'What are you?' Exploring racial categorization in Nowhere else on earth.

Record Number: 
LOCK052
Citation: 

Locklear, Erica Abrams. "'What are you?' Exploring racial categorization in Nowhere else on earth." Southern literary journal 39.1 (Fall 2006): 33-53.

Annotation: 

It is fortunate that this first (to my knowledge) scholarly study of Josephine Humphreys's 2000 novel, Nowhere else on earth, focuses on the theme of racial classification of Robeson County Indians, a topic that is significant not only within the novel but also to the entire history of study of these Indians.

Locklear perceptively selects and discusses key events and passages through which Humphreys shows the characters—both White and Indian—trying to find a racial answer to the question, "What are you?" about the Indians of Scuffletown. Locklear applies to her analysis of these passages texts such as Henry Louis Gates's introduction to Race, writing, and difference (1985) and Samira Kawash's "The epistemology of race," in Dislocating the color line (1997). Put simply, both Gates and Kawash assert that race contributes nothing to the understanding of identity. The problem with the non-contribution of race, Locklear explains, is that race ". . . is that something [italics mine] that Americans insist on naming (that in fact only takes meaning in the act of naming), and it is this same something [italics mine] that Humphreys addresses in Nowhere else on earth (p. 34)."

Locklear skillfully links her exploration of racial classification in the novel to actual events in the history of Robeson County Indians—events ranging in time from Reconstruction Robeson County to the development of tribal origin theories (and the accompanying state legislation) to the present. The key point Locklear elucidates in the novel's treatment of race—one that reverberates in the statements of many Lumbees about their Indian identity (for good examples, see Bordewich) —is that the Lumbee know they are Indian, and have always known it. But others keep asking about their racial composition (for reasons originally,and sometimes even now, driven by power and dominance; but for most Americans, now driven simply by social conditioning and curiosity). The Lumbee—both historically and currently—often try to answer on the questioners' terms—engaging in the race debate—for reasons related to economics (for example, the boon that federal funding from true federal recognition would provide to struggling Robeson County) and also to pride.

Locklear's illustrations of the novel's exploration of racial classification are drawn largely from the passages involving Dr. McCabe's search to determine the race of Rhoda and her mother Cee. Especially important are Dr. McCabe's attempts to ascribe race through physical characteristics. Other passages Locklear discusses involve Rhoda's own feelings about her identity, especially with respect to her Scotsman father; discussions of the variation in physical appearance of Scuffletown Indians; and the novel's fictionalized counterpart of Dr. Carl Seltzer and his anthropometric studies of Robeson County Indians.

Locklear perceptively notes that the swamp in which Scuffletown Indians live (both in the novel and historically), where land and water meet and blend, serve as an apt metaphor for Rhoda's shifting and developing sense of identity; but they also form a place, a key component of her mature identity. Lockleaer also explores the novel's treatment of miscegenation, placing it in historical context by discussing Hamilton McMillan's Lost Colony theory of Lumbee origins and George Butler's 1914 The Croatan Indians of Sampson County.

Other components of Locklear's discussion of the racial classification theme are the linking of turpentining to Rhoda's emerging identity rooted in place; turpentine work as a metaphor for the blurring of race; and Henry Berry Lowry as a representation, for Rhoda, of Indianness.

Locklear concludes the essay, as well as her discussion of Rhoda's self-actualization (seen as the grounding of her Indianness in family, community, and place, rather than in racial classification) with a discussion of the Lumbee quest for full federal recognition. She notes the economic benefits of the government funding that full federal recognition would bring. She also acknowledges that by continuing to seek full federal recognition, the Lumbee are challenging the federal government's faulty system of racial categorization. She counters these two justifications, however, with the following argument: ". . . in order to 'prove' their Indian-ness, the Lumbee people will have to resort to making biological claims involving 'blood,' as well as connections to 'real' Indian ancestors, like the Cheraws. Endeavors such as this defeat their socio-historical and cultural claims as a Native American group and ultimately belittle very real claims of Indian identity" (p. 49).

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First Appeared in 1994 Book?: 
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