In Impermanent Blackness: The Making and Unmaking of Interracial Literary Culture in Modern America, Korey Garibaldi explores interracial collaborations between authors, agents and publishers in the US from the 1910s to the 1960s. Garibaldi’s focus on how such literary partnerships across racial lines advanced equality and integration is a unique contribution to the historiography of African American culture, writes Jeff Roquen.
Impermanent Blackness: The Making and Unmaking of Interracial Literary Culture in Modern America. Korey Garibaldi. Princeton University Press. 2023.
Sixty years ago on 28 August 1963, nearly a quarter of a million American citizens converged on Washington, DC and stood below the exalted [Abraham] Lincoln Memorial to protest for the passage of civil rights legislation and to decry the vestiges of white supremacy from Birmingham, Alabama to Boston, Massachusetts and places in-between. Prior to launching into his timeless peroration beginning with “I have a dream…,” the final speaker of the event, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., orated, “One hundred years [since the Emancipation Proclamation (1863)], the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.” Since the end of the American Civil War (1861-65), African Americans had organised and employed myriad strategies to overcome poverty and the segregation. In Impermanent Blackness: The Making and Unmaking of Interracial Literary Culture in Modern America (2023), Korey Garibaldi brilliantly examines how Black writers navigated the white-dominated world of publishing and managed to both undermine the reigning presumptions of Black inferiority and advance the cause of social equality through the production of African American literature with existential, mass appeal. As such, Garibaldi has both uncovered and added a unique dynamic to the historiography of African American culture by focusing on the precarity of interracial alliances and the politics of creating interracial narratives.
Garibaldi has both uncovered and added a unique dynamic to the historiography of African American culture by focusing on the precarity of interracial alliances and the politics of creating interracial narratives.
At the outset, Garibaldi resurrects the largely obscure anthologist W.S. Braithwaite. As a pioneering collector of poems penned by European-American and African American authors, Braithwaite essentially desegregated their verse under one volume. Braithwaite, whose “mother and two sisters had been enslaved in North Carolina,” wholly believed that “‘all great artists are interracial’” (21-22). Resistance to his interracial ideals proved fierce. After half a decade, he located a publisher willing to accept Lyrics of Life and Love (1904), an assemblage of poetry by white and Black authors. In an era characterised by anti-Black violence in Atlanta, Georgia (1906) and Springfield, Illinois (1908), the splicing of interracial text constituted a provocative challenge to the order (25-31). Fortunately, some progressive publishers opted to produce literature beyond the social constraints of white society at considerable risk.
As a pioneering collector of poems penned by European-American and African American authors, Braithwaite essentially desegregated their verse under one volume.
Braithwaite and his interracial vision received concurrent support from several elites and non-elites alike. The Harvard philosopher William James, who became friends and colleagues with W. E. B. Du Bois, invited biracial collaborations in scholarship and the arts (33-34). Gertrude Stein – a young Jewish lesbian who was both a literary tour de force and host of the most famous salon in Paris, frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Sherwood Anderson, Henri Matisse and other notables – published Three Lives in 1909. Of those three lives, Melanctha, which follows the travails of a mulatto woman in her quest to find happiness beyond a conventional life of marriage and children, earned considerable interest from the reading public (33-37). Three years later, the founder of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, adopted an “Open Door” policy and solicited contributions from poets irrespective of race, to the approval of most of its subscribers.
