Failing Face of a Nation

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  • ABSTRACT

    Racial intermixture and its repression have been one of the most important formative issues in the history of the United States. Unlike the basic idea of racial intermixture, which exists as a historical reality, the term “miscegenation” describes a fantastical or fictional realm of racial anxiety and paranoia in American society. Set in this third wave of racial progressivism, Ann Petry’s The Narrows overtly picks up on the theme of “miscegenation” anxiety. In this imagined dystopia, which in fact, inverts the terms of historical reality, the national fabric of the United States is threatened by black men’s allegedly insatiable sexual desire for white women. This essay examines the relationship between racial stereotypes and the over-determination of plot and character in The Narrows. By rewriting the culturally clichéd and socially scripted narrative of interracial sexual politics, The Narrows insists upon a historicized accounting for contemporary race politics and reconvenes the theme of miscegenation from the terrain of the imagination, or fantasy, to the terrain of political representation.


  • KEYWORD

    Ann Petry , The Narrows , miscegenation , racial politics , stereotype , history

  • Racial intermixture and its repression have been one of the most important formative issues in the history of the United States, in terms of nation building, civic identity and cultural constitution; and, accordingly, the trope of miscegenation figures prominently in the nation’s literary imagination.4) Petry’s third novel, The Narrows, is yet another text that deals with this difficult issue. Historically, the novel is situated in the midst of the age of assimilation. Its dominant narrative strain takes place in 1952— four years after Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. military troops, and two years before the U.S. Supreme Court passed down the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, which overturned the 1896 ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson, finding that “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks were inherently unequal. In other words, the United States in the fifties inaugurated a decades-long process of de-segregation in public and private institutions throughout the nation. Although the particular neighborhood that Petry focuses on—“the Narrows”— exists within a Northern town that has been racially integrated since the thirties, the Narrows is also a site of rapid demographic change that coincides with the national wave of panic, fear, and guilt that characterized desegregation movements—and resistance thereto—throughout the fifties and sixties.

    The history of racially progressive Civil Rights activism in the United States informs how often it provoked unwarranted—or at the very least, exaggerated—anxieties about the so-called “threat” of race-mixing. In other words, African American demands for political enfranchisement have historically been linked to white paranoia about interracial sexual desire. For example, much of the massive production of racist propaganda following Emancipation hinged upon the idea of the rapacious black savage.5) A similar kind of panic ensues following the Great Migration, where the dramatic influx of African Americans to Northern urban centers coincides with the proliferation of pseudo-scientific literature about the evolutionary dangers of race-mixing.6) In time, a third wave of what might be called “miscegenation” anxiety arises, coinciding with legal desegregation movements throughout the fifties and sixties.

    Set in this third wave of racial progressivism, The Narrows overtly picks up on the companion theme of “miscegenation” anxiety. The melodramatic plotline hinges on what Nellie Y. McKay once called “the most predictable and well known American racial/sexual bugaboo”—referring to the cliché of, and the taboo against, liaisons between black men and white women (xii). In other words, the personal and romantic turmoil of Link Williams and Camila/Camilo Sheffield is persistently and inextricably tied to historically grounded stereotypes, fantasies, and anxieties. Understanding their plotline thus requires the readers to grapple with the history of the idea of “miscegenation” in the American cultural imagination.

    The term “miscegenation” refers broadly to race-mixing— that is, to interracial sexual liaisons and/or kinship claims. It was coined by David Goodman Croly and George Wakeman, two conservative, New York-based journalists who anonymously published an inflammatory pamphlet in an effort to frame the Republican party—particularly President Lincoln, who was up for reelection—as race radicals who, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “favored mixed-race relationships.”7) Croly and Wakeman promptly distributed complimentary copies of their tract to prominent abolitionists and Republican politicians, hoping to ensnare such progressive figures by procuring their public endorsement of a document that many Americans of the day would find not only objectionable, but inflammatory. By November of 1864, however, the pamphlet was publicly exposed as a hoax, Lincoln was re-elected, and the disingenuous pamphlet faded from public memory.

