Cover image for Technology and the logic of American racism : a cultural history of the body as evidence
Technology and the logic of American racism : a cultural history of the body as evidence
Chinn, Sarah E.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
London ; New York : Continuum, 2000.
Physical Description:
xvii, 233 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.

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E185.61 .C56 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The color of blood is red, not black or white. Yet blood, along with fingerprints, skin, and color is commonly cited as objective evidence of racial identity. Drawing on this concept of "evidence", Sarah Chinn deftly interweaves analyses of the history of science, popular culture, forensic technology and literary texts to examine how racial identity has been constructed in the United States over the past century.

Chinn begins her provocative study with an analysis of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson to explore how new ways of reading bodies developed at the end of the nineteenth century. Using Twain's story of a light-skinned slave baby exchanged with his white master, Chinn analyses growth of the American scientific passion for turning people into numbers and bodily characteristics into racial "identities". Contrasting Nella Larsen's Passing, Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry, and the notorious Rhinelander miscegenation scandal of the 1920's, Chinn goes onto explore the meanings of skincolor and racial identity during the Jazz Age.

Chinn further investigates the meaning of "blood" through the American Red Cross' racial segregation of blood donated by African Americans and Japanese Americans.

Finally, as technology (e.g. DNA testing) increasingly allows the body to be "read", Chinn argues that it is simply the latest enactment of a discourse that seeks to cement racial, gender, and class identities as empirical rather than constructed and capable of change. However, the announcement of genetic evidence that Thomas Jefferson was the father of his slave Sally Hemmings' children offers an alternative vision: that DNA can show Americans that their bodies are evidence not ofexclusivity but of multiplicity.

Author Notes

Sarah E. Chinn is Assistant Professor in English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Chinn's study of the ways in which the body--fingerprints, skin color, blood, DNA--has served as evidence in US culture is lucid, eloquent, well-researched, and thoughtful. Chinn (English, Trinity College) provides astute commentary on novels by Twain, Larsen, Thurman, Okada, and Hazlip and provocative analysis of palmistry, the 1924 Rhinelander case, the segregation of the national blood supply by race during the 1940s, black responses to rhetoric that linked blood and citizenship during WW II, and the recent Sally Hemmings controversy. But Chinn's study goes far beyond these examples, providing some of the clearest thinking available on the relationship between bodies and culture. The argument is never reductive. With impressive grace, the author manages both to reveal how bodies have been made to testify (often against themselves) and to be conscious of "the gingerliness, respect, strength, edginess, and tenderness with which we should approach our own bodies and the bodies of others, whether in words, concepts, or touch." The central idea may not be new, but rarely is it prosecuted and articulated with such clarity and eloquence. Useful in a variety of disciplines; highly recommended for all academic collections. S. Browner Berea College

Table of Contents

Series forewordp. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
1 Theorizing the body as evidencep. 1
2 A show of hands: establishing identity in Mark Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilsonp. 24
3 Fixing identity: reading skin, seeing racep. 53
4 "Liberty's life stream": blood, race, and citizenship in World War IIp. 93
5 Reading the "Book of Life": DNA and the meanings of identityp. 141
Epilogue: future bodies, present selvesp. 168
Notesp. 172
Bibliographyp. 207
Indexp. 227