Modernism and Race

For my final paper, I’ve been thinking a lot about why race is such a prevalent theme in modernism.  Other than the historical moment the movement found itself in, it makes sense that such a divisive social construct as race would be under a lot of scrutiny and redefinition by modernist writers.  However, in trying to break down how we had come to categorize human beings, modernists often turned to essentializing as a means to express the virtues of entire cultures and races of people.  Blatant racism is hateful, but well intentioned essentialism is reductive and neither convey the idea that race is truly a social construct.  We saw EM Forster grapple with this in A Passage to India in a very self conscious way and Stein handle it with not so much self consciousness in insisting that Four Saints have an all black cast.  Cunard’s a particularly strong example of this accidental hypocrisy where there seems to be a bit of a disconnect in her aims and her actually writings.  Undoubtedly, her ambitious project that became Negro stemmed from a genuine and admirable desire to show the ridiculousness of racial prejudice and explore the various experiences of black people throughout the world.  However, it is difficult to reconcile this with her blatant fetishization of black culture.  For Cunard, its not always possible to distinguish fetish from a kind of cultural appreciation or to know how aware of her privileged lens she was herself.
Still, it would be easy (and lazy) to see Negro as a sloppy collection of various medias that both fetishizes and victimizes blackness.  As Winkiel insists, Cunard was very conscious of the book’s structure and the pieces she decided to include in it.  By refusing to stick to a specific theme or natural flow in Negro, she creates a “‘refiguration of temporality’ that opens the present moment to its radical incompleteness, its ‘time out of joint”(Winkiel, 522) to reveal that black experiences had always existed and were not only given life by Western recognition.   More than that, it suggests that while much of the modern black experience was shaped by racism and tragedy inflicted by Europeans and Americans alike, there had long been many facets of black culture with a history and heritage independent of this narrative.
Despite the clear objective in Cunard’s ordering of the book, there has to be a deliberacy in her starting off Negro with Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression”.  It’s a smart choice because it evokes the importance of black self representation in the anthology.  While it appears that Hurston is really essentializing her own race, the essay is much more of a reclamation.  She destroys the idea that black culture is merely a product of failed white mimicry saying that “…the Negro is a very original being. While he lives and moves in the midsts of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use”(Negro, 28).  This notion refutes the silly notion that blackness is only a reflection of whiteness.  It demonstrates that blacks are products of their surroundings just as any one else is, that does not stem from a “feeling of inferiority”(Negro,28).  Hurston explains that the love of mimicry exists independently of whites as though it were an innate quality by describing a group of black children imitating various animals “for the love of it, not because he wishes to be like the one imitated”(Negro,29).  She handles “negro folkore” in the same manner saying it “is not a thing of the past.  It is still in the making”(Negro, 27) forcing the reader to realize that although many white readers may be learning of this genre for the first time it exists outside of modernity and will continue beyond it.  Cleverly, she ends her essay on “dialect”, an oft critiqued “trademark” of African American culture saying: “I am mentioning only the most general rules in dialect because there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less that a volume would be adequate”(Negro 31).  More than just a comment on various dialects, it hints that this tome will not be a large amassment of generalizations about black culture, but an assertion that race is an ever evolving concept with no one absolute identity.  Cunard appears to be in agreement in her choice in beginning the book with Hurston’s essay.  It suggest that “blackness” is not a static concept but one that is ever evolving with a past, present and future, meaning many different things to different people at any given time that transcends temporality.

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One thought on “Modernism and Race

  1. Winkel was pretty harsh on Cunard for the fetishizing of the Harlem Renaissance, because Cunard’s anthology seems to subconsciously emphasize a separateness through a romanticized celebration of it. At the same time, she seems to sort of make personal use of it, meanwhile trying to relate to it through her own political perspectives. Winkel repeatedly comments on how the anthology works as a collection carefully constructed and used to color “negro” history in anti-capitalist/imperialist propaganda. Using the critique of the problem of racial hierarchy as a means to an end (of critiquing capitalism/imperialism) sets up the anthology the way one sets a stage, as Winkel points out in her article. The characters presented on the stage are then related to as a parody to be watched for entertainment or to evoke pity or laughter. But stating pity taints factual history and trying to represent the “other”, even through celebrating it, recreates it in a way that alters the source. Romanticizing Harlem further distances and isolates the reader from Harlem because of the dramatized way in which is presented. It becomes anti-capitalist/imperialist propaganda, simply because it was arranged by anti-capitalists and anti-imperialists. I liked how you related it to Forster’s racial anxiety in A Passage to India, because the anthology almost depicts the impossibility of engaging in a joined racial history, the way Aziz and Fielding almost are able to get past their differences and be friends, but then are torn apart by the horses and the crowds and the sky. And then, of course, on the other hand there is Stein, attempting a similar celebration and dramatization of race that is executed uncomfortably so that it further isolates because its it denies originality and copies incorrectly. It’s awkwardly dissociative. At the same time, you make the point that Cunard does legitimately attempt to give space for black writers to claim their own self actualization, and she frequently comments on their unique ability to do so: even more than white people in white society. But even in that act, as Winkel points out, there is a problem of motive when one tries to use the capturing and communicating of the “negro experience” as part of a modernist experiment or as political agenda.

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