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 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 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
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
I suggest that it is “miscegenation,” not racial intermixture
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
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
Petry presents Abbie Crunch as a character vividly illustrative of this principle. Abbie assiduously defines herself
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
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
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
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.
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
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).