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“Mammy of the South / Silence Your Mouth”: The Silencing of Race Radicalism in Contempo Magazine

About the Authors

This article was originated by Davidson College class of 2011 students in a collaborative research seminar on “Modernism, Magazines & Media.” Rachel Andersen, Zoe Balaconis, John Evans, Lisle Gwynn, Hamilton May, Josh Parkey, Susan Ramsay, Danny Weiss, and Liza Winship conducted the initial research and wrote the first full drafts. After the seminar, Anderson and Balaconis received a grant to investigate the Contempo Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas. If an author is “a person who makes or originates something,” then these students deserve credit as co-authors of this article. 


Contempo seems to have lived the entire turbulent and disruptive history of Modernism in rapid-motion miniature…”
—Shari Benstock and Bernard Benstock

Writing of the Great Depression, historian John Egerton observes that, “The whole country was in pain, and the South, by almost any measure you could apply, was suffering much more than the rest of the United States."[1] Economic distress heightened racial tensions, as southern whites tightened their hold on the precious little wealth and privilege available to signal their supremacy. Despite the grip of poverty and rigid racial hierarchies, the 1930s was a period of cultural ferment, particularly in the literary and political realms, and especially in the South. The decade witnessed a brief (but ill-fated) marriage between literary experimentation and revolutionary politics, as writers such as John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, and Muriel Rukeyser attempted to wed modernist formal experimentation with leftist social protest.

At the same time, a powerful conservative force arose to defame the union of literature and politics: the New Criticism dismissed political literature as mere propaganda and advocated “pure,” dispassionate analysis of literary texts, separated from biographical, social, and political contexts. New Criticism was engineered by a group of southern white intellectuals from Vanderbilt University—including John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—who called themselves the Agrarians and published their articles of faith in the 1930 essay collection, I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. The Agrarians were staunchly committed to the craft of poetry and opposed to industrialization and modernity. Yet though they advocated the separation of literary texts from their contexts and the isolation of the South from the northern industrial economy, the Agrarians succeeded in exporting and promulgating New Criticism, which became a national program that shaped the formation of the emergent (white) canon of modernism.[2] 

Just as the ideological underpinnings of New Criticism are veiled by its profession of intellectual neutrality, the whiteness of the modernist canon remains largely unspoken today. As Michael Bibby recently pointed out, “an unexamined color line in modernist studies . . . has persisted ever since the field emerged in the midcentury.”[3] The academic formation of modernism is predominantly white yet racially unmarked, in contrast to the racially marked fields of African American literature and the New Negro Renaissance. Grace Elizabeth Hale’s argument about the way a “collective American silence” about whiteness shapes our national identity may be extended to the academic formation of modernism:

The denial of white as a racial identity, the denial that whiteness has a history, allows the quiet, the blankness, to stand as the norm. This erasure enables many to fuse their absence of racial being with the nation, making whiteness their unspoken but deepest sense of what it means to be an American. And despite, and paradoxically because of, their treasured and cultivated distinctiveness, southern whites are central to this nationalism of denial. (Making Whiteness, xi)

Whiteness likewise stands as the norm of American modernism, allowing the absence of racial being to be fused with modernist literature and making whiteness the unspoken but underlying sense of what it means to be modernist. “Despite individual scholars’ racial ideologies, and regardless of the historical evidence that reveals American modernism to be the product of a complex, diverse, and profoundly multicultural social moment, as a disciplinary field modernist studies has been organized around a persistent and coherent emphasis on the cultural production of whites” (Bibby, “The Disinterested,” 487). This persistent emphasis has largely been unremarked, and, as Bibby’s account of the New Critical formation of the field and as this case study of the little magazine Contempo attest, southern whites are central to this modernism of denial.

In its struggle to wed a commitment to revolutionary politics with advocacy of modern literature, and its gradual—almost imperceptible—shift from volleying against racial injustice to fortifying a white modernist canon, “Contempo seems to have lived the entire turbulent and disruptive history of Modernism in rapid-motion miniature.”[4]

Published between 1931 and 1934 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the little magazine was edited by white southerners, Milton Abernethy and Tony Buttitta, University of North Carolina graduate students who dropped out to pursue their literary ambitions. “Nothing struck us as impossible,” recalled Buttitta, “not even the launching of a literary magazine—the last thing anybody might want when banks were folding, farms were foreclosed, brokers peddled apples instead of stocks on Wall Street, and little magazines vanished like kites in a windstorm.”[5] Contempo sputtered into print, fueled by meager proceeds from the Intimate Bookshop, a shoestring venture Abernethy had started in his dorm room in order to buy textbooks at wholesale prices. From such inauspicious circumstances, the little magazine managed to publish William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. The Intimate Bookshop found headquarters on Franklin Street and became a fixture in Chapel Hill, operating as a literary hub—“North Carolina’s Algonquin, its Greenwich Village, its Bloomsbury, its City Lights”—until 1998 (fig. 1).[6]

Figure 1: “The Intimate Bookshop” (1932), Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

Contempo represents a heroic moment of modernist race radicalism—a bold, courageous, and perhaps even foolhardy effort by young, liberal-minded, white editors to condemn racial injustice and protest the Scottsboro Trials before a national audience. In March 1931, nine African American boys, ages 13 to 19, were pulled off a freight train in Alabama, charged with raping two white women on board, and sentenced to death, despite the lack of evidence for the alleged crimes. Buttitta said he and Abernethy were “firmly convinced of [the boys’] innocence” and “determined to do what we could to break down the wall of silence and prejudice in the press for, if the facts were made known, we knew they would arouse protests that might save the boys from the electric chair” (“Contempo Caravan,” 114). Contempo first took up the cause in the July 1931 issue, publishing defense attorney Carol Weiss King’s “Facts About Scottsboro” on the front page, and following up in September and December of that year with two special issues devoted to Scottsboro (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Contempo 1, no. 6 (Mid-July, 1931): 1, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

The second of these special issues brandished Langston Hughes’s poem “Christ in Alabama” on page one, underneath Zell Ingram’s block-print image of a black, crucified Christ. In the right column, Hughes’s editorial, “Southern Gentleman, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes,” lambasted “American justice (if there is any)” and “the honor of Southern gentlemen (if there ever were any).”[7]

Contempo’s Scottsboro coverage may not seem bold today in comparison to the revolutionary rhetoric published in the Masses, the Liberator, and the Messenger, nor in relation to Scottsboro reporting in the New York Times, which ran more than 500 articles on the case. But for a southern, white-owned periodical, this was unprecedented. Of the nineteen major daily papers in the South, only seven ran articles on the boys’ arrests.[8] The Raleigh News & Observer, the largest newspaper for the Chapel Hill area, mentioned the Scottsboro trials twice, in AP dispatches buried on pages nine and eleven. In such a climate, Contempo’s front-page coverage was not just unusual, but a serious challenge to the social order: “I have never read anything worse than these two articles . . . It is enough to make the blood of every Southerner boil,” complained a prominent white businessman, “This ‘Contempo’ . . . is striking at the very foundations of our civilization and our social relationships.”[9] He may not have been entirely off base, since, according to historian Glenda Gilmore, the Scottsboro controversy produced “tectonic shifts” in “the southern landscape” by eroding “the long-standing political usefulness of southern white women’s purported purity” and by suggesting “that it was not simply lawlessness that jeopardized black safety but lawfulness as well” (Defying Dixie, 125-126). Hughes’s editorial targeted both of these fault lines, identifying the boys’ white female accusers as “prostitutes,” describing the Alabama court proceedings as “absurd farces,” and figuring the “State’s electric chair” as a lynching mechanism (“Southern Gentlemen,” 1). Contempo defied southern racial codes not only by publishing such blunt rebukes, but even more flagrantly by inviting an African American writer to voice them.

