Sex, Blood, and Hybridity: The Discourse of Racial Anxiety in Antebellum Writing (NeMLA, March 15-18, 2012

full name / name of organization: 
Rebecca Williams
contact email: 

In antebellum America, the notion of 'blood' as 'race' maintained a strong hold over the 19th century literary imagination. This panel will examine how antebellum literary texts worked dialectically with the new racial science of ethnology to respond to the dominant racial ideologies of the day. Mid-century works by authors as varied as Frederick Douglass, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Lydia Maria Child, and Frances E.W. Harper illustrated very clearly the instability of racial classification and its resultant sexual anxieties. Rather than phenotype, references to 'white' blood and 'black' blood came to be regarded as the primary signifiers of racial traits. The enduring fascination of white Americans with the mathematical fractionalization of blood was evident in the creation and use of words such as octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto in the titles of magazine articles, books, and pamphlets while, at the same time, actual skin color would become an increasingly invisible signifier of race. Among the anthropologists, anatomists, ethnologists, and naturalists who led the drive for racial classification in the mid-19th century were polygenists such as Josiah C. Nott, Samuel Cartwright, George Glidden, and others. Alabama physician Nott's 1844 Two Lectures on the Natural History of the Caucasian and Negro Races and 1854 Types of Mankind cut to the heart of race-based 'scientific' writing during the19th century. Nott's hypothesis that mulattoes, as the offspring of interracial sexual couplings—termed 'faulty stock'—could not be self-sustaining was never scientifically tested. In addition, the continued emphasis on the supposed degeneracy and diseased blood caused by race-mixing betrayed a degree of hysteria disproportionate to the actual numbers of the unions. This panel is significant in that it seeks a fresh investigation of paradigms through which antebellum literary texts can be read as directly responding to the new science and ideology of ethnology. Topics and/or critical paradigms can include, but are certainly not limited to: miscegenation, disease, politics, erotics, gender, feminism, science, politics, class, trauma, critical race/queer theory, reception theory, and reader-response. Send 1-page abstract and brief bio as Word attachment to Rebecca Williams,, with 'NEMLA' in subject line.

he 43rd annual NEMLA convention will be held March 15-18th in Rochester, New York at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. St. John Fisher College will serve as the host college, and the diverse array of area institutions are coordinating with conference organizers to sponsor various activities, such as celebrated keynote speakers, local events, and fiction readings.

Conference information at