by Linda English, PhD

In December 2016, the co-program directors of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program (GWSP) at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley received the good news that their application for a National Endowment to Humanities Initiative Grant to revitalize the GWSP at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was approved. The following is an overview of the implementation of the NEH grant, a 20-month project entitled “Revitalizing UTRGV’s Gender and Women’s Studies Program” beginning in the spring of 2017 through its conclusion in August 2018. It highlights the insights, experience, and recommendations of external consultants who participated in the grant; specialists who oversee successful gender, sexuality, and women’s studies programs across the country . The distinguished specialists who visited campus over the course of the grant generated both interest in gender-related topics among our students as well as excitement for the field of study among our affiliated faculty.

In the fall of 2015, a new university opened its doors to students in deep-south Texas: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. UTRGV brought together the resources and assets of two legacy institutions: the University of Texas, Brownsville (UTB) and the University of Texas, Pan American (UTPA). At the time of the merger, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program faced the challenges associated with the creation of a new university: faculty reorientation and adjustment as well as the reworking of the program’s infrastructure. The project was undertaken by a group of ten faculty members from UTRGV’s College of Liberal Arts dedicated to developing a flourishing program focused on gender studies. Affiliated with GWSP, they researched and taught in the fields of history and philosophy as well as literature, languages, and cultural studies. The plan was to incorporate best practices from successful programs at other universities as well expand UTRGV’s course offerings into areas of emerging scholarship. We wanted to analyze how we could improve our curriculum to (re)build a consistent, high-quality program. Strengthening the GWSP in this way provided new opportunities for faculty to expand their scholarly horizons and to study together to become well-versed and effective teachers. Ultimately, we believed that we could not achieve such goals without external input and support.

To do so, the project was divided into two major phases. The first phase focused on assessing and improving the overall organization and structure of the GWSP. The second phase was dedicated to creating new opportunities for UTRGV’s faculty to deepen their knowledge in the fields of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and thus become more-informed teachers. The first phase was comprised of four workshops dedicated to assessing the GWSP—its shortcomings and its potential. During the first internal workshop in February 2017, the project directors and the affiliated faculty met to:

  • discuss faculty’s experience in teaching and researching in the field of gender, women’s and sexuality studies;
  • assess the current status of the GWSP (enrollment at this point was six students, enrollment history, degree plans and courses etc.);
  • and exchange ideas and opinions about future directions of the GWSP (its mission, its focus, and its goal).

The subsequent months of March, April, and May 2017 featured workshops with invited, external consultants who had in-depth knowledge of establishing, running, and enhancing gender-focused programs. Each workshop consisted of a 30-45 minute-long presentation (plus Q&A session) by the invited consultant about their work and program; followed by a 2 hour-long work and discussion session that focused on how UTRGV’s GWSP could be revised and enhanced.

After the internal workshop with affiliated faculty, the external consultants began their campus visits. The first external consultant was Dr. Jennifer Lynn from Montana State University, Billings who led a workshop titled “From Women to Gender? Pitfalls and Opportunities.” Dr. Lynn detailed the evolution of the Women and Gender Studies program at Montana State. She also stressed the importance of a dedicated space on campus for program visibility and her program’s successful efforts at community outreach (in particular, a brown bag session opened to both students and community members). The second external consultant to visit UTRGV was Dr. Guillermo De Los Reyes from the University of Houston whose workshop was titled “Integrating Sexualities into a Gender and Women’s Studies Program.” Dr. De Los Reyes provided an overview of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston. He traced the development of the program from a minor to a major and the success of the in their introductory course in the core (over twelve classes per semester, four sections of LBGTQ core class). He also discussed community outreach and fundraising, particularly the Friends of the Women’s Studies Program which raises funds for research and travel grants. The last external consultant for first phase of the grant was Dr. Lorraine Bayard de Volo from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Dr. Bayard de Volo discussed some of the early obstacles of the program and its evolution from a minor to a major. She also discussed certificate options for UC-Boulder students, including an LBGTQ Certificate and Global Gender & Sexuality Certificate. Her discussion included the challenges of offering a global gender perspective.

After the spring campus visits, the program directors led two summer retreats for participating affiliated faculty. Both retreats focused on examining and integrating the suggestions provided by the three external consultants. The two retreats were titled: “Evaluating External Input and Defining Future Steps” and “Implementing External Input and Internal Evaluation.” Participants from the spring workshops were invited to contribute. At the first retreat, we focused on our outward “face” to students. This entailed articulating our mission, developing rationale as to why to study gender (through a minor or certificate), and creating a glossary of terms for our website. The second retreat involved planning for the fall semester, including developing syllabus for an introductory course on Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.

