RACIAL LIBERALISM AND RACE NOVELS
There is ample proof of progress [in race relations] in a comparative view of conditions in 1917 and 1948. … Books and pamphlets on the Negro and race relations have been in striking demand, and novels bitterly attacking racial and religious discrimination—Strange Fruit, Kingsblood Royal, Gentlemen’s Agreement—have been among the most popular and widely acclaimed books of recent years.
—Edwin Embree, Investment in People: The Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, 1949
I think writing should be a force in the world, I just don’t believe it is.
—Chester Himes, Conversations with Chester Himes, 1970
Shortly before beginning The End of a Primitive (1955), Chester Himes delivered a speech at the University of Chicago identifying “the dilemma of the Negro novelist” to “lie not so much in what he must reveal, but in the reactions of his audience … [the] limitations which so often confine men to habit.”1 Reversing the expectations of his astonished listeners, Himes clarified that the audience he had in mind was not prejudiced white Americans but white racial liberals themselves, his immediate audience at the University of Chicago, whose departments of sociology and anthropology were key sites of racial-liberal knowledge production in the 1940s and 1950s. Himes charged that white racial-liberal practices of reading African American literature for information retrieval and sympathetic identification amounted to an act of racial power. Motivated by self-centering and dominating affective and cognitive dispositions, such readings bent literary meanings to fit the needs of white liberals, in effect censoring African American literature and strangling its potential cultural and political force. Himes’s assertion apparently shocked his listeners, and the event ended in a stunned silence.2 To understand the strong reaction of Himes’s audience, the importance of literature as a central cultural technology for midcentury racial liberalism must be grasped. The race novel—a genre that took literature for granted as a powerful tool for antiracist social transformation—officialized racial liberalism as the dominant paradigm for midcentury social science, race relations philanthropy, and U.S. diplomacy during the Cold War. The degree to which racial liberalism naturalized an idea of literature as a powerful tool for liberal antiracism can be discerned from this chapter’s first epigraph. Edwin Embree, the president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the period’s most powerful philanthropy dedicated solely to race relations, offered the mere popularity of “novels bitterly attacking racial and religious discrimination” as “proof of progress” in race relations.3
Midcentury racial liberalism was identical to neither postwar American liberalism (the new liberalism) nor the civil rights movement, though it shared tenets and adherents with both. Rather, racial liberalism was a framework for racial meanings and politics that sought to manage the exposure of domestic racial inequality as a major threat to U.S. global preeminence after World War II.
I examine racial liberalism primarily as an ideology and race regime rather than as a social movement or political philosophy. That is to say, I am interested in its existence as a regime that both established hegemony over the field of racial meanings and contributed vitally to U.S. global hegemony after World War II. Racial liberalism not only policed the epistemological boundaries of what counted as a race matter by creating a discursive terrain that facilitated certain ways of posing and resolving questions; it also constituted the terms of social and moral authority by which alliances were constructed between classes and segments of postwar U.S. society.
To that end, it is critical to conceive racial liberalism and U.S. global ascendancy as mutually constitutive. As anticolonial and antiracist movements gained political power and visibility during World War II, they exposed racial contradictions on a global scale. Politicizing the depths and injustices of Western and white supremacy, they demonstrated that European powers and the United States claimed to be fighting an antiracist and antifascist war while practicing racism and fascism against people of color at home and in their colonies. For the first time in such a concerted manner and on a broad, international scale, anticolonial and antiracist movements linked U.S. racial and wage slavery to European colonialism. These movements condemned Western imperialisms and recognized white supremacy as an illegitimate and artificial ideology of white and European domination. As the terms of the ideological Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union gelled, racism in the United States and other Western capitalist societies became the chief propaganda weapons in the Soviet Union’s arsenal. In order to successfully define the terms of global governance after World War II, U.S. bourgeoisie classes had to manage the racial contradictions that antiracist and anticolonial movements exposed. As racial liberalism provided the logic and idiom of such management, it became an essential organizing discourse and force for U.S. postwar society and global power.
At racial liberalism’s core was a geopolitical race narrative: African American integration within U.S. society and advancement toward equality, defined through a liberal framework of legal rights and racially inclusive nationalism, would establish the moral legitimacy of U.S. global leadership. As Mary Dudziak documented, this narrative served as a governing statement for U.S. propaganda, domestic politics, and culture industries throughout the 1950s and 1960s.4 Evidence that liberal antiracism was taking hold in the United States—civil rights legal victories, black American professional achievement, waning prejudice—was to prove the superiority of American democracy over communist imposition. It would demonstrate to countries emerging from colonialism that the social relations of capitalist modernity were not hopelessly compromised by white supremacy.
For racial liberalism the incorporation of antiracism into state governmentality (the production of official antiracist discourse), with the interjection of U.S. geopolitics into fields of racial meaning, was decisive. Whereas earlier antiracisms connected to the heterogeneous struggles of people of color often linked racial and economic justice, racial liberalism sutured an official antiracism to a U.S. nationalism that bore the agency for transnational capitalism. This suture produced a liberal nationalism that normed and restricted the field of race politics to the point that antiracist discourse itself came to both deflect counternationalisms (especially in the context of early Cold War Americanism) and mask the workings of transnational capitalism. As Penny Von Eschen demonstrated in Race against Empire, leading visions of antiracism in the black public sphere in the early 1940s had been internationalist and political economic in their purview, dominated by discussions of pan-Africanism, Jim Crow imperialism in Africa, the Nigerian general strike of 1945, and the South African miners’ strike of 1946. With the ascendancy of racial liberalism and the freezing into place of Cold War repression, official liberal antiracism marginalized discussions of race, labor, and political economy as suspicious in light of American resolve against Soviet communism.
Race novels emerged as a central cultural technology of racial liberalism within a framework that defined racism as primarily a problem of attitude or prejudice. Defined as literature about race or by African American authors that transmitted rare and intimate information about black consciousness and conditions to white audiences in a way that uniquely aroused their sympathies, race novels were perceived as enabling changes in white attitudes that were presumed to have a leveling effect on racial disparity. Against the grain of such ideological transparencies, this chapter examines the race novel as a technology for producing racial liberalism as an official or state-sanctioned antiracism. It also looks at how the emotional, evidentiary, and epistemological values ascribed to race novels unified the ideology of racial liberalism, revised its racializing repertoires, and constrained antiracist discourse to forms compatible with the political and economic arrangements emerging out of the Cold War and state-oriented transnational capitalist expansion. It examines how the idea of the race novel as an antiracist technology produced and policed acceptable racial meanings in terms that prioritized individual over collective rights and property rights over social goals and depoliticized economic arrangements. In contrast to popular 1940s concepts of racism as a matter of politics and economics (i.e., racial capitalism), racial liberalism held that racial justice required the growth and development of U.S.-led transnational capitalist development, or, in period parlance, “the victory of the free world.”
This chapter’s first section focuses on the emergence of the race novel and what the emotional, evidentiary, and epistemological values ascribed to literature tell us about racial liberalism. It analyzes the most influential race relations study in U.S. history, Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). The study’s definition of racism as a problem of white attitude that threatened U.S. global leadership set the conditions for (1) privileging race novels as purveyors of white sympathy and (2) a racial logic that recalibrated white privilege, demanded African American political, cultural, and sexual normativity, and suppressed economic understandings of racialization. The section further demonstrates the active historical-material production of racial liberalism through the apparatuses of philanthropy, academia, government, media, and race relations organizations. It reconstructs the networks disseminating the truism that literature was a uniquely effective antidote to prejudice by using the archives of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, now a little-known foundation but once the most important patron of black and white authors of race novels. In contrast to the commonsense notion of racism as simply prejudice and of race novels as vehicles for sympathy, the section shows the active and effortful ascension of racial-liberal meanings to the cultural dominant.
The second section analyzes Chester Himes’s The End of a Primitive as a significant attempt to use literary form to disrupt the interpretative sway of racial liberalism over racial meanings and reading practices. Himes’s novel satirized the social and professional milieu of mid-century race relations and, by dramatizing the failure of white liberal readers to “get the handle to the [novel’s] joke” (the novel’s refrain), revealed the regulative force of racial-liberal norms to be a kind of killing sympathy.
