This essay compares Grace Halsell’s under-examined and now out-of-print memoir Soul Sister (1969) to its precursor, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), in order to demonstrate that Halsell attempts to revise Black Like Me’s focus on a portrait of black powerlessness, pathos, and lack of voice. While Griffin evacuates political context, Halsell fills her text with male and female voices from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements; in so doing she forwards a multivalent and plural construct of black subjectivity and black political struggle. Ultimately, Halsell depicts herself moving into the political subjectivity of Malcolm X, although she also reaches towards what she sees as his final vision in which a stark black-white racial binary is transcended. Second, the essay also argues that at key junctures Halsell’s text turns back onto itself as an exploration of the formation of white racial identity as well as the privileges according to white femininity; the intersectional oppression she experiences while passing forces her to interrogate the construction of categories not only of race, but also of sex and class. Taken together, these texts therefore enable an examination of what is at stake in the genre of the white passing narrative—as well as why the modes of looking at blackness present in these texts so often fail. While the genre of the white passing narrative has been critically derided, this essay seeks to show that such works allow an examination of the formation and transformation of categories of white racial (and to a lesser extent) gendered identity, as well as the way whiteness remains the fulcrum of personal, social, and political privilege.
Cutter, Martha J.
"Black Like Malcolm: Grace Halsell’s Rewriting of Black Like Me (1961) in Soul Sister (1969),"
Criticism: Vol. 58:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol58/iss1/3