Nella Larsen, “Quicksand” (1928)

Quicksand is the story of a biracial woman, Helga Crane, with a Danish mother and a Caribbean father. Thus, like many Harlem Renaissance novels, Quicksand deals with the color line and its simultaneous flexibility (seen in the phenomenon of passing) and rigidity (in often violent and legally regulated race relations). In the same way, Crane is both flexible—almost totally inconstant—and tied down by race and her ultimate decision to marry and become a mother.

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Nella Larsen, like Helga Crane, was the issue of a biracial couple (Danish West Indies and a Danish mother). She spent much of her life travel ling between New York City and Europe, marrying a physicist along the way and finally settling down as a nurse, where she worked until the end of her life. She wrote one important novel in addition to Quicksand, called Passing, which apparently deals also with the color line. She was active in politics throughout the 20s and 30s but fell out of public life after some public humiliations.

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen

The main theme of the novel seems to be restlessness. As the novel opens she is preparing to marry and is teaching in the U.S. South. This job—particularly the conservative values of the institution—frustrates and bores her. She lacked any of the family ties or religious loyalties that might connect her to the South and she, like so many others from the South, looked to moving to the northern cities. Her rootlessness takes her to Chicago where she has some family. The racial lines make this family reunion impossible and she seeks work. After being considered over-qualified for most jobs at the employment agencies, she lands a short-term gig as an assistant to a traveling speaker. This adventure takes her to Harlem and then Denmark and finally back to the United States where she married a black preacher, despite her lack of religious beliefs.

The rest of her life is one of imprisonment and boredom. Rather than a traditional narrative of expanding liberty, Helga Crane’s story ends in the prison of marriage and repeated child birth. But there are other times we see evidence of prisons in her life, most importantly regarding race. This is most clearly seen in her inability to accept a marriage proposal from a promising youth Danish artist because of her visceral dislike of interracial marriages. This belief, despite her parents, only shows how powerfully influenced she was by American racism. This block in her mind was the ultimate cause of her later imprisonment in marriage and her unhappiness.

Her ending thoughts suggest the horror of Crane’s later life. “The thought of her husband roused in her a deep and contemptuous hatred. At his every approach she had forcibly to subdue a furious inclination to scream out in protest. Shame, too, swept over her at every thought of her marriage. Marriage. This sacred thing of which parsons and other Christian folk ranted so sanctimoniously, how immoral—according to their own standards—it could be!” (430)

But let me end this short post by looking at Crane’s wanderlust, much more fascinating, troubling, and full of potential. It is a voice from her comparative youth. “In the actuality of the pleasant present and the delightful vision of an agreeable future she was contented, and happy. She did not analyze this contentment, this happiness, but vaguely, without putting it into works of even so tangible a thing as a thought, she knew it sprang from a sense of freedom, a release from the feeling of smallness which had hedged her in, first during her sorry, unchildlike childhood.” (344)

I think we need more of the petulant discontent, if propelled into a constant re-imagination of life, not just an endless stream from grumbling.

Jean Toomer, “Cane” (1923)

This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels.  I considered the works from the 1930s earlier.  The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.

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Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing.  Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems.  At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher.  Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough).  If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents.  What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences.  In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences.  Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person.  Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly.  While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South.  It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South.  It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides.  And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes.  Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment.  In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position.  “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member.  This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice.  It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives.  To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107)  This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.”  Toomer, of course, will have none of that.

toomerJean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C.  He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York.  His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth.  Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line.  Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage.  “There is a new race in America.  I am a member of this new race.  It is neither white nor black nor in-between.  It is the American race.” (846)  Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests.  (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)

Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression.  Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her.  Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence.  Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal.  In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.

caneThere are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility.  Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line.   Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters.  Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters.  In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South.  Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction).  Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions.  “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line.  Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile.  While they are there, certainly.  Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality).  Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system.  One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North).  “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War.  A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47)  Mobility grinds away at the walls of race.  This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison.  I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.

