on Relative Races

August 2021

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?

Dr. Brigitte Fielder (BF): This book came out of my dissertation, though the project itself came rather late in my graduate study as I slid further and further into nineteenth-century U.S. studies. When I began the dissertation some of the work came out of things that interested me in graduate seminars; for example, the Mary Jemison sections stemmed from a Cornell course with Eric Cheyfitz and the work on Clotel started in a course taught by Shirley Samuels. Right before I handed my committee the whole dissertation, I realized that a four-chapter project had turned into a five-chapter project, so I chopped a chapter in half and that became the second section of the book.

Another major change that happened in the shift from dissertation to book was a theoretical overhaul. This had to do with queer theory which was not in any way part of my dissertation project. My trepidation about my ability to do theory hindered my development of this project until much later when I started to try out the kinds of theoretical interventions present in the book that have to do with queer theory as a central organizing concept. I'd been reading queer theory after encountering great critiques of kinship and time in nineteenth-century studies. The project was also moved along by my thinking about Black feminist theory. It wasn't until I had conversations that were more deliberately oriented around early African American studies that I started to think more broadly about theory. For instance, people like Sadiya Hartman and Hortense Spillers were always in the project, but my thinking about who they were in conversation with and how they were in conversation changed for me and developed into a more capacious and accurate understanding of what theory is and does.

Finally, in regard to structure, some of the book’s later chapters follow the organization of my syllabi which are almost never chronological but that are always organized around particular ideas. The theoretical orientation of the book was not interested in chrono-normativity, or having a straight through-line, because that wasn’t what race was doing in any of these moments. Ideas about race from the Enlightenment forward don’t follow a linear trajectory: old, sad racist ideas continually come back. So, it didn't make sense for me to think about crafting a theory of race and racialization in a linear way. It hasn’t been linear throughout U.S. history—it’s always been much more circular and recursive. That’s what gave me the theoretical framing to develop the general structure of the book.

Christy Wensley (CW): Your focus on Black feminist, Indigenous and other scholars of color seems like a theoretical approach that suggests new forms of kinship and relationality for scholars (in citational practices, for example). What advice do you have for dissertating graduate students to establish and develop these types of relationships?

BF: In truth, one never really has to bow to the dominant White male critic: you can just not do it and that's okay. People make choices every day about their writing and choosing to focus on or prioritize White American criticism is a choice. Being aware of what is and isn’t foundational and why allows one to approach choices as choices, forcing us to justify the ones we’re making. And this is something central to my thinking in this project: these ideas about race are also a non-necessity. They follow historically and make sense in a particular, predictable way, but they’re not logical. They could always and always have been otherwise. That's true too about our citationality.

When I read work by graduate students or junior scholars, I think about how their choices have to go beyond who's foundational; they have to speak to expertise, as well as questions of rigor and responsibility. I often see work on slavery that doesn't cite Black people or African American studies scholarship that only cites White African Americanists. This doesn't happen by accident, it happens in very particular ways, and so thinking about these issues and being a little bit more explicit about why we're making these choices, what we’re doing, for whom, and for what purposes is critical.

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?

BF: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about Blackness, futurity, and childhood beyond this project to the point that I’m planning my next project around these themes. Historical discussions of futurity and childhood from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries are overwhelmingly mired in White childhood and that shifts conversations about futurity in many ways. It’s important to think hard about Black childhood: who attended to it, who cared about it, who has crafted, created, and forged relationships of kinship with Black children, and who has thought about Black children with relation to either having or not having a future. Here, I’m thinking about people like Margaret Garner, or Whitney Houston singing “I believe the children are our future.” That's a different conversation about kinship, futurity, and temporality than what I’m seeing in a lot of White queer studies, childhood studies, and contemporary children’s literary studies both in and outside of the nineteenth century. I'm interested in thinking about how childhood and futurity have been attended to differently, and how the attention to different players—largely Black people's writing—changes the assumptions that we have about questions of kinship or the future.

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?

