To encounter black modernity via W. E. B. Du Bois is to tangle with questions of exemplarity and exceptionality. For my students in a large lecture class on the “American Experience,” many of whom are the first in their family to receive a college degree, many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants, Booker T. Washington’s message of casting one’s bucket down can resonate more strongly than what they sometimes read as the elitism of Du Bois’s talented tenth. As a member of that tenth, Du Bois does not always speak to them—yeah, well, that guy went to Harvard, but that’s not most people; that’s not me.
This book investigates a flood that sprawled across forty percent of the United States (and some of Canada), killing hundreds (and perhaps thousands, since African American deaths were not included in any “official” count), displacing nearly one million people—including 300,000 African Americans who were placed in makeshift camps, which the Red Cross called “concentration camps” and which reproduced a particularly American racial logic—and stimulating an enormous range of intellectual and aesthetic production from the Mississippi Delta blues of Bessie Smith to the Berlin radio broadcasts of Walter Benjamin. The 1927 Mississippi flood, Parrish argues at length, and quite compellingly, should be understood as one of the central events in the history of modernism.
Originally constructed in 1817, Auburn Correctional Facility in Upstate New York stands as the oldest continually functional maximum-security penitentiary in the United States. I doubt that its designers would have predicted that 200 years later the US would come to incarcerate more people than any other country in history. We currently make up only 5% of the world’s population, but confine about 21% of its prisoners.
One of the remarkable—yet often overlooked—features of aesthetic experience is its capacity to enact both promises and threats. Neither enlisting itself unequivocally in social utopias, nor allowing itself to be jettisoned in favor of a morally, politically, or epistemically more salutary alternative, the aesthetic domain is a field of pleasure and pain, of ignorance and knowledge, of brutality and life-sustaining agency. Its alliance with invidious forces and histories notwithstanding, the aesthetic enables us to confront tensions in the realms of epistemology,
In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond traces “the connections between the animated blackface minstrel, the industrialization of the art of animation, and fantasies of resistant labor” (xii). His core argument is that early animators developed unruly, cartoon minstrels in response to their increasingly depersonalized workplace. On a broader scale, the project works to situate animation within “a larger and longer history of racial iconography and taxonomy in the United States” (4). To make his case Sammond navigates a historically grounded racial matrix of minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, as well as other complex and contradictory representational forums.
When race is pictured historically, it often is removed from leftist radicalism. (Ellison’s novel Invisible Man is about Harlem in the 1930s, a decade when even middle of the road intellectuals were at their most socialist.) Likewise, when the “American” is imagined, it is at a distance from the mobility of artistic lives, influences and historical factors, including the circuits of Soviet communism (mentioned, briefly, in a sign about “industry and labor” in “After the Fall”).
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." 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.