McClintock, Uncle Tom’s Children, and Nervous Conditions

In “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Nationalism, Gender and Race,” Anne McClintock argues that women serve as the symbolic boundaries of a nation and the bearers of national difference. While I expected this article to dovetail nicely with Nervous Conditions, I was struck by how much it clarified aspects of Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, which I’ve just finished reading for Dr. Brinkmeyer’s course on Southern literature. Wright examines the taboo surrounding the interaction between black men and white women, and the manifestation of white people’s fear in the trope of the black man as rapist. If segregation, whether in the model of Jim Crow or of apartheid, can be read as the creation of quasi-national boundaries (both geographic and social), any transgression of those boundaries threatens to dissolve the delicate fantasy of homogeneity through which white national identity is secured. As such white women, as a symbol for the racial purity of the nation, become a site of heightened anxiety over the dissolution of boundaries. This is one way to further understand the way in which the protection of women’s bodies from the perceived animalistic sexuality of black men was so often used in justification of the violent construction of racial boundaries; women’s bodies, as the means of reproduction of the white bodies which constitute the white nation, become a boundary that is at once symbolically potent and vulnerable to contamination.

McClintock’s understanding of women as symbolic markers of national difference is rooted in her conception of the gendered time of the nation, in which women come to embody the conservative continuity of the nation while men are granted progressive agency. For example, within Nervous Conditions, the adoption of European culture through education is virtuous for both Nhamo and Babamukuru. While their education is framed as a means of national and familial progression, for Nyasha, the adoption of European values becomes the mark of whoredom and impurity. It disrupts the gendered division of cultural labor which posits women as the maintainers of tradition. As a symbolic boundary, the admittance of European ideas and values is not a means of progression but of transgression. Likewise, education for Maiguru must be subsumed into the domestic and conservative roles of mother and wife, despite the ostensible equality of education between her and her husband. Whatever roles she may have played in the development of the nation are subsumed by her social role within the domestic sphere. Where her education is at odds with maintenance of tradition, it must be made invisible.

Finally, McClintock asks “Can the iconography of the family be retained as the figure for national unity or must an alternative, radical iconography be developed?” (386). If the family is the structuring analogy for national unity, we might also ask whether a restructuring of relations within the domestic sphere, a redefinition of the social structure of family, might be a means of disrupting the gendered model of national unity. In other words, can a redefinition of the gendered division of labor within the domestic sphere expand to redefine the gendered division of labor in the production of national unity and identity?

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