Podcast: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies

I wish I could just pop over to The Jewish Museum of London to see their current exhibition ‘Blood’, which is open until 28 February 2016. Being on the other side of the world, there’s little chance of that happening, but it looks fascinating.

The next best option is to listen to Professor Roger Luckhurst, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birbeck, University of London. He  gave a presentation there on 26 November 2015 which riffed on the topic of blood, called ‘Blood Fractions: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies’.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the slave trade, colonial administration and racial science developed a whole structure and language for calculating the precise mixture of blood in the offspring of white Europeans and their subject populations. The official line was that mixing was impossible, but the improvised language of ‘half-bloods’, ‘quadroons’, ‘octoroons’, and other terms suggested otherwise. This was the vast mixed population that existed ‘beyond the pale.’ In Victorian culture, the octoroon (a person with one-eighth black blood) was a kind of vanishing point, a focus of anxiety about detecting the taint of ‘bad’ blood. While in the twentieth century, the Nazis sought to protect ‘pure’ German blood from becoming tainted by the blood of Jews. In this talk Professor Luckhurst explores literary and cultural representations of mixed bloods.

You can hear it at Backdoor Broadcasting at

http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/roger-luckhurst-blood-fractions-the-octoroon-and-other-fantasies/

After warning that much of his talk would be offensive and placed in air quotes, he starts with a digression on Dracula before moving on to the gradations of colour described in the literature of slave owners.  Calculations down to 1/512th ‘negro’ heritage were reflected in some of the sensation literature of the day, but were revisited in the research justifying the anti-semitism of Nazi Germany.  Lest we think that such concepts are firmly cemented in the past, he closes by looking at the blood quantum laws that define membership in some Native American nations today.

A wide-ranging and interesting podcast.

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3 responses to “Podcast: The Octoroon and Other Fantasies

  1. Hi Janine, have you visited our Jewish Museum here in Melbourne? After meaning to for ages, I finally went a few years ago. It’s really interesting, and not as harrowing to visit as the Holocaust Museum.

    • I have- quite recently actually, to see an exhibition last year about the Shanghai Jewish community. It was very well done. I haven’t been to any Holocaust Museums overseas.

      • We went to the one in Berlin, which is, as you can imagine, a confronting experience, and one in Austria, which (when we saw it in 2001) reinforced my view that Austria has a long way to go in acknowledging its anti-Semitic history.

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