A fundamental text of critical race theory and film studies, still ominously resonant. Dyer’s contention that until white people see how whiteness is constructed, represented, and privileged, white supremacy (though he doesn’t use that term) will thrive. The scope of his study is stunning: his own awareness of his whiteness, his privileged consciousness of racial difference, the gradual conflation of Christianity and whiteness, the technology of photography and film, the privileging of a “culture of light,” heroic white masculinity in Westerns and muscle-man action cinema, the representation of white women as divine/destructive, and the associations of whiteness with death in horror and cult dystopian films. There are many vital photographs throughout, both black and white and colour, that illustrate the aestheticisation of whiteness. Dyer’s argument that white people are allowed to inhabit ordinariness, the human race, the standard of humanity, even escaping racial identity, while non-white people are raced, particular, and different, is a simple and powerful contribution to any work interested in power. Certainly, he makes strange whiteness, forcing us to consider why connotations of purity, light, goodness, and cleanness have become attached to a simple colour – or, as he discusses, a non-colour. He unravels so much of what we have taken as read in this white-saturated culture. For example, what does it mean to be “white”? It is surely not a literal skin colour possessed by many humans, yet its slipperiness is part of its privilege. Dyer’s call to examine the unexamined is unfortunately still urgent twenty years after its first issue.
At the intersection of critical whiteness studies and southern literary studies, Duvall claims that cultural blackness has been performed by white writers and their white characters in a way that critiques the myth of southern whiteness. These are crises in representation and subjectivity that ask us to detach blackness from African Americans. Already we are in murky waters: what are the implications for problems of cultural appropriation, ethics, and Civil Rights? This was my constant unease reading this book, yet Duvall makes important inroads in arguing that in work by, for instance, Faulkner and Twain, cultural blackness may reattach itself to racial whiteness. That is, whiteness is not so much a race but a metaphysics of class privilege. Importantly, we are looking at the extent to which race is a cultural construct and attending notions of, for example, minstrelsy, the primitive, and purity, are circulated in culture. Faulkner’s use of primitive discourse, otherness, and “whiteface” poor southerners who are portrayed as inhabiting blackness is certainly problematic in a way that Duvall elides. His discussion of Toni Morrison’s work on white writers’ use and abuse of blackness and black characters is nuanced enough to suggest his understanding of cultural appropriation would be similarly worthwhile. This study would have been more useful if it discussed the ethics of white writers using whiteface and a de-essentialisation of whiteness that never fully repudiates white supremacy. The conflation of class and race in some southern fiction needed to be unknotted much more carefully. However, his ultimately complex exploration of that “powerful social function that is racial identity” makes this worth reading for anyone interested in southern fiction or race in literature.
How has the southern plantation evolved after slavery? Why the enduring obsession with, even nostalgia for, the physical space of the antebellum South and its Georgian mansions, places where terrible violence and exploitation occurred? This book combines literary analysis, historical research and first-person ethnography to track a genealogy of the conversion of human beings into capital in the US South. Adams posits that consumer capitalism has continued well beyond abolition and the Civil War, in tourism, souvenirs, incarceration and rodeos. She traces Storyville brothels, narratives of turn-of-the-century new Orleans, plantation tours, Bette Davis films, Elvis memorials, Willa Cather’s fiction, lynching, and the annual prison rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Here is a disturbing portrait of the way the slave past, its violent equation of people as property, haunts all American culture. This is a sociological and cultural take on trauma that packs a much bigger punch than a psychoanalytic one. It asks us to question our tourism practices, visiting sites that have been reconstructed in an attempt to elide the violence embedded in their foundations. In this book, slavery’s physical and psychic violence is always alive within scenes and landscapes of nostalgia.