What If You Could Change Your Race?

Dustin Gavin

The Whitney Humanities Center opened the academic year with the Finzi-Contini Lecture, delivered by Namwali Serpell, Professor of English at Harvard, Yale alumna, and author of several books, including her novel The Old Drift, which won the 2020 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. Originally given via Zoom on September 23, 2021, Serpell’s talk, “Race Off: The Fantasy of Race Transformation,” is now available for viewing on the Yale YouTube channel.

In this stunning lecture, now archived as a video essay, Namwali Serpell challenges her audience with a probing historical, and nearly rhetorical, question: “What if you could change your race?” From contemporary “race faker” Rachel Dolezal to the mid-nineteenth-century racial concoctions displayed by P. T. Barnum, Serpell catalogs America’s longstanding investment in performance(s) of race. Taking up themes such as the “grotesqueries of minstrelsy” and “techno-passing,” she poetically maps this racial history through the lens of what she terms “passing literature” and its confluence with blackface performance. She charts the form and content of “passing” by analyzing such texts as James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Nella Larsen’s novel and recent film adaptation Passing (starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson). The genre of passing, of racial transformation, Serpell argues, is a “gestalt switch between obliteration and creation.” However, maybe most importantly, Serpell traces this history in terms of a disastrous intimacy between black and white worlds and reminds us that this intimacy still haunts us. She leaves her audience with a provocation to move past the taxonomic loop of “passing,” “reverse-passing,” or “switching,” petitioning instead for “a contingent, curious, and ongoing ‘movement’ of the mind.”

We invite you to watch the video online or to read the essay in The Yale Review. The Finzi-Contini Lectures are made possible through the generous gift of Judge Guido Calabresi and his brother, the late Dr. Paul Calabresi; together they established the Finzi-Contini Lectures in honor of their mother, Bianca Maria Finzi-Contini Calabresi.

Dusty Gavin is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies and African American Studies. His work looks at the overlap and confluence of “sacred” and “profane” idioms.