What is perhaps most striking—yet most often overlooked—about Contempo’s Scottsboro coverage, however, is its subsequent silencing. After the special issue featuring Hughes’s “Christ in Alabama,” coverage of Scottsboro all but vanished from the magazine, and near silence ensued on the subject of racism. A “Negro Arts Edition, to be edited by Langston Hughes,” advertised in the April 1, 1932 issue, never materialized. Contempo continued to publish inflammatory articles by white writers on topics such as censorship, pornography, and communism, and to champion experimental writers such as Faulkner and Joyce. These loud radical discourses distract from the silencing of race in Contempo, a silence that extends from the pages of the magazine through to the annals of literary history. No one asks or explains why Contempo dropped the subject of Scottsboro. Instead the tendency, both then and now, has been to turn attention to the next “controversy,” “big scoop,” or “publishing coup.”[10] Contempo has been commemorated as “a small but brilliant literary gold mine,” as a “somewhat daring southern literary magazine . . . determined to involve black writers” and “become a southern outlet for literature of the Harlem Renaissance,” and most recently as a publication “not explicitly edited by African Americans” that explored race issues.[11] But while the magazine’s literary coups and political courage have attracted scholarly interest, the subsequent silencing of racial protest in the magazine has gone unnoticed.

This is a story of racial silencing in Contempo. The key players are Abernethy, Buttitta, and Hughes; David Clark, editor of the Southern Textile Bulletin; Frank P. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Kemp P. Lewis, president of the Cotton Manufacturers Association of North Carolina.[12] These men operated in a field of power relations that set limits on the kinds of radicalism permissible in the Depression-era South. Although multiple constituencies colluded to muffle the uproar over the Scottsboro issue and impose a “silent treatment” on the magazine and its editors, there was never any violent coercion or overt censorship of Contempo. In fact, what led to the demise of the magazine was a mundane policy dispute between the editors, which arose after Abernethy’s new wife, Minna, joined the enterprise in 1932.[13] Contempo continued publishing until 1934, but a variety of forces—some external to the magazine and some internal, some intentional and others incidental—coalesced to suppress the subject of Scottsboro, while encouraging attention to other topics and writers.

This is also a story about how liberal intellectuals who are committed to racial justice can get caught up in value systems and cultural economies that valorize white literary production, while tacitly enforcing racial omissions. Abernethy and Buttitta were neither “victims of Jim Crow,” as Clare Colquitt suggests, nor failed radicals, as Cary Wintz implies, but aspiring modernists with “a talent . . . for finding something to stir people up about” (Colquitt, “Contempo Magazine, 31; Wintz, Black Culture, 170).[14] They defied southern codes of silence, segregation, and white supremacy in both Contempo and the Intimate Bookshop, yet as editors they seem to have been more enterprising than revolutionary, motivated less by a commitment to the Scottsboro cause than by the desire to cause a sensation. Their vanguard sensibilities and literary aspirations, coupled with their youth and impecuniousness, may have made them more vulnerable to local political pressures as well as more susceptible to the international siren song of modernist literary acclaim—a combination of deterrents and incentives that worked in tandem to mute discussion of Scottsboro in favor of other radical discourses that were less threatening to the racist regime.[15] 

Contempo’s dropping of the subject of Scottsboro could easily be dismissed as the natural behavior of a modernist little magazine, a periodical species that moves from one radical idea or startling innovation to another, motivated by a genetic instinct to “make it new,” and making as much noise as possible whenever it reproduces. But it is important not to dismiss the magazine’s behavior as “natural,” because doing so allows the silencing of race protest to remain unremarked. If indeed Contempo’s behavior is typical of the species, we should examine little magazines more carefully, because they may tell us something about the extent to which the elision of race may be built into the operations of the publishing vehicles that helped lay the foundations of modernism. Moreover, since little magazines typically move on quickly from all causes, not just racial ones, Contempo’s behavior may be indicative of a larger dissonance between political activism and modernist vanguardism. Buttitta and Abernethy tried simultaneously to uphold a “spirit of change, open-mindedness & sense of justice—Scottsboro,” and at the same time, “tried to see everything with a fresh view—‘make it new,’ as Pound said.”[16] But as we shall see, they found themselves pulled from political commitments toward literary aspirations, caught up in currents shifting toward a modernism ill suited to sustained racial protest, their courageous radicalism silenced, commodified, and mythologized within larger power structures, cultural economies, and value systems.

The Scottsboro Issue that Triggered the Furor

When Langston Hughes’s “Christ in Alabama” appeared on the front page of the Dec. 1, 1931 edition of Contempo, the magazine had already established its penchant for literary radicalism, with almost a dozen issues in print, addressing such risqué topics as “Sex and Poetry,” “The Morbidity of Faulkner,” and “The Socialism of Norman Thomas.” Calling itself “a review of ideas and personalities,” Contempo invented a genre called “authoreviews,” inviting writers to review their own work and answer their critics. The column “Notes from Nowhere” offered pungent observations about the radical literary world, peppered with gossipy tidbits. Sherwood Anderson contributed “Travel Notes” from his southern tour; Pound expounded on “Publishers, Pamphlets, and Other Things,” and Hughes’s published his short, cynical poem, “White Shadows.” King’s “Facts About Scottsboro” appeared in July 1931, and the subsequent mid-July issue’s front-page spread included Theodore Dreiser’s “Humanitarianism in the Scottsboro Case,” drawn from a speech he delivered in New York calling for change in the trial venue, John Dos Passos’s article, “Scottsboro’s Testimony,” linking the injustice to class hierarchies, poverty, and ignorance, and a haunting illustration of the Scottsboro boys huddled in a shadowy jail cell. Despite the radical topics Contempo addressed, however, the magazine did not encounter any local resistance until it published the Scottsboro edition featuring Hughes (fig. 3).[17]

Figure 3: Contempo 1, no. 13 (Dec. 1, 1931): 1. Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

Hughes’s contributions went further in flouting southern codes of deference and decency than anything previously published in Contempo.[18] His controversial poem “Christ in Alabama” confronts racial silencing head on, ironically portending the subsequent muting of race protest in the magazine. Each of the first three stanzas of the poem positions a member of the Christian holy family within the southern racial hierarchy, figuring Christ as “a Nigger,” his mother Mary as “Mammy of the South,” and God the father as “White Master above.” The fourth and final stanza completes the tableau with an image of a tortured, black Christ “on the cross of the South.” By representing the lynching victim as a martyred Christ, Hughes inverts the standard trope of white lynching narratives, which typically describe the victim as a “devil” or “fiend.” This inversion was an established strategy of anti-lynching discourse: the December 1911 Crisis printed its first lynching photograph as part of the title graphic for W. E. B. DuBois’s short story, “Jesus Christ in Georgia.” A cropped photograph of an unidentified black man hanging from a tree is framed within a hand-drawn wooden cross, with Jesus at the center, looking down upon the victim with a sorrowful expression.[19] Whereas the Crisis graphic emphasizes spiritual pathos, however, Hughes heats up the anti-lynching rhetoric by mixing the sexual transgressions of rape and miscegenation into the religious tableau.

Portraying Christ as the mixed-race bastard son of a black Mary and a white God, the poem deploys the call-and-response form of African American hymns to ironize the way Christian traditions are deployed to justify racial oppression.[20] The call lines invoke and racialize the members of the holy family, and the responses express a collective consciousness that unites black and white voices in service of a violently distorted Christian doctrine. The black Christ is called upon to submit to a brutal beating and his Mammy is commanded to “silence [her] mouth,” while his “White Master” is entreated to “grant us your love”—that is, to sanction the call for black self-sacrifice and submission. By highlighting the silencing of Mary and the “bleeding mouth” of the black Christ, Hughes calls attention to the way that the hegemonic collective voice suppresses black resistance and lament. Zell Ingram’s adjacent illustration reinforces the poem’s emphasis on silencing, with the white lips visually echoing the stigmata on the hands. The white stigmata mark the wounds inflicted on the black body by white oppressors, and the central wound is the maiming of the mouth.