Racial Liberalism as the Official Antiracism of the Cold War United States
“With all we know today, there should be the possibility to build a nation and a world where people’s great propensities for sympathy … would not be thwarted.” So concludes An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), an epic study of U.S. race relations financed by the Carnegie Corporation and orchestrated by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, with contributing research from Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Alaine Locke, Robert Park, Melville Herskovits, Kenneth Clark, and many others. The foundation text of racial liberalism, Myrdal’s study set the terms for Cold War liberalism and discourse on race for the next two decades, making it one of the most influential race relations studies in U.S. history.5 Its concluding stress on sympathy was far from a rhetorical choice. Rather, it represented the emergence of a key word in racial liberalism, one that folded multiple authorizing and valorizing discourses into its framework. It also anticipated, or rather prepatterned, the cultural logic that would identify race novels as a key technology of racial-liberal antiracism.
Myrdal’s study provides a textual focus for epistemological analysis by evincing racial liberalism’s core procedures and revealing the discursive conditions that made it possible for race novels, conceived as purveyors of white sympathy, to ideologically unify racial liberalism and disseminate it as a commonsense position within diverse fields of governance, academia, and U.S. national culture.
An American Dilemma foregrounded the decisive suturing of liberal antiracism to U.S. nationalism in its chief premise:
The treatment of the Negro is America’s greatest and most conspicuous scandal. For colored peoples all over the world, whose rising influence is axiomatic, this scandal is salt in their wounds. … If America in actual practice could show the world a progressive trend by which the Negro finally became integrated into democracy, all mankind would be given faith … and America would have gained a spiritual power many times stronger than all her financial and military resources. … America is free to choose whether the Negro shall remain her liability or become her opportunity. (1021–22)
The study’s purview was as much geopolitical as it was racial. As racial liberalism incorporated antiracism and global symbolic politics of blackness into the calculations of U.S. governmentality, racial equality became a means to secure U.S. interests, not an end in itself. Consequently, racial epistemology and politics were altered so that state-recognized antiracisms would have to validate culturally powerful notions of the U.S. nation-state and its foremost interests. Because the scope of the political in the postwar United States precisely shields matters of economy from robust democratic review, the suturing of liberal antiracism to U.S. nationalism, which managed, developed, and depoliticized capitalism by collapsing it into Americanism, results in a situation where official antiracist discourse and politics actually limited awareness of global capitalism.
An American Dilemma omitted from its capacious study practically any mention of black Left politics and culture, as Nikhil Singh has recently observed.6 One of its only indications that economy had something to do with racism came in a discussion of employment discrimination. Thus, years before red-baiting narrowed mainstream race politics into what has been called “the Civil Rights compromise,” liberal nationalism, all on its own, without anticommunism, bracketed the global political-economic critique of race and capitalism that pervaded anticolonial and antiracist thinking in the first half of the twentieth century.
As racial-liberal discourse became hegemonic in the 1950s, not only did race disappear as a referent for the inequality of the historical development of modern capitalism (a referentiality hard won by earlier antiracisms) but official antiracism then explicitly required the victory and extension of the U.S. empire, the motor force of capitalism’s next unequal development. Whereas placing the United States in the history of European colonialism had energized earlier antiracist movements led by people of color, from the victory of racial liberalism over white supremacy onward official antiracisms in the United States have remained under the injunction to take U.S. ascendancy for granted and remain blind to global capitalism as a political or racial issue.
Racial liberalism also sublated racial contradictions for U.S. global ascendancy by obscuring the most visible racial antagonism of white supremacy, blanket white-skin privilege. Introducing flexibility into white supremacist ascriptions of privilege solely on the basis of phenotype or racial descent, racial liberalism overlaid conventional white/black racial categories with alternate criteria for distinguishing forms of privilege and stigma arising from a liberal model of race as culture.
The replacement of white supremacy’s biological paradigm with a liberal paradigm defining racial formations as cultural formations has long been heralded as a victory against scientific racism. Though this victory is not to be gainsaid, racial liberalism’s cultural model extended racial discipline and procedures beyond the color line by splintering whiteness and blackness into privileged and stigmatized forms based on normative cultural criteria. What has not been fully understood about racial liberalism’s cultural paradigm is that it redefined race as culture only after the idea of culture in the United States had been saturated with connotations of national culture as a moral and spiritual (anticommunist) ideal. In other words, American culture (presumed in Myrdal’s study to be animated by an American Creed of equality, opportunity, and liberty) was perceived through wartime ideas of America as a universal nation and a model democracy. As racial liberalism redefined race as culture, it also promoted the idea of a racially inclusive U.S. national culture as the key to achieving America’s manifest destiny and proof of American exceptionalism and universality. Under such conditions any racial and cultural deviations from an ideal national culture connoted negative deviations, that is to say grounds for legitimate exclusion of some from the wealth and freedoms presumed to be commonly available to all Americans. Viewed in this light, racial liberalism’s cultural model of race can be seen as one that actually renewed race as a procedure for naturalizing privilege and inequality.
For white racial formations, racial liberalism renewed white privilege by constituting the white liberal American as the most felicitous member of the U.S. nation-state on the grounds of his or her liberal-antiracist disposition. Myrdal set the stage for a new, heroic form of liberal whiteness in An American Dilemma by defining the Negro problem as a “moral dilemma,” “a problem in the heart of the American,” meaning white Americans (lxxix). The study portrayed the white American who could solve this moral and psychological dilemma by heroically ridding himself of prejudice to be a superior kind of white person, legitimately privileged on the basis of having achieved a liberal-antiracist moral and psychological disposition. The following passage personifies America as a white liberal American and describes this character as key to the fulfillment of American manifest destiny:
If America should follow its own deepest convictions, its well-being at home would be increased directly. At the same time America’s prestige and power abroad would rise immensely. The century old dream of American patriots, that America could give the entire world its own freedoms and its own faith, would become true. … America saving itself becomes savior of the world. (1022)
Here, a privileged racial formation can be seen in the making. The process not only absorbs nationalism into the field of racial formation, producing the white liberal American as fairly privileged on the grounds of patriotism, but simultaneously creates American national identity as a privileged racial formation on the global scene. To be American is to occupy the place of the universal subject—for which whiteness was once the synecdoche—with the authority to intervene into, order, and rationalize whatever such universality entailed.7 Once the conflation of whiteness with the universal has been recalibrated through the discursive matrix of liberal antiracism, race itself disappeared. As seen from the absence of “Negro” or even “the Negro problem” in this passage, racial reference itself is erased as racial liberalism enfolds African Americans into the representation of America as a providential, universal nation.
Racial liberalism’s model of race as culture, normed by an idealized American national culture, also made it possible to ascribe stigma to segments of African American society without the act of ascription appearing to be an act of racial power. Instead, it appeared as fair, expected, and right. It did so by differentiating between so-called healthy African American cultural formations—those aligned with idealized American cultural norms and nationalist sentiment—and so-called pathological ones. Racial liberalism then explained black cultural pathology to be both the effect of racism, i.e., cultural maladaptation to social prejudice, and the cause of black inequality, in effect deploying liberal antiracism to renew racial stigma and to disavow structural racism. An American Dilemma presented two contrasting evaluations of African American culture. Either the “Negro” was judged “thoroughly American in his whole outlook and perception of the world,” or African American culture was represented as a pathological effect of racism: “Inpractically all its divergences, American Negro culture is not something independent of the general American culture. It is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture [italics in original]” (928).
Thus, under racial liberalism the Negro was either folded into state representation as a subset of “the general American culture” or pathologized. Most chillingly, liberal antiracism itself became a vehicle for organizing African American compliance with Americanism. Black politics, culture, experience, and analysis that were incompatible with American cultural norms and nationalist sentiment became signs of black pathology, alongside poverty and underachievement, and included black socialism, black internationalism, pan-Africanism, and Afrocentric culture movements. Racial liberalism’s culture model for race thus worked to restrict racial meanings and politics so that they complied with official liberal antiracism. It also foreclosed discussions of African American political and cultural autonomy and of the dynamics of race in the postwar expansion of transnational capitalism.
All of these core procedures of racial-liberal logic created the preconditions for defining race novels as purveyors of white sympathy. The suturing of official antiracism to U.S. liberal nationalism made it possible for race novels to be seen as a cultural political project of national import. In line with racial liberalism’s recentering of white consciousness and agency, race novels were prioritized for their capacity to aid the transformation of white readers into white racially liberal Americans. Finally, with the rescripting of racial difference as cultural rather than as biological, within a context that idealized U.S. national culture, race novels provided a forum for racial liberals to describe and judge African American culture as either essentially identical to American culture or a pathological deviation from it.
