Category Archives: race

136: Richard Schein’s Landscape and Race

With the edited collection Landscape and Race in the United States, Richard Schein aims to get the reader thinking about the relationship between race and the cultural landscape of everyday places; following Toni Morrison, he argues that “all American landscapes can be seen through a lens of race, all American landscapes are racialized.  For Schein and his contributors, cultural landscape is material, visual, and epistemological, and landscape itself is a process: we shape it to reflect our cultural values, and then the cultural “framings” it contains come back to shape culture, so that whether material or symbolic, “cultural landscapes are constitutive of the processes that created them in the first place.”  Further, following Cornel West, Schein argues that race is an anti-essential, social, and political construct that “matters” as if it were ontological.  Examining race in the landscape allows us to understand, in Omi & Winant’s worlds, “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”  In other words, studying racialized landscapes can help us understand the process of racialization.

Schein prescribed a pretty specific research agenda for his contributors, which means the book is tightly argued even if not all the essays are directly comparable.  Topics and authors include: Michael Crutcher on generational differences and segregated landscapes in New Orleans; Steve Hoelscher on Natchez, Mississippi and the erasure of “Forks in the Road;” Samuel Dennis on the reconstruction of a South Carolina plantation as a tourist site, from the points of view of the planter, slaves, and free blacks on the land; Gareth Hoskins on Angel Island and Chinese Immigration; Daniel Arroya on racial stereotyping in turn-of-the-century picture postcards of impoverished Mexican families; James & Nancy Duncan on aesthetics and the battle between white and Central American residents of Mount Kisco, New York; James Rojas and “Latinoization” in the creation of  the East LA vernacular landscape; Jonathan Lieb and the attempt to put Arthur Ashe on Richmond, VA’s Monument Ave; Derek Alderman on MLK streets; and Heidi Nast on the relationship between race and the location of dog parks in Chicago.

This collection is valuable both for its wide variety of geographic locations and its work in opening up discussions of race beyond the black/white binary.  It’s also wonderfully readable.

113: Steve Hoelscher’s Making Place, Making Race

In “Making Place, Making Race: Performances of Whiteness in the Jim Crow South,” Steve Hoelscher uses the landscapes and performances of white Southern memory in Natchez, Mississippi to show how a dominant group created a culture of segregation that far exceeded its legal boundaries, and how racialization of “everyday geographies” is constantly being both upheld and reworked.  Hoelscher argues that modern American race relations have roots in the Southern past and especially in the Jim Crow past, so understanding the processes of Natchez’ production of race in the landscape can help us understand racialization of American landscapes more generally.

Hoelscher relies on a wide variety of sources, including ethnographic research and interviews in Natchez, archival sources, including pamphlets, letters, ads, and photos, and secondary and archival sources on lynching, residential segregation, and other evidence of racialization on the landscape.  While he does investigate the broader context of Jim Crow racism, the heart of the article is the Natchez Pilgrimage, an annual event in Natchez that includes old home tours, antebellum-style parties, and a (now-renamed) Confederate Pageant featuring tableaus of life in the Old South.  Hoelscher traces the history of the Pilgrimage to its roots in the 1930s, when enterprising social climber Katherine Miller devised it as a way to generate tourist revenue for Natchez by capitalizing on the town’s Southern heritage.  But the Pilgrimage was also a spatialization and performance of white Southern memory, a way of bringing the Old South to life that replaced the racism and exploitation of slavery with a narrative of harmonious race relations and ladylike Southern belles, all presented in a romantic nostalgia for the good old days.  Until the 1960s, the Pilgrimage achieved this by reproducing the race relations of the Old South, so that black Natchez residents performed roles as butlers and mammies during house tours or singing cotton pickers during the Pageant, and they also worked behind the scenes as cooks, caterers, and cleanup crews for Pilgrimage events.  In the 1930s, this re-enactment of Old South race relations did double duty as a reminder to African Americans of their “proper, historical place as sharecroppers” and a reassurance to whites that the African American station in life was not just natural, it was romantic and desirable.  In the context of very real spatial segregation, economic exploitation, lynching, and overt racism, the Pilgrimage re-enforced the naturalness of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy by performing white nostalgia for the antebellum South.
While the Pilgrimage remained relatively unchanged from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had a huge impact on it.  In the early 60s, the first black audience members were horrified at the overt display of whiteness, but though SNCC and the NAACP were able to help Natchezians desegregate schools, stores, lunch counters, libraries, city parks, freedom activists were unable to stop the pilgrimage altogether, and black attempts to participate in the pageant in anything other than prescribed black roles met with fierce white resistance.  However, black participants withdrew from the Pageant and the Pilgrimage in the 1960s; though the event still happens every year, the absence of black participants reminds visitors that it is more about preserving white identity and pride than about fidelity to the Old South as it really was.

110: David Delaney’s Race, Place and the Law

In Race, Place, and the Law, 1836-1948, David Delaney shows how race, place, and the law are both socially constructed and mutually constitutive.  Working primarily from the legal history of racialized landscapes in the United States, he argues that law was critical to the shaping of these landscapes because it considered itself abstract but was intimately involved in constructing geographies of power.  Lawyers and judges ratified property lines and interpreted and upheld boundaries.  Thankfully, as he shows, the same supposed abstraction that gave the law authority to create racialized landscapes also gave it the power to destroy them.  Delaney thus complicates the role of the US legal system in the construction of racialized landscapes of power that affected (and still affect) all Americans.

