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Professor examines father figures in literature as mediators of cultural boundaries

Monday, April 14, 2014

LAWRENCE —Politicians often talk about the importance of “securing our borders.” 

Doreen Fowler, a University of Kansas English professor, says the idea of securing a territorial border or cultural boundary derives from a misperception about boundaries – one that is explored and exposed in many works of American literature.

“We can never secure boundaries — never — because boundaries are always unstable places,” said Fowler, who examines the idea of boundary-setting in the works of well-known American authors and in cultural experiences. “Boundaries are contact zones, the place where two identities, like North and South, merge, and we are terrified of those places because the in-between space that is both North and South threatens both identities.”

However, Fowler contends that at the same time, because it is double, a boundary can distinguish between the two.

“Because it is both, it is not identical with either the one or the other,” she said.

In her book, “Drawing the Line: The Father Reimagined in Faulkner, Wright, O’Connor, and Morrison,” Fowler offers a revisionary rereading of the father’s role in introducing identity-defining boundaries. Fowler uses examples of racial, gender and class boundaries rather than territorial borders.

“We think that we set a boundary, like the boundary between white and black, by shutting out," Fowler said. "This idea leads to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination." 

Because the father is the traditional boundary-setter, the father has been interpreted as the figure who introduces prohibition and exclusion. But Fowlers examination of literature and culture finds that fathers play a mediating role.

“Whoever creates a boundary always occupies a threatening borderline space and always experiences a cross-identification with the other. The father really is a border figure,” she said. “I find that fathers in these literary depictions support the construction of a social identity by mediating between cultural oppositions.”

In Toni Morrison’​s 1987 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, “Beloved,” Fowler points to white abolitionists as examples of the paternal identity-defining role. “Beloved” is a novel about former slaves who have been denied identity as Americans.

For them to forge social identities in American culture, someone has to act like a boundary; that is, someone has to be the intermediary who shares a relation with both sides of a black-white opposition. When these white abolitionists play this in-between role, they occupy the identity-threatening middle and experience racial ambiguity, but their intervention enables the former slaves to take their place in American culture. 

Fowler finds another literary example of the father’​s role in Richard Wright's “Native Son,” the first novel written by an African-American to become a best-seller. 

“Native Son,” written in 1940, narrates the effects of racial oppression on a fatherless black boy, Bigger Thomas, who accidentally kills a white woman. Bigger, who has lived his life in fear of whites, is befriended by his white lawyer, Max, who speaks for Bigger in court and offers the boy solidarity. 

Max becomes the bridge between black and white America for Bigger, and, for the first time in his life, Bigger feels that he can be both black and an American.  But Max performs this fatherly border function at a cost to his own white identity.  Because he straddles the border between black and white, he is seen as a race-traitor and ostracized by whites.

Fowler explains that there is a right way and a wrong way to establish boundaries. 

“The wrong way is for the dominant culture to co-opt the common ground,” she said.  

As a cultural example of the wrong way to draw a boundary, Fowler points to 19th century blackface minstrelsy. At a time in America when Irish immigrants were living in the same slums with African-Americans and working the same jobs, the Irish seemed to be becoming black. Blackface minstrelsy helped them to distinguish their whiteness. Working-class Irish immigrants would paint their faces to impersonate African-Americans for the entertainment of an all-white and mostly male audience.

Their performances would mock African-Americans and exaggerate racial difference; then they would remove their costumes and makeup on stage to try to establish their white difference. But even as they sought to dominate and appropriate the contact zone, in order to designate a racial boundary, they had to experience a cross-cultural identification with people of color. 

Another cultural example that Fowler discusses illustrates both the right and wrong way to negotiate a boundary. In 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin chemically darkened his skin to experience first-hand race relations in the South.  He describes his experience in his book, “Black Like Me.” 

At first, like the blackface minstrel, he doesn’​t identify with his own transformed identity. He insists that the black man he sees in the mirror in no way resembles himself. But his experience living as a black man in a black community makes him realize his own kinship with people of color, and he comes to inhabit his black identity. As a result of his experience as both black and white, Griffin is able to become a civil rights leader who can mediate between black and white.

Fowler said she hoped that the literary and cultural examples in “Drawing the Line,” published by the University of Virginia Press, help people to think about boundaries as contact zones rather than as sites of exclusion and domination.