on Relative Races
In early June, graduate students Allison Fulton, Rachael DeWitt (both UC Davis), and Christy Wensley (University College London) spoke with Associate Professor Brigitte Fielder to discuss her book Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America (October 2020, Duke University Press). Fielder’s revelatory work theorizes the temporality of race and racialization in nineteenth-century literature revealing complex and expansive interracial kinship structures and geneaologies that endure into the present. Fielder offers “kinfullness” as a term for reconceptualizing the often unexpected romantic, reproductive, and domestic relationships that produce race.
The monograph’s archive of interracial representations extends beyond traditional literary genres to include autobiographies, letters, and diaries, as well as visual and theatrical media and ephemera which solidified racial constructs in the nineteenth century. Such an archive is necessary, as she puts it in her introduction, in order to reimagine how “race is produced—and reproduced—in relation, in the connections between bodies, in domestic spaces, through literary genre, and in practices of racialized reading and naming.”
Fielder spoke with us about the book’s “theoretical overhaul” from her dissertation, the importance of mentorship and scholarly kinship with colleagues and students, and countering the forces of canonization and elitism in literary studies. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Allison Fulton (AF): How and where did this book project begin?
Rachael Dewitt (RD): On a broad, theoretical level, have you come to any new ideas about futurity through this work and does that then reverberate back onto how you theorize temporality in general?
Sojourner Truth seated with photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell, of Co. H, 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, on her lap, via Relative Races, page 122.
AF: How did you decide to frame and order the three sections of the book into romance, reproduction, residency?
RD: We’d like to wrap up by talking about pedagogy because we appreciated that your acknowledgement section foregrounds teaching as an important site for thinking about this project. How have the ideas in this book played out in your classrooms?
Brigitte Fielder is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is (with Jonathan Senchyne) co-editor of Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African-American Print (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019) and author of Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America (Duke University Press, 2020). Her work has been published in various journals and edited collections. She is currently writing a second book, on racialized human-animal relationships in the long nineteenth century, which shows how childhood becomes a key site for (often simultaneous) humanization and racialization.