In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993), Toni Morrison calls for “studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness. . . . Such studies,” she continues, “will reveal the process of establishing others in order to know them, to display knowledge of the other so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos.” In demonstrating the reflexive role that Africanist personae play in white American literature—the manner by which white people construct blackness as a screen for the projections that enable, through simultaneous disavowal and enforcement, their identifications as white—“Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one’s own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other” (Morrison, Playing, 53).
Denis Côté’s 2017 film Ta peau si lisse opens on the domestic routines of bodybuilders. One man (bald, bearded, tanned) spreads moisturizer on his thighs, calves, and pectoral muscles before putting on jeans and selecting from an array of nearly identical, bright-colored T-shirts and running shoes. Another man (younger, paler, and sporting a buzzcut) weighs, then microwaves, portions of ground beef and white rice. In the next scene, he lifts weights in a basement.
I teach American literature in the public university system of Missouri, the state whose admission to the union as a slave state caused a national crisis, the state where Dred Scott was judged to have “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” the state where Michael Brown’s murder turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement.
At the culmination of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, the Factory Worker (commonly called “the Tramp”) breaks his long silence and sings. The moment is justly famous, as if audiences had been waiting decades to hear the voice of the downtrodden Worker. The Worker, however, does not quite attain to the voice, or the song, that he and his companion, the Gamin, had planned. The Worker has just lost his lyrics, which the Gamin has written on his shirt cuffs. These cuffs fly off his wrists at the start of his dance before the café crowd. “Sing! Nevermind the words,” urges the Gamin in an intertitle.
He wanted to leave nothing out. Given the film image’s powers of simultaneous arrest and dispersal, he may have believed it the surest means of preserving while imparting some measure of the densities and speeds generated across the spectrum of happenings, impasses, and transfigurations that marked what he and a few allies were engineering at San Francisco State that spring of 1967. The lambent play of sound and image might diffuse some of the private intensities driving their rupture of the knowledge-reproduction operations of the University—and might therefore document some slight tremor in the market systems of which it was part.
Excursions into irreconcilable and therefore alluring dimensions of innovative Black writing, filmmaking, and analysis.
“Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., in words that resonate unexpectedly with the work of another noted twentieth-century Christian, T. S.
We are pleased to be able to share here a selection of articles on race and modernism from past print issues of Modernism/modernity. Reflecting the history of the journal, many of these focus on the Harlem Renaissance, but we’ve also included articles on the Caribbean and Brazil as well as a more broadly comparative treatment of race...
The anger, as well as hope for meaningful change, brought about by the recent Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and inequality call attention to a growing need for classroom conversations about literature and social justice. Teaching poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and T. S. Eliot together in the same course affirms the enduring relevance of Eliot’s high modernism and, by highlighting the tragic consequences of racism as well as gender inequality, illuminates how the #MeToo generation can change the way we read Eliot.
Accounts of black personalities long lost to narratives of modernism are belatedly finding their way into the historical record, precipitated by the recent advent of scholarship and exhibitions dedicated to this recovery process. As a result, black artists, models, and performers who previously attracted little critical attention are slowly emerging from obscurity to command consideration in their own right.