James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

The First Next Time is one of James Baldwin’s most famous works and its exists right in the center of his career and at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.  I am not a big fan of situating his career alongside the Civil Rights movement because it likely limits our understanding of both, but it is hard to separate the two so I will stick to my banal observation.  The book consists of one short essay, written in the form of a letter to his nephew, called “My Dungeon Shock” and one long essay “Down at the Cross,” which among other things tries to answer the question about why the Nation of Islam was becoming such a popular movement in the 1960s.  So the essay moves from the personal to the political, and being published together we can guess Baldwin saw the two as intertwined.

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“My Dungeon Shock” summarizes many of Baldwin’s observations about race.  Indeed, it sustains some old questions in African-American identity that go back to Douglass’ essay on the Fourth of July and Dubois’ double consciousness.  How is it possible to be an outsider in the land of your birth?  It is an appropriately angry document.  “I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” (292)  The problem is more profound than one that anger alone can answer.  It is the means by which these lives are destroyed through the expectation of mediocrity, condescension, platitudes, and a the enforcement of an entire infrastructure of reality that his reader (his nephew) had no part in constructing.  The calls of liberals in the 1960s to wait, to be patient, to integrate (as if Harlem’s blacks were not integrated already in brutal and horrifying ways) all come tumbling down in this honest and powerful letter.  The lack of empathy by the white establishment is clearly expressed in Baldwin’s debate with William F. Buckley two years after The First Next Time.   It is clear that Buckley fails to express any real empathy.  Indeed he misses the point entirely.

In “Down at the Cross” Baldwin begins with his commitment to religion in his youth and ends with the growing popularity of Islam among blacks in the 1960s.  We can consider the general point first.  Can religion provide a path to freedom?  There is the objective and subjective part of this.  Objectively, I have my doubts that any institutional infrastructure, no matter how well-meaning, can create the conditions for personal freedom (and I do not see how you get to the freedom of a group without individual freedom first).  Subjectively, it seems the story is more complicated.  Baldwin discusses how by being saved, he found a place in the world.  For a time he played the role of a leader in the congregation as a preacher.  He probably learned many important lessons about persuasion and the use of the word that aided his career as an essayist.   Baldwin makes the point in Down at the Cross” that black Christianity failed to fully recognize the role of religion in sustaining segregation.  “The white man’s Heaven is the black man’s Hell” may be a statement of outraged Christianity but it is also a statement that internalized segregation (if not “separate but equal”).

Baldwin is particularly interested in the rise of black Islam in the United States.  He discusses his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam.  Baldwin found the theology of the Nation of Islam convincing in a historical and realistic day-to-day sense.  “We were offered, as Nation of Islam doctrine, historical and divine proof that all white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down.” (315)  Baldwin reminds us that this was not a difficult sale to those who lived in 1950s Harlem, where white people really did act like the devil.  Whatever respect whites had in the eyes of blacks had long died off.  They did look and act like demons.  The Nation of Islam only made that truism divine truth.  To connect this to Baldwin’s close relationship to Christianity, the black God would succeed in liberating the people where the white God failed.  Baldwin wants to tell his readers that this is a powerful and convincing message for people who grew up like him.

The essay ends with a discussion of power and a vision of the future, not of shared power or a shifting of power or separatism (like that of the Nation of Islam).  Rather, Baldwin returns to the old observation that both whites and blacks are a product of United States and bound to its fate.  By this logic, there is no reason that he cannot own his political destiny. On this point, the Nation of Islam is correct.  “If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X.” (342)

If we bracket the potential of abolishing political power, there seems to be in Baldwin’s analysis a clear libertarian justification for nationalism.  Working within the system can get tiresome after four centuries.  Of course, separatism and nationalism and the rhetoric of racial superiority is bankrupt.  Baldwin’s analysis is a warning that white America has cultivated the Nation of Islam.  Power cultivates resistance.

Here are some of Baldwin’s comments on the Nation of Islam.

