Racial Terror & Totalitarianism

Against the Current, No. 192, January/February 2018

Mary Helen Washington

Race and the Totalitarian Century:
Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination
By Vaughn Rasberry
Harvard University Press, 2016, 496 pages, $45 hardcover.

THE COVER OF Vaughn Rasberry’s ambitious and compelling study Race and the Totalitarian Century features a cartoon by leftwing African-American political cartoonist Ollie Harrington, titled “American Crackerocracy and the Polish Ghetto: Sikeston, Missouri, and Germany.”

The cartoon, published in 1942 in the Black left U.S. newspaper The People’s Voice, shows two images side by side. On the left lies an apparently anonymous Polish woman, her lifeless body slumped against a bullet-ridden wall under a flag bearing the Nazi swastika; the right half of the cartoon pictures the lynched body of a Black man under a sign reading “Sikeston, U.S.A, MO,” the Missouri site of the 1942 mob lynching of a Black man, Cleo Wright.

The cover presents in microcosm the central argument and threefold methodology of Race and the Totalitarian Century, which is (1) to insist that colonial violence and modern racial terrorist regimes must be read as forms of totalitarianism; (2) to correct the intellectual traditional accounts of totalitarianism that “scarcely include [these] histories of modern racial terror”; and (3) to foreground a Black tradition of intellectuals, writers, artists and cartoonists who initiated a dialogue throughout the 20th century (also, scarcely included) that refused the conventional polarities of totalitarianism and inserted into that dialogue desegregation, decolonization and Cold War geopolitics. (78)

If “conventional formulations of totalitarianism excise race, “ Black American writers re-inscribe the experience of Jim Crow violence not simply [as a domestic matter but as part of a process in which colonization] — as much as nuclear weaponry and dictatorship — constitute, in Richard Wright’s words, “terror in freedom.”

Many of us still have a knee-jerk response to the term “totalitarianism,” associating it with images of surveillance, dictatorship, nuclear war, concentration camps and political repression — and the two titans in opposition: the evil Soviet Union (or Nazis) versus the United States.

Rasberry seeks to complicate and ultimately undercut that binary, showing that colonial violence and modern racial terrorist regimes are covered over by conventional theories of totalitarianism. In his formulation, “totalitarianism is not as remote from racial democracy and the Black literary imagination as dominant discourses suggest.” (79)

Re-centering the Black voice in 20th century debates, Rasberry asks how the history of totalitarianism looks from the vantage point of the colonized and the racially subjugated. (86) If “conventional formulations of totalitarianism excise race,” Black American writers re-inscribe the experience of Jim Crow violence, as not simply a domestic matter but more fully to be understood as part of a process in which colonization — as much as nuclear weaponry and dictatorship — constitutes, in Richard Wright’s words, “’terror in freedom.’” (343)

But, as Rasberry cautions us, this is not a project of simply inserting Black voices. He is making the larger claim — that “usurping the dominance in intellectual traditions of critiquing totalitarianism” produces “an archive of decolonization” leading to a different conception of that tradition.

Tradition and Reinterpretation

Black intellectual traditions produce a distinctive view of major global events, including the Suez Canal Crisis, the Hungarian Revolt, and the Arab-Israeli War. With this scaffolding in place, a set of mid-century themes emerge revolving around this rarely inscribed understanding: that “the terror exercised against Blacks in the U.S. and other colonized people constitute “an unacknowledged mode of totalitarian domination.” (11)

Race and the Totalitarian Century is organized around several historical events and figures that enable Rasberry’s reinterpretation of the totalitarian tradition. In each instance we see the “grand narrative of the conflict between totalitarianism and democracy” undercut by the specter of a global racial regime.