    Evidently, racial intermixture in the American society existed long before the publication of Croly and Wakeman’s pamphlet. In other words, race-mixing in no way began in conjunction with the emergence of this word.8) Slavery, of course, was the historical backdrop against which interracial connections were made in the New World from the 1660s to the 1860s, and, to quote the legal scholar Randall Kennedy, “there was probably more black-white sex during this period than at any other time (thus far) in American history. Most of it was unwanted sex, stemming from white males’ exploitation of black women” (41).9) In other words, as a general rule, interracial sexual liaisons prior to Emancipation existed between white men and black women, and involved some measure of coercion. Interracial relationships, of course, have also existed since Emancipation, in a variety of demographic configurations, and presumably, with varying degrees of mutual consent. By contrast, in keeping with the historical anecdote about Croly and Wakeman, that the term “miscegenation” refers specifically to the propagandistic depiction of interracial sexuality that emerged in the 1860s, on the brink of Emancipation, and that has haunted the American cultural imagination ever since.

    I suggest that it is “miscegenation,” not racial intermixture per se, that provides the foundation for The Narrows’ narrative sequence, which culminates in Link’s murder. There are, of course, innumerable scenes in which Link recalls the cliché of the “miscegenation” script penned and kept alive by racial conservatives since the nineteenth century; that is, the script of the rapacious black man and his vulnerable, white woman victim. To give some examples, mid-way through his first drive with Camilo, Link looks at her and reminds himself of this racial script:

    Later on, he reflects upon Camilo’s impression of him and meditates, “Link Williams, once one knows he is colored, also equals terror, equals drowned-in-fear” (92-3). Finally, in what may be the novel’s most telling meditation on the miscegenation-script, Link contemplates the taboo of his association with Camilo through reference to the nursery rhyme, “The Farmer in the Dell” (74).10) This passage is significant not only insofar as it reiterates the pervasive preoccupation with so-called miscegenation—this, after all, is the topic that Link’s mind instinctively wanders to—but also insofar as it plants that preoccupation within a text of American folklore. In other words, Link’s spontaneous fusion of the cliché interracial sex/rape plot and a classic American nursery rhyme underscores the ways in which racist stereotypes of black men as a sexual threat to white women are deeply ingrained within the cultural logic—not just the laws, but also the most rudimentary cultural formations—of American society. Unlike the basic idea of racial intermixture, the novel shows how the idea of “miscegenation” does not describe the domain of the real but, instead, describes a fantastical realm of racial anxiety and paranoia. In this imagined dystopia, which in fact, inverts the terms of historical reality, Petry exposes how the national fabric of the United States is threatened by black men’s allegedly insatiable sexual desire for white women.

    1)The cover features a woman who purports to be “15% Anglo-Saxon, 17.5% Middle Eastern, 17.5% African, 7.5% Asian, 35% Southern European and 7.5% Hispanic”; and then, in the slightly faded background, there is a seven-by-seven grid, which is reprinted in the magazine with the text of “Rebirth of a Nation, Computer Style” (66). This background grid shows computer-generated images of what the children produced from various configurations of interracial unions would look like.  2)Griffith, of course, was invested in the standard of so-called white racial purity, a standard that this issue of Time does not condone. And yet, Time also unabashedly engages a fantasy of controlling racial production and reproduction, and relates that fantasy to the promise of apprehending the future.  3)See Drake, McKay, Washington, or Weir for gender-focused readings of The Narrows.  4)Werner Sollors’s collection, Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law (2000), offers a comprehensive survey of scholarship on interraciality in American history, and on the impact that anxieties about such relations have had on legal, social, and literary fields. See also, Farber, Kitch, or Lemire, for more extensive historical and legal backgrounds of miscegenation politics in the United States.  5)Marlon Riggs’s documentary Ethnic Notions (1987) shows some prominent examples of such images.  6)Petry’s fellow New Englander, George Schuyler, plays upon this new wave of white paranoia about race-mixing in his novel Black No More (1932).  7)Knowing racial politics to be a singularly divisive issue in the political climate of the 1860s, Croly and Wakeman sought to fan the flames of racist prejudice and paranoia, in order to mobilize opposition to anti-slavery Republicans. Their pamphlet, titled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro,” ventriloquizes, or assumes the voice of, Northern, Republican abolitionists.  Under this guise, the then-anonymous authors of the pamphlet forwarded the argument that “if any fact is well established in history, it is that the miscegenetic or mixed races are much superior, mentally, physically, and morally, to those pure or unmixed” (qtd. in Kaplan 222).  8)I want to draw a critical distinction between actual racial intermixture on one hand, and “miscegenation” on the other. When I refer to racial intermixture, I am referring to actual sexual and/or familial ties between blacks and whites, which have been a feature of American society since at least the seventeenth century.  9)In the novel, Link makes reference to the origins of race-mixing and interracial sexual coercion, when he refers to Mrs. Treadway and Bunny Sheffield’s “rapacious Christian ancestors [who] went to kidnap the Guinea niggers who were my ancestors” (402).  10)In this scene, Link, drowsy and somewhat under the influence, is driving Camilo’s car late at night, and his mind wanders to a fantasy of driving into a roadside home. He wonders to himself “what the farmer in the dell would say if a gentleman of color accompanied by a lady not of color should arrive suddenly on the sunporch, driving right up into the sunporch;” and he determines that the farmer’s wife would shriek in protest at the sight of them, that her disapproval would be voiced as panic, distress, a cry for help (74).