James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)

Nobody Knows My Name is James Baldwin’s follow-up to Notes of a Native Son (he even subtitles it, “More Notes of a Nature Son.” The essays in this collection were written between 1955 and 1961 and carry on many of the themes of his first collection, including the different experiences of race in Europe and America, depictions of African-Americans in literature, and the religious life.  In his introduction he write about how he decided to return to the United States after several years in Europe.  For him, it was overcoming terror.  He confesses to residing in Europe out of fear.  Well, he returned at the right time to take part in some of the most interesting discussions about race in American history.  The essays in Nobody Knows My Name are therefore transitional.

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His opening essay considers the old question: “What does it mean to be an American?”  Perhaps it was Crevecoeur who first asked this question in his Notes from an American Farmer, where among other things we learn that being an American means first and foremost not being a European.  And Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois taught us that this question is far from color blind.  For a writer, it poses the problem of perspective, which Baldwin sees are rooted in the place of our birth.  “Every society is governed by hidden laws.” (142)  He starts to hint at the trouble of being an American writer as tied to the liquidity of the society.  While Europe was more static in terms of class and status, “American writers do not have a fixed society to describe.” (142) More subtlety, Americans still have those hidden structures but cannot admit them or fully analyze them.  Europe provides some breathing space and perspective to describe the boundaries and limits of the American liquid world.

He has a long essay describing “The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists” in Paris, which was declared by one of the presenters to be a second Bandung conference.  Baldwin does not quite fit into this conference, often opposing the Afrocentric positions of many writers.  Having spent much of his time arguing for the distinctive African-American experience, he cannot swallow this idea of a unitary black experience.  Africans at least have a country.  Baldwin is still impressed at the enthusiasm of the conference and its power.  I wondered if Baldwin felt himself as an immature writer, surrounded by those “big heads.”  I might just be projecting my own generational burdens.

Following up on this conference, Baldwin takes us back to Harlem where he exposes the devastation caused by urban renewal and the development of housing projects.  The rhetoric of free choice and free markets break down in a place like Harlem where race and economic barriers limit mobility.  If the urban reformers want a disgusting, low quality housing project they have the power to construct it, even if that construction costs the city a neighborhood, businesses, or parks.  As bad as the projects were as institutional impositions, they necessitated the further occupation of Harlem by the police.  “The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.” (176)  I think essays like these on Harlem are useful correctives to those who think things are okay.  In fact, things are much worse than we suspect.  Sadly, few of us realize this even though the evidence of how bad things are is often just across the street, or require looking at the world with a small amount of empathy. 

Nobody Knows My Name also includes a series of essays on the U.S. South.  Baldwin sees the South and the North as part of the same national trauma.  Northern blacks live the South, even if they never have been there.  It is in their family history and their cultural memory.  Its problems are also not unique.  He even correctly predicts that the trauma of the Civil Rights struggle in the South would be relived in Northern urban areas before long.  “It must be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North.  It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit.  Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes.” (203)  I might add that at least formal institutional oppression can be easily targeted, if not easily taken down.  With the unofficial means of control, we face opaque threats that need to be clearly defined and located before they can be broken down.  In the same section he attacks liberal white Southerners for their inability to fully imagine an alternative to the world that they helped construct and define.  He focuses on Faulkner (who I have not yet read). White Southern writers cling to the mythology of the South and cannot demand immediate change without destroying the world that created them.  “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” (209) The end of this safety is something that people of Faulkner’s ilk cannot accept, making them poor allies for the struggle for racial equality.

I will leave you with another of Baldwin’s public talks.

James Baldwin, “Going the Meet the Man” (1965)

The Library of America volume of James’ Baldwin’s fiction ends with his 1965 short story collection Going to Meet the Man.  A common theme in Baldwin’s work is the daily-lived experience of racism in 20th century America that goes beyond the legal discrimination of Jim Crow.  It is these experiences that were so central to the lives of Northern blacks like Baldwin, whose families escaped the more formal discrimination of the South. I hesitate to say it was worse as in Baldwin’s mind the urban racism he wanted to describe was no less debilitation, brutal, or (as in the case of police repression) institutionalized.

