Interracial Antiracism

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Rachel Peterson

Romance and Rights:
The Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954
by Alex Lubin
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. 183 pages, $45 cloth.

Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953.
by Stacy I. Morgan
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. 356 pages, $54.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

THE WIDE RANGE of topics covered in Romance and Rights: the Politics of Interracial Intimacy, 1945-1954 by Alex Lubin and Stacy I. Morgan’s Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953 converge around the central importance of the Second World War and anticommunism.

Both authors present original and evocative analyses of the ways African-American artists, writers, soldiers, litigants, and institutions and publications effectively foregrounded issues of racism and class privilege in the 1940s and 1950s, in the process also creating new perceptions and forms of interracial antiracist work.

Morgan demonstrates how African-American social realists sustained and augmented many of the aesthetic and political practices associated with the Popular Front. Lubin considers interracial intimacy as viewed by the courts, popular culture and the African-American left to reveal the contours of racialist thinking and civil rights activism in the postwar period.

Lubin makes a key intervention into recent work on the regulation of interracial sexual and romantic relationships by scholars such as Martha Hodes, Rachel Moran, Kevin Mumford, Peggy Pascoe and Paul Spickard. Through a vigorous analysis of court decisions, international relations and the civil rights movement, Lubin shows how by “framing interracial romance and sexuality as matters of private choice and not as rights to be demanded in the public sphere, mainstream American culture limited  the kind of political transformation interracial intimacy could engender.” (xi)

Lubin sees the attempts of civil rights activists to put interracial romance in the public sphere in the period between World War II and the 1954 Brown v. Board decision as a “liminal moment in race formation” that can enable us to “rethink what kind of politics interracial intimacy could engage.”

Lubin’s consideration of such politics also expands upon scholarship on the strategy of domestic containment explored by historians and cultural critics from Elaine Tyler May to Alan Nadel. The relationship between domestic containment, family and culture is given new meaning by centering on “interracial sexuality and marriage [that] threatened to expose the very public and political discourses of the nuclear family — a discourse that lent financial and psychological support to white heterosexuals —at the very moment that exposing racism became a foreign and domestic policy problem.” (xi)

The tireless insistence among some African Americans that interracial intimacy was a public civil rights issue challenged the government’s efforts to contain within a private sphere the realities of racism represented in “miscegenation” (race-mixing) laws. Lubin’s richly inflected interdisciplinary approach gives him latitude to chart the margins of containment in the courts, the military, civil rights organizations and African-American serial publications,  novels, films and comics.

Changing Ideologies

The wartime distaste for biological racism helped shift the racial ideologies in the United States. Lubin employs Omi and Winant’s theorization of racial formation in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the Present to describe the shift from biological to culturalist explanations of race.

In particular, courts became reluctant to accept arguments that corresponded with fascist racialism, but they remained unwilling to overturn laws against interracial intimacy. They uneasily resolved this conflict through rulings that underscore that “[a]ntimiscegenation laws have never been deployed only to regulate interracial sexuality and marriage; they have been used to determine property relations, inheritance, and punishment [for] adultery.” (37)

A number of court cases during the Cold War, evidencing changes in understandings of racial categories as not biologically fixed but culturally determined, reveal the quagmire created by the competing demands of domestic racism and the foreign policy goals. For example, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1948 Perez v. Sharp that arbitrary racial categories could not undermine the “civic [and] natural right” to marry.

Justice Jesse W. Carter invoked the memory of Hitler’s racial categories to declare that “the rest of the world never has understood and never will understand why and how a nation built on the premise that all men are created equal, can three times send the flower of its manhood to war for the truth of this premise and still fail to carry it out within its own borders.” (Lubin, 18-19)

Generally, however, the courts insisted that marriage was a state matter immune to national demands for the appearance of racial equality.  Thus these cases generally upheld restrictions on interracial marriage.

The ambivalence towards interracial romance and the strategy of containment was also reflected in popular culture. In comics, interracial romance appeared as “a cautionary trope, intended to shuttle young readers’ desire toward ‘appropriate’ sexuality.” (48)

This study of an often overlooked medium is particularly refreshing, even though at times the narratives Lubin describes seem less directly shaped by the postwar context and instead continue patterns of racial representations of Latinos and Africans established at the turn of the century. The postwar context more obviously inflects social problem films like Japanese War Bride and Lost Boundaries that promoted a grudging tolerance based on Universalist principles.

Prohibition, Resistance and Literature

Lubin’s discussion of the strictures on African American soldiers’ intimate relationships with European and Asian women offers the most compelling account of how interracial romance became politicized.

