American Racial Commodities in Transnational Frame

AHA Session 184
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Janet M. Davis, University of Texas at Austin
Old Plantation Chic
Chris Dingwall, University of Toronto
America’s Popular Eugenics Goes Global
Shanon Fitzpatrick, University of California, Irvine
Matthew Pratt Guterl, Brown University

Session Abstract

American Racial Commodities in Transnational Frame

The purveyors of American consumer culture have long used race to sell products from instant rice to children’s toys. Much of the historical literature on these racialized commodities has focused on their relationship the maintenance of domestic white supremacy in the era of Jim Crow. But what happens to our understanding of racial commodities when we see them as part of not only a national story, but instead a global one that continues to unfold? Recent scholarship has sought to situate U.S. racial formation in the context of American empire and expansionism, with particular attention to the intersections of domestic legal change, American foreign policy, and international markets. Drawing on and augmenting that work, this panel argues that the global circulation of consumer commodities has played a central role in shaping domestic constructions of race as well as American foreign relations. 

Each paper offers a concrete historical case study of racial commodities and their circulations at specific moments of domestic change, imperialism, and globalization. In spanning the late-19th to the late-20th century, the presentations together will highlight how the relationship between the commodification of race and America’s role in the world has changed over time. First, Chris Dingwall asks how books of plantation folklore in art nouveau style during the late-19th century reconciled popular nostalgia for the racial order of slavery with an emerging culture of transatlantic cosmopolitanism. Next, Shanon Fitzpatrick analyzes popular and informational media produced by the U.S. eugenics movement, showing how the transnational circulations of media products produced flexible messages about race and eugenics in the interwar era. Sarah Miller-Davenport’s paper then asks why white, middle-class American women were so fascinated with all things Hawaiian—island fashion, backyard luaus, Hawaiian cooking—at a moment when the new state of Hawai‘i was marketing itself as a global racial paradise. Together, these papers show how America’s transnational racial commodities were molded by and gave material form to wider global discourses of race, empire, gender, and capitalism.

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