As scholars have noted, “Christ in Alabama” attacks not only white oppressors, but also black compliance in the silencing of protest.[21] Hughes wrote the poem during his 1931 southern tour and sent it to Contempo on October 23, 1931. He clearly had in mind southern audiences, because in December 1931—the same month “Christ in Alabama” appeared in Contempo—he published the poem “Scottsboro” in the Harlem-based Opportunity. The Opportunity poem highlights visual effects, with an all-caps first line that mimics a newspaper headline: “8 BLACK BOYS IN A SOUTHERN JAIL / WORLD, TURN PALE!” In the northern context, the glaring visibility of the injustice—its potential to become just another sensational headline—is the problem, rather than its silencing. The differences between the two Scottsboro poems suggest Hughes’ conviction that the problem of the twentieth century below the Mason-Dixon line was the silencing of racial protest.

The Scottsboro issue vaulted Contempo onto the world stage; according to Buttitta, “it was the Scottsboro case that brought us international fame and local damnation.”[22] The editors cultivated the controversy by defying the color line and asking local black business owners in Durham to subsidize an extra-large print run of six thousand, alerting local newspapers, and distributing free copies around Chapel Hill. To maximize the sensation, they timed the special issue to coincide with Hughes’s stop in Chapel Hill on his tour of the South.[23] Determined to show Hughes that “there were students who did not believe in [the] stupidities of Jim Crow,” Abernethy and Buttitta “defied local custom” by inviting the poet to stay in their apartment. Their landlord got wind of the plan and threatened to evict them, but they persisted in their effort to shatter racial barriers by dining with Hughes in “the snappiest cafeteria in town” and taking him “to a white drug store for a drink” (fig. 4).[24] 

Figure 4: “Tony Buttitta and Langston Hughes at Chapel Hill, NC, fall 1931,” Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina. Reprinted with permission from Harold Ober Associates, Inc

In doing so, they violated “a fundamental Southern taboo,” since, as they well knew, “eating was one of the most segregated activities in the South.”[25] Hughes’s stop in Chapel Hill also included an engagement at UNC, where sociologist Guy Johnson and playwright Paul Green had invited him to speak to their classes and give an evening reading in Gerrard Hall (Dredge, “Defending White,” 82). The Scottsboro issue proved to be a thorn in that engagement, however. When locals discovered that Hughes planned to read his poetry in the student campus hall, “such a hullabaloo arose that permission for its use that night was instantly revoked and Hughes was assigned to another hall” (Buttita, “Contempo Caravan,” 117). The controversy also interfered with Johnson and Green’s efforts to raise a collection to pay Hughes’s speaking fee, making UNC “the only school not to pay the full fee for his presentation” (Dredge, “Defending White,” 85).

A Climate of Repression

In defying southern codes of public discourse and decorum, Contempo was poised to be a revolutionary, racially progressive voice in the South. As one reader commented, “Contempo has certainly taken a bold stand and has become a smack in the Southern face. It has become so bold and out-spoken that, in a way, its character has changed from a liberal-literary sheet to a literary-labor organ fighting injustice and the rights of man, black and white.”[26] The little magazine was particularly courageous given the prevailing taboo of silence on race issues in the South. “Like a performative speech act,” Tammy Evans argues, “silence is a crucial component of southern ideology: it determines what stories are told in the South and, consequently, what stories are discarded.”[27]

In the first decades of the twentieth century, for example, Southern white newspapers routinely reported on lynching, with advertisements promoting the events and ghoulish narratives describing them in agonizing detail. But in the 1920s, the anti-lynching movement swayed public opinion, and four Southern newspapers even won Pulitzer prizes for their attacks on lynching (Hale, Making Whiteness, 210; Wood, Lynching, 2; Egerton, Speak Against, 135). According to historian Amy Louise Wood, by mid-1930s, “activists had succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate so that forward-looking white southerners were compelled to adopt the position that lynching was barbaric and disgraceful”; although racial violence and discrimination continued, lynching “had become the province of small bands of white men who murdered blacks swiftly and secretly, far from public view” (261). The shift in white public opinion corresponded to a change in media practices:

Coverage of lynching accordingly became more circumspect in the southern press, as editors recognized that sensational accounts, including the printing of photographs, would only compound the shame. Some smaller papers in the South stopped covering lynchings—even the most spectacular lynchings warranted no mention in small-town and country newspapers . . . southern papers that had previously lingered over the most grotesque details of lynching violence began to cloak that violence in a veil of invisibility. (219)

Silence became the discursive norm on race: “With only a few exceptions,” writes Egerton, even the most liberal critics of the South “stopped short of any outward hint that the prevailing racial mores needed to be reexamined. …The social and cultural proscriptions were as deep as they were broad, and for thirty years they had been reinforced by written laws affirmed all the way to the top of the federal government; it took a special kind of courage—or madness—to speak and act against such overwhelming force” (Speak Against, 76). The consequences of speaking out were steep. When Ida B. Wells protested lynching in the Memphis Free Speech in 1892, her newspaper’s office was destroyed, and she fled to the New York Age; nearly forty years later, when James S. Allen put the slogan “White and Colored Workers, Unite!” on the masthead of Southern Worker in 1930, southerners “were too scared to subscribe” to the paper and “organizers were to scared to distribute it” (Hale, Making Whiteness, 209; Egerton, Speak Against, 119).

Southern discursive codes prohibited open discussion of Scottsboro, as Hughes discovered during his speaking tour of the South, reporting to the Crisis, “I was amazed to find at many Negro schools and colleges a year after the arrest and conviction of the Scottsboro boys, that a great many teachers and students knew nothing of it, or if they did the official attitude would be, ‘Why bring that up?’”[28] When students tried to protest racial injustices at Hampton University in Virginia, Hughes learned, “the faculty . . . put up its wall” to block their effort, and in Alabama, Tuskegee University maintained “a library that censors all books on race problems and economics to see that no volumes ‘too radical’ get to the students” (227). Southern black educators consented to a “wall of silence” on race in order to avoid violence and unrest and to preserve meager opportunities for advancement within a white-controlled political economy.

Unlike neighboring southern states, however, North Carolina had a reputation as a liberal haven, a place where the races coexisted peacefully, and where middle-class African Americans thrived. Hayti (pronounced ‘hay-tie’), the black community in Durham, was a hub of black-owned businesses, schools, libraries, clubs, hospitals, banks, and churches.[29] Yet the success of Durham’s black community depended on race barriers within the region; African Americans in Durham prospered when their businesses served a black-only clientele and did not interfere with white domains. The University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill (UNC) was considered “the heart of what passed for liberalism in the region,” and “Harry Woodburn Chase, president of UNC from 1919 to 1930, had earned a reputation as a proponent of intellectual openness.”[30] Nevertheless, there were strict racial limits to southern liberalism, as evinced by the University’s censorship of a graduate thesis in 1927 (384). Robinson Eli Newcomb’s research on African Americans’ economic advancement in North Carolina contradicted the state’s idealized self-image, showing that across the state, black businesses faced “difficult conditions, a lack of capital, and prejudice from whites” (381). When executives at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem learned about the study, they complained to UNC President Chase, who ordered the thesis to be destroyed.

Despite instances of censorship, however, UNC remained the “single most glowing exception to the broad-based mediocrity in the Southern academic world,” and from 1930–1949, “under the steady hand” of president Frank P. Graham, “it blossomed like a desert flower” (Egerton, Speak Against, 130). According to Egerton, Graham’s “life was a largely admirable and inspiring blend of scholarly devotion, social commitment, personal integrity, and political shrewdness.” He was a “masterful lobbyist,” capable of winning over even the most recalcitrant opponents with his “disarming friendliness, generosity, humor, and magnanimity.” Although he was liberal in his politics, “he was no reckless radical; ever sensitive to lurking political dangers, he managed twice in the 1930s to dodge the explosive issue of racial desegregation in the university student body.” On both occasions, when African American students pressed for admission “Graham stayed discreetly silent” (130-131). Graham would likewise deploy diplomatic silence to muffle the Contempo controversy.