Yet the most general tenet of racial liberalism that enabled literature to be defined as a vehicle for antiracist social transformation was the idea of racism as a problem of white attitude or prejudice. As the study explained it, in line with its premise that “the Negro problem is a moral issue … [that] has its existence in the American mind,” prejudice was the product of a psychic contradiction. Although white Americans strongly indentified with the American Creed, which Myrdal defined as a national social ethos for which “the main norms … are centered in the belief in universal equality and rights to liberty,” they nonetheless participated in and benefited from daily practices of structural racial inequality (lxxi). A moral and psychological imbalance ensued, and in order to compensate, white Americans developed racial prejudice and opportunistic beliefs and desires, such as “the opportunistic desire of whites for ignorance [about black conditions]” (48). In other words, they developed a skewed sense of reality about themselves and people of color (83–113).
According to Myrdal, such defensive behaviors fueled “psychic isolation” between white and black Americans. As An American Dilemma reported, “Lack of personal and intimate contacts between members of the two groups is extraordinary,” and “the spiritual effects of segregation are accumulating with each new generation” as, “for white Americans, insight into the thoughts and feelings of Negroes is vanishing” (645, 656, 658). In the North, Myrdal evaluated relations between blacks and whites to be limited to categories he defined as “casual,” “economic,” and “criminal” contacts, which he judged too impersonal to encourage Northern whites “to perceive Negroes as human beings” (650). In the South, Myrdal found psychic isolation to be worse than it was in the North: “Southerners do not really seek to know the Negro or to have intimate contacts with him and consequently, their feelings to him remain hard” (658).
The result was a snowballing catch-22. Because black and white Americans had neither intimate nor factual knowledge of one another, they formed no relations. Because they formed no relations, they remained ignorant about one another. White prejudice increased, stereotypes thrived, and black distrust and suspicion hardened: “Isolation bars the growth of feelings of mutual identification and the solidarity of interests and ideals in both groups” (645). In this way, An American Dilemma depicted psychic isolation as an urgent and escalating national emergency.
The solution Myrdal proposed was wider dissemination of social-scientific knowledge about African American existence in the United States, such as An American Dilemma provided, to dispel white America’s psychic isolation and opportunistic belief system (650). Education was key to reform: “There is no doubt in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts” (656). Though Myrdal imagined a project of public enlightenment to be spearheaded by the social sciences, at one point he proposed that literature, too, could substitute for inadequate knowledge and personal relations. And though he found that interracial literary circles fostered personal contact among only a small group of literati, he postulated, hopefully, that “the literature product of a Richard Wright will achieve nationwide publicity and affect people as far down as the lower middle classes” (656).
In a framework that conceptualized racism as prejudice, sympathy—a quasi-moral, quasi-psychological, and quasi-social concept—was a state or a situation that could close the knowledge and relations gap between white and black Americans. Sympathy was thus the crux of the antiracism that An American Dilemma formulated and the crux of the discursive unities or networks that made it possible to define race novels as a powerful tool for social transformation.
The social, literary, and ideological object referred to as the race novel was consolidated in popular and scholarly discourse from the early 1940s to the late 1960s under a variety of names, including the sociological novel, problem novel, protest novel, psychological novel, and negro novel. Genre-minded critics also identified race novels as naturalistic and realistic fiction and as novels of social and sociological realism. The term race novel itself was used as frequently in the period as were its relatively popular variants, and often in the context of a more general discussion about race in literature rather than in a study of a specific novel. Some of the synonyms for midcentury race novels can be misleading to today’s ear. For example, negro novels were sometimes authored by white writers such as Bucklin Moon and Lillian Smith, who focalized their novels through black characters and thematized the intricacies of black/white interactions. Similarly, despite the association of race novels with realism and naturalism, modernist, postmodernist, or surrealistic fiction written by African American authors—most famously Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—were ordinarily included in studies and discussions of race novels.
The invention of the race novel can be tracked back to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Founded in 1917 by a Jewish philanthropist who was part owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., the Julius Rosenwald Fund spent out its endowment, following the instructions of its patron, in 1949. Although the fund began well before and ended on the cusp of racial liberalism’s period of dominance (roughly 1945 to 1964), the fund’s influence extended beyond its life span. Established during the era of segregationist and New Deal liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s, the networks of the Julius Rosenwald Fund incubated the personnel, institutions, and paradigms of racial liberalism. During its era of operations, the fund was the richest philanthropy dedicated solely to race relations and the most influential. Most historians have pointed to the Rosenwald Fund’s building of over five thousand schools in the segregated South as its most important endeavor. I wish, however, to emphasize its contribution to the invention and dissemination of the race novel, which the Rosenwald Fund deliberately fostered. The process was holistic. The fund financed the work of authors and sponsored publishing houses and awards for books on race relations. It recruited editors and academics to attend its conferences and preside over its grants. It sponsored professorships and built sociology departments that incorporated race novels as tools of sociological and anthropological endeavor. It used its substantial influence to place friends of the fund, white and black racial liberals, into posts in the federal government, from the State Department to the Department of Agriculture.
The Rosenwald Fund was involved in constituting the field of race relations across multiple domains of governance, civil society, academia, and national culture at the same time that it constituted the race novel as an important and unifying object of the field. Indeed, through the organizations, knowledge areas, and individuals it financed and fostered, the fund built interconnected networks and institutional structures that materialized racial liberalism as discourse and policy. It was within the weave of these overlapping institutional and discursive networks that the idea of literature’s unique capacity to instigate personal growth and social reform solidified and took on the character of common sense. These discursive networks can be mapped by focusing on three key directors of fund activities, W. W. Alexander, Dr. Charles S. Johnson, and Edwin Embree.
Along with Robert Park, W. W. Alexander founded the Inter-Cultural Education Bureau, which worked directly with school systems in an attempt to improve materials, teaching, and practice in interracial and intercultural education. In addition to arranging the fund’s support for the bureau W. W. Alexander directed its sponsorship of elementary education, teacher training, and library collections along the lines of education for interracial cooperation and understanding. In line with the goal of education as the motor force for race reform, Alexander also steered Rosenwald sponsorship toward fellowships and university chairs for African American students and professors and toward founding Roosevelt College in Chicago, unique in its time for its democratic stance, lack of quotas, and diverse student body and faculty.
Dr. Charles S. Johnson also served, during his tenure with the fund, as the director of the Division of Race Relations for the American Missionary Society and as the chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk University. Johnson was instrumental in directing the fund’s sponsorship of academic sociology and social scientific–oriented race relations organizations. The fund helped finance the infrastructure of the liberal social sciences at Fisk University, the University of Chicago, and the Social Science Research Council. The Rosenwald Fund supported programs and personnel for the American Council on Race Relations, the Commission on Human Relations of the City of Chicago, the Southern Regional Council, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the social science careers it nurtured through research, training, or publication funding were those of E. Franklin Frazier, Horace Cayton, St. Clair Drake, Lawrence Reddick, Edward Nelson Palmer, Kenneth Clark, and Allison Davis.
Edwin Embree, president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, was also considered a national expert in the field of race relations. He authored Brown Americans and Thirteen against the Odds, race relations books for the general public, as well as studies for specialists on subjects such as Southern cotton farm tenancy and population dynamics. As president of the fund, his special interest was in increasing African American representation in positions of leadership, especially within the federal government. Noting the absence of a federal officer directly concerned with Negro affairs at the outset of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, the Rosenwald Fund financed the salary and expenses of Clark Foreman, appointed by Department of Interior secretary Ickes at the fund’s suggestion, to watch over “Negro interests in the national recovery act.” Throughout its existence, the fund helped to advise and finance what it referred to as the Black Cabinet, African Americans working in federal posts in various governmental departments. The fund touted the influence of its protege, Ralph Bunche, in particular, who by the time of the Rosenwald Fund’s disbanding, had become the director of the Trusteeship Department of the United Nations Secretariat.8
Embree, Alexander, and Johnson were permanent members of the committee in charge of the Rosenwald Fellowships, also called Grants to Individuals, the largest number of which were awarded to authors of fiction. Competitive and generous, their fellowships for creative writing were among the country’s most prestigious awards in the 1940s. Winners received national recognition and publication and promotion from editors who often served as advisors to the Rosenwald Fund’s fellowship committee. The competition was, as published, open to all “Negroes of usual talent and ability” and “white Southerners … who expect to make careers in the South.”9 In reality, however, the fellowships were awarded on the recommendation of influential friends of the fund, often former fellows themselves.