The second phase of the initiative was dedicated to creating new learning opportunities for the faculty associated with the GWSP by inviting six gender content specialists to campus. The first of our six invited content specialists arrived in September 2017 to conduct a pedagogical workshop for our affiliated faculty in the morning and provide a public lecture for the UTRGV community in the evening. The audience was twofold: the GWSP affiliated faculty and UTRGV faculty, students, and the public at large. The public lecture served to generate general interest in gender topics and our program, more specifically. Our first invited content specialist was Dr. Nicholas Syrett from the University of Kansas. We had planned on three specialists for the fall and three for the spring, but due to a scheduling conflict, moved the lecture schedule to two in the fall and four in the spring. Our second content specialist, Dr. Michelle King, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, came to campus in early December and offered a global-focused workshop and public lecture titled, “The Julia Child of Chinese Cooking, or the Fu Pei-mei of French Food? Comparative Contexts of Female Culinary Celebrity.”

Beginning in January 2018, the GWSP invited four content specialists to campus to, once again, lead a morning workshop for affiliated faculty (focused on strategies for incorporating gender into our teaching) and provide a public lecture that evening to the UTRGV community. The four specialists were Dr. Nancy Hirschmann (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Crystal Feimster (Yale University), Dr. Robert Irwin (University of California, Davis), and Dr. Emma Pérez (University of Arizona). With four campus visits during the spring semester, our affiliated faculty were especially busy, but the experience proved extremely rewarding; the content specialists provided the faculty with valuable insights on “teaching gender” and the public lectures galvanized interest in our program and gender topics, more broadly. For example, Dr. Feimster focused much of the workshop on demonstrating some of the innovative class projects that she assigns to her students that encourage both creativity and analytical thought. These assignments included having her students create “zines,” initially the assignment focused on Pauli Murray; as well, she has her students develop a children’s book (she brought examples from her classes). Affiliated faculty created their own “zines” in the workshop. Dr. Pérez introduced an exercise to the workshop participants where they wrote 1st person accounts on: “I used to be ______ and now I am _________.” Dr. Perez’s public lecture was the largest of all, with over two hundred students and faculty in attendance. In the summer 2018, we organized a three-day retreat for affiliated faculty that enabled faculty to perform teaching demonstrations, incorporating some of the strategies they gleaned from the 2017-2018 pedagogical workshops.

The grant concluded after the 2018 summer retreats. The monies provided by the NEH allowed the GWSP to increase its exposure to the UTRGV community; consequently, we have seen the program grow in popularity. We developed an introductory course for the GWSP, “Introduction to Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies,” offered at least once a year, which generates student interest in the GWSP minor and certificates. Indicative of faculty interest in gender-related fields, the affiliated faculty has grown from the original ten to a robust 35 affiliates.

About the Author

Dr. Linda English is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.  She teaches courses on Texas History, the American West, Modern American Women’s History, and Gender in the American West.

by Professor Elizabeth Kuipers

She tip-toed to her place in the wings, outside of her boss’s office, waiting for her cue—the silence of the end of a phone call.  Her stomach churned.  Her audience could react, embrace her expression of vulnerability or reject her completely.

The dress rehearsal happened on Friday.  She thought that her audience would be responsive, even though they were not face to face.  She thought that her questions were reasonable.  She simply asked for clarification.  She needed to know before she committed to the year-long run what the terms of that commitment were.  She got no response.

So, she rehearsed all weekend.  The next performance would be so much easier, in her zone of comfort, if it could be in writing.  But writing is dangerous.  Writing can be documented.  Writing can be forwarded.  Writing can be damning.  The rehearsals wore her out—the constant play in her mind.  The constant “What if?” The knowing.  The knowing that she was being screwed again.  That she was worth more.  And yet, knowing that she dare not wish for too much.  There were stakes.  There were children to feed.  There were college educations to pay for.  And she was expendable to her employers.  

