This annotation is of Cheng’s essay published in The Kenyon Review; since then she has published a book. I hope to get to it soon,


Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” The Kenyon Review. American Memory/ American Forgetfulness 19.1 (Winter, 1997): 49-61. JSTOR. Web. 15 July 2013.

Cheng begins by asking if we can ever get over race; she answers her question with no: one merely has to look at the way the “race card” gets played in society to see that the answer is no. She examines the idea of a “race card”—of a card that gets played. The implication is that if one holds a full deck, then they do not need to play the special card. The full deck implies an “idealized version of multiple subjectivity” (race, gender, ethnic, etc) (49). One only needs to play a card if one is outside of the game, “for to play the race card is to exercise the value of one’s disadvantage, the liability that is asset” (49-50). Cheng points out the paradox: the one who plays with a full deck does not need to pull out a special card.

[Or is the race card more like a Wild card? The race card is a card that gets played when you do not have the proper “real” card. A card used to try to get an advantage because your hand is short of the proper card]

Cheng looks at Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior where the narrator says she feels most at home when she is not at home. The narrator, who is always sick at home, but feels great in America, reveals the effect of affects. A sick body becomes one of hypochondria. That body only feels good when it is not at home, in displacement.

Freud sets up a distinction between mourning and melancholia, where melancholy is the pathological version of mourning; someone who cannot “get over the loss” (Cheng 50), the loss becomes incorporated into the ego. Remembrance becomes part of the self; since melancholy fails to let go, “is denied loss” [Derrida’s I carry the world of the other], Freud says “by incorporating and identifying with the ghost of the lost one, the melancholic takes on the emptiness of that ghostly presence and in this way participates in his/her own self denigration” (Cheng 50).  Cheng turns to Freud and his distinction between mourning and melancholy. Melancholy is the pathological version of mourning because melancholy does not allow the sufferer to “get over” the loss. As she points out “rather, loss is denied as loss and incorporated as part of the ego” (50). The act of remembering (of not forgetting) becomes part of the self. Freud, she says, reminds us that this taking on of the lost one, means that the melancholic “takes on the emptiness of that ghostly presence and in this way participates in his/her own self-denigration” (50). Taking this idea of melancholy, Cheng wants to apply it to race:

“As a model of ego-formation (the incorporation as self of an excluded other), melancholia provides a provocative metaphor for how race in America, or more specifically how the act of racialization, works” (50). America has a history of forming its identity through exclusionary practices (blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, etc), but America also does a good job of forgetting those practices. Since American identity is caught between these axis, the problem becomes how to remember America’s ugly past without slowing down progress? (51). Cheng presents the protagonist of Invisible Man as an example of the “minority as the object of white melancholia” (51). He represents an invisible body that cannot be forgotten. The ghost of that which society killed but the body remains. Mr. Norton represents the idea of progress. He supports black education and builds a monument on the progress of blacks in America off of the work of young black (ghostly) men. Cheng transitions into Toni Morrison’s critique of the American literary canon. The canon is full of books that look back at America’s past, but the canon is full of white people; therefore “the canon is a melancholic corpus because of what it excludes but cannot forget” (51). We have stories about the history of slavery and racism we cannot forget, but we fail to have very many minorities IN the cannon.

Cheng turns her attention to the melancholic minority. First, melancholy resembles what Derrida would term an undecidable: “. . . it designates a condition of identity disorder where subject and object become indistinguishable form one another. The melancholic object, made neither dead nor fully alive, must experience its own subjectivity as suspension, as excess and denigration—and in this way, replicate the melancholic subject” (51). A good cultural melancholic is the one who has a vision of herself without herself (as in the Kingston example). The idea that America is a melting pot is in itself a contradiction between assimilation and making a difference. The minority subject has to deny her/him self in order to inhabit the majority subject, thus suspending the idea of his/her own “minority” subjectivity.

Cheng goes into the example of Flower Drum Song where the minority, a father and daughter, celebrate their minority through illegality. The movie promotes assimilation. The two, illegal aliens, are actually ideal citizens. The father worries about breaking the law, as he is breaking the law. At the end of the movie, the daughter embraces her illegality in order to assimilate—in order to give herself over to citizenship and becoming the ideal citizen. Cheng states “More than a haunting concept in America, the “minority subject” presents a haunted subject. Minority identity reveals an inscription marking the remembrance of absence” (52). The minority subject is the melancholic one who is forced to renounce herself (instead of the lost object—in this case, the lost object is the minority subject, herself).

[this analysis of the minority embracing the illegality in order to become legal is interesting. The illegal has to assimilate, lose him or herself, in order to be legal. But in Cuban narrative, Cuban subject is here (by dry foot law) always legally. Cuban occupy a different space/place within the immigration narrative. The Cuban immigrant is the embodiment of U.S.’s victory over communism—Cuban represent a win for American ideology].