The Reaction, In Public and Behind the Scenes

Figure 5: Local ads in Contempo 1, no. 3 (June 13, 1931): 4, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries,  Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

Following Hughes’s appearances in Contempo and at UNC in December 1931, a furor erupted in Chapel Hill and spread to other southern towns. Chapel Hill businesses withdrew their ads, and local media condemned the little magazine.[31] The Gastonia Daily Gazette had especially harsh words: “Contempo is nasty. It is common, filthy, obnoxious, putrid and stinking. It is low down. . . . If you should happen to run across a copy of Contempo read it, by all means, and then burn it, by all means.”[32] According to Buttitta, “local and university people” had tolerated their radicalism, viewing Contempo as “a harmless, late-flowering of Greenwich Village bohemia”; but “the moment we printed the poem by a Negro who called Christ ‘a nigger’ there went up such a howl on the campus and in the village that ‘liberal’ Chapel Hill overnight took on the intolerance and prejudice of a small Southern town and for a time vague threats made it unsafe for us to live there” (“Contempo Caravan,” 117). Unsafe as it may have been, however, there is no evidence that the editors left town, and they continued to publish the magazine without a pause. “People didn’t come around shooting guns or anything,” recalled Abernethy’s wife, Minna, “there were a lot of friendly people and a lot of hostile people. It didn’t seem to affect us very much, but it was a lot of hostility.”[33]

According to Hughes, Abernethy and Buttitta were “delighted at the commotion” (I Wonder, 41). The editors sought to capitalize on the sensation they had provoked, converting negative publicity into advertising for their magazine. They replaced the dropped local ads with their own ad, which quoted the Gazette’s attack on Contempo and exhorted readers to “SUBSCRIBE NOW!” “FOR MORE VIGOR, PUNGENCY, AUDACITY” (figs. 5–7).[34] In this way, Scottsboro ceased to be a cause célèbre and instead became a celebrity-seeking tool, and Contempo converted the uproar into a trademark of its own radicalism.

Figures 6 & 7: Self-promotion: “The Scottsboro Number,” Contempo 1, no. 14 (Dec. 15, 1931): 4; “The Southern Press,” Contempo 1, no. 15 (Jan. 1, 1932): 4, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

Their advertising scheme garnered the approval of distinguished writers such as Sinclair Lewis, who wrote: “If nothing else would make me subscribe, the charming praise of Contempo from the Gastonia Daily Gazette would make me.”[35] Many other readers wrote expressing support for the magazine’s Scottsboro coverage; “most of the letters to the editors received about these issues were flattering, with several offering interesting commentary both on the case itself and on the American press” (Colquitt, “Contempo Magazine,” 27). Enthusiastic subscribers admired not only the Scottsboro coverage, but also the widespread publicity it generated. Basil Bunting wrote from England to congratulate the editors “on the fine press you got over the Scottsboro numbers,” and Carl Hyman, editor of the San Francisco Fortnightly, wrote, “I admire your stand on the Scottsboro crime. It is such an attitude as yours that makes this business of publishing an exciting and admirable one. You have, frankly, all the courage that I lack.”[36] Of course, not all subscribers were pleased, especially southern readers. Allen Tate wrote from Tennessee, accusing the editors of “sensationalism” and “exhibitionism,” and complaining, “You have no policy, no point of view.”[37]

The local outrage spread when the Charlotte-based Southern Textile Bulletin, edited by David Clark, picked up the story (fig. 8). Throughout his long and vocal career as editor of the influential industry journal, “Clark unfailingly protected southern textile interests while defending the South against all efforts to undermine the privileges of white supremacy” (Dredge, Defending, 59). He dedicated his ferocious rhetorical arsenal to fighting federal anti-lynching statutes, miscegenation, integration, civil rights, child labor laws, unions, socialism, communism, and other evils that threatened the “pure Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-Irish” lifeblood of the South (79). A favorite target of his attacks was the “ultra-liberal” University of North Carolina: “Our Greatest Menace,” he warned in an editorial, is “modern college professor[s],” who were too often “radicals, communists, [and] atheists” corrupting the minds of impressionable young college men (75).

Figure 8: The Southern Textile Bulletin XVIII, no. 17 (Dec. 25, 1919). State Library of North Carolina. Internet Archive. Accessed 12/11/2015.

When Clark got his hands on the Scottsboro issue of Contempo and heard about Hughes’s talk at UNC, he seized on the ammunition and launched a new campaign of terror. He reprinted Hughes’s poem and article along with a scathing editorial of his own, falsely insinuating that Contempo was a UNC publication.[38] Deriding Hughes “scurrilous and blasphemous articles,” Clark laid the brunt of his attack on UNC for inviting Hughes to speak: “In most places in the South any man who wrote such articles would be driven out, in fact, would be fortunate to escape bodily harm, but even though a negro writes such words about white girls he is to be welcomed at the University of North Carolina by certain students and probably by certain professors.”[39] Clark exaggerated the dangers: many African American writers, including Hughes, toured the South without serious incident. But Clark was irrationally incensed because Hughes had been invited to speak to UNC students and treated deferentially by the university newspaper: “The official publication, the Daily Tar Heel, referred to him as Mr. Hughes and said that his speaking was the expression of a clear and sincere spirit,” Clark wrote, asserting that, “Honoring a negro who had made such statements was worse than publishing his articles.”[40] Clark deployed southern discursive codes to relegate Hughes to an inferior social position, stripping him of the honorific “Mr.” and reducing him to a lowercase “negro.” According to Egerton, “[i]n public discourse and in public print, blacks were commonly denied the courtesy of personal or professional titles (Dr., Mr., Mrs., Miss). In polite company, they were called colored people or Negroes . . . The most common and hated word was nigger; only slightly less cutting was negro, uncapitalized (and nig-ra), for it was a visible and explicit denial of any status as a person” (Speaking Against, 31).

UNC’s Involvement in the Uproar

Clark’s inflammatory coverage triggered a volley of angry letters addressed to the UNC president Frank Graham and his executive secretary, R. B. House.[41] Graham responded to the complaints with an impressive blend of respect and resolve, staunchly adhering to the freedoms of speech and assembly that he had vowed to support in his inaugural address. As David Chinitz observes, Graham “set a high value on preserving academic freedom and defended his position admirably—even courageously, given the strength of his opponents and the extremity (by southern standards) to which Hughes had gone on a taboo issue. But to fight that battle, he did not hesitate to write off the Scottsboro injustice itself.”[42] Whatever his personal convictions, Graham would not let Contempo or Scottsboro endanger his University. Given that UNC was already threatened with severe budget cuts from the state legislature, he could not afford to antagonize the conservative white power base. His handling of the Contempo controversy, largely conducted through a series of private letters, was a marvel of effectual diplomacy that ultimately succeeding in muting the uproar.

Leading the charge against Contempo was Kemp P. Lewis, executive at Erwin Mills in Durham, recently elected president of the Cotton Manufacturers Association of North Carolina, and soon-to-be trustee of UNC. Enclosing clippings from the Textile Bulletin, Lewis spewed contempt for Contempo, writing:

I have never read anything worse than these two articles that came out in this “Contempo.” It is enough to make the blood of every Southerner boil to have a man like this Hughes given any attention or consideration whatever by decent white people.[43]

Lewis utilized his authority as an incoming trustee to demand more information about the University’s involvement in the incident, asking

if this Negro was allowed to use the buildings at the University and had any recognition whatever by the faculty. I would also like to know if the editors of this “Contempo” are students of the University. Boys are often suspended for drunkenness but I would a thousand times rather for my son to occasionally get drunk than to have a propaganda sheet like this “Contempo,” which is striking at the very foundations of our civilization and our social relationships.[44]

For Lewis, the greatest threat to the social order came not from drunken, unruly behavior but from “propaganda” that undermined the racial hierarchy and segregation. Kemp was not alone in his concerns; according to Thomas P. Graham, of the Crompton & Knowles Loom Works, “The whole State is being stirred up about the unfortunate Langston Hughes affair, and the University is being criticized severely that this infamous negro was even allowed on the University campus.”[45] Thomas Graham concluded his letter by threatening to withdraw financial support from UNC.