The twenty years she worked in her first job out of graduate school taught her she was expendable.  The moves to all of the dances were ingrained in her very being.  When her students’ eyes lit up with understanding, she felt the energizing joy and beauty of a perfectly executed stag leap across the stage.  She worked her craft, practicing, tweaking, getting a little higher, a little farther each time.  The perfect leap represented hours upon hours of practice, calloused feet, bruised knees, but the light in the students’ eyes was worth it every time!  The Charleston, gay and careless, was not as gay or as careless as it seemed when the Women’s Studies Faculty did it to bring attention to violence against women, when we bit off the ends of our figurative, phallic cigars and spit them in the faces of the entirely male administration who didn’t want a spectacle.  She learned the Shuffle too, head down, avoiding eye contact, watching her feet,  when she was denied promotion by her colleagues who had worked with her for fourteen years, hearing her voice echoing down the close hallway as she taught her heart out, but who still said they weren’t “assured” that she was an excellent teacher.  She knew to save the Tango.  The Tango was for when she couldn’t look away, when the dictate from on high was so egregious that she not only withstood the tension of the dance, but invited it, hoping that someone would be there to catch her when she got spun out of the hands of the men in charge.  Always the men in charge.

Those years taught her to shape-shift, to be pliable.  Her Can-Can sounded like Yes.  Of course.  I will.  I’ve never done that before, but I’ll give it my best.  She re-made herself to fit the needs of the department, the needs of the students. Everyone’s needs…It’s not that she was unappreciated.  Every few years she would get a card or an email from a student who remembered her fondly.  When she was unfulfilled, wrung dry from continuously learning new steps, she learned dances in other places, always hoping to be the change she wished to see in the world.  

The constant “What if?” The knowing.  The knowing that she was being screwed again.  That she was worth more.  And yet, knowing that she dare not wish for too much.  There were stakes.  There were children to feed.  There were college educations to pay for.  And she was expendable to her employers.  

When she left for what she thought to be a more compelling cause—creating a new place for children to learn in a community handicapped by years of poverty and despair—no one noticed.  No one told her goodbye.  No one thanked her for 20 years of loyal service in higher education.  For her 30s.  For her 40s.  She was expendable.  But her children were worth it, she said.  The children of the community were worth it.  This new environment would be filled with love, respect, and equality.  The teachers would be creative, and the children and parents would be engaged and involved.  This school would help to change the future for thousands of children, parents, and members of the community.  Children would learn about service and civic pride and would be equipped to soar to any height they imagined.  She envisioned a Contra-dance, full of noisy, upbeat music, communal, giving and taking in turn. Yet men continued to play the same tune, the one she had learned to Shuffle to.  As she shuffled, more and more slowly, moving down into a depth she had never dreamed, men struck absurd poses on stage, fueled by their egos, pomposity, and fear.  No amount of money could compensate for the soul-crushing loss of her dream.

Feeling the failures of the past in her knees and in her heart, she executed a plie into the chair, her chin high, attempting to exude grace and courage she did not feel.  She fumbled her way through the first steps.

She explained to her boss, “I need you to understand why I responded the way that I did.  Maybe it’s being 50.  I’m not willing to feel taken advantage of anymore. “

In her mind, she twirled on her right pointe shoe, her left leg soaring high in an attitude as she stood up for what was right, what was fair.

“The job that is a ‘promotion’ will mean more work, more stress, but no more money.  There is gender inequity at play.  The new hire, a boy straight out of graduate school, with a lower teaching load, is making more than I am.”

Her ankle wobbled.

“I would be angry all of the time.  That would not be fair to anyone here.”

Her boss reached out to her—steadying her pose—saying, “I appreciate your candor.”  How far does that steadying hand extend?  Will it extend through the impromptu meeting?  Through turning down the insulting gesture at a promotion which her boss facilitated?  Will it extend to contracts for next year?

She left the office, knowing that her dance had been shaky. Her words were disorganized, but she stayed true to herself.

Within minutes she had another performance, this time for a very different audience.  A ballet would shut them down completely.  The pandemic made the audience exceptionally small:  two Black male teenagers furtively studied their phones as she explained epic similes.  The others, purportedly streaming the class, were undoubtedly playing video games or listening to music because every time she called on one of them, she got no response.  She could execute the opening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but in the current climate, these students might take that as an insult from a middle-aged white woman rather than an effort to cross the divide.  No, these students didn’t want Michael Jackson.  In fact, they didn’t want anything she had to offer them; today’s offering was “The Iliad.”  She felt like Prince Humperdink reading signs in the dirt:  “There was a mighty duel….”  Even the impressive choreography of Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts couldn’t thaw this small group of students.  Homer’s pearls before swine.  Circe would be proud.  They endured.  She endured, hopeful that the next class would be more engaged.