The Rosenwald Fund’s significance in the production and dissemination of race novels is apparent from the list of authors awarded fellowships. In the White Southerner category fund-sponsored authors included Lillian Smith, Thomas Sancton, Herschell Brickell, Harnett Kane, Bucklin Moon, John Howard Griffin, and Woody Guthrie. In the Negro category the fund sponsored distinguished writers and intellectuals, including James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Claude MacKay, Chester Himes, Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, and Willard Motley. These names include the most-recognized white liberals of the era, leading African American intellectuals, authors who bridged New Negro protest fiction and the race novel, and the triumvirate of Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, whose writings provided content for national discussions of race and racism throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
In 1949, Embree’s conviction that the mere popularity of race novels signaled the dawn of eventual racial equality became typical of racial liberals’ faith. Literature’s ability to act as an antidote to prejudice took on an official, even commercial, opacity, judging from rhetorical considerations. Race literature became a significant publishing category for houses such as Harper and Doubleday; numerous magazines and civic clubs, from Reader’s Digest to the Southern Regional Board, handed out awards for the year’s best novel on race relations; and dozens of national bestsellers, including Richard Wright’s Native Son, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, and Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, were seen to further racial-liberal agendas.
The first function of the race novel, as defined by the fund, was to provide psychically and socially isolated white audiences with accurate depictions of African American consciousness and conditions, thereby undercutting the social power of prejudicial stereotypes. To this function was wedded an idea of literature as a helpmate to the social sciences: literature was thought to present racial experience with the same truth content as social-scientific studies, but with more emotional impact and presumably a greater ability to arouse sympathy. Beginning in the 1940s, under the guidance of board member Charles S. Johnson, the fund began to direct its greatest efforts in the field of literary patronage toward sponsoring novels that were presumed to retrieve and transmit sociologically accurate information about African American life conditions and psychology. According to Thomas Sancton, one of the fund’s well-known white Southern authors, “Fictional studies of [the race] question are of the highest importance because they carry the facts of this old problem and the seeds of an intellectual and emotional awakening to an audience of general readers who would not be likely to read the books of specialists.” Especially valued by the fund was the putative ability of literature to teach white readers about the damaging impact of racism on the psyche of black individuals. This was the case for trustee W. W. Alexander, who identified the race novel’s chief function as the demonstration of “the effects of repression upon the personality of Negroes.”10
Richard Wright’s Native Son exemplified the importance of socio-psychological race novels for the fund. Embree and his associates were so convinced by the book’s phenomenal success and the testimonials it produced that the fund attempted to sponsor the writing of similar novels throughout the 1940s, during which time Wright served as an advisor to the fund.11 Chester Himes’s own fellowship was granted on Wright’s recommendation and on the understanding that his work in progress was largely modeled on Wright’s novel.12 African American authors were more likely to receive grants for sociopsychological race novels than were white Southern authors, based on the presupposition that African American authors personally experienced the psychic effects of racial oppression and could translate them accurately into literature. Himes’s recommenders, for example, promoted him to the fund as an “honest writer” drawing “directly from his own personal experience” of racism’s “psychological burden.”13 (The presupposition cut both ways, however. On the form to recommend potential fellows, the final question asked whether the candidate was “free from mental handicaps that might prevent him from making good use of the Fellowship.” Fund records show that Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, were rejected for fund support on mental health grounds.)14 One measure of the race novel’s functioning as a racial-liberal officializing technology was the large degree to which social scientists referenced them. Louis Wirth, for example, modeled entire studies on the “Bigger Thomas personality.” Officializing antiracism in academia through these sociological studies further marginalized the economic dimensions of racialization.
Another function of the race novel that the fund articulated was that of proving to white Americans the essential sameness of black and white humanity and the complete Americanness of African American culture and identity. In other words, corresponding to a liberal paradigm of racial difference as cultural (not biological) difference, the fund invested in literature as a vehicle for demonstrating black cultural normativity. Bucklin Moon’s race novels are a case in point. In his application for a Rosenwald Fellowship, Moon expressed concern about the lack of representations of African Americans with which white middle-class Americans might identify: “We have had too much about the Negro working class and almost nothing of the Negro middle class.” To correct this situation, Moon’s own novels sought to demonstrate to white middle-class readers that members of the African American middle class were the same as they were, heteronormative, patriotic, and irrepressibly upwardly mobile. Both Darker Brother and Without Magnolias featured morally healthy and upright black male protagonists who triumph over racial oppression by applying their willpower and ingenuity. Their successes include financial gain and marriage, naturalizing a relationship between antiracism, economic mobility, and heterosexuality. In Darker Brother, for example, the protagonist suffers through emasculating unemployment and army boot camp in the Deep South, yet he emerges as a patriot and patriarch with a good white-collar job. The hero of Without Magnolias, an African American sociology professor, gets fired for teaching civil rights, yet he nonetheless finds a way to maintain his middle-class standard of living and to elevate the novel’s striving heroine through marriage. Moon’s novels simultaneously idealized America’s white middle class and promised that black cultural conformity with white middle-class ideals would result from the leveling of inequalities.
The fund also touted the sensitivity with which white authors delineated black characters and black authors delineated white characters as proof of human sameness. The fund was eager to sponsor African American authors like Willard Motley (Knock on Any Door), who wrote novels with only white characters, and, conversely, white authors such as Lillian Smith (Strange Fruit), who wrote novels focalized through black characters. Such feats of transracial understanding were offered as evidence that racial difference was no barrier for artists attuned to humanity in general. Black authors were cast by the fund as paradoxical native informants: they were charged with informing white readers that there was nothing to tell. In Investment with People, Embree got this point across in his description of Willard Motley: “A slight, shy, modest man, Motley is still surprised … by the importance people attach to the fact that most of the people he writes about are white. ‘If you know people,’ he says, ‘you can write about any race.’ ”15 Similarly, Baldwin was recommended to the fund for his ability to communicate a “we” that proved the meaninglessness of racial difference: “[Baldwin’s] ‘we’ stands for all of us, Negroes and Americans. … [H]e has the authority to speak through the part for the whole.”16
Race novels also played the role of a cultural technology for nationalizing African American racial formation. In line with an emphasis on black normativity, race novels were read to demonstrate the Americanness of “American Negroes” and to disseminate the idea of prejudice as being antithetical to U.S. nationalism and global ascendancy. Examining the study The Negro in American Culture (1956) can show how race novels worked discursively to suture racial liberalism to U.S. nationalism. Begun with Rosenwald Fund support by Alaine Locke and finished after his death with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and Margaret Just Butcher, The Negro in American Culture described itself as a cultural history of the “impact of the Negro on America and America on the Negro.” Beginning from the premise that “social and artistic development go hand in hand,” the study used art and literature as its barometers for diagnosing the progress of African American culture and the state of the health of American society. In chapters such as “Formal Negro Poetry,” “The Negro in Modern American Fiction,” and “The Negro as Artist and in American Art,” the study surveyed cultural production by black and white artists in a chronological order that structured a dual-progress narrative for American society and African American culture: more realistic representations of black lives in white art demonstrated the growing social health of America, whereas more universal themes indexed the progress of black art, and both augured the end of racial division.
The study ended its progress narrative by charting the maturation of African American racial formation not only in the Americanism of the Negro but, simultaneously, in the attainment of universality in cultural expression. It judged the best African American literature as that which expressed “universal truths and aspirations through the medium of black experience,” praising authors such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry for writing through “universalized particular experience” and for their “synthesis of universality and use of racial mores” in “establishing the universal in the poetry of a modern women’s experience” or in the drama of “a family that happens to be black” (295, 274). Ultimately, assigning maturity to universality in African American arts and letters reasserted the cultural normativity of black culture, not directly through Americanism but rather through an Americanism masked as universalism. In doing so, The Negro in American Culture also constituted an early example of the worlding of cultural pluralism into an ideology of legitimation for the United States as a universal nation by naming the Negro as American and identifying black racial formation with that universality.
