Sample discussion questions

On “Segregating Bodies” and Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally:  Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America

1. Pascoe does a fine job with the legal aspects of miscegenation, but the evidence she uses, like all other evidence, has its limits — it doesn’t tell us what it was like to live under miscegenation law. For one thing, how much miscegenation was there? Do we know only about the couples who were caught, or is there a way of learning about others? Where and how did people of different races meet, and did miscegenation law make them less likely to pursue relationships, or did it, in a perverse way, add excitement to their relationships by making them seem daring and defiant, so couples felt they were up against the world (which, in a way, they were)?

2. Marriage was and remains both public and private, but how has the balance changed over time? In other words, what aspects of marriage did the government used to see fit to regulate (interracial marriage) and what to leave alone (common law marriage between people of the same race), and why, and what aspects of marriage does the government now see fit to regulate and what to leave alone? Another way to frame the question may be, what has changed about societal perceptions of the “natural” and the “unnatural”? As Pascoe writes (23), “The possibility ‘that any government could, consistently with the general weal, permit this institution to become merely [a] matter of bargain between men and women, and not regulate it by its own power,’ was, Bishop asserted, ‘too absurd to require a word of refutation.’ ” In other words, it was obvious — natural — that government should be involved in some way.

3. In that same vein, why were certain races excluded from miscegenation laws? As mentioned by Kallie, the debate over whiteness discussed in Dr. Cole’s class placed particular emphasis on the question of whether or not the Irish were white. In many ways, with a notable example coming from the building of the railroads, it seems that the Irish shared a similar social standing as the Chinese. Yet, miscegenation laws targeted interracial marriage between Americans and Asians, but it doesn’t seem that the same applied to the Irish. How did they decide who to exclude with miscegenation laws and who was acceptable?

4. In Pascoe’s discussion of attitudes toward World War Two vets and their “warbrides,” I wondered how the eroticization of Asian women managed to be overlooked. Pascoe makes it very clear that the common image of highly sexualized black and Indian women was part of what stigmatized relationships between these women and white men. If Asian women were seen as highly erotic, why were their relationships with white men acceptable? Was it simply because these men were war veterans and a union with Japanese women was symbolic of bringing Japan and the US back together (233)? Was it because these women were seen by some vets as better and more “compliant” housewives than white women (233-4)? Or were Japanese women not yet racialized as black and Indian women had been?

Most Interesting Connection: When I read the part of the role of the county clerks in the maintenance of the miscegenation laws, I had a difficult time stopping myself from aligning them with the staff at the almshouses in early Philadelphia. I think that it is interesting when analyzing power relations, the amount of power that is put into the hands of ordinary people, and more importantly the manner in which such power at such a level is used. The ability to decide the fates of others, even in what seem to be minuscule ways, sometimes offers an opportunity to be even more influential than power which comes from higher ranking officials.

Muddiest point: On page 52, Pascoe states that “Indiana’s devotion to race law was nurtured by the tendency to use White women’s purity as a symbol of the body politic.” I understand her argument about the “moral panic” in Indiana, but I am not sure that I fully understand the symbolism of women’s purity as the body politic. Did miscegenation law maintain the states “purity”? I feel like I might be missing something here.

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On “The Body in Early America”

1. I enjoyed Rath’s article about the history of acoustics in early American churches and how sound was regulated to reinforce social order. This made me wonder: what are the possibilities and limits of other sensory histories? Without regular access to mirrors or reflective objects, did this affect how agrarian poor viewed themselves or lived  their everyday lives? What were the consequences? What did it mean to be able to view oneself? Lindman discusses the role of touch and physical contact in “The Body Baptist” (181). What does touch mean in today’s society and how did we develop the idea personal space? Could there be a history of taste or smell?

2. There are several themes that run throughout some of these articles such as the knowledge of bodily humors to understand and construct an image of the body (Finch, 46; Lindman, 184-6) and working or self-regulating the human body to resist sin/uncleanness (Finch, 47; Brown, 90; Lindman 82-4), but there is one common theme that exists in each of these articles: using the body as “power-knowledge” to justify or enforce social or political domination. Like most contemporary histories of gender, race, and class, the body seems to be about power relations in each of these articles. It made me wonder if there can be a history of the body that does not involve a constructed power relation. Or are power relations always inherent in any study of the body (or gender, race, and class for that matter)? Will Foucault’s theory of power relations ever give way to another theory? And does the prevalence of power relations in scholarship obscure other themes?

3. Melish’s “Emancipation and the Em-bodiment of ‘Race’” offers an intriguing aspect of early American race realtions. The question of whether it is physical appearance that distinguishes classification of race faced a unique challenge through individuals like Henry Moss. This is the first research I have read on this topic, and I found the societal role reversal presented by such cases of albinism especially interesting. The various approaches Anglo-Americans took in their study of the “white negroes” suddenly gave the topic a sinister turn, and it became clear the individuals whose skin color changed due to albinism or vitiligo became “freaks” who received treatment purely as creatures for scientific study. The details of Moses Brown’s examination of Henry Moss was especially disturbing, and it made me wonder what it was exactly that caused individuals like Moss to receive such debased treatment? Was it simply the unexpected change in skin color, or was it a result of social fears that black individuals may one day become white and displace the accepted ideas regarding race and social standing?

Muddiest point: Like my fellow students, I too struggled with Foucault’s power-knowledge relationship. My best attempt is that the issue really is not about power and the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, but how one is made to understand those relationships; not how the body is a subject or who it subject too, but how the body is defined or ‘known.’

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