Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Matthew Pratt Guterl's "Seeing Race in Modern America"

Matthew Pratt Guterl is professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University and is the author of American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation among other books.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Seeing Race in Modern America, and reported the following:
I remember writing this page. I was a fellow at the Humanities Research Center, Rice University, living in my apartment in Martel College. It was the winter of 2010. And I wrote this while a SciFi movie marathon played in the background, offering ambient noise for the click-and-clack of my laptop. I remember these details because this was a fun chapter to write - perhaps because in the background of my composition there was a parade of mega-sharks and giant squid and earthquakes and stuff.

The 99th page of this book takes us, in one breath, from the 1970s to the present, or from Dorothy Debolt to Angelina Jolie. More specifically, at the top of the page I conclude my discussion of a scene in the award-winning, early 1970s documentary about the De Bolt family, where Dorothy sits at a piano with two of her daughters - one African American and the other Asian. What, I ask, are we supposed to be looking at here?

This page lies near the end of a chapter about transnational adoption, and more specifically about the way that big, multiracial families are often described as symbolically important. Important, I say here, because they help us to see race, to attend to the difference between skin tones and colors. They are built to be seen.

The chapter, in turn, sits in the middle of a section of the book, a section on mixed racial ensembles, and on the way they encourage us to see diversity and common cause at the same time. The chapter immediately after this one, for instance, is on the multiracial platoon, broadly conceived, from the Village People to the movie Predator.

And this section, finally, sits in the middle of the book, titled Seeing Race, which takes up the question of how and why we come to see what we see. The first section of the book (there are three) dwells on close readings of the racial body, from racial profiling to advertising to silhouetting. The third and last section of the book explores those bodies in which - or on which - it can be a challenge to see race. Hybrid bodies. Ambiguous bodies. Passing bodies.

If you were just to read page 99, though, you'd think the book was just about transnational adopted families, and about how they structure our sightlines.
Learn more about Seeing Race in Modern America at the University of North Carolina Press website, and visit Matthew Pratt Guterl's blog.

The Page 99 Test: American Mediterranean.

--Marshal Zeringue