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All eight stories are fascinating and provide insights into American racism from different ages and points of view.  I was reminded of The Dubliners in the way Baldwin progressively orders these stories from young to old – starting with vibrancy, curiosity, and potential and ending with impotence.  Not all of his characters are black.  Notably, the lead figure in “Going to Meet the Man” is a white sheriff who is incapable of having sex with his wife without remembering an act of racial violence he witnessed.  In general, Baldwin is reminding us of how important society is in defining our individual potential – more of then not setting limits for us.  The trouble is that autonomy and escape from social institutions – even in urban areas (the place where such escape should be possible) – is simply not possible when your identity is imposed on you from the outside.

“The Rockpile” revisits the family of Go Tell It on the Mountain.  Here it is the father, Gabriel, who defines his son as an outsider.  When his natural son, Roy, in injured when fighting with other boys on a local rockpile, the stepson, John must carry the blame.  The central institution in “The Rockpile” is the family and to a lesser degree religion, since John’s mother so often resorts to religion to justify her husband’s actions or demand John obey his stepfather or suffer his ordeals (like a good Christian).

“The Outing” gives us the same character and setting.  This time they are engaged in a Christian outing on a boat.  It strikes us as a rather nice setting and it is nice to observe some of the more playful freedom of the boys, who are mostly interested in the outing as a chance to spend time with some of the neighborhood girls.  Religion, of course, saturates the air and we see the parents working hard to keep their children focused on the religious purpose of the outing.  This can work as a metaphor for Baldwin’s entire polemic against social institutions, that they try to confine our individual free expression.  The expectation of being saved is placed on the boys at the end.  The cost of the gathering of the community is their future commitment to its values.

“The Man Child” is about the violent brought out by class resentment.  We are presented with two friends, Jamie and Eric’s father.  Jamie is a drunk, unmarried (he “lost” his wife), and an economic failure.  Eric’s father has achieved everything his friend lacks, including having a son, Eric.  While the two men stated at the same point but diverged greatly.  In resentment, desperation, or loneliness Jamie kills Eric.  While the previous two tales suggest the oppressive power of social institutions like family and tradition, “The Man Child” reminds us how devastating it can be to not have those things.

“Previous Conditions” is a more straightforward account of how race functions in America.  The narrator is a poor actor.  He sums up his dilemma: “I’m not tall and I’m not good looking and I can’t sing or dance and I’m not white; so even at the best of times I wasn’t in much demand.” (816)  The story explores a series of slights he faces, including being kicked out of his apartment (he sublet from a white friend) because he was black.   He was taught as a child not to accept being called “nigger” but in his adulthood it has become part of the transcript of his life.  Despite his isolation the story ends with a simple act of kindness (innocently purchasing a round of beers for some women sitting next to him).  We also get a window into the mistrust and indifference of the urban setting.  “Anonymous, islanded people surrounded  me, behind newspapers, behind make-up, fat, fleshy masks and flat eyes.  I watched the empty faces. (No one looked at me.)” (828)

“Sonny’s Blues” is a very powerful tale of a man who observes the fall of his younger brother into drugs after his decision to become a jazz musician.  After deciding to help his brother due to the death of his 2-year-old daughter we gain access to the narrator’s memories, particularly how he was charged with caring for his younger brother after the death of their father.  Sonny, the younger brother, is through all of this a more infantile character, relying on the care of others.  The narrator was scornful of Sonny’s choice to become a musician, even trying to believe that “musician” meant classical pianist.  When seeing the cleaned up Sonny perform at a bar, he learns how little he understood about Sonny’s powerful art, his renown, his talent, and how libertatory it was for him (even if that liberation was checked by drug use).  “It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament.  I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.  Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.  Yet, there was no battle in his face now.  I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth.  He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy.” (863)  Music was a way to escape suffering and the burden of expectations (in this case also familial).

