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(W)rites of passing: The performance of identity in fiction and personal narratives

Tracy L Vaughn, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In my dissertation, "(W)rites of Passing: The Performance of Identity in Fiction and Personal Narratives," I explore the literary, historical, psychological and cultural dimensions of passing, particularly as it relates to race and class. Through the works of Arnold van Gennep, Stephen Greenblatt, and Victor Turner, I have discovered intriguing comparisons between the forms of "class-passing" presented in 16th and 18th century British novels with 20th and 21st century "race passing" novels. In much of my work on race passing and African American literature, I argue that while racial passing may have brought certain socio-economic benefits to those who passed (whether temporarily or permanently,) it also invariably forced them to engage in what I would describe as exercises of restraint. These exercises of restraint might manifest themselves in various forms of cultural impotency ranging from a loss and/or repression of emotional expressivity to a more extreme decision to be voluntarily childless---a forced barrenness, if you will. One of the main questions my research attempts to answer is: "Does the act of passing, whether it be through race or class, reinforce the very hierarchy it seems to subvert?" Also, if in fact race and/or class are identities that are performative, then what role does the audience play in permitting individuals to pass? In an attempt to answer these and other questions, I apply performance theory as a lens to provide a clearer and perhaps alternative perspective to the ways in which passing is both implicit (through the individual's choice to pass) and complicit (through the audience's suspension of disbelief.) My research questions how much responsibility the audience carries in the passing individual's effort to pass successfully. At the same time, I discuss how the performance element of improvisation is absolutely necessary in the process and act of passing. What I have defined as the "process of passing" is a variation of Arnold van Gennep's Rites de Passage: a performance ritual with "distinct phases in the social processes whereby groups [and individuals] become adjusted to internal changes, and adopt them to their external environment." Van Gennep's three phases of separation, transition and incorporation that define a rite of passage serve as the foundation of my definition of the process of passing.

Subject Area

Literature|American literature|British and Irish literature|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Vaughn, Tracy L, "(W)rites of passing: The performance of identity in fiction and personal narratives" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3212756.