at all in order to pass as white. 9 An 1849 article in the Wisconsin Free Democrat insisted, “Let it not be understood that she is a Negro. Ellen Crafts [sic], though a slave, is white” (Keetley 18n17).

4) In his extended discussion of literacy in the Crafts’ narrative, Barrett argues that literacy is a more powerful sign of whiteness than the white body itself, that “light or racially ambiguous skin is ultimately insufficient as an ‘ontological’ marker of whiteness” (324). Thus he complicates the claim that Ellen need “do” nothing to appear white, when whiteness is understood as a social identity predicated upon literacy. Here Barrett teeters on the edge of an analysis of the mutually constitutive nature of race and disability, noting that the bandaging of Ellen’s hand “is the indispensable correlate to Ellen’s racially ambiguous skin.

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