“This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” takes us back to the expat community in Paris (see Giovanni’s Room and Another Country for more examples of Baldwin’s interest in Americans in Paris as a setting for his work.  Its central theme is the relative freedom from discrimination that African-Americans felt when they moved to Europe.  This is an old theme.  Even Frederick Douglass wrote on this in reference to his travels in England.  The jazz musician Sindey Bichet moved to Paris to escape racism as well (I recall this in my mind, but do not quote me).  Let’s listen to a bit.

Anyway, Baldwin has some beautiful and lively descriptions of Paris here.  “So here are American boys, anything but beardless, scratching around for Hemingway; American girls, titillating themselves with Frenchmen and existentialism, while waiting for the American boys to shave off their beards; French painters, busily pursuing the revolution which ended thirty years ago; and the young, bored, perverted, American arrivistes who are buying their way into the art world via flattery and liquor, and the production of canvases as arid as their greedy little faces.  Here are boys, of all nations, one step above the pimp.”  (892)

“Come Out the Wilderness” explores an interracial couple.  Ruth is a black woman working in an office and Paul is a white man and painter.  Ruth feels anxious about their relationship, her memories of her ex-boyfriend and Paul’s flakiness about the relationship.  She is convinced of the worse about him.  “He wanted to go.  He was not going to another woman.  He simply wanted to go.”  (909) The core of the story is her musings about her relationships, which tended to be defined by power, ownership, obligation, and service — in other words slavery.  Above and beyond the obvious issue of the legacy of slavery among black women and reality of masters raping enslaved women, should this be a tool to critique relationships more broadly.  Indeed, Ruth’s musings on slavery came when she thinks about her black ex-boyfriend not her current one who is just aloof.  This was in some ways a critique of the most radical voices in the sexual revolution – that relationships tend to be colonial and should be rethought from the ground up.

“Going to Meet the Man” is the last tale in this collection and is set entirely in a bedroom.  The plot consists of a impotent man finally achieving sexual arousal.  What gives this impotent white sheriff an erection is his recollections of the brutal lynching of a black man, which he saw as a boy under the direction of his father who insisted he witness the torture and death of another human being.  The last scene is no less horrifying.  His arousal, awakened by these memories, is tainted with racially-motivated violence.  (I will let you read it yourself.)  Baldwin’s generation not only experienced incredible racially-motivated violence during the context of the Civil Rights Movement and struggles against police violence, but older people had lasting memories of the early 20th century, when violence became one of the key tools to enforce Jim Crow.  Although this is a horrifying window in the mind of a white racist, we take away from Going to Meet the Man the lesson that the Jim Crow-era of racism was something that was lived from  birth until old age, in every aspect of life from the bedroom to the playground to the house of worship to the pub.

James Baldwin, “Another Country” (1963): Literature from the Margins

During my time as a historian (whether that is entirely over is yet to be seen) I struggled to write history “from below.”  In practice, I tended to write it from the margins as much as I could.  I was only of dubious success.  One reason I am so attracted by American writers of literature is that it is through literature that the history of people on the margins of society can be fully articulated and realized.  It is perhaps for this reason that some of the best historical scholarship on marginal people tend to be cultural histories in one way or another (often it is confessed as such in the title).  James Baldwin wrote Another Country at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, when he had already achieved notoriety as an essayist studying the black experience in America.  I will look at these essays next week, but it is enough to say for now that his essays are interested in the daily lived experience of being black under Jim Crow or while experiencing racial discrimination, police brutality, or condescension in cities.  Whether institutional or not, these were real experiences.  Baldwin wanted to remind his white readers (I suspect his black readers did not need reminding) that these experiences mattered when added up and quilted together into the tapestry of an individual’s life.  However, Another Country is far too rich to be summarily defined as the literary expression of these arguments.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

Marketed to a nation obsessed with interracial sex.