BF: These words and this framing came rather late in my organizational journey. The names are borrowed from Mark Rifkin as he talks about residency, reproduction, and romance. I deliberately reordered them because I felt that I needed to start with blackface Desdemona and sexual kinship in general. I think of Othello as a touchstone ur-text for thinking about these things in that it gives us a really clear visual metaphor for people's anxieties about how they think interracial sex happens.

I waffled about what to include in the final chapter, especially whether or not to write about the racist Jerome Holgate book. Even after publishing the book, the question I still have is: does anybody need to read or write about Holgate’s novel? But by burying that discussion in the final chapter, I was able to simultaneously not foreground that particular argument, and yet still think of Holgate next to productive conversations about racial reconstruction in Lydia Maria Child and William Wells Brown. It helped me to make scalar moves in thinking about the national framing for race-making that is happening across chapters at very different historical moments. Here, not organizing the book or each chapter chronologically actually allowed me to make a larger historical arc that goes from the colonial moment to this late Reconstruction/post-Reconstruction era moment.

CW: How did you come to such a broad archival scope that includes materials from theatre productions to well-circulated images?

Brigitte Fielder: My training in American studies allowed me to think more capaciously about what a text could be. In the archives, I saw everything from canonical works and random novels to women’s literature and poetry in weird nineteenth-century newspapers. As I put together archival objects on particular themes, those generic differences were evident and important to think through. Take plays that were archived as scripts but were only meant to be seen performed, not read; how do we think about these as a different kind of ephemera? Asking these sorts of questions and not discounting anything as within the possibility of what I could talk about in this project is, ultimately, what made the project come together as it did.

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?

BF: One of the difficulties with undergraduate teaching is that overwhelmingly students have heard of almost nobody on my syllabus. Especially when I teach early African American women's writing, students have likely not read any early Black women's writing before, so I talk explicitly about what that means in terms of their education: “This is what you've been given to this point. Let's think about why that is and why you haven't heard about any of these people. And let's think about reclaiming and framing some of the topics that are familiar to you.” Students often, as a result of this, have some difficult ideas about U.S. history and so one has to teach a little bit (or sometimes a lot) of history in order to teach African American historical fiction. Take Iola Leroy, which I teach all the time: Koritha Mitchell put out a great edition that has materials to tell students about what the Fugitive Slave Law is or how slavery worked in regard to matrilineal inheritance, historical knowledge you have to explain in order to understand the plot of the novel.

With graduate students, one of the biggest hurdles, frankly, is that our graduate students are underpaid, and their labor is exploited in particular ways. Their learning conditions at UW Madison are very different from what my learning conditions were at Cornell. My students have less money, they might have additional hourly work, and their teaching involves heavier course loads. This means they have less time, and thus need to be really transparent about what's feasible by talking strategy. For instance, I like to read recent monographs in graduate seminars, but we talk about what it means to read a monograph a week with the limited time that you have. You can come back to things later and that's okay but don't skip the acknowledgments because this is where one gets a window into certain kinds of relationships that make this work sustainable in various ways. I wrote my book’s acknowledgement section after the pandemic had halted the in-person teaching of a graduate class where we would take a tea break mid-seminar to chat. Pausing for collegiality like this can work to build community. Sharing diversity of experience with one another lends itself well to a conversation about finding your people and what it means to find your people in the field—that doesn't just mean mentors, it also means peers.

A lot of my students are students of color who find their way to my classes because of their particular content, but also because there are very few faculty of color at UW Madison. All of our relationships are racialized, whether we acknowledge that or not, whether we recognize the choices that we’re making or not, whether we can account for what this means for our intellectual careers or not. The fact isn't lost on me that I didn't have a Black woman professor until I had a graduate degree already (and that person soon left the institution). I hope that the acknowledgments section of this book tells you the story in many ways about those relations, whether those relations are made explicit or not. This is the place where we see people who lived in bodies that had to sleep on couches to visit these archives, people who went to grad school together, who read people's manuscripts for them, and how those relationships are built into these structures of academic privilege and proximity, in order to be able to form them more deliberately where they're not already available to us.

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.