The contradiction between the protection of racist practices at home and the need to present a different national image is evident in the military’s prohibitions against interracial relationships between African American soldiers and European women. The efforts of African-American GIs to marry constituted “the most public form of black activism centered on interracial intimacy and marriage” (97)

 Lubin notes that other scholars have explored the ways that these romances exposed the antagonism between domestic practices and the war’s ideological basis in democracy, but Lubin’s work more thoroughly analyzes the ways that African Americans themselves utilized the rhetoric of democracy and their World War II valor to expand the agenda of civil rights.

Lubin mines the contents of such African American publications as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Defender, Ebony, Jet and Tan Confessions as well as letters to the NAACP by soldiers and European women offering accounts of their relationships and attesting to restrictions in the military, the State Department, and U.S. courts on their interracial marriages.

In doing so, interracial intimacy became a civil rights issue that took advantage of the contradictions between segregation in the United States and the emblematic status of African American soldiers. Lubin engages a range of responses amongst male and female African Americans to such relationships, and concludes that “Black women in postwar debates were a structuring absence, a subtext whose voice was largely silenced.” (82)

In a final chapter centering on African-American novelists Ann Petry, Chester Himes and William Gardner Smith, Lubin describes how these authors “wrote against nationalist renderings and black popular representations of interracial intimacy [. . . to] reorient the politics of interracial intimacy away from a public/private binary and toward a historical materialist analysis of how racial and sexual ideologies had rendered the legacy of racial and sexual violence invisible.” (125)

Lubin invokes conceptions of “diasporic” belonging and cosmopolitanism developed by Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness to show how these writers presented possibilities of communities that transcended the private/ public sphere division as well as the “limits” of interracial intimacy as an uplift strategy.

Lubin sees these depictions of interracial sex as efforts to “insert the legacy of racial and sexual violence into the 1940s rhetoric of American triumphalism and culturalist understandings of race.” (138). These novels provide rich ground for Lubin to tie together potentially unruly categories of public/private spheres, multiple containments, community and belonging, and the dangers of interracial sex, and constructions of female and male Black sexuality.

William Gardner Smith, who as a soldier took part in the occupation of postwar Germany, in many ways reenacted the faith in progressive potential of interracial wartime romance found in the African-American presses (as a Pittsburgh Courier reporter, he was familiar with these narratives) in his 1948 novel, The Last of the Conquerors. Lubin concludes that Gardner Smith’s post- war residency in Ghana and France broadened his sense of belonging beyond the constraints of United States racial politics.

Rethinking Marriage

Lubin focuses on Chester Himes’ rendering of interracial sex as a way Himes’ fictional and autobiographical works encompass the issues of the heterosexist and racist assumptions about the nuclear family, labor, war, Black masculinity and interracial intimacy so central to this book.

Like Himes, Ann Petry’s postwar novels The Street and The Narrows render the racialized exploitation of these novels’ protagonists’ labor and sex. These narratives rest on the privileging of privacy for whites and the impossibility of such protections for most African Americans, and Lubin’s focus on community and “the legacy of slavery and sexualized racism” (131) in these novels yields new insights.

For Lubin, these novels “sho[w] that when there is one person’s privacy, there is another person laboring to create that privacy [and that] publicness when enforced, is intrusive both in the ways it precludes privacy and in the ways it invites state regulation.” (130)

In his conclusion, Lubin notes that Strom Thurmond and his ilk have long enjoyed the protection of privacy in their often abusive relations with African-American women, while simultaneously propagating a public assault on people of color, often coalescing most vehemently around their public views about miscegenation.

Thus Carrie Butler’s role as a domestic servant and mother of Thurmond’s daughter offer a current opportunity to consider the persistence of slavery in some interracial narratives. Like Petry’s Lutie, this case underscores for Lubin how a relegation of African-American women’s labor and sexual abuse to the private sphere renders this exploitation largely invisible.

Lubin ends this remarkable book by redirecting the project’s inquiry into the politics that could merge from interracial romance to current debates about same-sex marriage. Acknowledging the differences between the attacks on interracial marriage and current efforts to outlaw gay marriage, Lubin asserts that his work can “assist those who attempt to understand the relationship between” these two areas of intimacy regulation that, as Lubin points out, have similar legal trajectories. (156)

This provocative turn in Lubin’s argument is followed by a final reframing of the book’s central themes: Lubin ends his study with the suggestion that “perhaps the more radical struggle ought to include an attempt to divest marriage of all of its privileges so that is can become a human right that cannot be abridged by the state.” (159)

These final argumentative gestures underscore the primary occupation of the book. While centered on the WWII period, it is less focused on the context of anticommunism, which might be likened to today’s assaults on civil liberties, than on exploring how wartime  ideologies affected the politics of privacy, civil rights, race and sex.