In Part One, Rasberry uses the figure of the World War II Black soldier (French, American, and African) tracing that figure across several texts to show the linkages of Nazism, fascism, colonialism and U.S. Jim Crow. Writers, photographers, filmmakers and visual artists took up the figure of the Black soldier as he returned to his homeland, an emblem of the contradictions of racial modernity — as both protector of democratic freedoms withheld from him on the basis of race, and victim of a racial democracy, which refused him the “rights, privileges, and affective dimensions of citizenship.” (32)

Rasberry’s astute reading of the Black soldier in Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1945 sonnet sequence “Gay Chaps at the Bar” is one of the highlights of this section. As with many of his other superb readings of the Black soldier in narratives by Ann Petry, John Oliver Killens and Chester Himes, Rasberry incorporates these readings into a political and historical understanding of the way the returning Black soldier was inscribed textually: aware of his place in a racial democracy, “compelled to reenter a social order less hospitable than Nazi Germany.” (46)

In the second chapter of Part One, “Our Totalitarian Critics: Desegregation, Decolonization, and the Cold War,” Rasberry begins to assemble a “rhetorical arsenal,” an intellectual history of Black cultural and political expression that reconceives totalitarianism in the light of Cold War politics, which made blackness — that is, radical Black activism and ideas — “a radical domestic and international threat.” (72)

In the Cold War era, Blacks faced a Faustian choice — to proceed with caution towards a limited kind of equality and acceptance, or continue the tradition of radical agitation for full civil rights and turn up on the blacklist. Within the containment policies of the Cold War, Rasberry reminds us, blackness acquired “a new significance” (72); it became both a domestic and international threat.

For Blacks who could summon the right amount of deference to the State Department and circumspection about American racism, it was possible to be approved for a Government-authorized State Department tour abroad. But political activists like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois activated the totalitarian impulses of the U.S. Cold War government. Both spoke forcefully and openly about the U.S. and global racial regimes; both refused to bow to the State Department protocols; both were blacklisted and denied passports.

Helped along by the blacklisting of figures like Robeson and Du Bois, American postwar liberalism crafted its own version of modern totalitarianism that could and did cover over its own democratic regime of racial terror.

Rasberry thus reconceptualizes the idea of totalitarianism from “within the frame of postcolonial modernity” in order to include these democratic regimes. For example, if concentration camp literature is one subgenre of anti-totalitarian literature, Rasberry reads Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography Black Boy as an Afrocentric version of anti-totalitarianism written against the “regime of segregation,” another system of racial domination and terror that “parallels the narratives of totalitarian experience proliferating contemporaneously in Europe.” (88)

The situation where Wright finds himself as a boy growing up in Mississippi and Memphis in the Jim Crow South features Kafkaesque trials, unprovoked lynching, Black silence in the face of racial terror, and fears of castration. Black writers and thinkers were navigating the waters of the postwar world, perceiving not just a Soviet bloc versus a U.S. arsenal of safety but a collision of the two in Egypt/Suez, Italy/Ethiopia, and Hungary and Bandung.

Suez from a Black Perspective

I want to focus here on the final chapter of Part One, “The Twilight of Empire: The Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 and The Black Public Sphere,” as a perfect case study of how Black engagement with the postwar global world produced a public counter-discourse. While conventional periodization has foreclosed Black engagement with the Suez Crisis, the literary and political imagination of African Americans did in fact become important commentators on the events of Suez. (108)

In 1956, Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasir (or Nasser) reclaimed the Canal Zone from the colonial control of the British and the French. In its campaign to discredit Nasser, the European media branded him another “Hitler,” and “a menace to world order,” deploying a major propaganda campaign to pave the way for the military intervention.

For Black writers and activists, however, Nasser was fearless in his determination to decolonize the Suez Canal, and African Americans in many instances supported that anticolonial resistance.

In fact, Rasberry claims that the Eisenhower government’s refusal to support French and British war efforts (the Anglo-French-Israeli seizure of the Canal — ed.) was an unanticipated U.S. turnaround due in no small part to Black opposition to colonialism, an opposition that was provided by writer and activist Langston Hughes and his character “Simple” as well as by other major Black writers and newspapers.