Delaney argues that racism from 1836-1948 was spatialized, or enacted on and through the landscape, and supported by the legal system.  Spatialized racism changed dramatically over time, however.  Before the Civil War, it generally took the form of white territoriality versus black mobility – as evinced, for instance, in cases where 

Southern slaveholders considered slaves to be “property” and argued that Northern states should return escaped slaves.  After the war, Jim Crow segregation focused on establishing physical “color lines” on the landscape where power differentials between blacks and whites weren’t clear, and on carefully regulating interactions between races where power was obvious.  Beginning in the 1890s, lawyers for the NAACP were able to take advantage of the abstract universalism of the law to successfully challenge segregation, with the 1917 Buchanan case setting the stage and a 1948 case making restrictive covenants illegal.  In particular, legal challenges to legalized segregation upheld the privileging of the Federal government over state power, the rights of all people, not just white people, and the concept of property as something a person can own but can never be.  

Throughout, Delaney emphasizes that power, in a legal context, is focused on the control of meaning, where the law attempts to resolve social conflicts by using reason to limit ambiguities.  The law, in the context of a racialized landscape, effectively authorizes acts of exclusion, expulsion, and confinement, so that the people in power can create and enforce spatial and social divisions based on race.  And racism, legally encoded in the landscape and supported/fought in everyday interactions, pervasively affects all members of society, even as that society dismantles racialized landscapes and moves toward new social and spatial configurations.

107: Agee & Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In July and August 1936, James Agee and Walker Evans were working on an article for a New York magazine in which they were to create a “photographic and verbal record” of “cotton tenantry in the United States.”  In particular, they were to write about “the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers.”  As it turned out, finding a “representative” sample of white tenant farmers proved difficult, but they found a group of three families and lived with them for less than four weeks, with Agee creating a written record and Evans taking photographs.  The article was not published, and the book went through multiple publishers before finally coming out in 1939.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is, as Bill Stott argues, a beautifully-made 1930s documentary; Evans’ photos have long since become iconic, and Agee’s prose claims the entire beat generation as its descendants.  Agee is also careful to situate himself and Evans as characters within the story of the tenant farmers’ lives, so that the reader is clear throughout that the book combines objective reality and normative interpretation.  The main argument of the book is encapsulated in the verse that serves as its title: “let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”  The tension here is important: while the famous men lead us in creating history and are thus written down and remembered in history books, they are also responsible for the poverty in which his subjects live; while our fathers’ names are never known to the world, they are arguably more important, because without fathers there would be no children, no next generation to pass history down to.  Thus he celebrates the particularity of the human life of his subjects even as he critiques the universal structures that create it.

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.

88: Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels

In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin Kelley argues that extra-institutional forms of resistance, not formal SMOs, are foundational to black workers’ larger struggle for racial and economic justice.  Building on James Scott’s “infrapolitics,” or everyday small acts of resistance, evasion, and defiance, Kelley shifts the political history of the black working class to the “margins of struggle,” the unorganized, often spontaneous battles with authority, and the social movements that are somehow thought to be “inauthentic” representations of a community’s interests.  He thus locates black political resistance in the complexity of the lived experience of ordinary people whose lives are raced and classed.

Kelley investigates black infrapolitics in a variety of 20th century settings and constructs: the double-edged sword of the “mask of grins and lies”in the pre-WWII South; African American Communists in the South and African American volunteers in the Spanish-American War; the zoot suits, bebop, and hipster ethic in the black male working-class culture of Malcolm X’s youth and the gangsta rap of 1990s LA; bus protests long before Rosa Parks’ formal resistance.  In each situation, he locates resistance at a wide variety of scales, from enlisting to fight in a war or working to build the Communist party to walking, smiling, dressing, sitting, or singing in a certain way and in a certain time and place.

By focusing on infrapolitics, Kelley is able to situate now-famous protests like the Woolworth’s sit-ins in a long tradition of extra-institutional, everyday resistance; as George Lipsitz points out, he is also able pinpoint the beginnings of social movements in everyday forms of resistance that overcome oppression even as they are structured by its particular spatial, economic, and cultural forms.

86: James Grossman’s Land of Hope

James Grossman’s Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration looks at the Great Black Migration as a social process of migration and adaptation that linked together North and South, culturally as well as geographically.  Grossman works in the new social history tradition, so his interest is in the experiences and decisions made by black Southerners who participated in the migration, as well as in their perceptions of their new lives in Chicago.

Looking at the Migration from the perspective of black Southerners, Grossman discovers that the decision to move North was made by the migrants themselves, not by larger structural forces.  The migrants evaluated the North based on the world they knew in the South, not abstract notions of equality.  And initially, Chicago really was a land of hope: the city offered higher wages, more autonomy, the ability to vote, and better schools for their children than were available in the South.  While some historians interpret the migration as a structural shift from rural to urban work, Grossman argues that it was a conscious move by black Southerners to gain opportunity and freedom.

Grossman also shows that despite making a cultural, geographical, and economic break with their previous lives, black Southerners continued to interpret their experiences in terms of race rather than class.  This continuity was conditioned by their experiences in the South and supported by their experiences in the North, as they faced discrimination in housing, community formation, and employment.  It also helps explain why black workers were hesitant to unionize in the Chicago stockyards in the 1920s: within the black community, class was a differentiating factor, but in their interactions with politics, the world of production, and city institutions, race, not class, shaped their experiences.

By looking at the Migration from the perspective of the migrants, Grossman helps explain how and why race, rather than class, shaped the experience of black Southerners in Chicago.  While his argument that class divisions within the black community did not affect workers’ relationships or actions outside that community is a bit hazy, his respect for his subjects and his detailed account of their ideas and lives opens up the Great Black Migration in new ways.