Freud realizes that even in proper mourning, the subject might suffer melancholy. In order to get over “it” the subject needs to already have been, somehow, over “it.” (53). Freud’s mourning entails a forgetting, which only reinstates the death: “Mourning implies the second killing off of the lost object” (53). Cheng makes an interesting connection between mourning and melancholy, stating that the melancholic integrates the lost object while the mourner forgets the lost object, but in both cases, the result ends up the same, with the disappearance of the lost object: “. . .the production of denigration and rejection, however re-introjection is concomitant with the production and survival of “self.” The good mourner turns out to be none other than an ultrasophisticated, and more lethal, melancholic” (53). The two methods are for the benefit of the subject who is dealing with lost—and in both cases, the subject either kills and denigrates the lost object (mourning), or hangs on to, fails to forget the lost object—both cases, in order to move on. In other words, the difference is that the mourner kills (again), in forgetting the lost object; the melancholic replaces the loss object with the very loss. The melancholic forgets the lost object and hangs on to the idea of loss (53).

In terms of racialization, these two methods deal with boundaries and blurring boundaries. Boundaries establish race; one defines the other against self. By identifying as one race, one identifies “other” races. While the issue of ethnicity is one of boundaries, we will never be able to set matters right. We are already conditioned by what society deems abnormal or broken—the language used to discuss and attempt to free those society oppresses is already caught up in and pre-conditioned by society. Cheng connects this problem to Freud: “In the way of Freudian logic, pathology defines health. Racial identity, as a moment of active self-perception, is almost always simultaneous with the racialization of another, an instance of othering” (53-54). Zora Neil Hurston, for instance, says she feels most black when contrasted with a white background. Where white defines black, “each defining the other’s pathology” (54).

The melancholic minority internalizes (assimilates) dominant cultural demands. This internalization is a matter of desire. What does the minority want? [Cuban culture is an exception of this idea of internalization. Cubans playing domino at Domino Park have intergrated their culture into America—not “internalized” the dominant culture. Indeed, the language, food, and general culture of the Cuban community show how little Cubans, at least initially (first wave Cuban immigrants) assimilated; I am not talking about Perez-Firmat’s 1.5ers who have create a new culture out of mixing Cuban/American].

The point is that the act of racialization, of denying and re-assimilating the other, of self-perception, is a melancholic act. The discourse of compensation denies the problem of how the discrimination was put in place, and fails to acknowledge the physical affects of the discrimination. Cheng wants to explore how racialization works through this melancholic heuristic. The ethnic subject attempts, like the melancholic one, to forget (who she is). Cheng asks, “If the melancholic minority is busy forgetting herself, with what is she identifying?” (54). The minority, as has been said, has “internalized dominant cultural demands” – so Cheng asks: what does the minority subject desire? “When it comes to political critique, it seems as if the desire itself may be what the minority has been enjoined to forget” (54). Cheng looks at Madame Butterfly, where Song, disguised as a woman, seduces Gallimard. Song’s desire is never explored; he is either the object of Song’s desire or critique of it. His performance must remain inauthentic if it is to remain a critique. Cultural assimilation requires relinquishment—a disguise.

This notion of cultural assimilation is common in literature. Homi Bhabha explores connection of assimilation and falsehood: mimicry is a colonial discipline that is doomed to failure. Mimicry means that ethnic other acts a little like the dominant culture but not too much. The attempt by the ethnic to “internalize the other” is for Bhabha an authoritive injunction. An example of this injunction to mimic the dominant culture can be seen in the servant Indian dressed as the English (Babar the elephant?). This imitation serves the purpose of showing that the ethnic is playing the game and trying to fit in, while also keeping the distance of never reaching “authenticity.” However, Cheng says that “The concept of melancholic racialization, however, implies that assimilation may be more intimately linked to identity than a mere consequence of the dominant demand for sameness” (55). This melancholic assimilation (passing, acting like dominant culture) is a fait accompli (an action that is done and cannot be changed). The ethnic subject forms an ego through this acting, but the ethnic other is never considered authentic. “Passing” becomes part and parcel of the ego, of the subject.

Cheng looks at Derrida, who also implies that the “disguise” becomes part of the subject’s identity. The very act of “taking in” the culture of the other becomes an act of self-constitution. This act of mimicry works on both the minority and dominant culture. As Cheng’s Invisible Man example illustrates “If he [invisible man] has assimilated only through his invisibility, then he also renders dissimilar and strange the status of their [white-anglo] visibility” (57).  Cheng sees this type of mimicry as a possible way to challenge and subvert assimilation. Assimilation only goes to undermine the culture assimilated.

This essay then falls into the idea laid out by Derrida on immigration and the breakdown of an in/out binary. Cheng focuses on Rinehart from Invisible Man, who is both religious and pimp, runner and gambler and lover, etc.. “Who you are depends on whom you are talking to, which community you are in, and who is watching your performance” (57). Cheng describes how performing becomes the actual thing; Song in M. Butterfly becomes the lover he was only playing—Zizek elaborates this point in stating that the mask we wear is actually who we are.

Cheng’s argument revolves around a Derridain deconstruction of absence/presence and of inside/outside. She says that “American culture is continually confronted by ghost it can neither spit out nor swallow,” and then later she says that the act of configuring authentic American culture is an act of exclusion that pre-conditions what is included: “The act of delineating absence preconditions presence” (58). What Cheng argues is the melancholy of race, is precisely what Zizek says is the problem with tolerance in racial matters. Cheng says that “ You carry the foreigner inside you. This malady of doubleness, I argue, is the melancholy of race, a dis-ease of location and memory, a persistent fantasy of identification that cleaves and cleaves to the marginalized and the master” (60).

What would Levinas think of this idea of carrying the foreigner inside you? If my subjectivity is predicated on the other, then I am by difference with the other, no?