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Brownness: Mixed Identifications in Minority Immigrant Literature, 1900-1960


My dissertation challenges our preconceptions of the ethnic literary tradition in the United States. Minority literature is generally read within a framework of resistance that prioritizes anti-hegemonic and anti-racist writings. I focus on a set of recalcitrant texts, written in the first part of the twentieth century, that do not fit neatly within this framework. My chapters trace an arc from Ameen Rihani's The Book of Khalid (1911), which personifies a universal citizen who refuses to be either Arab or American, to Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), which dramatizes the appeal of white identification for upwardly mobile Barbadian immigrants. I present the first comparative analysis of Afro-Caribbean, Arab, Filipino, Latino, and South Asian immigrant writings. This archive includes familiar figures such as Claude McKay and William Carlos Williams as well as understudied writers such as Abraham Rihbany and Dalip Singh Saund. I argue that these texts feature a common character: a character who does not want to be exclusively minor, who seeks to identify as widely as possible with majoritarian formations. I propose that this archetype of mixed identification be understood as "brown." Brownness is not a racial category but a literary characterization. It represents the unwieldy paradox of the majority-identified minority subject, a paradox that criticism of ethnic literature has largely ignored. I chart the complex attachments of these brown characters, their Orientalist mediations, asymptotic Americanisms, approximations of whiteness--in sum, their disidentification with minoritization itself. By exploring these vexed desires, I help to explain the perennial attraction of brown characters not only for racialized minorities but also for narratives of U.S. exceptionalism.

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