Surrealism Against Racism

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Michael Löwy

THE WELL-KNOWN antiracist journal Race Traitor—whose motto is “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to Humanity”—published in the form of a small book a special issue (number 9, Summer 1998, ISBN # 0-88286-235-T) on the topic “Surrealism: Revolution Against Whiteness.” (Order from Race Traitor, P.O. Box 603, Cambridge, MA 02140-0005, $6 postpaid.)

Edited by Penelope and Franklin Rosemont, it collects a series of essays and documents on the struggle of the surrealist movement, both in France and the United States, against the racist ideology of white colonialism.

The Rosemonts and their friends show in their writings that Surrealism was a true school of “race traitors,” which chose from the movement’s inception to side with the colonized—from the Riff insurrection in Morocco (1925) to the Algerian war of independence (1960)—the black and native peoples, against the murderous “white supremacy” of the European colonial powers.

The single most important surrealist declaration against white supremacy during the movement’s early years was the collective document “Murderous Humanitarianism” (1932), written for Nancy Cunard’s remarkable Negro Anthology (published only in 1934). This pivotal document, republished here, reflects the influence of young Black surrealists from Martinique who had recently joined the group in Paris.

Penelope Rosemont recalls Nancy Cunard’s links to the surrealist movement, as well as her way of “thinking sympathetically black.” One of Cunard’s early essays, “Does Anyone Know Any Negroes?” (1931), is included in this collection—while Myrna Bell Rochester presents an explosive piece against white patriarchy by the surrealist poet Rene Crevel, “The Black Woman in the Brothel” (1931), translated into English by Samuel Beckett for the same anthology.

This tradition is continued by contemporary surrealists from Paris, Chicago —whose most recent statement on whiteness is their piece “Three days that shook the new world order: the Los Angeles rebellion of April/May 1992—or from Madrid, whose collective tract against racism is also included in this issue.

Other aspects of the question are examined by David Roediger (against Eurocentrism), Paul Garon (on racism as a “Therapy”), Ronnie Burk (racist cliches in the United States) and Charles Radcliffe (the Blues).

It is important to stress that surrealism did not only share a negative stand against white supremacy, but also a positive view of African, Afro-American and Indigenous cultures as the powerful expression of a poetical and enchanted spirit, and as an alternative to modern capitalist white civilization.

ATC 78, January-February 1999