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Red, White, but not Black: Race and Economic Power

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Abstract:

Through the figure of James P. Beckwourth, I examine the problematics of racial identity and economic opportunity on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. Beckwourth, a former slave, was a mulatto entrepreneur and frontiersman who found wealth and fame while living among plains Indians in the 1850's; he published his autobiography in 1856. Taking a literary approach, I offer a close-reading of the manner in which Beckwourth self-fashions in his narrative, a process particularly intriguing because of the racial shape-shifting he undergoes throughout the narrative. He rejects his African-American heritage (and his black mother), donning an identity much more racially ambiguous. At times he classifies himself as a white man, evoking his paternal ancestry. At other times, he classifies himself as Indian, referring to the years he spent living among Crow Indians, assimilating into their cultures. Importantly, this racial shape-shifting seems to be guided by his own economic interests. To secure business/trade deals, Beckwourth convinces Euro-Americans that he is Indian and convinces Indians that he is a white man. He seems to recognize that the kind of financial success he seeks is inaccessible to him as a black man on the frontier. He becomes a powerful, successful entrepreneurial frontiersman because he manages to manipulate unstable racial categories and avoid the one racial identity (black) that perhaps would have hindered him the most. A close-reading of Beckwourth's narrative offers a much more nuanced picture of how nineteenth-century African-Americans employed American literature to self-fashion. It also offers a clearer understanding of how those of African-descent manipulated racial distinctions to achieve economic success. In Beckwourth, we see both the limits and the potential of black economic power.
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Association:
Name: 95th Annual Convention
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http://www.asalh.org


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435224_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Smith, Cassander. "Red, White, but not Black: Race and Economic Power" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina, <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435224_index.html>

APA Citation:

Smith, C. L. "Red, White, but not Black: Race and Economic Power" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 95th Annual Convention, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, North Carolina <Not Available>. 2014-11-27 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p435224_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: Through the figure of James P. Beckwourth, I examine the problematics of racial identity and economic opportunity on the American frontier in the nineteenth century. Beckwourth, a former slave, was a mulatto entrepreneur and frontiersman who found wealth and fame while living among plains Indians in the 1850's; he published his autobiography in 1856. Taking a literary approach, I offer a close-reading of the manner in which Beckwourth self-fashions in his narrative, a process particularly intriguing because of the racial shape-shifting he undergoes throughout the narrative. He rejects his African-American heritage (and his black mother), donning an identity much more racially ambiguous. At times he classifies himself as a white man, evoking his paternal ancestry. At other times, he classifies himself as Indian, referring to the years he spent living among Crow Indians, assimilating into their cultures. Importantly, this racial shape-shifting seems to be guided by his own economic interests. To secure business/trade deals, Beckwourth convinces Euro-Americans that he is Indian and convinces Indians that he is a white man. He seems to recognize that the kind of financial success he seeks is inaccessible to him as a black man on the frontier. He becomes a powerful, successful entrepreneurial frontiersman because he manages to manipulate unstable racial categories and avoid the one racial identity (black) that perhaps would have hindered him the most. A close-reading of Beckwourth's narrative offers a much more nuanced picture of how nineteenth-century African-Americans employed American literature to self-fashion. It also offers a clearer understanding of how those of African-descent manipulated racial distinctions to achieve economic success. In Beckwourth, we see both the limits and the potential of black economic power.


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