Nascent strides toward an interracial literary world provoked a swift and powerful counterreaction
Yet, the nascent strides toward an interracial literary world provoked a swift and powerful counterreaction. In 1916, the famous Swedish-American poet, Carl Sandburg, published Chicago Poems to significant (but not universal) critical acclaim. One of the poems, with the racial slur “N—,” as its title, not only cast its subject in degrading terms but also further promoted a well-known (and contemptible) racial stereotype in the line, “‘I am the n—. Singer of songs, Dancer’” (50). Rather than an exception, a number of white authors published works with this slur in their titles and texts in the 1910s and 1920s. As a large portion of the European American public still viewed Black people in far less than equal terms, these published assaults on Africans and African heritage received widespread, tacit approval. Idaho-born Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who would join Gertrude Stein’s salon in Paris, appear in the pages of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry and become a supporter of Benito Mussolini’s fascist Black Shirts in Italy, espoused antisemitic views and railed against any form of literary collaboration with non-whites. Despite this network of shrill and hate-filled voices against interracial literary production, demand for works from non-white authors and racially integrated stories grew, as did the movement against “scientific racism” in academic circles. 1936 of the year African American sprinter and long-jumper Jesse Owens in earning four Gold Medals at the Munich Olympics – marked the publication of the groundbreaking diary My Great, Wide, Beautiful World by Juanita Harrison was a semi-educated, African American woman from Columbus, Mississippi. The book was a captivating account of her encounters with the peoples and cultures in twenty-two countries spanning Europe, Africa and Asia. Her journal entries, which embraced transcendent virtues of common humanity, created a sensation from coast to coast, and sales of her book skyrocketed (74-77).
From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, Black authors and literature incorporating interracial elements enjoyed expanding readership and acceptance.
From the mid-1930s through the 1950s, Black authors and literature incorporating interracial elements enjoyed expanding readership and acceptance. While two African American male authors Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940) and Frank Yerby (Health Card, 1944 and Foxes of Harrow, 1946) achieved influential status for their sociological-interracial narratives, Lillian Smith, a middle-aged white critic of segregation and civil rights activist from south of the Mason-Dixon line, gained notoriety with Strange Fruit (1944). The novel, titled after the 1939 Billie Holiday song condemning the public lynching of African Americans, narrates a socially illicit love-affair between a white male and a Black woman in the South (p.88).
Willard Motley, an African American from the South Side of Chicago, assisted Jane Addams in launching a magazine for the social settlement Hull House and published newspaper articles in the Chicago Defender under the pseudonym Bud Billiken. He attained fame with Knock on Any Door (1947) about a young, impoverished Italian-American youth (Nick Romano) who resorts to crime for survival only to be executed before his twenty-first birthday (p.147-148). Shortly thereafter, his novel became a Hollywood film starring Humphrey Bogart. By depicting how society also discriminated against Italians – another minority considered non-white and racially-inferior by many Americans – Motley illuminated the plight of millions of American citizens and reinforced the famous remark by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The final chapter, “Toward Disunion,” highlights the detrimental effects of McCarthyism, the Cold War, the combative Civil Rights era and an attendant surge in Black nationalism – leading to “calls…among Black writers to abandon white publishers, media organizations and institutions.” (175). The same questions for the African American literary community persisted but with a renewed intensity. Should one write about African Americans for African Americans to appreciate and develop African American culture, or should Black literati advance a universalist theme to debunk longstanding racial myths – or perhaps both?
Should one write about African Americans for African Americans to appreciate and develop African American culture, or should Black literati advance a universalist theme to debunk longstanding racial myths – or perhaps both?
In Impermanent Blackness, Garibaldi has managed to excavate three generations of Black and white authors and robustly reveal both the means and the mediums they utilised to integrate society through written expressions of hope and humanity. In doing so, Garibaldi has demonstrated that writers who cling to ideals of cooperation, justice and mutual understanding can be a powerful force in urging society from ignorance and intolerance towards equality and inclusion. As much of the West has witnessed a recrudescence of racial tropes, antisemitism, sexism and other expressions of discrimination over the past decade, Impermanent Blackness serves as a testament of the perils of tribalism and the never-ending search for the dignity of all humankind – as no one should ever “[find] himself (or herself) in exile in his (or her) own land.”
- Main Image credit: Main Image Credit: Book covers of W.S. Braithwaite’s Lyrics of Life and Love, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, Juanita Harrison’s My Great, Wide Beautiful World, W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (book cover credit CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED Alvin Lustig on Flickr) and Richard Wright’s Native Son.
- This review first appeared at LSE Review of Books.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the reviewer, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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