He starts with quoting Henry James making an argument for history from the margins.  “They strike one, above all, as giving no account of themselves in any terms already consecrated by human use; to this inarticulate state they probably form, collectively, the most unprecedented of monuments; abysmal the mystery of what they think, what they feel, what they want, what they suppose themselves to be saying.” (363)  Book One of Another Country documents the life and death of Rufus Scott, a bisexual jazz musician in Harlem.  Baldwin — through his narrator — makes clear that Rufus lives under the constant reminder of racism and poverty.  We meet him hungry and trying to sleep at a movie theater.  On the first page he despairs that “you took the best, so why not take the rest” and flees from the hostile gave (imagined or not we do not know) of a passing policeman.  Baldwin certainly wants to make the point that although the Northern cities lacked the formalized racial discrimination of Jim Crow laws, the city itself was a burden for many residents.  “The weight of the city was murderous–one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell.” (368)  These are the thoughts that precede his suicide, but thankfully we are quickly sent to a seemingly happier time.  It is the night that Rufus first has sex with Leona, a white woman from the South escaping her failed marriage.  Rufus later develops a relationship with Leona but at this time Rufus’ motives are more vicious.  In contrast to the powerlessness of the opening passages, Rufus here is at the top of his game, musically and sexually.  As his relationship develops with Leona we are again exposed to the perpetual invasion of race in Rufus’ life.  He worries constantly how other will look at him on the street (this is in contrast to the confidence with which he brought her to the party where they first had sex).  Leona once calls him “boy” with no racial assumptions, but this offends him greatly.   Ultimately, as a result of these feelings of inadequacy, his frustration, and racial/sexual self-hatred Rufus begins abusing Leona savagely.  Rufus projected all of this bile onto Leona.  As she explained: “He had a fight last week with some guy in the subway, some real, ignorant, unhappy man just didn’t like the idea of our being together, you know? and, well, you know, he blamed that fight on me.  He said I was encouraging the man. Why, Viv, I didn’t even see the man until he opened his mouth.  But, Rufus, he’s all the time looking for it, he sees it where it ain’t, he don’t see nothing else no more.”  (417)  We have good reason here to mistrust much of Rufus’s interpretation of the rest of the world, but we know better than deny the daily insults he did face as a poor black man in New York that over the years formed his identity and gave him a frame of reference to interpret the world.

Well, Rufus quickly declines.  He becomes a prostitute, homeless, and sleeping in restaurants and move theaters.  His friends — particularly the writer Vivaldo — try to help him but with little success.  He disappears and a few days later his body turns up.

This is the type of story that history cannot tell well.  With the exception of the music Rufus played, nothing of his feelings and experiences would be recorded.  Pretending Rufus was real (which of course, he is, after a fashion), we can imagine a diligent scholar would learn about his relationship with Leona via the asylum records from when he sent her South.  His suicide would also be in the police records.  What is not there is his daily humiliations, his street brawls (and imagined or real slights that began them), and the feel of the city for someone in Rufus’ position.  Most important, is the difficult to document and prove the non-institutional experience of repression.

 

Lafcadio Hearn, “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” (1890)

Lafcadio Hearn published his Two Years in the French West Indies, of which “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” is an extended prologue.  It was in print before it became part of the larger world on the two years of his life Hearn spent in Martinique.  To properly historicize this text we need to understand that Hearn was a vocal anti-racist (in word and in deed) at a time when race relations were near their worst.  While the United States was moving toward racial segregation, disfranchisement, and the codification of Jim Crow, Hearn married a black woman, wrote essays against racial discrimination, and describe favorably the former slave societies in the Indies.  Martinique would become one of the loves of his life.  When he left, after a smallpox outbreak on the island, he wrote “It seemed like tearing my heart out to leave Martinique.”  He went these, seemingly to abandon the United States, its systematical racial oppression, and the professional of journalism, tainted, in his words with “pettiness, cowardice, selfishness.”  (I cannot help sympathize as someone leaving academia with similar resentments shaping my judgment.)  “Midsummer Trip to the Tropics” documents his 1887 cruise.