War, Repression and Transformation

Stacy Morgan’s work similarly underscores how the Second World War and the Cold War influenced struggles for justice. He considers World War II to be the “most significant” dynamic shaping the political context of African American social realists.(35) This magnificent study challenges many assumptions regarding the cultural left and in so doing invites readers to rethink how art and activism can flourish in new and politically relevant ways during periods of seeming retreat and repression.

As Morgan notes, most of the artists he considers “made a conscious choice to use their chosen media of cultural expression as a means to examine the interlocking nature of race and class-based oppressions within a Marxist-oriented framework, even as the very real teeth of McCarthyite cold war repression of leftist cultural workers and institutions became increasingly apparent.” (34)

Morgan’s charting of the continued and growing involvement among these artists is invaluable, as social realism is often understood as a movement that passed with the Popular Front. Standard interpretations assume that World War II and the Cold War created a context of reduced radicalism in the face of wartime allegiances, the threat of McCarthyism, and an economic recovery that undermined class-based politics.

Morgan builds on the work of scholars like Michael Denning, Cary Nelson, James Smethurst, Alan Wald and Bill V. Mullen who have demonstrated the longevity of cultural work that emerged during the Popular Front, and have greatly expanded our appreciation of the geographical, topical, stylistic and chronological range of social realism.

Morgan adds to the work of these scholars, who have also shown how the symbiotic relationship between African Americans and the left expanded the oeuvre and concerns of both. The 1940s in fact generated new forms of creative expression among African-American social realists who “evidenced faith in the ability of their cultural work to serve alternately as an instrument of social criticism, a means of instilling race pride, and an agent of interracial working class coalition building.” (Morgan, 2)

Morgan suggests that this is in part because African Americans generally were more cognizant of the short reach of the wartime economic recovery, and were particularly inspired by the contradiction between the declared antifascist, democratic goals and oppressive domestic practices in the World War II period that Lubin explores.

The ability to continue the work of the Popular Front can be attributed also to the fact that African-American social realists found new resources to support their efforts in the 1940s and early 1950s, to replace the declining influence of the Communist Party and the loss of New Deal art sponsorship.

The Rosenwald Foundation, African-American colleges, community centers and businesses, magazines and newspapers (many produced by the Communist Party) and networks established during the Popular Front, like the South Side Community Art Center and connections with Mexican muralists, continued to offer spaces and financing for cultural workers to interact and share their work with wider audiences.

Neglected Artists

Morgan’s discussion of muralists and graphic artists shows this ingenuity particularly well. Filled with numerous reproductions, this section also expands on Andrew Hemingway’s efforts in Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement 1926-1956 (2002) by bringing attention to neglected artists whose work reflected an array of influences in which Soviet social realism was but one.

For example, African-American muralists were deeply influenced by Mexican artists like Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, who shared emphasis on the “position of the artist in relation to war and fascism, the economic security of artists; the relationship between artists and labor organizations; and the relationship between form and content in art.” (45)

Morgan takes pains to show that African-American socialist realists’ commitment to politically engaged art does not reflect a failure to adapt the more alienated work of abstract artists. Instead, these artists innovated on the themes and forms learned in the 1930s. The work of muralists is crucial in our understanding of how artists continued to articulate political critiques and alternatives amidst McCarthyism: Morgan attributes their continued cultural activism to the facts that they displayed their art in Black institutions that were less monitored by anticommunists, and that they “most often articulated social commentary of contemporary relevance through the vehicle of historical allegory.” (48)

Charles White is one of many African-American social realists who utilized historical allegory and whose involvement with Marxist politics grew rather than diminished over the course of the 1940s. In his mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America (1943), White’s depictions of Nat Turner and Paul Robeson suggest the “collapse” of historical periodizations to illustrate the salience of such radical traditions.

Further, this mural stresses the role of African Americans in U.S. wars as well as armed struggles against racism (i.e. representations of slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey), which in the World War II context evoked the political imperative of the Double V campaign. Such a narrative “comprises a kind of blueprint for contemporary heroic activism through its presentation of historical and contemporary exemplars.” (Morgan, 71)

Morgan’s “muralists as revisionist historians” also considers the work of Hale Aspacio Woodruff, whose Settlement and Development (1949) conflates Harper’s Ferry with current struggles against segregation. Morgan contextualizes this representation among other efforts to rethink African American resistance, stating that as in “the history texts of Du Bois, James, and Aptheker, such mural imagery seeks to serve both as a historical testament and an allegorical injunction to viewers regarding the need for militancy in campaigns for social justice in the contemporary moment.” (87).