With the able assistance of House, Frank Graham managed to uphold the right to free speech, even as he promoted a policy of silence on the subject. Their first step was to distance the University from Contempo, issuing affidavits to prove that the editors had withdrawn from the university before the controversial Scottsboro issue was published, and to show that the professors who invited Hughes to speak had no knowledge of his Contempo associations. Careful never to name the professors involved in Hughes’s visit, Graham reassured Kemp that 

Contempo has been met here with indignant scorn and silent contempt. . . . The only outlet they have been able to get has been in the Southern Textile Bulletin. They have given Mr. Clark just what he wants to impute to the University. Mr. Clark, as someone has pointedly said, in turn gives them just the recognition which they have craved and been denied here. … The editors of Contempo took advantage of the situation and got Hughes to write them the sacrilegious poem and sensational article which were calculated to offend religious sensibilities in a sensational way, and inflame racial hatreds.[46]

Graham and House characterized the Contempo editors as sensation seekers who manipulated Hughes to garner publicity for themselves. They deployed the stereotype of the “guileless Negro,” portraying Hughes as the editors’ naive victim, in order to tacitly reassure white southerners that the racial order was intact. Insisting that the University did not have the legal authority to suppress an independent magazine, they argued that to do so would be to give Contempo just the notoriety the editors sought, turning them into liberal martyrs and endowing them with moral distinction they did not deserve. Instead, they advocated “giving these boys the silent treatment.”[47]

In his letters to Abernethy and Buttitta, President Graham affirmed their right to free speech, even as he enjoined them to silence on the subject of Scottsboro. He avowed that it was not his “policy to set up a censorship of any publication, play, poem, opinion, or anyone's interpretation of life and its conflicts." Nevertheless, he admonished them for their reckless behavior, arguing that their publication endangered the very citizens they purported to defend:

It seems to me that you have, without fundamentally helping any good cause, grievously offended the religious sensibilities of people and recklessly inflamed racial prejudices and hatreds. What you don't seem to see is that your irresponsibility and recklessness may fall upon the heads of innocent colored people.

Drawing a distinction between legal and moral responsibilities, Graham urged them to adopt a more cautious and sensitive approach to race matters: “Your intellectual and moral irresponsibility are altogether counter to the historical and scientific-minded approach of this University to economic and social questions.” Even as he enjoined them to cease and desist public protest, however, Graham closed his letter with an invitation for a private meeting: “I shall be glad to talk to either or both of you at any time.[48]

As Graham and House lobbied to quiet Contempo and convince southern businessmen of the wisdom of the “silent treatment,” other local constituencies joined in the tacit rebuke of the little magazine. According to a report from the Daily News Bureau and Telegraph Office, the governor of North Carolina adopted a policy of “executive silence.”  When pressed by an outraged South Carolina publisher to comment on Contempo, the governor declined to censor the magazine: “Governor Gardner will . . . not banish the editors of ‘Contempo.’ That probably would do them more good than expelling them from college if they were students. But the thing that will kill them will be executive silence while South Carolina’s defender goes on a rampage in the effort to save civilization from the ravings of Langston Hughes and North Carolina from the blood of blacks."[49] The UNC Student Union issued a polite, restrained official statement in the Daily Tar Heel, distancing themselves from Contempo and sidestepping Scottsboro: “The attitude of the student body is this: A full belief in the principles of free speech and press in all student publications. . . . On the Negro question a constructive attitude of scholarly research and gradual race improvement.”[50]

After the Scottsboro issues, conservative and liberal white southern constituencies united to give Contempo the silent treatment, refusing to advertise in, read, distribute, or discuss the magazine, effectively containing the magazine’s radicalism in a bubble of silence and icing the editors out of their community. Glenda Gilmore writes that, in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement, “[t]hose who openly protested white domination had to leave, one way or another. Once they left, they could no longer be Southerners” (Defying Dixie, 3). Although Abernethy and Buttitta did not have to leave Chapel Hill, they were treated as local exiles, an alien status they embraced: “We were internationalists,” recalls Buttitta, noting that the magazine “favored no section over another—Often neglected the South, because I suppose it neglected us. Our readers were in the North, West, Central States, & Europe.”[51]

The Substitution of Alternative Radical Discourses

Figure 9: Contempo 1, no. 17 (Feb. 1, 1932): 1. “Complete Issue by WILLIAM FAULKNER,” Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

The Scottsboro issues catapulted Contempo into an international arena, and they were eager to maintain its place on the stage. Survival was also at stake. Although Contempo did not receive any subsidies from UNC, Abernethy and Buttitta could not afford to further antagonize the ruling elites. Even before publishing the Scottsboro issues and hosting Langston Hughes, they struggled to finance the magazine, relying on the meager revenue generated by The Intimate Bookshop (at times Abernethy had to stock the store with books from his own personal library). After the Scottsboro issue, the situation grew dire, as Buttitta admitted, “we lost all local advertising and were unable to collect what money was due us” (“Contempo Caravan,” 117).

To keep their little magazine alive, the editors grasped for the “next controversy,” shifting from political to literary radicalism (notebook, [c. 1982], 118).  Buttitta makes the discursive substitution explicit, writing: the Scottsboro issue “was a scoop for us, but our next big one was literary—the WILLIAM FAULKNER NUMBER” (“Origins,” 3). The Faulkner number features, in the same column where “Christ in Alabama” appeared two months earlier, Faulkner’s short story, “Once Aboard the Lugger,” a Prohibition-era tale of the murky world of rum running off the coast of New Orleans (fig. 9). Faulkner’s story encodes race, but in a way that cements rather than protests racist stereotypes. The sole African American character serves as an anonymous mask for the white protagonist’s journey into a southern heart of darkness: “Now and then the nigger’s disembodied face ducked into the port, without any expression at all, like a mask in a carnival.”[52] In this story, blackness serves as the kind of haunting Africanist presence that Toni Morrison discusses in Playing in the Dark; the black “mask” operates as a symbolic figure that animates the white man’s quest for liberation and self-actualization—a commodified token of blackness that could circulate freely in the literary marketplace, even as the Scottsboro boys remained in jail.[53]

Significantly, Contempo stops advertising its Scottsboro coverage in the Faulkner issue, and instead offers new subscribers a free copy of Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, as if unconsciously signaling the shift from the political to the literary. Hughes and the subject of Scottsboro reappear in the next issue, but in a size and position that manifest their diminished status in the magazine (fig. 10). Hughes’s four-line poem “The Town of Scottsboro” appears at the very bottom of the second page, sandwiched amidst letters to the editor. The short pair of couplets ironically comments on the slight attention or feeling given to the gross injustices inflicted on the boys, who do not even garner a mention: Scottsboro, the poem scoffs, is “just a little place.”[54]

Figure 10: Contempo 1, no. 18 (Feb. 14, 1932): 2. Hughes’s “The Town of Scottsboro” appears toward the bottom of the center column, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

As its own attention to Scottsboro diminished, Contempo deployed loud radical discourses of obscenity, censorship, and communism in ways that distract from the silencing of race protest. The obscenity issue followed on the heels of the Faulkner number, featuring salacious titles such as “The Blush of Shame,” “The Meaning of Obscenity,” and “Three Shades of Sex” (fig. 11). Top billing went to Bob Brown’s comical “Hand-Book of Censorship,” which strikes out key words in Victorian poems, with titillating results: Tennyson’s “Dora,” for example, is censored to read, “Now Dora felt her uncle’s xxx.”[55]  (Gentle reader, she felt his will.)

Figure 11: Contempo 1, no. 20 (Mar. 15, 1932): 1, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

Although readers outside the South enjoyed Contempo’s provocations, even the most sympathetic accused the magazine of lacking a program: Genevieve Taggard told the editors that they were “a little too all-inclusive, too anxious for new names”; Louis Untermeyer remarked, “You dont [sic] seem to have shaped any particular form or defined any definite ‘tone’”; and Pound exhorted them “to CHOOSE . . . a program.”[56] In another letter, Pound offered a list of directives, including:

3. To prevent any more Scotsboroughs [sic], Mooneys, frame ups massacres of workers, or at any rate to take INSTANT action when such things occur or are imminent.