twoyears

While I have not revisited it yet (and I truly fear putting my foot in my mouth here), I recall Innocents Abroad as being a profoundly American type of travelogue.  In that text Mark Twain toured the Mediterranean as an American, armed with American wit and sensibilities.  It is a busy book.  It is a tourist account.  Twain and his traveling companions saw what they were supposed to see.  Travel was a series of checked boxes (pyramids, the Levant, Paris).  Hearn’s account in contrast strikes me as profoundly un-American (for the Gilded Age anyway) in its sentiments and attitudes.  His account ends with an anti-racist stand, challenging the prevailing theories on segregation, nationalism, and scientific racism.  Hearn mourns for a moment the end of racial diversity, but he sees it as an inevitable conclusion to centuries of racial violence and animosity.  Hearn would spend the next two years of his life challenging the trend that would to the end of whites (and then mixed race people) in the islands.  “And the true black element, more numerically powerful, more fertile, more cunning, better adapted to pyrogenic climate and tropical environment, would surely win. [We see here, of course, that Hearn is not fully immune from scientific racism of the day.] All these mixed races, all these beautiful fruit-colored populations, seemed doomed to extinction: the future tendency must be to universal blackness.” (246)  It does without saying that this a goal of Jim Crow in the United States.  Hearn himself was fired for breaking anti-miscegenation laws.  Rather than seeing racial separation a key to preserving the integrity of racial categories, Hearn suggests that it is a recipe for disaster and would lead to “a struggle for supremacy.”  Earlier in the travelogue he wrote: “You are among a people of half-breeds, — the finest mixed race of the West Indies” when speaking of the human urban landscape of St. Pierre.  A few pages later is describes with wonder: “There is one rare race-type, totally unlike the rest: the skin has a perfect gold-tone, an exquisite metallic yellow; the eyes are long, and have long silky lashes; — the hair is a mass of think, rich, glossy curls that show blue lights in the sun.  What mingling of races produced this beautiful type? — there is some strange blood in the blending, — not of coolie, nor of African, nor of Chinese, although there are Chinese types here of indubitable beauty.” (188) When Hearn discusses the scenery, natural landscape, and architecture of the islands he is similarly celebrating the plurality of influences: the dress, the sugar plantation, the cross on top of houses of worship.   Even the sea is speaking to him in the language of miscegenation.  “Only, instead of a blue line at the horizon, you have a green line; instead of flashings of blue, you have flashings of green, — and in all the tints, in all the combinations of which green is capable: deep green, light green, yellow-green, black-green.” (195)

metisse

Hearn expresses horror at what can best be called “modernization” on the islands.  Much like Chita the story begins with the unfolding of nature.  Modernization on the island must engage in a continual struggle with nature.  “You see no human face; but you see all around you the labor of man being gnawed and devoured by nature, — broken bridges, sliding steps, fallen arches, strangled foundations with empty basins; — and everywhere the pungent odor of decay.” (204)  As with Hearn’s views on race, this pessimisms about development and his tendency to give the reigns of power to nature runs against the grain of the predominate ideology of post-Civil War America.  At a time when the United States capitalist class waged a brutal war against the mountains, plains, rivers, and resources of the North American continent, Hearn looks at development in the Caribbean with the eyes of a 20th century conservationist.  “Under the present negro-radical regime orders have been given for the wanton destruction of trees older than the colony itself; — and marvels that could not be replaced in a hundred generations were cut down and converted into charcoal for the use of public institutions.” (204)

Finally, Hearn cannot help but pay attention to and appreciate the growing population of new immigrants to the islands, particularly the so-called “coolies” from India.  Hearn seems to realize that the position of these new immigrants into the already complex racial mixture of Martinque or Trinidad.

I am hoping that Hearn will provide a less impressionistic account of some of these issues in his “Martinique Sketches” the second part (and the majority) of Two Years in the French West Indies.  For now, I want to suggest that Hearn might be a very un-American tourist in the sense that he is seeing in the West Indies shadows of the issues plaguing America, but his observations take him in the opposite direction than the U.S. was heading in the 1880s and 1890s.