Hughes created his alter-ego Jesse B. Semple (aka Simple) as a working class spokesman for his columns in the nation’s leading Black paper the Chicago Defender and, though he may have intentionally encouraged a simplistic reading of his character, deployed Simple during the 1950s as a sophisticated voice for international politics.

In the Black political and literary imagination of radicals like Hughes, Nasser was Black against a white world. In his influential columns in the Chicago Defender, Hughes used Simple to comment on domestic and world events, “translating international politics into “the Harlem vernacular and rhythm of Black metropolitan life.” (107)

Hughes links European aggression against Egypt with domestic attacks on Black militancy” as Simple claims Nasser as the “Adam Powell of Egypt” [Adam Clayton Powell, Congressman representing Harlem — ed.] for nationalizing the Suez Canal. Reminding his readers that the same imperial England that kept India down was behind the Suez Crisis, Hughes became part of “a robust counter-discourse” on the Suez Crisis in the Black public sphere. (109)

The Baltimore Afro-American, along with other Black newspapers, published sections of Nasser’s speech announcing nationalization of the Canal. The Chicago Defender suggested the connections between Egyptian nationalization and U.S. racial issues.

Du Bois contributed his own take on the Suez Canal Crisis with a 1956 poem “Suez,” which celebrated Egypt “rising” against the “British lion,” beginning with this line: “Young Egypt rose and seized her ditch/And said: ‘What’s mine is mine!’”

Black intellectuals such as George Schuyler, Horace Cayton and Benjamin Mays published articles in the Black press on the Suez Crisis. Shirley Graham Du Bois, writing from her experience living in Cairo, championed the idea of Egypt as African with an article “Egypt is Africa” that suggested the parallels between colonialism in Egypt and elsewhere on the African continent.

The Suez Crisis may have had little or no direct impact on the plight of African Americans, but the pro-Nasser position of Black intellectuals set up a tension with the European and U.S. representations of Nasser that showed that Black involvement in foreign affairs had to be factored in the mounting global opinion in favor of Nasser.

Simple’s refusal to accept the conventional U.S. or Soviet position on Suez Crisis set “a fearless example for the Black America and the colonized world” (115) and showed that in refusing to be hijacked by either of the world’s superpowers, African Americans had to be considered a significant player in global politics. (109)

Regardless of the political implications or outcomes of the crisis, African Americans produced an important counter-discourse about the crisis that “linked European aggression against Egypt with domestic attacks on black militancy.”

Black Internationalists at Freedom

Rasberry succeeds impressively in foregrounding the role of Black writers, activists and intellectuals in “[restoring] this buried rapport between colonial fascism and postwar America’s ideological makeover.” (106)

If there is any omission in this comprehensive archive of mid-century Black intellectuals it is the literary and cultural figures who make up Paul Robeson’s left-wing newspaper Freedom.

For its entire five-year period (1950-1955) Freedom consistently publicized the connections between colonialism, imperialism and racism and did so during the most dangerous years of the Cold War.

The Black internationalists who published in Freedom — Lorraine Hansberry, Robeson, Claudia Jones, Du Bois, Lloyd Brown, Ollie Harrington (Freedom’s art editor) and Alice Childress — had connections with the literary and cultural figures Rasberry includes here. They were important as individual thinkers but also collectively as part of the Freedom family, the most powerful Black left think tank of the 20th century.

The radicals at Freedom are a vital source of the lesson at the heart of Rasberry’s project: that U.S. anticommunism, itself a form of totalitarian domination, was directed in large measure towards “the suppression, surveillance, and censorship of Black activism.” (356)

What Rasberry has done in Race and the Totalitarian Century — as his subtitle claims — is to deploy “the Black literary imagination” to reconstruct mid-century geopolitics and to challenge dominant ideas and paradigms of 20th century political thought.

In turning to and listening to those Afro-modernists, with “neither nation-state power [n]or territorial sovereignty,” Race and the Totalitarian Century reminds us that what is obscured by the term “totalitarianism” are the systems that shaped the modern world: imperialism, colonialism and racial violence.

January-February 2018, ATC 192