Racial liberals never theorized readership or questions of interpretation or reception; instead, they proposed that information retrieval and sympathetic identification were built into the literary object, were qualities of race novels themselves. In constituting the race novel as an object, racial liberals created and reproduced certain social and material relations. Race novels functioned as a cultural technology for disseminating powerful signifying systems and regulative concepts and discourses that produced and circumscribed acceptable discourse on race. When the effects of race novels are read against the grain of racial liberalism, it can be seen that they did effect social transformation, though not in the utopic terms racial liberals imagined (whatever their ability to raise white sympathy and effect an end to prejudice). They created a new regulative field of racial meanings that recalibrated white privilege, demanded African American political, cultural, and sexual normativity, and suppressed political and economic understandings of racialization that did not cohere with Cold War liberal nationalism.
The Constraints of an Officially Antiracist Racial Order: Chester Himes’s The End of a Primitive
When analyzing racial liberalism as the first official antiracism, it must be kept in mind that racial liberalism never fully captured racial meanings or delimited racial politics. A hegemony is not the same thing as an entire social formation, though “its very condition is that a particular social force assumes the representation of a totality that is radically incommensurate with it.”17
If racial liberalism is thought of as a concatenation that extended through a multiplicity of force relations, where specific arrangements supported and reflected one another, coalescing into strategies embodied in the state, academia, literary culture, law, geopolitics, and other social institutions, the relational character of power relations indicates that there must have been resistance. In fact, the midcentury network of resistances to racial liberalism themselves concatenated into a chain of sufficient density and strength to become embodied in alternative antiracist strategies, immanent in the same domains of social hegemony as racial liberalism. These points of resistance included prior antiracist codes and institutional bases that racial liberalism could not incorporate, including forms of anticolonialism, pan-Africanism, and Popular Front socialism—all of which tended to emphasize the material conditions of U.S. racism and link them to global political economic critiques of colonialism and imperialism. At the same time, the very consolidation of racial-liberal frameworks produced new points of resistance, fractures within the emerging consensus. Critics of the new racial order, for example, rejected the normativizing and nationalizing of African American racial formation and continued to place racialization in an international framework. Such dissent was particularly oppositional when it organized work in the social sciences and in race relations. The designation race radicalism refers to this strongly concatenated system of antiracist thinking, struggle, and politics that reckoned with precisely those aspects of racialization that officialized liberal antiracism screened off: the racialized (gendered and otherwise differential) material and economic forces and violences that were generated by U.S.-led transnational capitalism on both macro- and microsocial scales.
Some of the strongest critics of the official racial order were embedded within the same institutions and social and professional networks that were key to consolidating racial liberalism ideologically and to disseminating its norms throughout U.S. culture and politics. From the point of view of my study, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois appears as an underappreciated opponent of racial liberalism. As a founder of the social-scientific study of race in the early twentieth century, Du Bois, in laying these foundations, also produced the conditions for the emergence of the key institutional base of racial liberalism: the institutional-intellectual complex of midcentury race-relations philanthropy and university-based social sciences. As the complex was beginning to take shape during the 1930s and 1940s, Du Bois was a senior scholar who wielded considerable influence. Yet given Du Bois’s growing conviction in this period that “liberalism was no longer a social philosophy adequate to comprehending the profoundly charged power relations” of the era and his increasing belief that such comprehension required economic analysis, Du Bois inevitably found himself at odds with the institutions incubating liberal-nationalist antiracism.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Du Bois had a particularly close relationship with the Rosenwald Fund. According to David Levering Lewis, Du Bois was pleased with the resources it made available to black artists, scholars, and writers, financing an entire second generation of the Talented Tenth. Du Bois himself had been awarded a two-year Rosenwald Fellowship (1931–1933) to complete Black Reconstruction in America. Yet a portent of an irreconcilable fracture can be seen in the award letter that Edwin Embree sent to Du Bois. In it Embree counsels Du Bois that his “exceptional literary gift might well express itself occasionally in general beauty rather than advocating special aspects of the truth as you see them.” In retrospect, this small bit of advice to Du Bois, to write literature rather than analyze racial capitalism, speaks volumes about racial liberalism’s turn to literary studies as the means to disseminate normative values (“general beauty”) and marginalize economic interpretations of racial dynamics.
Another portend of Du Bois’s split from an emerging racial-liberal consensus can be seen in the fate of his Encyclopedia of the Negro. For a brief moment at the end of the 1930s, Du Bois seemed as if he would finally garner the big foundations’ support to finance a comprehensive sociological study of all aspects of the black diaspora, past and present—a massive undertaking Du Bois had been working to realize for more than thirty years. But it was precisely Du Bois’s Encyclopedia of the Negro that Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma replaced. After an initial planning period, during which Du Bois gathered endorsements from some eighty scholars in three continents, the Rockefeller Foundation, the General Education Board, and the Carnegie Corporation declined to go further, with Du Bois anyway. Instead, the Carnegie Corporation, recognizing the importance and the potential influence of such a comprehensive study, appropriated much of Du Bois’s research design and many members of his projected team of scholars and put them under the direction of Myrdal. With this, philanthropy threw its weight behind a broad reorganization of racial thinking, which the contrast between Myrdal’s American Dilemma and Du Bois’s projected Encyclopedia of the Negro illuminates. A mesmerizing story of race as white America’s moral dilemma takes the place of a thorough telling of black history, survival, and advancement in global modernity. A sociological focus on psychological factors as the basis for social unevennesses substitutes for Du Bois’s account of race as a material force and historical agency of Western society. And finally, considering race as an American issue only, rather than studying racial conditions in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States as Du Bois planned to do, makes it possible to disconnect U.S. history from global histories of white supremacy, preparing the way for the nationalist antiracism that grounded post–World War II American expansionism.
As racial liberalism ascended to power from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Du Bois was increasingly cut off from mainstream institutions. Yet he found support for his work elsewhere. He moved from the NAACP to the Council on African Affairs, from the Crisis to the People’s Voice, and from American universities to Ghana, where his former student Kwame Nkrumah put all means necessary at his disposal for his renamed Encyclopedia Africana. Rather than assessing Du Bois’s late work as ineffective and out of sync with the times, as has been the convention, I see Du Bois’s isolation, imposed by others, as indicative of the danger his work posed for a U.S. order whose processes of valorization and organization were coming to depend on racial-liberal antiracism. It was possible that Du Bois’s intellectual work was more of a threat to U.S. racial orders than his political commitments (peace work, Communist Party membership) were to U.S. Cold War politics.
Du Bois’s late work revealed the contradictory logic of racial liberalism. Published in leftist venues such as the People’s Voice and the National Guardian, Du Bois’s late journalism innovated a metaphorology that exposed the continuation of biopolitical domination under the auspices of a presumably racially inclusive U.S. Cold War leadership.
For example, a series of Du Bois’s articles published from 1947 to 1949, examining the influence of U.S. capital on the African continent, described the situation as a “new imperialism” and a kind of “stream-lined slavery.”18 Transporting meaning across what racial-liberal paradigms portrayed as distinct temporal divisions, such vocabulary depicted the control that wealthy nations exercised over the lives and bodies of people in postcolonial states to repeat fundamental characteristics of previous racial-capitalist regimes. In a similar example, Du Bois wrote of the transformation of “slavery and serfdom … into wage labor and military force” and of “the Oil Institute [replacing] the Cotton Kingdom of Slavery and the Sugar Empire of the Buccaneers.”19 Such metaphorology contradicted racial liberalism’s coding of white supremacy, slavery, and colonialism as regimes fast fading into the archaic, incompatible with a U.S.-led global order.20
In another example, The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1963) made a strong case for an alternative to racial liberalism: a global socialist antiracism distinct from (if interested in) Chinese and Soviet communisms. In the Autobiography, as in previous autobiographical works, Du Bois continued to analyze race as a concept through the experiential evidence of his own racialized life. Unlike in previous works, however, Du Bois here wrote his life story as the formation of a critical consciousness about race in the development of capitalism. Engaging in an analysis of the postwar present and a reparative autocritique of his previous intellectual and political positions, Du Bois explained how his systematic inquiry into racial history—from learning of his grandfather’s entrance into the United States as Dutch slave property to recomprehending modern wars as the continuation of imperialism by other means—came to serve as an intellectual level for him to think outside the ideology of the “economic development into which [he] was born,” allowing him to comprehend the political economy of racialization within capitalism.