 4. and to FOLLOW IT UP, i.e. to fix the responsibility; for in every case these outrages are really due one or two; more often ONE sonvabitch and a few lice. To get the inside dope on these sonzov and NEVER to let go.[57]

The editors did let go, however, steering the magazine to writers and topics that allowed them to garner international attention without antagonizing local whites. After the Scottsboro issues, the subject of race becomes a crypt text in Contempo—a buried, unwritten subtext that is neither visible nor audible, but must be considered in order to understand magazine’s rhetoric and motivation. The suppressed subject of race operates like what John Shoptaw calls a “crypt word,” referring to “both a puzzle, something encoded, and a burial plot, something hidden, forgotten, or simply covered over."[58] The editors were not deliberately suppressing the subject of race, but merely forgetting about it and operating by benign opportunism: material arrived at their desk by “happy accident . . . no method at work—rather more spontaneous . . . we were rather lucky & went with it” (Buttita, notebook [c. 1982]).

The editors’ spontaneous shift from political radicalism to literary experimentation is evidenced in the difference between their advertised program of special issues and their actual production. The April 1, 1932 issue includes an announcement for a series of six special issues: George Bernard Shaw, Modern European Literature, Proletarian Issue, Negro Arts Edition, a “Readies” Edition, and The New South (fig. 12).

Figure 12: Contempo 1, no. 21 (Apr.1, 1932): 4, Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

Of these, only the “Negro Arts Issue” and the “Proletarian Issue” never made it to publication. The Negro Arts Issue’s failure to materialize may have resulted from a dearth of material. The editors tried to solicit work from several African American writers, with little success. The Depression hit black writers even harder than whites: they could not afford to give away their work for free, and Contempo could not afford to pay them. Countee Cullen and Walter White replied saying they had no material to spare. Although Hughes maintained a friendly correspondence with the editors long after the Scottsboro issues, he had left for the Soviet Union, where he resided for much of 1932–3. Sterling Brown did respond to their invitation with two poems, including “Chillen Get Shoes,” which for reasons unknown, they never published. The editors enjoyed more success seeking material from white writers, some of whom also supplied them with long lists of other potential subscribers and contributors.

According to Buttitta, Contempo “continued drifting in the direction of a literary review—without losing any of its controversial spirit”: “it seems our editorial policy of controversy slowly shifted—and almost by accident—from social issues to those of the literary world” (“Contempo Caravan,” 118, 115). Contempo materialized its literary drift in a sumptuous new format. In May 1932, the 12.5 by 19-inch, four-page broadsheet became an 8.5 by 12.5-inch, eight-page literary review printed on watermark paper—a self-described “asylum for aggrieved authors” “as attractive in makeup . . . as in content.[59]

Figure 13: Contempo 2, no. 2 (May 25, 1932): 7, Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

The first big literary event in the new format was the “The New South” issue, with an impressive (and all-white) lineup. The two lead stories, Roy Flanagan’s “Amber Satyr” and Erskine Caldwell’s “Picking Cotton,” address the incendiary theme of miscegenation, with tales of aggressive white women pursuing African American men.  Though the stories transgress sexual mores by depicting white women as sexual aggressors, they reinforce racist stereotypes by confirming the black male’s fabled desire for the white woman. In the “New South” issue, as an advertisement for Flanagan’s novel Amber Satyr makes clear, white authors speak “with pity and understanding for those who cannot speak for themselves”—that is, for African American voices that have been silenced (fig. 13).[60] Black authors are also omitted from the emergent, implicitly white category of the “New South.” The editors may not have received any material from southern black authors, but they could have included Sterling Brown’s submissions from his Southern Roads collection: although Brown grew up in Maryland and was educated in New England, his poetry was acclaimed for its authentic depiction of southern black folk life, settings, and dialects.

The “New South” issue was followed by a Hart Crane memorial (July 5, 1932), a European number (July 25, 1932), and an issue dedicated to the experimental “Readies” of Bob Brown (August 31, 1932; fig. 14). With the Bob Brown issue, Buttitta observes, “this playful and experimental writer of two continents had replaced Hughes as contributing editor” (“Contempo Caravan,” 122). The tacit substitution of Brown for Hughes signals the magazine’s shifting focus, as its attention moved from protesting southern racism to championing a transatlantic avant-garde whose ranks were exclusively white and predominantly male.

Figure 14: Contempo 2, no. 6 (Aug. 31, 1932): 1. “A BOB BROWN ISSUE,” Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

Meanwhile, the Scottsboro controversy continued to simmer, both locally and nationally. In the fall of 1932, a petition was circulated in North Carolina urging the governor to investigate and act upon “certain matters at the University” pertaining to Langston Hughes’s visit.[61] In November 1932, the Supreme Court reversed the Alabama court’s convictions of the Scottsboro boys. One year later, Muriel Rukeyser wrote to Abernethy on behalf of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, entreating him to join the Scottsboro protest movement: “A crisis in Southern terror has been reached, with forty-three authenticated lynchings during the past year. As the Scottsboro trial reaches recommencement in Decatur, Ala., new proofs of intended violence against defendants, witnesses, and attorneys has been offered.”[62] It is unclear whether Abernethy replied to Rukeyser, but it is certain that Contempo made no mention of the re-trials or of the “crisis in Southern terror” in its subsequent and final issue, the Feb. 15, 1934 “James Joyce” issue (fig. 15).

Figure 15: Contempo 3, no. 13 (Feb. 15, 1934): 1. “JAMES JOYCE ISSUE,” Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

The Joyce issue epitomizes the confluence of Contempo’s celebration of white avant-garde authors, suppression of politics, and commodification of the little magazine. Stuart Gilbert, who edited the special issue, urged Abernethy to set aside politics in the magazine:

I think the material supplied will amply fill a number of CONTEMPO. If, however, you decide to insert notes and comments on other topics, may I request that these be strictly non-political? Anything of a political nature would clash with the absolute aloofness of the author of ULYSSES in these matters and give an ephemeral character to what will prove, I believe, a “document” of permanent value.[63]

As Gilbert seeks to raise the cultural capital of Ulysses by distancing Joyce from “ephemeral” political interests, New York sellers promoting first editions of “moderns of established reputations” take the places once occupied by ads for local small businesses in the magazine, and a Gotham Book Mart ad assembles an white lineup under the header, “Along the Modernist Front,” featuring works by Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein. Another ad promotes a “special first edition of this issue of Contempo” consisting of “50 numbered copies” (fig. 16).[64] With this offer, Contempo completes its drift from putting “local liberalism to the test” to becoming a literary collector’s item, whose value in the international marketplace of modernism promises to appreciate over time.

Figure 16: Contempo 3, no. 13 (Feb. 15, 1934): 7, Davidson College Archives & Special Collections.

Acts of Silence, Then and Now

Theorizing why these acts of silence occur and how they continue to replicate themselves over time…is important scholarly work, yet much remains to be done. The stakes are high because efforts to understand acts of southern silence have the potential to help us address other silence-based ideologies beyond the geographic borders of the American South.
—Tammy Evans, The Silencing of Ruby McCollum.[65]

Contempo offers a case study of how smart, liberal intellectuals who are committed to racial equality can get caught up in value systems that reward other interests and silently sustain racial exclusions. The magazine’s history—a “history of Modernism in rapid motion miniature”—sheds light on the ways in which liberal sympathies can inadvertently become aligned with racially hegemonic practices to produce lacunae in what is widely understood to be an open, free thinking discursive arena. Contempo defied southern orthodoxy, attempting to break out of southern isolationism and make a mark on the international arena of modernism. By helping to propel Scottsboro to worldwide attention, defying Jim Crow laws, and publishing flagrant challenges to white supremacist myths, Contempo’s editors broke the “wall of silence” in the South and chipped away at the foundations of segregation (fig. 17). But rather than sustaining the magazine’s commitment to racial protest, they aligned themselves with an emergent transatlantic avant-garde, drifting in currents that shored up modernism as an implicitly white cultural formation. The ensuing silence on race may have been one of benign neglect rather than conscious suppression, but it was not entirely accidental. Rather, set in motion by a confluence of disparate forces, Contempo’s drift toward literary experimentation enabled the magazine to stay afloat and to sustain the myth of its fearless radicalism, even as it abandoned its commitment to Scottsboro.

Figure 17: Carton sketch by John Vassos, “The Bad Boys of Chapel Hill,” April 28, 1932, Tony Buttitta Papers, University Libraries, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina.

