U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Going beyond the "Racial Protocol"

I was very excited to run across this passage this week in Anastasia Curwood’s Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars, because it perfectly encapsulates a gut feeling I have had, but that I have struggled to articulate. 

“The literary theorist Claudia Tate developed the term ‘racial protocol’ for the assumption that African Americans’ experiences can be reduced to racial politics and that individual subjectivity carries little importance. As a result of the racial protocol, much writing about African Americans focuses entirely on racial struggle and not on the human experiences that would move the analysis beyond a two-dimensional representation of African Americans’ lives. African Americans themselves have often avoided violating the racial protocol, which has contributed to the lack of information about the history of their private lives. Dissembling, or hiding private feelings from public view, has been documented as a key survival strategy for people who have histoically been denied their own private space. Unfortunately, hiding interior lives from public view has often led to the belief that black people lack interior lives altogether. And, as Tiffany Patterson explains, a history of private life is important because it gives us glimpses of ‘the rules and norms that governed a community.'”

I would add
that it is important because we understand individual experience and thought better, as it related to the freedom struggle, but also as it stands by itself. African American Intellectual History is immeasurably enriched by the exploration of inner lives, not just the public expression of thought and ideas.
One of the easiest ways to justify the significance of a work is to connect it to the Civil Rights Movement, or to the African American Freedom Struggle more generally (and it is something I am frequently urged to do). But I think this can ignore the personal struggles of human beings that included race and struggle but were not totally consumed by them.

Let me give an example from another book I’ve been re-reading this week, Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet, which I’m assigning in my Great Depression class this semester. Race constantly manifested itself in Murray’s childhood, but she was not defined in a unilateral way by it. Her father was killed in a mental institution by a temporary nurse who called him an “n-word” and bludgeoned him to death. Murray experienced the absence of her father as a child who looked up to him, as an adult fearing a genetic predisposition to insanity, and as a black person learning to fear racially motivated violence. She developed “an irrational fear of being hemmed in or struck from behind, as my father had been,” so she always sat in the last row with an aisle seat in public places. Similarly, her grandmother spent nights terrified that the KKK would return, like they had during Reconstruction, to force her and her husband off of their land. Murray experienced her grandmother’s fear as a terrified child who would run away in the pre-dawn light to her friends house. She didn’t understand the racial politics of the fear until much later.

Both of these experiences, among others, led her to embrace non-violence as a personal philosophy and to resist the hatred and fear within herself that these experiences could have caused. She dedicated her life “to seeking alternatives to physical violence and would wrestle continually with the problem of transforming psychic violence into creative energy.” We lose some of the majesty of Murray’s personal decision manifested in that quote if we subsume the individual child relating to parents and grandparents and see only racial struggle and violence. At the same time, Murray was molded not just by these experiences, but by being raced by a stern, loving aunt, visiting another aunt in the summer and taking long car rides with her husband, a reverend, to visit his churches.

Hmmmmm, I’m not sure I’m being entirely clear here or even convincing myself, in part because Murray did become such an important part of the struggle. Perhaps part of my problem is conflating race, racial violence, and the struggle. Another couple examples might help. The marriages that Curwood examines were influenced by racial expectations of what roles a black man and a black woman should inhabit, but also fundamentally by the way individual men and women related to one another. Do their relationships, because they had a racial component, necessarily also have to be about the struggle? If the marriages were not about the struggle, if we cannot place them within the Long Civil Rights Movement, do they somehow lose significance?

Or consider an example from my own work. Juliette Derricotte travelled the world in 1928 as part of a delegation with the Young Women’s Christian Association. She went as a representative of her race, as an American, and as a Christian, and she related to those she met as one or the other or parts of all three. In her letters, she frequently describes the beauty that she is seeing, as much or even more than she discusses aspects of the “struggle.” I highlight her emphasis on beauty in my work because it was so important to her. Part of the reason she was so successful in creating interracial relationships, which she believed helped bring about better, more peaceful race relations, was because she had a presence that people were drawn to. Her love of beauty was part of that.

People who read my work quite often say that I do not bring out the significance of the subject forcefully enough. I sometimes wonder if it is because of my reluctance to relate everything to the Civil Rights Movement. I think Curwood and Tate will help me find middle ground–where I do not ignore aspects of the struggle, but where I also am not forced to identify every action as a unidirectional motion towards the CRM.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren: For better and for worse, people like anchors in the familiar—and those people include publishers. Wissenschaft (i.e. pure learning) is good in the abstract. Practically speaking, however, the idea doesn’t help in communicating significance. Pure learning is allowed in the sciences, but is discourage (in my view) in the humanities. Perhaps your connection to later events (e.g. CRM) can be loose in that you communicate the “thousand prior cuts” experienced by individual African Americans such that the force of those injuries become a collective, if silent, force in politics later. – TL

  2. I see I failed to present moving beyond the “Racial protocol” as lacking significance. I did not mean to suggest that studying this history was a kind of “pure learning,” just that there should be more diverse reasons that studying black history is worthwhile, other than that it provides a roadmap to the Civil Rights Movement.

  3. I see a parallel in women’s history in the tendency to make all women’s history the history of feminism or the struggle of a woman against gender oppression. This approach tends to ignore that most women may not have sought “liberation” or considered themselves feminist, thus leaving them out of the story.

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