For Du Bois the emerging racial-liberal consensus that fixing U.S. segregation would resolve African American class exploitation was thoroughly misguided. Rather, he reasoned that racism’s historically deep entanglement with capitalist social relations put the expansion of capitalism into conflict with racial justice, so that victory over global racial inequality would necessarily have to coincide with a transition from capitalism to socialism. Turning on its head Gunnar Myrdal’s assertion that the “Negro is America’s opportunity” to prove the fundamental morality of capitalist democracy, Du Bois’s ultimate witness in the Autobiography was that being racialized black in America compelled him to testify for the necessity of global socialism. Du Bois even went so far as to theorize the existence of a transnational cultural basis for his envisioned ethico-economic order. Positing that a historical reflex was tenuously present in the cultures of social groups who have experienced the brunt of racialized capitalist exploitation, Du Bois asserted that a preparedness for socialism could be found in African American culture and the cultures of decolonizing African and Asian nations.
As scholars of the long civil rights era have shown, such race-radical visions were not uncommon in the period of racial-liberal hegemony.21 Another very important and underappreciated critic of racial-liberal orders was Chester Himes. Like Du Bois and nearly every well-known African American author and intellectual in the late 1940s and 1950s, Chester Himes was a fellow of the Rosenwald Fund. In addition to the fund’s considerable networks, Himes was connected to racial liberalism’s leading advocates and core institutions through his second cousin and sometimes benefactor Henry Lee Moon. Moon was a prominent member of Harlem society and Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. He helped to organize the New York Federal Writers’ Project and in the 1940s served as a reader at Doubleday. From 1948 to 1964, Moon was the national public relations director of the NAACP. In The End of a Primitive, Himes took aim at precisely the social and professional milieu to which Moon gave him access, making its contradictions his object of investigation. In doing so, the novel identifies the importance of race novels for constructing official racial-liberal orders. Using literary form to alienate racial-liberal reading practices, The End of a Primitive strives to make race novels comprehensible to readers as a liberal mode for instituting normative power.
In what follows, I read Chester’s Himes’s The End of a Primitive as an example of a race-radical literary practice whose signifying acts powerfully called forth antiracist visions at odds with racial liberalism’s settlements. In The End of a Primitive, as he had in his lecture at the University of Chicago, Himes targeted the entire apparatus of liberal antiracism by focusing on the race novel as a teaching device for grasping the killing sympathies of racial liberalism. The novel tells the story of an African American author who cannot get his satire about black and white liberals accepted as anything other than an earnest, sociological novel, because his audience doesn’t find it funny. This satire about satire examines racial-liberal reading practices in order to make racial liberalism visible as a mode of racial regulation that ironically operates through the very mechanisms of its antiracist “solutions,” including processes of sympathetic identification and white desire for a racially inclusive American nationalism.
In order to expose the maliciousness of racial-liberal reading practices, The End of a Primitive constructs an imaginative exercise for its implied reader. Using metafictional address, the novel predicts that the force of racial-liberal reading practices will cause the novel to be misread by its white liberal readers as protest rather than as satire. That is, it foregrounds the inevitable erasure of a point of view that can find absurdity in racial-liberal fictions, from ideas of the healing powers of interracial sympathy to the putative damage racism inflicted on the black psyche. At the same time, it rhetorically dares its own readers to go against such reading practices, to experience the novel’s humor and “get the handle to the joke” of their own ideological confinement.
The fact that the novel’s title was changed upon original publication seemed to vouchsafe the author’s predictions. Against the author’s vehement protests, New American Library, a premiere publisher of race novels, changed the title of Himes’s novel upon its original 1955 publication from The End of a Primitive to The Primitive. The novel’s title change proved the novel’s point about the censoring force of racial-liberal reading practices and hinted at forms of racialized discipline and regulation enacted under the rubric of liberal sympathy.
Within the narrative itself, the original title, The End of a Primitive, is part of a metatextual joke that ironically anticipates what in fact occured: that the title will be censored upon the novel’s publication. The joke appears in a monologue at the end of the novel, which the African American protagonist, Jesse Robinson, speaks over the body of his lover, Kriss Cummings, a white female race relations professional who he realizes he has just murdered while in a drunken stupor. Robinson imagines “End of a primitive” as one half of the title for a book that would satirize his murder of Cummings as the primitive’s ironic initiation into the human race:
“End of a primitive; beginning of a human.” Good title for a book but won’t sell with the word human in it. Americans sensitive about that word. Don’t want it known they’re human. (206)
Those Americans whose sensitivities will demand the striking of the word human from the title are all white Americans and, specifically, racial liberals. The monologue points outside the text to the actual reader, who holds the book in her hands from which the word human had been duly edited out. Had the novel been published in 1955 under the original title, it would have served as a joke calling attention to the censoring power of racial-liberal thinking and feeling. It would also have satirized the truism of a common humanity by implying that the brand of humanism liberals valorized in fact represented a kind of barbarism and that although the ascription of “human” is a good enough term for primitives recently assimilated as “humans,” liberals themselves will avoid it. Instead, the title change from The End of a Primitive to The Primitive took the joke even further, so that in the end even “The End” was sanitized out.
The title The Primitive repackaged the novel’s satirical exposure of liberal sensitivities as the era’s standard racial-liberal literary project, an evidentiary, sociological novel about the injury racism inflicted on the black psyche. In so doing, the editors followed a path that the novel had prefigured for them, even as they continued to deform the novel by making further changes and excisions that unworked the novel’s careful suspension of a mimetic relationship to the real, in effect taking the quotes off the novel.22 (In a letter to his editor, Walter Freeman, Himes protested that the novel he had conceived as “a sort of macabre satire on the idiocy of race relations … had been changed into stark, unrelieved realism,” with the consequence that its protagonist, Jesse Robinson, now came across as an “abject, paranoiac, and sadistic personality.”)23 In this way, the editors’ title change proved the novel’s point and undid it at the same time, exemplifying Himes’s “dilemma of the Negro author,” the problem of communicating meanings not in accord with presumptions of white liberal benevolence.
Himes’s novel ostentatiously situated itself within the period’s conversation on race reform and literature. Its protagonist, Jesse Robinson, figures Chester Himes to the extent that he is an African American novelist who shares his age and physical description. The narrative focuses on the protagonist’s interactions with black and white racial liberals in New York City, especially his sexual affair with a race relations professional who is a former employee of an institution recognizable as a fictional stand-in for the Rosenwald Fund.
From the beginning of the novel, Robinson is trapped in a mental crisis. The novel does not permit the crisis to be interpreted along the lines of the damaged black psyche, however. On the contrary, Robinson’s mental fracturing proceeds from liberal social-scientific terms and categories themselves. Moreover, the narrative hints that it is Robinson’s earlier attempt to write a sociological novel that generates the present crisis:
[Robinson’s brain] was always packed with some definite emotion, defined in intellectual terms; futile rages, tearing frustrations, moods of black despair, fits of suicidal depression—all in terms of cause and effect, of racial impact and “sociological import” … slugging it out in his mind like desperate warriors. …It had started with the publication of his second book, five years before. (33)
This passage enjoins the reader not to read The End of a Primitive as if it were a sociological novel, implying that Robinson’s second book is such a novel and that its terms of “sociological import” lead Robinson not to solutions but to dissolution.
The End of a Primitive goes on to portray sympathetic racial-liberal reading practices in order to exemplify how racial liberalism shifts and amplifies racial discipline. In the following passage, staged as a memory with a twist, an editor responds to Robinson’s second book with disavowed self-centering and a policing of the boundaries of acceptable discourse on race (the rejection of the book for publication):
He recalled an editor who’d rejected his second book, complaining, “Why do you fellows always write this kind of thing? Some of you have real talent. Why don’t you write about people, just people.” He had countered, “White people, you mean?” The editor had reddened, “No I don’t mean white people. I mean people! Like Maugham and Hilton wrote about, for instance.” He laughed at the recollection and the bitterness left. “I should have told him I don’t want no Eskimos, and that’s all the people they left.” (62)
Jesse Robinson’s challenge to his editor, “White people you mean?” is an attempt to make the editor aware of his unconscious investment in yoking universality to white racialization (“just people”). Robinson is doubtless writing about white people, since it was impossible to write about race in the United States without doing so, but it can be presumed that he refuses to write about them as the privileged universal subject his editor has in mind. The editor’s emotive response recasts Robinson as an uncouth offender against standards of social reasonableness. Racial discipline proceeds from liberal affect. The editor, a representative white liberal reader, refuses to publish Robinson’s book because he feels no identification with its characters and scenarios. Racial discipline also takes the form of producing hermeneutical limits. By denying that his desire for a novel featuring Maugham’s and Hilton’s people reveals a desire for a novel about white people, the editor secures epistemological privilege through the particular manner in which he erases the relevance of race.
