This interdisciplinary investigation argues that since the 1990s, discourses about mixed-race heritage in the United States have taken the shape of a veritable literary genre, here termed “memoir of the search.”
The study uses four different texts to explore this non-fictional genre, including Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family and Shirlee Taylor Haizlip's The Sweeter the Juice. All feature a protagonist using methods from archival investigation to DNA-testing to explore an intergenerational family secret; photographs and family trees; and the trip to the American South, which is identified as the site of the secret’s origin and of the family’s past. As a genre, these texts negotiate the memory of slavery and segregation in the present.
In taking up central narratives of Americanness, such as the American Dream and the Immigrant story, as well as discourses generating the American family, the texts help inscribe themselves and the mixed-race heritage they address into the American mainstream.
In its outlook, this book highlights the importance of the memoirs’ negotiations of the past when finding ways to remember after the last witnesses have passed away. and contributes to the discussion over political justice and reparations for slavery.
Julia Sattler is assistant professor of American studies at TU Dortmund University.
Introduction: Memoir of the Search: The Emergence of a Mixed-Race Literary Genre
Chapter 1: Writing Mixed Selves at the Turn of the Millennium
Chapter 2: Family Secrets: Uncovering Mixed Race Heritage
Chapter 3: Media of Memory: Generating the Family
Chapter 4: Narrating the Mixed-Race Nation
Chapter 5: The Past in the Present: Encounters with the South
Conclusion: Making History at the Turn of the Millennium
The chief value of this book may end up arising not from the thesis Sattler compellingly articulates in regard to what she calls the “memoir of the search” but from the ways in which her ideas stimulate subsequent scholars to expand and develop the growing interdisciplinary field of mixed-race studies. Michele Elam’s landmark study The Souls of Mixed Folk is, as it should be, a foundational part of this volume's methodology, but Sattler also deftly extends Elam’s work by looking very precisely at a set of four exemplary memoirs about researching previously obscured racial heritage. She contends that the "memoir of the search" itself performs an act of literary passing; although it seemingly opens new paths for understanding and writing about mixed-race identity at the individual and familial levels, it also reinforces—consciously or unconsciously—a wider narrative of national identity that still privileges whiteness…. Sattler's reframing of the critical discussion of mixed-race life-writing is thorough, valuable, and timely. Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Julia Sattler’s thoughtful and well-researched analysis shows how a prominent and under-studied genre configured Black, white, and multi-racial identities—as well as the relationships among them—in very recent history. This timely study will prove immensely helpful to readers interested in race and writing in the contemporary United States.
Julia Sattler’s book makes an important intervention into ongoing debates—within and beyond literary studies—about US racial classification. Sattler argues persuasively that recent ‘memoirs of the search’ into mixed-racial ancestry constitute a distinctive new genre, even as they adopt and adapt familiar ways of narrating race and family.