Graphic artists like Elizabeth Catlett and John Wilson addressed similar concerns, but the less public venues in which their art appeared provided a greater opportunity to confront contemporary issues without the cover of history.

Poetry and Social Realism

Of the mediums Morgan analyses, poetry was the most emphatic in its call to action. In public forums and in a host of “little magazines” like Opportunity and New Masses, poets like Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks., Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright were “revolutionary exhorters” (206) who issued trenchant critiques of racism,  capitalism and war, often focusing on the contradictions of World War II service for African Americans.

Morgan credits these poets with increasing attention to lynching and legal inequalities in general, with racial violence appearing as common themes. Significantly, these poets also critiqued the limits of interracial organizing in the working class, employing the “rhetoric of encouragement and chastisement” (238) to encourage greater solidarity among readers.

In contrast to the measured militancy and aspiration Morgan finds in this poetry, African American social realist novelists tended to be more pessimistic in rendering the postwar world and its possibility for revolution.

Morgan cites several interconnected influences on these writers, including naturalism, modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, the new sociological approaches of the Chicago School, the collecting of workers’ accounts under the Federal Writers’ Project, and the reportage that emerged most significantly in the pages of the Daily Worker. Indeed, many of these writers worked as journalists and/or based their work on contemporary news items.

Morgan’s analysis of William Attaway, Willard Motley and Lloyd Brown is particularly incisive and refreshing as he focuses on works that have too often been neglected. For example, Motley’s We Fished All Night reveals the doubts that pervade many of these novels in that it works as “a kind of postmortem for the revolutionary hopes that had first crystallized for Motley’s generation during the depression era.” (274)

Morgan’s discussion of the quandary this new reality posed for such writers is particularly poignant, as they were torn between honest portrayals of what they saw around them and their sense of social responsibility to revolutionary movements.

In contrast, Lloyd Brown’s activism in the Communist Party of the United States engendered a “cautious optimism” about the potential for effective, interracial solidarity. Significantly, Brown’s Iron City (1951) condemns “the way in which McCarthyism embodied — at least for many on the left — the realization of this threat of domestic fascism run amok” (282-3).

Like Lubin, Morgan discusses Ann Petry’s The Street, one of the best selling social realist novels of the period and one that has lately experienced new popularity. Morgan’s nuanced discussion of Petry’s embedded commentary on the contradictions of World War II service of her African-American characters more directly ties the novel’s action to the context of the war. Morgan also points out how Petry, like many social realists, also based her work on news events.

Morgan points out that novelist William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge returns to historical encoding, using World War I to comment on World War II.

“Cultural Work Does Matter”

If some of Morgan’s arguments are by now familiar, particularly in light of recent scholarship demonstrating the autonomy and influence of African-American writers on the left, Morgan still makes important interventions. First, he shows the vitality of and resourcefulness of artists whose trajectory has been prematurely truncated in a general scholarly focus on the Popular Front. This is especially relevant as he both presents enervating examples and offers, through the works he discusses, struggles of engagement during times of war and repression.

Second, Morgan’s exploration of multiple mediums allows readers to see the correspondence between different forms of artistic expressions, as well as the possibility and limitations that characterize each medium. Finally, Morgan offers a critical bridge between generations of artists, showing the influence of older artists on younger ones as well as suggesting connections between the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement.

Morgan’s work is invaluable to those studying the ways that the early Cold War altered the practices of those who believe that “cultural work does matter” (306, emphasis in original). His careful elaboration of the connections between mediums and the importance of networks among artists whose work mirrored their political activism implores a rethinking of other moments of radical cultural work, including our own. In offering a template for interdisciplinary work in this area, Morgan also suggests key concerns future scholars should engage.

One of the most compelling of these is his point that while many scholars protest the imposition of decenniary periodizations, few have produced works that really show the continuities between different political moments. Morgan attributes his own choice to end his study in 1953 to practical concerns but also suggests that after 1953, there was a decline in social relevant work. This claim, which he also problematizes, presents a challenge to scholars seeking to understand the impact of the Cold War on African-American cultural production.

While Morgan and Lubin explore very different aspects of the World War II era, both works offer insight into the possibilities and limitations of our own time. In making original contributions to our understanding of the interconnections between war, race and repression, they show how these conditions can create new political and cultural spaces of contestation.

ATC 122, May-June 2006