We come back, then, to the question of whether Contempo’s editors were political crusaders or literary opportunists—a question that troubled Buttitta decades later. In his notes for a magazine retrospect, he asks, “Did we have commitment to an idea—staying small, sense of justice, good writing, political honesty, despite the necessity to survive?” (notebook [c. 1982]). At one point he asserts, “political outlook always progressive & our political sympathies were always left & we were for all causes of human justice, white coal miners, black in the cornfield or in the jaws of the law, or the rising battle between Fascism and Democracy.” Yet in the next paragraph, he admits, “We cultivated controversy—came upon it accidentally & made the most of it—to gain attention—for a sign of vitality & the readers & writers responded to it” (notebook [c. 1982]).

Rather than trying to determine finally whether Contempo was a crusader against racial discrimination or a forum for modernist innovation, however, we might more productively investigate why it was so difficult to be both—why making modernist history seemed to require setting aside attention to the “ephemeral” issue of racial justice in favor of the “permanent value” of literary experimentalism.Contempo’s entrance onto the international stage was based on its defiance of racial order in the South, but sustained participation in the international economy of modernism seems to have benefitted from leaving that racial context behind. If the magazine had stuck with Scottsboro and continued to challenge Jim Crow and other racial injustices, it might have ended up like Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling’s little magazine, issued from 1936 to 1945 under the titles Pseudopodia, North Georgia Review, and South Today. Reversing the course of Contempo, Smith and Snelling’s journal began “with a literary point of view,” reviewing southern writers like Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, but gradually shifted toward racial protest, becoming one of the most important, influential voices against segregation in the South and “a pioneering example of integration in the region” (Hale, Making Whiteness, 269-272). But while Pseudopodia is celebrated in the chronicles of southern history, it is virtually unremarked in the annals of modernism.[66]

As far as we have come from the racially repressive context of the Depression-era South, modernist scholars today operate within our own, more subtle mechanisms of racial silence and neglect. Dedicated to the study of the “new modernisms,” we may find ourselves in “the same box with a vengeance,” as Aziz says to Mrs. Moore, grappling with the same divided loyalties that animated Abernethy and Buttitta.[67] We are committed to racial equality and diversifying the canon, yet remain compelled by Faulkner, Joyce, and other white modernists whose writing continues to captivate our imaginations and challenge our intellects. Moreover, it is easy to overlook what is invisible or inaudible in the discourse of modernism, or absent from our own academic training, rooted as it may be in New Critical practices and canons. Silences in (white) literary discourse generate gaps in (white) scholarly memory that may be akin to what Eula Biss calls “forgotten debt.” The “condition of white life” in America today, Biss argues, is not smug, self-satisfied “complacence” or “complicity,” but “forgotten debt”—a state of being “lost in [an] illusion of ownership…that depends on forgetting” the systematic ways in which white people have acquired and maintained their wealth at the expense of black people.[68] Modernist scholars have a wealth of knowledge, much of which is invested in white literary production. Our unwillingness to relinquish that which we have acquired (knowledge, expertise) and love (great writers who speak to what we imagine to be the human condition and whom we wholeheartedly believe should be read, studied, and passed on to the next generation as our cultural inheritance) helps sustain silences and gaps in the academic formation of modernism. Little magazines have long been celebrated as antidotes to hegemony; as William Carlos Williams attested, “The little magazine is something I have always fostered; for without it, I myself would have been early silenced.”[69] But the extent to which little magazines undermine or perpetuate white hegemony in modernist studies depends on which magazines we read, how we read them, and how much we ourselves are willing to talk about race.


Grateful acknowledgment to the librarians at the University Libraries – Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina, for scanning images from the Tony Buttitta papers and granting permission to use them; to the librarians the Davidson College Archives & Special Collections for scanning images in their little magazine collection and granting permission to use them, as well as for providing expert guidance on copyright issues; and to Craig Tenney at Harold Ober Associates, Inc., for permission to reprint the photograph of Langton Hughes.