“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or Gustavus Vasa, the African, written by Himself.”  These tickets should be easy to sell, she thought.  A story of life in Africa, kidnapping, enslavement, the Middle Passage.  It’s eighteenth century HipHop.  A man claims himself and defies the odds.  It’s edgy; it’s truth revealed.  Certainly the students who chose to go to a Historically Black College would be engaged, maybe even excited.  Two young women arrive on time, one perpetually on her phone and the other hiding behind her computer.  Thirty minutes into class, two young men come in, one completely empty handed, the other with a pencil and spiral notebook through which he shuffles trying to find a blank page. With ten minutes of class remaining, she gets their attention with the question, “How do we dehumanize people now?”  She leads them by the nose, connecting the dots:  slaves were dehumanized to legitimate atrocities against humanity; after 911, Muslims were dehumanized to increase fear and legitimate a war; Trump used tear gas on peaceful BLM protests for a photo-op at his convenience and a platform of “law and order.”  How much has changed, she asks as she steps hopefully out onto her right pointe shoe, leg poised to elevate, but never coming off the floor.

After class, she has an existential crisis.  She knows that she is not truly educating these students.  Her arms shoot out at jarring angles from her body.  She has no idea how to make them care.  She kicks to the left, throwing her head back aggressively.  She is not even sure if they can read the homework that she assigns.  She collapses her body into a fetal position.  But this inability is not their fault; instead it is the fault of a system that has failed them.  On her feet again, she punches the air.  This is a modern dance.  It is abstract; Isadora Duncan be damned!  There is no language for this disservice or the hopelessness she feels on behalf of her students and herself.  This dance breaks the rules of the system that leaves 85% of the children behind….the poor, the ethnic other, the desperate…those who don’t know any better.  She stomps her feet and waves her arms over her head with abandon.  So the haves cut the Federal School Lunch Program for the have-nots who then are incapable of learning because they are hungry and can’t focus on their school work.   She circles as if the floor is on fire, never leaving one foot in place for long.  Projections for prison populations are based on the number of students who are unable to read on grade level in the third grade!  She channels the mother of Equiano who undoubtedly expressed her own grief at his kidnapping in a violent dance around a blazing fire.   If only she could convince her students to dance this dance with her!  She, they, we all can claim ourselves!

She is quickly exhausted by the movement and the emotion.  This dance is unsustainable.

She drives home, an hour of quiet on country roads.  Her spirit settles.  Her equilibrium returns when she sees her home and knows she is blessed.  She is in a different realm.  No physical needs go unmet.  She has a dear husband and sons who love her unequivocally.  She has books to sustain her imagination.  All is well.  She can rest.

The usual exchanges happen when she walks in the door.  “Hey, Mom!” a boy yells.  The pandemic has stranded them at home.  They work online with pre-recorded lessons taught by a variety of teachers for each subject.  There is no connection.  There is no desire to please these individuals who, in normal times, would turn into her sons’ away from home support system, their champions.  There will be no letters of recommendation for college scholarships from these teachers.

She replies cheerfully, “Hi!  How was your day?  How did your schoolwork go?” The usual answers follow.  On a whim, she adds, “Bring down your computers and let me see what you’re up to.”

The air immediately fills with tension.  The freshman’s face registers something….concern? fear?  Her dances are not done for the day.  Worries about how to choreograph this dance before she even knows what to call it fill her mind.

She is not a parent who yells.  But when she sees fifty-two missing assignments in English, thirty-four in science, forty-six in math, all she can think is, “Not you too!  Another child lost and dishonored by this combination of forces that feels out of control.”  But this is her child; she cannot lose him.  She must execute the perfect dance or the tragic outcome will be of her own design.

She reaches out to him with a brush step, hearing the front of her tap shoe slide softly against the floor.  “What in the world is going on?” she asks with direct eye contact.  She must bring him into the dance.  

“I don’t know,” he responds.

“Do you never work?”  She begins to tap out a tentative rhythm.  He responds with a shoulder shrug.  “Do you work at least a little every day?”  She knows he must be allowed to riff on his own, but he doesn’t seem to know the steps.  There are consequences for not knowing the steps of this basic dance.

“Bring me your phone and your game controller.”  Step-ball-change away from him.  He Shuffles away.  She knows that dance so well it breaks her heart to see him do it.