    In the following section, I will discuss how existing scripts, or stock narratives, come to shape, or exert influence on, the novel’s narrative trajectory. Over the course of this discussion, I will examine the ways in which racial and sexual stereotypes intersect in The Narrows in order to situate the abstracted notion of miscegenation into the national narrative of racial paranoia. Negative stereotypes have long plagued African Americans; to the degree that since Emancipation, one of the chief missions of black political organizations has been to confront and dismantle unfair and misleading stereotypes about African Americans. By the 1920s, the African American struggle against misrepresentation had incorporated the term “stereotype” as a kind of negative buzzword—that is, as an enemy of black Americans; and we begin to see antagonistic references to racist “stereotypes” proliferate at this historical moment. For instance, in his famous 1925 manifesto The New Negro, Alain Locke rallied against the ways in which racial stereotypes negatively affect racial progress.11) Locke underscores that historically, African Americans have struggled between and against two disparate, but equally stereotypical forms of representation. Racist narratives have represented black people as savage, stupid, ugly, and dangerous while anti-racists have represented black people as noble sufferers. Both of these caricatures, Locke argues, have worked to obscure the real complexities and vitality of black life.

    Petry presents Abbie Crunch as a character vividly illustrative of this principle. Abbie assiduously defines herself against negative stereotypes about African Americans: she insists upon timeliness because black people are stereotypically late, she takes immaculate care of her home because she fears stereotypes about black slovenliness, she cultivates a public persona characterized by evangelical virtue because she fears stereotypes about black sinfulness, and so forth. Yet ironically, precisely because she so fastidiously works to counter pernicious racial stereotypes, Abbie herself becomes imprisoned by a prescriptive sense of appropriate blackness; that is, she loses the potential to achieve “true social or self-understanding,” because she is so consumed with the task of countering racial stereotypes. Link repeatedly complains about this catch-22 that arises when one attempts to defy racist stereotypes, but then becomes entrapped by the narrow demands of being the precise opposite of the stereotype. His most sympathetic expression occurs in the scene where a ten-year-old Link complains to Weak Knees and Bill Hod about this double-bind:

    This sentiment, in turn, ties the racial war against stereotype to the novel’s broader concern with the relationship between fate and choice: To what degree do individuals control what they do, and to what degree are their fates over-determined by existing social scripts—that is, to what degree does it “just happen”? Link and Camilo’s romance might be read as a case study in precisely this question. The couple’s first, chance meeting occurs under the cover of a thick fog, “so thick now it was like smoke from a fire that had had water poured on it, clouds of it, white, thick, visibility zero, ceiling zero” (57). The misperceptions that mark this encounter are numerous: Link mistakes the white heiress for a black prostitute while Camilo mistakes Link for a white protector against the ghostly dangers of Monmouth’s black neighborhood at night. Each party’s realization of the other’s race inspires a sudden change in disposition. Link’s mind, as I have presented in the previous section, turns immediately to the stereotype of the black rapist, a stereotype that he assumes will be read into any association between himself and Camilo. For her part, Camilo articulates a corollary shift in temperament. Later on, she un-self-consciously describes to Link her reaction upon realizing his race:

    Thus, Petry initially posits a deracinated couple open to any variety of outcomes; but that once this couple enters the racially organized social world—what Link refers to as the world under electric lights—their fate becomes sealed by the deterministic power of stereotype. Camilo’s fright comes to seem inevitable; as does Link’s association with violence and rape. Then again, to what degree should we accept this reading?

    Despite the immediacy with which racial stereotypes are articulated once Link and Camilo’s racial identities become known; at different points and to varying degrees, both Link and Camilo make efforts to imagine relational possibilities for themselves outside the parameters of preordained stereotypes. Camilo initiates these efforts when she returns to the Moonbeam to defy her fear, to disclaim the racial stereotype of the terrifying black rapist. Explaining her initial terror to Link, she suddenly attempts to change the script, to shift the site of her fear from Link’s black male body to the raceless, inanimate fog. “Of course I came back,” she tells Link. “It was the fog that terrified me. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t see where I was going.” By contrast, she says of the previously frightening Moonbeam Café, “There’s nothing here to frighten anyone on a clear night like this” (90).