Even as the novel makes visible the malignancy of racial-liberal reading practices, it introduces an alternative practice of reading through the mechanism of humor. A joke Robinson imaginatively adds to his remembering of this scene makes perceptible another interpretation, one which evaluates the editor’s motivations, and the racial-liberal discursive framework from which they arise, to be absurd. The joke, “I should have told him I don’t want no Eskimos, and that’s all the people they left,” switches the context of people from liberal humanism to Eurocentric anthropology, where people functions as a sentimental and particularizing term for indigenous nations that have survived European and American colonialism as intact and distinct groups. The joke recoups another example of the use of the seemingly unmarked term people to particularize experiences of people of color and to universalize white culture.24 Through the lens of the joke, the editor’s affect to racial difference also comes to light as the motor for absurd behavior: it drives him at once to differentiate by racialization (“you fellows”) and, at the same time, to demand identity (“I mean people!”).
The End of a Primitive expands its focus on humor to construct an imaginative exercise for the white liberal reader centered on satire. On the one hand, the novel depicts scenes of reading that demonstrate that Jesse Robinson’s white liberal readers are driven to misinterpret satire by African American authors as protest because they cannot experience its humor. On the other hand, The End of a Primitive dares its own white liberal reader to try to “get the handle to the joke.” That is, the reader is enjoined to read the novel against the grain of liberal reading habits and to validate it as satire, even as the novel predicts, through literary figures and themes that point outside the novel, that this will prove impossible.
In order to introduce the dare of its imaginative exercise, The End of a Primitive encourages metafictional speculations about how satire, a genre that gives impetus to reform through ridicule, may also illuminate the epistemological violence that gets enacted in the name of reform. The following passage consists of two satires. The first is an embedded satire that parodies white racist slander. The second, actually a metasatire, satirizes white liberal inability to validate satirical exposures of white racist slander as satire. Jesse Robinson imagines a new beginning for his novel and his editor’s response to it:
The nigger woke, sat up, scratched at the lice, stood up, farted, pissed, crapped, gargled, harked, spat, sat down, ate a dishpan of stewed chitterlings, went out and stole some chickens, raped a white woman, got lynched by a mob, scratched his kinky head and said, Boss Ah’s tahd uh gitten lynched. Ah’s so weary ah kain keep may eyes open, and the Boss said, Go on home an’sleep, nigger, that’s all you niggers is good for. So he went back to his shanty, stealing a watermelon on the way, ate the watermelon rind and all, yawned, rubbed his eyes, and went to sleep hating the white folks. “We can’t print this crap,” the editor would have said.
“Why not?” he would have asked.
“It’s too bitter. People are fed up with this kind of protest.”
“What is protest but satire?”
“Satire? Satire must be witty, ironic, sarcastic; it must appeal to the intelligent. This crap is pornography.” (62)
What the interaction between the two satires uncovers is the fact that white feeling and interpretation controls what counts as satire, even when the content of satire is white racist feeling and the grotesque misrepresentations it spawns. Through the play of satires, the offense of culturally white subjects can be seen as invalidating the amusement of culturally black subjects, with white liberal feeling and interpretation ultimately distinguishing between satire and pornography, intelligence and crap.
The passage stages in miniature the novel’s total imaginative exercise: it provokes the white liberal reader’s offense and simultaneously estranges it as a killing sympathy. It then indicates that the implied white liberal reader and the implied African American author stand on opposite sides of the joke. In the name of imaginatively grasping the feeling-knowing position from which fictions of black identity that consolidate racial liberalism appear funny, the implied reader is urged to try to imaginatively project herself onto the other side of the joke, which, the novel predicts, will prove impossible. Figuring the white liberal reader’s comprehension of the novel as satire to be an instance of the impossible, the novel stresses the difficulty of imaginative approaches to racial difference, in contrast to the easy appropriation of difference presumed by liberal narratives of sympathy.
The novel’s imaginative exercise dramatizes an aporia, or performative contradiction, that marks the book as a whole. On the one hand, the white liberal reader who refuses the novel’s rhetorical invitation to “get the handle to the joke”—or who fails the novel’s imaginative exercise—proves the novel’s main point. On the other hand, the reader who accepts the novel’s rhetorical invitation (that is, the white liberal reader who finds it hilarious) undoes the novel. The rhetorical format of the novel is more powerful than the terms of solution the novel offers. “Getting the handle to the joke” signifies extratextually as a rupture that represents a new political consciousness to which the white liberal reader will perhaps not be able to say yes, but which he/she can learn to recognize as a possibility. In other words, satire does not create a new political consciousness, yet it discloses the possibility of a politics that racial liberalism obfuscates as definitionally impossible.
The second half of the novel narrates a brutal sexual affair between Jesse Robinson and Kriss Cummings that ends with Robinson’s slaying of Cummings while black-out drunk. Though the dare to the reader remains intact, the collapse of humor, violence, race, and sex make it more difficult for the implied white liberal reader to pass the novel’s imaginative exercise. The novel hinges its unstable satire on violent interracial sex play between the two characters. In doing so, it takes up the negative side of the redefinition of race as culture that racial liberalism trumpeted as a victory against scientific racism: the demand for cultural and sexual normativity as the price for integration and the consequent pathologization of African American nonheteronormativity.25 As Himes’s novel helped demonstrate, racialized ideas of heteropatriarchy became the preferred mode of liberal regulation, which it portrayed as an adaption, internationalization, and automation of sexualized white supremacist violence. White male agency was no longer necessary for the enactment of racialized hetero-patriarchal discipline. Interracial sympathy itself became the conduit and occasion for automated violence against the self and against the self of the other with whom one empathizes.
Kriss Cummings, though white, is an unmarried, reproductively sterile, and sexually aggressive woman, making her nonheteronormative and, thus, affiliating her with Jesse Robinson. Their gender-ambiguous first names, Kriss and Jesse, also indicate their correspondence on the basis of deviance from heteropatriarchal norms. Centering the psychic script of each character, the novel portrays them as fated for one another on the basis of their mutual introjection of regulatory codes of racialized gender and sexuality. In the following passage, Jesse Robinson explains his attraction to Kriss Cummings to be the inevitable result of a psychosocial equation whereby black men and white women, differentially damaged by racialized heteropatriarchy, are aligned to achieve compensation through one another:
Nigger’s got to want to screw white women. Got no choice the way they got it set up. … White man kick his ass until he gets sick; get some white woman ass and get well. Good for her too. White man kick her ass till she gets sick; screw some black niggers and get even. … Not just logical and unavoidable and right, but essential in our culture. (153)
The passage highlights that in the novel mutual sexual objectification is a perverse act of sympathy. In the passage’s vernacular, screwing can compensate for an ass kicking.
Continuing the farce of sympathy, the two characters come together to mutually objectify each other as a black body or a female body in order to experience whiteness (Kriss Cummings) or maleness (Jesse Robinson) as dominance. Their sympathy for one another amounts to socially orchestrated sadomasochism organized around codes of domination and subordination (male and female, white and black) that racial liberalism inherited from white supremacist social organization. Yet in contrast to white supremacy, which relied on overt and externalized violence, Robinson and Cummings, under the conditions of relationality that racial liberalism allowed, violate themselves and each other. Their sex play spirals constantly into aggression, and there is no possibility of sexual satisfaction for either, because their parallel but asymmetrical pathologization produces their desire for one another as necessarily incongruent, waxing for one while waning for the other. They are driven to lacerate themselves and each other by acting out erotic versions of the grotesque stereotypes of Southern lynch mythology. Robinson, for example, performs a burlesque of the mythological black male rapist/castrator by skewering white dinner rolls on a knife and pinning them to the kitchen door to represent “the four outsized testicles of the great-grandfather of the whole white race” (203). Kriss Cummings, for her part, gives a hyperamplified performance of the deadly Southern temptress, provocatively displaying her body and then demanding Robinson act like her servant or slave.
