Will Fish Ever Fly?
A Paper Discussing Racial Issues in Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing
“The bird and the fish can fall in love.” A catchy saying, that suggests the possibility of a highly unconventional pairing. Nevertheless, it immediately evokes a non-trivial question: “But where will they build their nest?” Paradoxically, the saying starts off conveying hope for bird and fish’s unequal relationship, yet its continuation instantly deprives it of all its initial confidence again, leaving behind only a dull prospect of this couple’s common future. It seems as if there is only little chance for the two to set up a family - though it is not said to be impossible. However, even if bird and fish eventually managed to find an apt nesting place, how would their story go on? Would they be able to live together? Could they survive at the periphery of their habitats? Apart from those questions dealing with the couple itself, some of the most interesting questions arising would certainly concentrate on their progeny, and in how far they would combine parental features - or differ from fish and bird respectively. Would either of their parental lines dominate the other? And if so, which aspects of life would this dominance affect? Would it go as far as to predict which habitat fish and bird’s progeny would occupy at last?
In his latest novel, The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers applies this saying to the situation of interracial marriages and their mixed-race offspring in the twentieth century US society. He portrays a black-and-white couple’s ambitions to overcome the enormous obstacles associated with realizing the seemingly impossible: setting up a mixed-race family and raising their children “beyond race” (Powers 424). Yet despite all their efforts and sacrifices, the couple’s endeavors fail; this actually is mirrored not only by their own lives, but also by the lives of their hybrid children, neither of whom makes it “beyond race” in the end. However, is this meant to imply that racial boundaries are so powerful that they cannot be overcome? Is it as unlikely to find a way interfacing black and white as it is suggested by the desperate situation of fish and bird?
Focussing on the above issues, one indispensably needs to deal with the concept of race and the factors that are involved in racial categorization. Therefore the first step in the following paper will be to investigate the notion of race, concentrating particularly on black and mixed-raced identity as it is the central theme in The Time of Our Singing. In the course of that discussion we will encounter correlating aspects between race and gender studies, referring to ideas mentioned by Laura Brady; these considerations will further highlight the significance of racial boundaries, the nature of which plays a central role in the context of mingling races. The latter part of this paper will then deal with the issues of racial membership, weaving in Hollinger’s considerations with regard to voluntary vs. involuntary affiliation. All in all, this will finally reinforce the thesis that one cannot escape racial entrapment or, in other words, that fish will never fly - and neither will any of its hybrid offspring.
So first of all, let us consider the definition of the term “race.” Its entry in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English instantly shows that this word is used in a broad range of meaning: It is used to refer to phenotypic appearances (“one of the main groups that humans can be divided into according to the colour of their skin and other physical features,” 1161), it is understood as membership in such a phenotypically defined group (“the fact of belonging to one of these groups,” 1161) and it even bears some cultural significance (“a group of people with the same customs, history, language etc.” 1161). Yet how can one deal with such a complex notion? If so many aspects have to be taken into account, a clear-cut distinction between races seems to be highly unlikely. In order to get some more pragmatic definition of race, we actually ought to come up with a single criterion that suffices to determine one’s racial identity. Based on the factors mentioned in the DCE, I will therefore investigate some approaches to determine race exclusively by a single aspect of identity.
Certainly one’s physical features display the most obvious criteria of a potential racial categorization. In her article On Distinction Ann Morning states that “a handpicked collection of characteristics like skin and hair color, eyes and nose shape, might well delineate the groups that we commonly understand to be races” (2). However, this approach lacks viability, as “each variant usually shades gradually into the next, without sharp, crisp borders” (Morning 1). Indeed, drawing evidence from Powers’ novel, the superficiality of this phenotypic distinction does not only predict mismatching of closely related family members such as father and son (“His son will not be his. Every census will divide them.” Powers 458), but also suffers derogation by its randomness: Jonah, a hybrid between his Afro-American mother and Eurosemitic father, paradoxically looks like “a blood-drained, luminous Arab” (Powers 17), which does not bear any correlation with his actual bloodline. Therefore, the idea of “race” being exclusively based on phenotypic resemblance has proved too inconsistent to serve as a pragmatic definition.
Alternatively, there also exists another approach of how to determine one’s blackness: The so-called one-drop-rule, according to which “a person is black if and only if (s)he has at least one traceable black ancestor” (McPherson 179, brackets mine). Though even if one could make up for this theory’s recursivity (a person is black if one of his ancestors is black, who is black if ...), its limitations are quite straightforward. Since “humankind’s origins are in Africa” (McPherson 182), humankind in its entirety would consequently be black, including white US society. Thus none of those US citizens claimed to be white properly satisfies the no-drop-criterion, as already hinted out by Powers in the novel: “Every white person in America is passing” (Powers 563). He further underlines the obviousness of this argument when little Robert, only 7 years of age, provides the reader with the underlying scientific background (“the whole human race started in Ethiopia,” 602). It is self-evident that the concept of race may not be based on a theory that can be invalidated even by little children using a means as simple as logical deduction!
Nevertheless, further reanalysis and revision of that theory delivers an apparently promising alternative; going as deep into people’s lineage as modern techniques allow, one might assume the human genome to provide a sensible approach to racial identity. If race does not necessarily correlate with one’s outer appearance, nor can be retraced from one’s ancestors, it might well bear more correlation with our genetic makeup. Yet can races really be considered as subsets of humankind sharing a certain amount of characteristic genes? According to Lewontin’s essay “Confusions About Human Races,” race can in fact not be dealt with this kind of categorization. Lewontin draws this conclusion mainly from the fact that the human species includes individuals that differ immensely from one another; even small populations of rather remote tribes are “by no means genetically uniform” but “on the average 85% of all human genetic variation [occurs] within local populations” (1). Thus, a grouping together of people based on genetic agreements would yield two kinds of mismatching at the same time: On the one hand, this theory would scatter existing communities by mapping their members elsewhere with a higher correlation of DNA variants, while on the other hand it would also predict memberships in communities that actually do not even exist in reality. From a biological perspective, it can therefore be inferred that no “uniform criterion of race could be constructed” (Lewontin 3).