    Unconvincing as her narrative re-framing may seem, Camilo’s suggestion that she and Link “could be friends” (90) inaugurates the couple’s struggle—against stereotype, against determinism, and against the fate inscribed on the sidewalk by Cesar the Writing Man—not only to establish a viable relationship, but also, to return to Locke, to achieve “true social and self-understanding.” In sum, the stereotypes at once dictate Link and Camilo’s fate, and serve as that against which they protest in their efforts to establish a viable relationship on their own terms. On the one hand, racial stereotypes impose themselves upon Link and Camilo’s early encounters, producing a predictable dynamic of fear and perceived aggression. On the other hand, Link and Camilo’s very effort to establish a meaningful relationship flies in the face of such stereotypes; it insists upon, and holds out for, the possibility of articulating interracial sexuality outside the realms of social script and cultural cliché.

    However, to say that Link and Camilo struggle against the force of stereotype is not to say that they succeed; or for that matter, that their struggle is consistent or principled. Furthermore, if we are to comprehensively understand the workings of stereotype in the novel, then we must acknowledge that stereotype often operates by insinuating itself into the consciousness, or the inner worlds, of individuals. To put this another way, in The Narrows, racist stereotypes are not simply ideas circulating in the outside world that individuals bump up against and must dismantle. Rather, these stereotypes exist within the minds of Link, of Camilo, and of various supporting characters, such that their struggle against stereotyping in the pursuit of “true social and self-understanding” necessarily involves a kind of battle against their own convictions. Camilo probably gives the purest articulation of this idea in the scene quoted earlier in this section where she describes her difficulty reconciling her initial impression of Link as a savior with her realization that Link is African American.

    It must be also noted that in Link’s case, the experience of encountering internalized racial stereotypes is strongly reminiscent of the Du Boisian description of “double consciousness.”12) Likewise, Link’s internal monologue is peppered with projections of what others are thinking of him. He assumes that Camilo will think he is a rapist; that the hypothetical wife of the Farmer in the Dell will think he is a rapist; that the service people at the Harlem hotel will think he is a “kept man,” a “stud” (280), or a “mechanical toy” (289). My point here is not that Link is necessarily unfounded in his accusatory projections of what others think of him. Rather, what I aim to underscore is the degree to which racist stereotypes impose themselves upon Link’s fundamental sense of his relationship to the social world.13)

    Furthermore, this catalog of racist stereotypes—the rapist, the “kept man,” the “stud,” the “mechanical toy”—readily reveals the ways in which racist stereotypes have historically, almost without exception, arisen in conjunction with problematic ideas of deviant sexuality. Link’s reaction against racist stereotypes, in other words, is co-extensive with his protest against sexual stereotypes applied to black men, which would paint him as savage, animalistic, illegitimate, or undomesticated. One of the most vivid scenes in which the inter-workings of race, gender, sexuality, and class play out in the novel occurs in the later part of the novel. At this point in the text, Link has recently learned, courtesy of Bill Hod, that Camilo Williams is in fact Camilla Treadway Sheffield, wife of Captain Bunny Sheffield and heiress to the Treadway Munitions Company’s fortune. This realization inspires a crisis in Link’s perception of both himself and his relationship, and significantly, Link instinctively understands this crisis through a prism of racist stereotyping. Link muses:

    The historical baggage and the hackneyed stereotypes are quite evident here. Camilo’s exorbitant wealth, through which she curries favor with the all-black staff of the Harlem hotel, reminds Link of the economic order under slavery, where black bodies were bought and sold. Under this symbolic paradigm, he is reduced to the status of a kept man; or, returning to the lexicon of slavery, a “stud.” Seeing himself anew, and thusly, through the imagined eyes of Camilo, he finds himself powerless to articulate an identity against the dictates of various racist stereotypes. Later on, Link briefly considers raping her to redeem his precarious masculinity, but soon realizes that this, too, would be scripted. His only out, as he sees it, is to leave, to discard the relationship, to disavow the space of the interracial that he surmises, cannot allow for “true social or self-understanding.”