  1. ^ John Egerton, Speak Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 19–20.
  2. ^ See Egerton, 59–63, and Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 138–43.
  3. ^ Michael Bibby, “The Distinterested and Fine: New Negro Renaissance Poetry and the Racial Formation of Modernist Studies,” Modernism/Modernity 20, no. 3 (2013): 485–501.
  4. ^ Shari Benstock,and Bernard Benstock, “The Role of Little Magazines in the Emergence of Modernism,” Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 20, no. 4 (1991): 82.
  5. ^ Tony Buttitta, “Contempo Caravan: Kites in a Windstorm,” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Yearbook, 1985, ed. Jean W. Ross (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1986), 109.
  6. ^ Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2009), 206. Abernethy ran the Intimate Bookshop until 1951, when he sold it to Paul Smith. The store burned to the ground in 1992, was rebuilt the next year, but closed for good in 1998, unable to compete with major bookselling chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. For information about the Intimate Bookshop, see Judith Hay Meador, A History and Index of Contempo (master’s thesis, University of Louisville, 1971), 1–36.
  7. ^ Langston Hughes, “Southern Gentleman, White Prostitutes, Mill Owners, and Negroes,”Contempo 1, no. 13 (Dec. 1, 1931): 1. According to Arnold Rampersad, Abernethy and Buttitta had read Hughes’s play, “Scottsboro, Limited,” and been so impressed that they wrote to him soliciting a contribution for a special Scottsboro edition. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume 1: 1902–1941. I, Too, Sing America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 224.
  8. ^ Daniel Pfaff, “The Press and the Scottsboro Rape Cases, 1931–1932,” Journalism History1, no. 3 (1974): 73.
  9. ^ K. P. Lewis to Frank Graham, Nov. 28, 1931, Digital University Archives, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections, UNC University Libraries. Accessed May 28, 2013. Collection hereafter referred as DUA.
  10. ^ Buttitta, “Contempo Caravan,” 118; Buttitta, “Origins of Contempo” (transcript with revisions), Contempo Papers, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Clare Colquitt, “Contempo Magazine: Asylum for Aggrieved Authors,” LibraryChronicle of the University of Texas n.s., 27 (1984): 33.
  11. ^ Colquitt, 25; Cary D. Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Houston: Rice University Press, 1988), 269–70; Andrew Thacker, “General Introduction: Magazines, Magazines, Magazines!” Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazine, Vol. II: North America, 1880–1960, ed. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 25.
  12. ^ Hereafter the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will be referred to by its colloquial acronym, UNC.
  13. ^ The cause of the dispute has remained a mystery for decades, but in an unpublished 1994 letter, Buttitta gives his version of the story: “Whether Ab invited [Minna] down I don’t know but one day she showed up, shacked up with Ab in a dump, and before you know it she was guiding Ab on policy for the magazine. I was mostly the business manager but Ab and I always chose material together. Now she was choosing for him, and I didn’t approve or like what she was pushing” (Typed, signed letter from Buttitta to Tim Hampton, May 12, 1994, in the Tony Buttitta Papers, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina. Hereafter this collection will be referred to as Buttitta Papers USC). Buttitta left and set up Contempo operations and an Intimate Bookshop in Durham, issuing two issues of his own version of the magazine in April and May 1933, and suing for copyright violation, while Abernethy continued publishing 13 issues of Contempo from Chapel Hill. Each editor claimed rights to the magazine title and subscriber list, as well as the bookstore name, but Abernethy was able to hold on longer than Buttitta, who gave up the suit for lack of funds.
  14. ^ Regarding their talent for “stir[ring] people about,” see interview by Steve Estes, Dec. 19, 1997, Southern Oral History Program, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  15. ^ Minna Abernethy recalls: “…anybody that was in the Negro College used to come over and listen to music. Everybody was listening to music because they couldn’t afford to pay, we had booths to listen to and they bought records. But the black people just didn’t have the money. If they wanted books they would come to us and buy them. There weren’t many places where they could buy books, not because they were black but because there weren’t bookstores. We didn’t have any black students here [at UNC–Chapel Hill], but black students used to come from the Durham school to buy and to listen to music and talk” (interview by Steve Estes, Southern Oral History Program). Although Buttitta was no longer involved with the Chapel Hill bookshop during the era Minna describes, his letter about the Contempo controversy and essay on “Negro Folklore in North Carolina” in Nancy Cunard’s 1934 Negro: An Anthology, as well as his 1987 memoir The Lost Summer, attest to his ardent, progressive views on race.
  16. ^ Buttitta. Unpublished, handwritten notebook (c. 1982), written as he was preparing a retrospective history of the little magazine that was eventually published as “Contempo Caravan: Kites in a Windstorm,” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Yearbook, 1985. Buttitta Papers USC.
  17. ^ Bart Dredge, “Defending White Supremacy: David Clark and the Southern TextileBulletin, 1911–1955,” North Carolina Historical Review 89, no. 1 (2012): 85.
  18. ^ “This edition of six thousand was Contempo’s largest during its three-year existence,” Buttitta reports, “Contempo Caravan,” 116.
  19. ^ Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 48, 188.
  20. ^ Michael Thurston, “Black Christ, Red Flag: Langston Hughes on Scottsboro,” College Literature 22, no. 3 (1995): 33.
  21. ^ Ford observes that the speaker’s “voice blends in disturbing ways with the oppressor’s,” and Nelson notes that the blending of voices makes it difficult “to apportion or limit responsibility” in the poem’s “general cultural indictment.” See Thurston, “Black Christ, Red Flag,” 32–38; Karen Jackson Ford, “Making Poetry Pay: The Commodification of Langston Hughes,” Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading, ed. Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen Watt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 281; and Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (New York: Routledge, 2001), 72–73.
  22. ^ Buttitta, “Origins of Contempo,” 3; typed manuscript in the Buttitta Papers, USC.
  23. ^ According to Rampersad, the editors “made the most of his [Hughes’s] stay” at Chapel Hill, using his visit to further generate controversy around their provocative issue. Life of Langston Hughes, 225.
  24. ^ undefined
  25. ^ Jay Watson, “Uncovering the Body, Discovering Ideology: Segregation and Sexual Anxiety in Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream,” American Quarterly 49, no. 3 (1997): 493.
  26. ^ Letter from Manuel Komroff to Milton Abernethy, Dec. 27, 1931, HRHRC.
  27. ^ Tammy Evans, The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 26.
  28. ^ Hughes, “Cowards from the County,” The Crisis 41, no. 8 (Aug. 1934): 226.
  29. ^ Leslie Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 15.
  30. ^ Randal L. Hall and Ken Badgett, “Robinson Newcomb and the Limits of Liberalism at UNC: Two Case Studies of Black Businessmen in the 1920s South,” North Carolina Historical Review 86, no. 4 (2009): 373–4, 377.
  31. ^ Prior to the Scottsboro issues, Contempo routinely ran four to eight ads from Chapel Hill cafes, shops, and other businesses. The number of ads dwindled to two in the December 14, 1931 issue following Hughes’s appearance, and in the next installment (Jan. 1, 1931), local ads disappeared altogether.
  32. ^ Quoted in an advertisement in Contempo 1, no. 14 (Dec. 15, 1931): 4.
  33. ^ Abernethy, interview by Steve Estes, Southern Oral History Program. Buttitta’s letter to Nancy Cunard says that when the white soda jerker “found out that Hughes was a ‘nigger’ and he had given him service the way he would have a white man, he got angry and attempted to catch us in a place or two and sock us in the jaw…told his friends about it and we were looked at with cheap vengeance for a day or so” (“A Note on Contempo,” 98).
  34. ^ Advertisement, Contempo 1, no. 14 (Dec. 15, 1931): 4.
  35. ^ Letter from Sinclair Lewis to Abernethy, Dec. 3, 1931, Contempo Papers (Collection 4408), Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hereafter this collection will be referred to as UNC 4408.
  36. ^ Letter from Basil Bunting, 5 February 1932; Letter from Carlton S. Hyman to Abernethy, January 6, 1932, HRHRC.
  37. ^ Letter from Allen Tate to Anthony Buttitta, March 23, 1932, HRHRC.
  38. ^ Letter from Charles Tillett, Jr (attorney from Charlotte) to R. B. House, Dec. 8, 1931. DUA:
  39. ^ “Communist Paper at Chapel Hill,” newspaper clipping of Clark’s editorial in theSouthern Textile Bulletin, n.d. DUA:
  40. ^ “Communist Paper at Chapel Hill.”
  41. ^ According to Jim Vickers, “Citizens and editors across the state unleashed their anger on UNC president Frank Porter Graham and the little magazine”; professor Guy Johnson even offered to resign, but Graham consented to “take the lightning” for the University. “A Week or Three Days in Chapel Hill: Faulkner, Contempo, and Their Contemporaries,” North Carolina Literary Review 1, no. 1 (1992): 24.
  42. ^ Chinitz, e-mail message to Suzanne Churchill, Aug. 8, 2013.
  43. ^ Letter from K. P. Lewis to Frank Graham, Nov. 28, 1931. DUA:
  44. ^ Letter from K. P. Lewis to Frank Graham, Nov. 28, 1931. DUA:
  45. ^ Letter from Thomas P. Graham, Crompton & Knowles Loom Works, to Frank Graham, Dec. 18, 1931. DUA:
  46. ^ Letter from Frank Graham to Kemp Lewis, Dec. 15, 1931. DUA:
  47. ^ Letter from R. B. House to Mr. C. W. Tillett, Jr,, Dec. 10, 1931. DUA:
  48. ^ Letter from Graham to Abernethy, Dec. 10, 1931. DUA:
  49. ^ “Governor Gardner Declines To Give ‘Nut-Paper’ a Kick,” newspaper clipping, reprint from Daily News, handwritten date: [Dec. 8, 1931?]. DUA:
  50. ^ Clipping of cover page of Daily Tar Heel, Tues., Dec. 9, 1931: “Albright ExplainsContempo’s Status,” statement signed by Mayne Albright, President Student Union.DUA:
  51. ^ Buttitta, unpublished notebook (c. 1982), Buttitta Papers USC.
  52. ^ Faulkner, “Once Aboard the Lugger,” Contempo 1, no. 17 (Feb. 1, 1932): 1.
  53. ^ Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 6–7.
  54. ^ Hughes, “The Town of Scottsboro,” Contempo 1, no. 18 (Feb. 15, 1932): 2.
  55. ^ Brown, “Hand-Book of Censorship,” Contempo 1, no. 20 (Mar. 15, 1932): 1.
  56. ^ Letters quoted by Colquist, 26.
  57. ^ Letter to editors, n.d., UNC 4408.
  58. ^ John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 6.
  59. ^ “Anniversary One,” Contempo 2, no. 1 (May 5, 1932): 8.
  60. ^ Advertisement, Contempo 2, no. 2 (May 25, 1932): 7.
  61. ^ “Facts Regarding the Background of the Tatum Petition,” dated September 22, 1932 and address to Honorable O. Max Gardner, Governor of North Carolina, and signed, Thos. W. Glasgow, Charlotte, NC. University Papers, Collection #13, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.
  62. ^ Letter from Rukeyser to Abernethy, Nov. 24, 1933, HRHRC.
  63. ^  Letter from Stuart Gilbert to M. Abernethy, 12 January 1932, HRHRC, quoted by Benstock and Benstock, 82. By this time, Buttitta had stormed off, leaving Abernethy in command of the Chapel Hill operation.
  64. ^ Contempo 3, no. 13 (Feb. 15, 1934): 7.
  65. ^ Tammy Evans, The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), 135.
  66. ^ Pseudopodia (The North Georgia Review, South Today) is indexed in Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich’s The Little Magazine: A History and A Bibliography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), which commends “Lillian Smith’s work as editor and critic and her great interest in Southern problems” as “worth following” (335). But the MLA International Bibliography lists only one entry on the magazine: From the Mountain, a collection of selections from the magazine, edited by Helen White and published by Memphis State University Press in 1972.
  67. ^ E. M. Forster, Passage to India (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1952), 20.
  68. ^ Eula Biss, “White Debt,” The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 6, 2015), 50.
  69. ^ William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: Random House, 1951), 266.