Tag Archives: race

Strange Fruit – Lillian Smith

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Banned to the hilt and consequently a bestseller, a book set in 1920s smalltown Georgia. It is often billed as a tale of interracial love, between Tracy Deen, a young white man from a wealthy family, and Nonnie Anderson, a young black woman who is a college graduate and is now working as a maid. But it is certainly no “forbidden romance” in the genre of “Romeo and Juliet” – this is a story of white supremacy, the misogyny at the heart of heterosexual coupledom, the objectification and trafficking of black women by white men, and the damage done by “well-meaning” progressives. Thankfully, there is no construction of a pre-existing force of romantic love that clashes with cruel social forces and ends in tragedy. Smith therefore gets at something far more insightful than many “feel-good” narratives that simply aim to tell us that, after all, love is love, and offer very little understanding of the violence done by inscriptions of normativity. The novel skips between characters almost dizzily, taking us into the heads of many townspeople who reflect on the Tracy and Nonnie, a murder that takes place, and a lynching. We see how white supremacy is reproduced and how it shores up the identity of white citizens, including those liberals who espouse social justice. Towards the end of the novel, the psychic fragmentation experienced by some characters is depicted in exhilarating modernist prose. There are many reflections of the 1940s white supremacist culture Smith herself wrote out of, representations of black characters that are jarring to a twenty-first century reader. But her striving for representation of this white supremacy, her vivid and daring representation of queerness, sexuality, and desire, as well as the racist and sexist violence that pervades the novel, is a reminder of what we still need from radical writers today.

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Complex Inequality

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A sociological study of the effects of race, gender, and class – and combinations thereof – have on wage difference and economic restructuring. You won’t want to read this unless you have an interest or background in particularly sociological methodologies of economic inequality and public policy. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking study of the material conditions of intersectionality. For me, quantitative analysis and pages of graphs and tables scrambled my mind, but the central arguments are crystal clear: recent structural trends affect different groups in vastly different and often overlooked ways. Her focus is explicitly the US, with firm case studies of postindustrial Dallas, industrial Detroit, immigrant Miami and high-tech St. Louis. She finds that these cities differ more in terms of group-specific patterns of inequality, rather than overall levels of inequality. For example, wage earnings by gender may be relatively equal in one city, but this may mean that wage equality by race may be very low. Statistics may show a small wage gap between women and men in one city, but wage inequality among women may be higher as a result. Looking at different configurations of class, gender, and race is therefore vital.

White

A book by Richard Dyer.

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A fundamental text of critical race theory and film studies, still ominously resonant. Dyer’s contention that until white people see how whiteness is constructed, represented, and privileged, white supremacy (though he doesn’t use that term) will thrive. The scope of his study is stunning: his own awareness of his whiteness, his privileged consciousness of racial difference, the gradual conflation of Christianity and whiteness, the technology of photography and film, the privileging of a “culture of light,” heroic white masculinity in Westerns and muscle-man action cinema, the representation of white women as divine/destructive, and the associations of whiteness with death in horror and cult dystopian films. There are many vital photographs throughout, both black and white and colour, that illustrate the aestheticisation of whiteness. Dyer’s argument that white people are allowed to inhabit ordinariness, the human race, the standard of humanity, even escaping racial identity, while non-white people are raced, particular, and different, is a simple and powerful contribution to any work interested in power. Certainly, he makes strange whiteness, forcing us to consider why connotations of purity, light, goodness, and cleanness have become attached to a simple colour – or, as he discusses, a non-colour. He unravels so much of what we have taken as read in this white-saturated culture. For example, what does it mean to be “white”? It is surely not a literal skin colour possessed by many humans, yet its slipperiness is part of its privilege. Dyer’s call to examine the unexamined is unfortunately still urgent twenty years after its first issue.

Race and White Identity in Southern Fiction

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At the intersection of critical whiteness studies and southern literary studies, Duvall claims that cultural blackness has been performed by white writers and their white characters in a way that critiques the myth of southern whiteness. These are crises in representation and subjectivity that ask us to detach blackness from African Americans. Already we are in murky waters: what are the implications for problems of cultural appropriation, ethics, and Civil Rights? This was my constant unease reading this book, yet Duvall makes important inroads in arguing that in work by, for instance, Faulkner and Twain, cultural blackness may reattach itself to racial whiteness. That is, whiteness is not so much a race but a metaphysics of class privilege. Importantly, we are looking at the extent to which race is a cultural construct and attending notions of, for example, minstrelsy, the primitive, and purity, are circulated in culture. Faulkner’s use of primitive discourse, otherness, and “whiteface” poor southerners who are portrayed as inhabiting blackness is certainly problematic in a way that Duvall elides. His discussion of Toni Morrison’s work on white writers’ use and abuse of blackness and black characters is nuanced enough to suggest his understanding of cultural appropriation would be similarly worthwhile. This study would have been more useful if it discussed the ethics of white writers using whiteface and a de-essentialisation of whiteness that never fully repudiates white supremacy. The conflation of class and race in some southern fiction needed to be unknotted much more carefully. However, his ultimately complex exploration of that “powerful social function that is racial identity” makes this worth reading for anyone interested in southern fiction or race in literature.

Wounds of Returning: Race, Memory and Property on the Postslavery Plantation

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How has the southern plantation evolved after slavery? Why the enduring obsession with, even nostalgia for, the physical space of the antebellum South and its Georgian mansions, places where terrible violence and exploitation occurred? This book combines literary analysis, historical research and first-person ethnography to track a genealogy of the conversion of human beings into capital in the US South. Adams posits that consumer capitalism has continued well beyond abolition and the Civil War, in tourism, souvenirs, incarceration and rodeos. She traces Storyville brothels, narratives of turn-of-the-century new Orleans, plantation tours, Bette Davis films, Elvis memorials, Willa Cather’s fiction, lynching, and the annual prison rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Here is a disturbing portrait of the way the slave past, its violent equation of people as property, haunts all American culture. This is a sociological and cultural take on trauma that packs a much bigger punch than a psychoanalytic one. It asks us to question our tourism practices, visiting sites that have been reconstructed in an attempt to elide the violence embedded in their foundations. In this book, slavery’s physical and psychic violence is always alive within scenes and landscapes of nostalgia.

The Timeless Land

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The opening of a trilogy, once-popular, antiquated: a 1941 take on white invasion/settlement (balanced awkwardly between ideology), 1788 to 1792, but always more 1941 than 1788. A canvas that struggles to contain the people it depicts, black and white, Wangal, Wullumedegal, Burra-matta-gal, Cammeraygal, officers, convicts, rich, poor, women, men, and the country it holds: the waves of Port Jackson, headlands, Parramatta, the Blue Mountains. Historical figures loom large: Arthur Phillip, Bennelong, Barangaroo. A “silent,” “frightening” place where the “natives” do not understand change, live blurred with the land itself, childlike, static. The self-congratulation of white transcription of Aboriginal experience. An attempt at understanding the conflict, the varied perspectives that merged and struck on Koori land, but, ultimately, a colonial act itself, a muffling of language, the words of the coloniser returning decades later.