    It should be also noted here that Link’s feelings of impotence and resentment are profoundly gendered. The list of gifts explicitly recalls previous lists of gifts in the novel—the gifts that Mamie Powther receives from Bill Hod, or that Lola receives from Bullock. Drawing an explicit relationship between gender and the direction of gift exchange, the novel calls attention to the ways in which Camilo’s race and class conspire to de-legitimize Link’s claims to “proper” masculine gender. In short, at least one object of Link’s resentment is the idea that his status as a “kept man” threatens to make a woman of him.

    11)Locke laments that “in the mind of America the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being,” and as such, that “his shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality”(3). Locke further argues that “[t]hrough having had to appeal from the unjust stereotypes of his oppressors and traducers to those of his liberators, friends or benefactors, [the Negro] has had to subscribe to the traditional positions from which his case has been viewed. Little true social or self-understanding has or could come from such a situation” (4).  12)Here, we might recall that for Du Bois, double-consciousness names the “peculiar sensation,” or the sense, “of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (3).  13)It should be noted that this is precisely the problem at the core of Du Boisian double-consciousness.

    By identifying a problematic cultural script that eventually works to ensnare Link in a deadly plot, I do not mean to exonerate his character, or to suggest that he occupies the role of the victim with any semblance of moral purity. Both Link and Camilo are deeply flawed characters, who are at once enticed by the taboo of interracial sexuality, and ensnared by the powerful stereotypes that surround and support this taboo. The point here is that the mythical stereotype of the black rapist—a stereotype that is not grounded in historical fact, but that has accrued force through its recurrent deployment over the course of history— imposes itself as a determinant of the course of Link and Camilo’s relationship. In other words, the myth of the black rapist, whose origins lie in anti-black political strategizing of the nineteenth century, comes to act as fate, to determine the course of Link and Camilo’s relationship. Thus, even though Link stares at Camilo in astonishment when she screams on Dumble Street, he claims to know, at one and the same time, that “it had always been there, waiting to be called forth, terror, outrage, fury, all there in the throat” (319). Such a reading would seem to corroborate Link’s view that the particular, racialized conditions for his murder derive from the collaboration of history and misrepresentation in the production of a particularly damning, if unsubstantiated, racial cliché. Twenty-five percent of the blame, according to Link, is attributable to contemporary misrepresentations of African Americans: specifically, “Jubine Lautrec’s Harlot and The Convict by Anonymous” (399). The other seventy-five percent of the blame, Link says, is attributable to the historical legacy that would enable and encourage an imaginative conflation of Link Williams, the statuesque, Phi Beta Kappa Dartmouth graduate on one hand, and the portrait of a disfigured black convict on the other.

    Earlier in the novel, Petry seems to point to the multiple sites of blame, or accountability. Indeed, the structure of the text itself—with its narrative weaving in and out of various characters’ inner worlds—is suggestive of a communal plot, a communal fate, and a communal responsibility in the face of that fate. And yet, the idea that everyone is accountable—the idea of “all of us culpa”—also has a particular political meaning in the historical context of the early fifties, which is a time period that represents not only the beginnings of legal desegregation, but also the post-World War II era. The War, of course, had made a global spectacle of the unfathomable suffering of the European Jews under an exterminationist Nazi regime. Although the Allies ultimately claimed triumph, the world remained haunted by lingering images of extreme violence, and by the knowledge of the belatedness and inadequacy of global response.

    The Narrows is similarly haunted by precisely the moral questions that emerged, and that saturated modern Western consciousness in the aftermath of World War II: How does extraordinary violence happen? Does humanity harbor an innate capacity for violence? And how are we complicit in the acceleration of such violence? In the novel, Abbie is the character who makes this connection most explicitly, in her shameful anecdote about Mrs. Abe Cohen, a Jewish resident of Dumble Street whose son Abie learns an anti-Semitic rhyme at Abbie’s Sunday school. Mrs. Cohen confronts Abbie, asking “what kind of people—what kind of thing is that to be teaching my Abie in the Sunday School?” (236); but in the moment, Abbie refuses to see her complicity or to intervene in the situation. Instead, “she tried to convince Mrs. Cohen that no one could possibly have taught Abie to say that—not in Sunday School” (236). Yet later, Abbie remains haunted by her failure to acknowledge the moral wrong and to intervene, and Mrs. Cohen’s words merge with the lingering accusations of the Major and Bill Hod. Together, these voices merge as the voice of Abbie’s moral conscience, as the voice of her enduring, expanding guilt. For instance, Abbie’s interior monologue reads: “Dumble Street. What kind of people, Mrs. Cohen crying, Matzos, matzos, two for five. Dumble Street. . . . You fool. You goddamn fool” (252). The point here is not simply that blacks and Jews share a history of oppression and thus a plausible basis for solidarity—although this point, too, seems to be suggested in the easy slippage between Abbie and Abie’s names; or again, in the similarities between Mrs. Cohen’s complaint and Link’s dreadful casting in a school minstrel play. Yet more fundamentally, the novel seems to be concerned with Abbie’s symbolic ability to turn a blind eye to human injustice or suffering; not out of malice nor with direct violence, but out of a desire to protect her own comfort and to leave her vision of the world undisrupted.