When he returns and hands her his technology, she does the buffalo shuffle towards him, saying, “Tomorrow, you will come to work with me and sit in my office to get caught up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She grabs his chin, holding it firmly, asserting the rhythm of her heart into his cheeks and saying, “I love you.  Even when I’m mad at you I love.”  His eyes tell her that they can be in sync soon.  She must keep dancing.

Alice Walker says that hard times require furious dancing. These are hard times.  She longs for Baby Suggs to step off the page of Beloved and call her community into a dance.  To call the women in, crying; to invite the men to begin the dance; and to bring in the little children laughing in spite of the hard times.  In community, the dance will morph and include all, creating space for those who need to cry and those who need to laugh, here if nowhere else.  Only in a true community can she find solace and healing. So.  She will keep dancing, inviting her students, her friends, and her family to join her, hoping that in the dance she can empower others to keep true to the rhythms of their hearts.

About the Author

Elizabeth Kuipers’s love of teaching began in the 70s when she cajoled her little brother into completing “homework” which she promptly graded with a red crayon.  Years later, at Wesleyan College, the first college in the world chartered to grant degrees to women, Elizabeth learned to love the written word and to be a fierce feminist.  An MA and PHD in English later, she committed to public education where she has lead a team to design and open a K-12 charter school and worked in administration in both K-12 and higher education.  But she has consistently found her way back into the classroom where her heart will remain. 



by Terry Barr

In William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, a man named Joe Christmas, whose racial identity sits at the center of the work, asks the following question of the middle-aged woman who has become his lover and whom he will later kill: 

“Just when do men who have different blood in them stop hating one another…” (249). 

That we still don’t have an answer to his question in 2021 is profoundly troubling. In the course I will discuss momentarily, we will almost certainly fail to provide any comforting or enlightening answers. Nevertheless, we’ll keep trying.

I have been a Professor of English for the last thirty-four years at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, a private, liberal arts college, drawing students mainly form the deep southeast. My Senior Capstone seminar focuses on American Literature and Racial Identity, using three texts: Faulkner’s Light in August, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Each of these novels explores a character or characters who are caught in a racial limbo. Some know their parentage and its mixed racial makeup; others have no clear idea of their racial background but have heard rumors. All are caught in a society where racial identity is a life or death matter.

Our class meets twice a week for the first six weeks of the term, and in those weeks, we talk about the theme as it applies to these novels, slowly building in research from critical sources. The students will write 500-word responses to two of the novels as part of their requirement, and they will also select a critical essay on one of the novels and make a presentation on that essay as it pertains to racial identity.

In consultation with me, each student will then come up with a central research question that he or she will pursue independently for the next several weeks, eventually turning that question into a thesis. The students are free to select one or more of the novels we’ve discussed in class, though they are not strictly bound to these texts, or to literature per se. They are free to pursue film and music, too. I can see the recent comic books-turned-films like Black Panther and The Watchmen bearing bittersweet and strange fruit for this topic. With their research, the students will write a MLA documented essay roughly fifteen pages long, and then present their research on Honors Day to the rest of the English Department and to anyone else in the college community who chooses to attend.

Our college, like many in these times, has had intense and ongoing discussions about racial diversity and what that looks like and means today. We are a very “white” college, and so as I considered the theme for this year’s seminar, Racial Identity seemed a timely choice, especially given the history of the American South and its reluctance, recalcitrance, in seeking racial equality.

As we discuss these works, I have asked the students to consider the following questions:

  1. Who in our culture gets to determine Racial Identity, and how has this group/person been allowed to make such determinations?
  2. What do we know about our own racial identity, our family’s genetic and historical background?
  3. As a child, were you given sets of social evils or taboos? If so, what were they?
  4. Has a racial hierarchy ever been suggested or imposed on you?
  5. Do you believe that you have benefitted from racial privilege? If so, how?
  6. How would you rank the social acts that most horrify you, or the ones that bestow on you the most honor or gratification?
  7. How would your family members react if you decided to date or marry someone of a different race?

I have six students in the seminar, and all are Caucasian. Because of the above questions, our discussions have been open, I believe, and frank. How would such discussions differ if one or more of the students were African American? While there is no way to know how we might alter or filter our views were we to have African American students in the class, we have at least addressed this issue, noting the problems of white people alone, trying to determine the factors that contribute to our racial misunderstanding of each other.