This game escalates until the novel’s punchline: a black man kills a white woman. But what this means in the novel depends on how far the reader is willing to go to validate the novel as satire. The murder is not narrated; Robinson discovers it to have happened the next morning. But it occurs chronologically after a round of sex play when Robinson hits Cummings and she vows never to sleep with him again. If the dare of satire is refused and The End of a Primitive is read along the lines of a liberal sociological novel, then Robinson, obsessed with canceling race (blackness) through sex and gender (maleness), can only interpret Cummings’s rejection of him as an act of emasculation that compels revenge. Jesse Robinson then becomes another Bigger Thomas, a beaten boy so psychically damaged by racism that he murders to preserve his manhood/humanity.
But a second meaning can be made from the murder that is more in keeping with the novel’s dare to the reader to try to validate it as satire. It comes out of a point of view that finds it hilarious that racial liberalism’s poster boy for black victimization—the Bigger Thomas beaten boy figure—adapts and recirculates white supremacy’s stalest myth, that of the black male rapist. From this point of view, Robinson’s murder of Cummings reveals the internalization of racialized violence under racial liberalism: whereas myths of black male rapacity and white female carnality were alibis for externalized violence under white supremacy, racial liberalism employs a logic of pathologization that works on the characters internally until they do violence to themselves and each other.
This second explanation for the murder is available through an embedded satire inserted into the novel at the moment of the murder, substituting for it. It consists of a book Robinson dreams he is writing, entitled Hog Will Eat Hog, “a soft sweet lyrical and gently humorous account of [his] experiences as a cook on a big country estate”(193). The storyline of Hog Will Eat Hog features a cook and his gentlewoman employer who discover they do not have to slaughter their hogs, because the hogs willingly expel their own guts. It satirizes not only the perverse sympathy of mutual sexual objectification but also the range of self-exploitation that takes place under liberal capitalism and gets coded as benevolence:
I discovered I didn’t have to kill the hogs because they’d give six or seven inches of sausage each day, neatly stuffed in their intestines, and I’d simply have to go to the pig sty and cut it off. There’d always be plenty for everyone and some left over, and by the next morning they would have grown an equal amount. The lady I worked for—I won’t mention her name because she is very famous and might be embarrassed—didn’t want to eat the sausage at first because she thought it was being cruel to the hogs to cut it off like that. But when I showed her that the hogs did not feel any pain whatsoever and how happy they were to be giving a little sausage each day instead of being slaughtered all at once and butchered for hams, she consented to eat the sausage and liked it very much. (193)
At first, the satire’s identifications appear obvious and stable: the cook writing the memoir may be identified with Jesse Robinson, and the lady he works for, with Kriss Cummings.
The next part of the dream-satire features a recalcitrant hog who “refuses to give his bit of sausage” (194). This hog is a figure for Jesse Robinson and Kriss Cummings and both synthesized together. It thus collapses the identifications that at first appeared stable:
But one day one of the hogs refused to give his bit of sausage. I knew he was not going dry because he was eating as much swill as any of the other hogs and he was also just as fat. So after breakfast that morning I took him down to the slaughterhouse to have a good talk with him.
“Why do you refuse to give your bit of sausage, like the other hogs do?” I asked.
“I have run out of sausage,” he said.
But I knew by his hang-hog expression and the guilty manner in which he avoided my eyes that the sausage manufacturers had bribed him.
“Why do you lie to me?” I asked. “I can tell by looking at you that you have gone over to the other side.”
“But it is true,” he contended. “Besides which I have no more guts.”
“Would you rather be slaughtered and butchered by the sausage manufacturers, or give us, your friends, a little bit of sausage each day?” I asked bluntly.
“I don’t know why I hate you so much when you’ve been so good to me,” he squealed pathetically, lard drops streaming from his little hog eyes. (194)
The hog that does not want his sausage cut off clearly stands in for Jesse Robinson and his terror of emasculation. Yet the hog who refuses to “to give [a] bit of sausage” just as clearly figures Kriss Cummings’s sexual withdrawal. (Cummings is also found slaughtered, like a hog, in the novel’s next and final scene.) As a dream symbol, the hog represents Jesse Robinson’s transgressive, imaginative cross-gender and cross-race identification with Kriss Cummings. And the dream symbol is not just any hog but the recalcitrant hog who, however confusedly, sees through the status quo violence that ruses itself as benevolent. Such cross-identification recasts Cummings’s murder as satirically analogous to the recalcitrant hog’s deal with the sausage makers: it represents Robinson’s absurd attempt to liberate himself and his counterpart from habitually exploitative relations that have become intolerable. Just as the hog’s deal with the sausage makers can only appear as suicidal ingratitude to those trapped within the thinking of benevolent exploitation, Cummings’s murder (which, from the point of view of Robinson’s cross-identification, is also a suicide) can only appear senseless and insane within the racial-liberal episteme organizing the conditions for mutual sexual exploitation. The novel’s killing joke of sympathy is that Robinson’s greatest moment of nonappropriative like feeling, of exorbitant and imaginative sympathetic identification with Kriss Cummings, coincides with her murder. Racial-liberal sympathy thus provides the psychic script and social organization for coupling violence and self-violation in brutal yet ordinary ways.
The novel’s final joke expands its critique of postwar U.S. racial formation to encompass the U.S. global ascendancy that racial liberalism consolidated ideologically. In the early Cold War the so-called humanizing of African Americans through liberal narratives of inclusion validated America’s appropriation of the universal. The novel plays on the idea of African American integration as humanization by satirizing Robinson’s murder of Cummings as his ironic Americanization and initiation into “the Human Race”:
End product of the impact of Americanization on one Jesse Robinson—black man. Your answer, son. You’ve been searching for it. BLACK MAN KILLS WHITE WOMAN … Good article for the Post: He Joined the Human Race. All good solid American Post readers will know exactly what you mean: were a nigger but killed a white woman and became a human being. (205)
Reversing the civilization discourse ubiquitous to Western racism and colonialism, the passage characterizes humanization as initiation into brutality. By also representing this initiation as Americanization, the passage suggests that insofar as the United States supersedes European powers and Americanization becomes the new, general equivalent for humanization under a neocolonial dispensation, the kinds of epistemic and normative violence that the novel has tracked to racial-liberal sympathy will also pervade postcolonial lives and conditions.
Considered as an example of race-radical literature, The End of a Primitive, in its staging of the psychosocial dimensions of race and racism, not only debunked racial-liberal models of prejudice and sympathy but also cohered with an anticolonial critique of the ontological and epistemological violence of colonialism that emerged out of contemporary struggles for global decolonization. For example, there were striking similarities between The End of a Primitive and the “Fact of Blackness” essay in Frantz Fanon’s White Skin, Black Masks.26 In each, the protagonist or narrator hurls literary innovation against trapping fictions of blackness emerging out of dominant white liberal (for Himes) or colonial (for Fanon) socio-affective experience.
Fanon’s essay screamed against a culture that demanded psychic internalization of the West’s racialized metaphysics. The End of a Primitive was Chester Himes’s scream against a culture that imposed a violent normativity in the name of American antiracism. In particular, it sounded up and down the violences of a national culture for which racial-liberal terms of difference served as a unifying discourse tying political, economic, and social structures to U.S. Cold War ascendancy, so that sexual normativity and capitalist economic organization alike were policed as antiracist imperatives. Under such conditions, as Himes’s novel made clear, national culture punished dissenters and dissenting thought by portraying them as irrational, immoral, intolerant, and un-American.
In this way, Himes’s The End of a Primitive anticipated the call for psychic and cultural decolonization that emerged forcefully in the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. To a unique degree these social movements fused cultural and political activism in their rejection of normativizing violence. In contrast to racial liberalism, race-based social movements understood the work of culture as the practice of material transformation, involving shifting grids of social intelligibility, new expressions of personhood, and new communities of collective self-determination. Their cultural production reclaimed racial reference for the work of conjuring ethico-political-economic orders unbound from the imperative to assent to U.S. nationalism and leadership for transnational capitalism. Yet liberal multiculturalism, the next official U.S. antiracism, proved strongly counterinsurgent to such notions, as we shall see in the following chapter.