    While Abbie’s meditative obsession could be understood as a kind of passive complicity, Link is obsessed with locating the germ of actively violent potential in people around him; of identifying everyone as “executioner.”14) Predictably, Link finds the “executioner” in Bill Hod and in himself—but also, later, he finds it in Abbie, who throws Camilo out of her home in a fury, in Mrs. Treadway, who is consumed to the point of irrationality with racist fear and aversion, and in Camilo, whom he determines has been carrying a murderous scream in her throat all along. In similar fashion, Peter Bullock represents the susceptibility of the business world, as well as the world of media, to a slippery slope of moral conscience. Although Bullock initially resists Mrs. Treadway’s bidding, resenting her assumption that she can buy out Monmouth’s one major newspaper—which, ironically, started as an abolitionist paper—his defenses are compromised with stunning efficiency, and he himself becomes seduced by the power of propaganda. Bullock attributes his initial efforts to stir anti-black sentiment in Monmouth to Mrs. Treadway’s bribery; but a week into his campaign, upon printing the inflammatory picture of the disfigured convict, he thinks, “I did this to myself, no one told me to. . . . It’s the outrageous lie that I deliberately put in there. But by next week, the convict would be forgotten. People would be talking about something else” (375-6). Hence, with Bullock as with Abbie, Petry underscores the individual attempt to diffuse guilt or accountability and to depict it as bureaucratic, as a matter of business, or as beyond the scope of one’s concern.

    These meditations on the belatedness of moral conscience are strategically placed alongside Link’s obsession with humanity’s universal potential for violence—his obsession with the executioner in every modern individual. The novel does not merely stage an analogy between African Americans’ susceptibility to lynching and the European Jews’ susceptibility to genocidal action. Rather, it suggests a common core of moral questions that implicate societies at large in the development of such violence: “all of us culpa.” In this way, Petry renders the global scope of the novel’s engagement with history, ethics, and questions of community. Accordingly, Abbie’s final disavowal of disinterestedness and her determination to intervene in Camilo’s assumed fate can be understood as a symbolic response to the moral atrocities of the twentieth century writ large.

    14)Incidentally, this language—the language of victim and executioner—also derives from Holocaust journalism; particularly from the wartime writings of Albert Camus.

    Closely related to Time’s insistent anti-historicism through the “new face” of the nation are its repeated efforts, over the course of the issue, to privatize racial discourse—that is, to insist that racial discord occurs primarily between individuals, rather than as institutional practice or as a cultural norm. We can readily see this phenomenon at work in the examples of the articles in the magazine where the interviewees who insist that racial intermixture is the best solution for addressing diversity, and the idea that we can encounter the future of racial difference not as widespread social and demographic change, but as a computer-generated individual. By rewriting the culturally clichéd and socially scripted narrative of interracial sexual politics, Petry speaks to the inadequacies of the oversimplified, anti-historical fantasy of post-racial utopia and interracial dystopia. In other words, The Narrows insists upon a historicized accounting for contemporary race politics and reconvenes the theme of miscegenation from the terrain of the imagination, or fantasy, to the terrain of political representation.

    Though clearly conversant with the conventions of black masculinist protest novels and naturalism of the mid-twentieth century and the long genealogy of black feminist writings, Petry expands the trajectories of her fiction much more than such confining referents suggest. On one hand, the novel insists upon a historicized accounting for contemporary race politics. Thus, for example, when Link is contemplating the causes of his imminent death, he attributes “three-quarters” of the blame to “that Dutch man of warre that landed in Jamestown in 1619” (399). Petry repeatedly suggests that the accumulation of an unjust racial history comes to act as fate: cliché becomes script, becomes inevitability. However, Petry also offers a more radical consideration of accountability that refuses the de-personalized notion of history-as-insurmountable-villain, and instead links each of the novel’s diverse cast members to Link’s tragic trajectory. To this end, Link wonders, “all of us culpa?” (402).

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