In our last class, we discussed the problematic scene in Light in August in which Joe Christmas, as an orphaned child, follows an African American yard man across the orphanage grounds. Joe has already been called “nigger” by both children and adults, though they do so only because Joe is different, a new boy alien to them; a loner who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be, and who seems to harbor secrets. They are trying to put him in his place by using the most dehumanizing word anyone in that era who is white could call anyone else who is white, or black. And so, in his racial confusion, Joe follows the only black man he knows:

“‘What you watching me for boy?’ And he said ‘How come you are a nigger?’ And the nigger said ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ And he says ‘I aint a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know’ and he says ‘God aint no nigger’ and the nigger says ‘I reckon you ought to know what God is, because don’t nobody but God know what you is…’” (383-4).

The yard man is more prescient than he knows. For most of the novel, Joe wonders about his racial identity, believing and telling many that he might have some Negro blood in him. He will ultimately be lynched when the town discovers that he’s both been a lover to and killed a white woman. The lynching occurs because Joe’s colleague, “Joe Brown,” has told the sheriff that Christmas is “ a nigger.” From that moment, the TOWN decries that “that nigger Christmas” can’t be allowed to get away with his crime, even though the TOWN has never accepted the woman in question because she’s a northern transplant—a Yankee and an Abolitionist. 

Still, it’s Christmas who most confuses them:

“He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (350).

But what if he’s neither?

Ultimately, we learn that no one really knows whether the man who impregnated Joe’s mother was Black, or a Mexican, or fully White. Joe himself dies without ever knowing, but to the town and everyone else who knows him, he has forever been deemed Black.

For my students, one of the other central questions this novel raises is the role of religion in determining or interpreting racial identity. Joe is adopted by a strict Calvinist family, the father attempting to beat the fear of God into Joe. Not only doesn’t he succeed, but we know that the orphanage that places Joe in this family does so with the belief that Joe is a racially Black child. They “lie” to Joe’s new father in order to keep Joe from being sent to the Black orphanage. They claim to be trying to save the little boy.

So they lie, and the Calvinist father never knows the lie. At this point, we ask about Christianity’s role in southern racial relations. How did/have so many Southern Protestants made peace with segregation, racial superiority and hierarchy? The novel also includes a defrocked Presbyterian minister who helps us consider this and many other religious and moral questions about the inadequacy and the impotency of religion’s response in considering those outside of the racial norm. And in some cases, religion’s clear persecution of and urging crucifixion on people like Joe Christmas who outrage the religious folk by refusing to accommodate them and stay within the boundaries of boldly-marked racial identities. That Christmas might also be a Christ-figure causes us to consider Christ’s skin color and wonder about the racial category he would have been consigned to in the American South

Christmas has tried to pass as white and even as black. So, too, do two of the central characters in Senna’s Caucasia: the white mother, Sandy Lee, daughter of well-respected WASPish Cambridge socialites, and her paler daughter, Birdie. Sandy and Birdie go on the run, hiding in “caucasia” due to Sandy’s indiscretions with radical, post-1960’s revolutionaries. Because Birdie’s skin color is a bit off-white, Sandy tells everyone in white America that Birdie’s father is Jewish. Meanwhile, Sandy’s African American husband, Deck, and their older darker daughter, Cole, fade into the novel’s background, perhaps passing as the saner, if not more law-abiding pair. The burden is on Birdie, however, to come to terms with all that she is, all that society deems she should be, and what she in fact wants to be.

As a student put it in class today, regarding Birdie and her sister Cole: “How do we blend in to society when we already stand out?”

Caucasia is a novel of inversion, of viewing the negative of a photograph instead of the positive, the “norm.” And in this metaphor, we can understand negative and positive as exactly the value judgments historically deemed on those of mixed racial identity by our society.

The Vanishing Half affords comparisons to Caucasia and allows students to pair the two more closely to analyze the ways sisters, in this case twin sisters, confront or flee their racial identity. How does America force us to define ourselves because of, or despite, whom America would rather we be?

So far, my students have been up to the task of engaging in this theme. I can’t know all they’re thinking and maybe will never know. But I see their faces; I see how deeply they are thinking, and I look forward to their research and the studies they’ll present. I hope the course will change us and help us think even more deeply about who we are and how we can continue to engage with the racial identities imposed on all of us.

Works Cited

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

About the Author

Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, specializing in Modern Literature, Creative Writing, and Southern Studies. His three essay collections, published by Red Hawk Press, are available from Amazon, and he writes regularly at about music and food culture. He lives in Greenville, Sc, with his family.