Grunion Moon (grunionmoon) wrote,
Grunion Moon

Race and literary imagination: introduction

I don't cross-post to LiveJournal but once in a blue moon.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe because I'm always disappointed at not seeing friends here when I stick my head in.  I'm not the only one who hasn't been coming anymore. 

Anyway, on whim, here will be two entries I just wrote on race - really it's working toward something on racism and literary/fantastic imagination, probably I'll actually get to it in the next one, but so far I've just been introducing things and roaming around the conception-map I'm introducing... Here's the first; the second will follow.



I have not written about race and literature yet - though it practically oozes out of the Matter of Humanity of the American and English past. I haven't written about race at all, I don't think. This isn't surprising; it's like writing about, I don't know, Ouija boards when you a) don't believe that Ouija boards, b) don't care about Ouija boards, c) think that Ouija boards are a waste of time, and d) would pick up religious or spiritual questions by another corner altogether. But you can easily look into the past, at the history of how the "modern mind" came to be, without reference to Ouija boards, whereas you can't do so with any penetration without considering how humanity saw itself, or how parts of humanity saw other parts.

Indeed, the more you look at the antics of ideas about race, the more amazing it becomes that we have been able to end up with this latter-day puzzling Great Puddle of "humanity" at all, not as aspiration but as general working assumption: "there are all kinds of cultures, but then there's people." I certainly don't feel, as a rule, as if the status quo is utopian - to say that humanity has its problems in how it sees humanity is somewhat understated - but, to judge from looking back, we here are all (most of us) starting from the Age of Aquarius.

This has been a neglect of mine. I have a mid-twentieth-century encyclopedia with an entry on "Race" that I know I've been tempted to write an entry about for a long time. And, most of all, the literature ... well, I'm going to begin to remedy that bit a little. But the thing that you discover, looking back - no, more like you have to experience discovering it, looking back and seeing it yourself - is that race was the lens of the world's developing eye. And one evil-starred lens - and that is cliche too, but it is something to look back in literature and see the malign hallucinatory glisten of it.

It wasn't only our latter-day stupid remnants of it, the three to five "races". That was there, but that's so simplified a memory that it's as if Professor Moriarty had been lobotomized and all that's left of him is Big Thud. No, race was an archipelago of built-in natures, or a brachiated Linnaean structure. You had your English race and your Irish race and your French race and your Germans and your Italians, with what each could be depended upon to be like in temperament and character (the prism shifting a bit in content or emphasis depending on whether you were an Englishman, Irishman, Frenchman, German, or Italian). "White" as a race only came up in contrast, in far-travelling.

Put a monocle on the same subject, and you had the Nordic race and the Alpine race (subgroupings East Baltic, Dinaric, and Armenoid!) and the Mediterranean race and the Indic race. (The feel is very much like a monomaniacal insistence that a stew with clumps of shifting flavors blending into each other is a lot of distinct meatballs. And not quite all the same meat.) That's the "Caucasoid Stock or Subspecies". Go to Africa, and the "Negroid Stock or Subspecies" (I am quoting the encyclopedia I mentioned now) won't do at all for precision: you've got your West African Gold Coast Negro and your Pygmies and your Bushmen and your Hottentots. You've got to know who you are dealing with.

And - and I think that this might be oddly essential in realizing how total the frame of race was - the structure brachiated down to ideas about families, too, and how they were known in a place in practice. Very much so. Character is in the blood. As: "He was a McAllister." "Ah! Yes, the McAllisters have always been a bit wild." Which leads to the question of a person's "good breeding". Through bloodlines - major arteries down to family capillaries - race was total.


I should note - this is the American Century Encyclopedia, 1951, really an amazing encyclopedia, the entry on "Relativity" is by Einstein(!!!) and so on - that the encyclopedia entry on "Race" is a bit schizophrenic in its tendencies. Literally schizophrenic, I've only now just noticed, because it's written in two sections by two people - which are actually signed separately! Drama is detectable here, I think.

There is a short section at the beginning that implies a slightly more fluid sense, and that soberly warns,

It is most important to stress the point that race, as a scientific concept, has to do only with physical form. It is not directly associated with intelligence, since all races run the gamut from deficiency to brilliance; nor cultural aptitudes, since anyone, in terms of his personal endowments, can learn any way of life if afforded the opportunity; nor nationality; nor language. The confusion of race with any of these concepts is to be guarded against, since this leads to "racism" - the utilization of racial differences, real or imagined, for political ends.
That section - only four paragraphs long - is signed by M. J. Herskovits. I don't think it's guessing too much that Herskovits is a Jewish name, and certainly you can understand why he'd have written that right then.

The remaining three and a half dense pages on "Race", one page taken up by a chart, are signed by Fay-Cooper Cole, and Herskovits does not sign with Cole any more than Cole signs with Herskovits. Beyond the earnest enumeration of all the distinct "Stocks or Subspecies", what jumps out at me is the first sentence in the end paragraph, part of which paragraph might be read as Cole's attempt to address the same thing that was on Herskowits' mind, but from a different place - and the sentence is something else again:

Race and race mixture raise many problems, such as fertility of hybrids and the possibility of disharmonious beings. It likewise has great significance in problems of human behavior and attitudes as is evident in our own immigration and marriage laws and persecutions recently current in certain countries of Europe. It therefore becomes evident that a thorough knowledge of race and race problems is essential to all educated people.
Yes, because of problems like "our marriage laws" and the troubles in "certain countries of Europe", we should be careful to all focus on race very assiduously.

And it seems that the races are distinct enough that there might be species-type infertility problems between them. Problems which do not exist, and which there would not have been evidence to support even back then, and quite a bit of counterevidence, given the currency of words like "mulatto" and "octaroon." But intuitively, apparently...

Most of all - "disharmonious beings"! (I had no idea I was a mutt.)

(I was actually somewhat evilly agog about "disharmonious beings" when I first read it. It's a propagandistic miracle - it sure sounds as though it refers to something (something which you can then fill in by inner association). But it's like a knot tied in the air! Admiration! Make up ten such things, as supple off the tongue as that, and one could perhaps do very well for oneself...)

I have a floating bet on what part of the country Cole was from.


If you didn't have a sense of the history, you might think that that ridiculous multi-multi-race model of racism was potentially healthier than the bone-stupid simple few-mode versions of bigotry which survive. It was perhaps inevitable that the detail would trail off - mostly - in America, with whites intermarrying without geographic pattern, and Africans brought over untagged by tribe and kept in their own mixed bowl. The full taxonomy sounds as if it might, in some other universe, make something vestigial and fun like horoscope signs. "What're you?" But it doesn't work that way. Not nearly enough.

Anyway. I have been thinking about a number of other things about race, none of them original at all, like its relation to the idea of aristocracy. (I've wondered if it's possible that English racism had its first great start when William the Bastard was ravaging the English countryside in his "strong hand" effort - ultimately completely successful - to force the commoners to tug their forelocks to their Norman highborn betters.) (For something ticklesome that's tangent to this, a commenter on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog linked me a couple of days ago to the part in Mark Twain's Life On The Mississippi where Twain excoriates Walter Scott and his novel Ivanhoe about medieval England and holds Scott responsible for initiating the worst central pretensions of the South, their gentry, their "nobility", their high-flown florid prose, later the legend of the Lost Cause, and perhaps responsible for the Civil War itself...?!)

But what I've wanted to do was write something about racism and literary imagination, general and fantastic, which I have been putting off forever.

But now I've just used up the main mass of my time now on only introducing the subject. :o) To be continued, then.

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