U.S. Intellectual History Blog

African Americans’ desire and more on the racial protocol

I am returning to thinking about the racial protocol, which was begun here.The original quote that introduced that phrase to me is:

“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.”

–Anastasia Curwood, Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars

This contrasts starkly with Michael West’s and William Martin’s argument

that the black international “has a single defining characteristic: struggle.” This struggle is born of consciousness and the dream of a “circle of universal emancipation, unbroken in space and time” (From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, 2009). To me, this suggests that African Americans can be wholly understood through “the struggle.” Or at least primarily understood. That is insufficient to understanding the lived experience of African Americans.

Turning to Tate’s book that gave rise to the term racial protocol, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race (1998), I think she offers a more nuanced perspective, one that does not neglect race and the struggle, but puts it into conversation with individual personality. She writes specifically about novels, but I think it can be broadened to many other forms of African American writings.

“The black text mediates two broad categories of experience: one is historically racialized and regulated by African American cultural performance; the other is the individual and subjective experience of personal desire signified in language.”  

She warns,

“If we persist in reductively defining black subjectivity as political agency, we will continue to overlook the force of desire in black texts as well as in the lives of African Americans.”

For my work, this means that I explore relationships between people, whether or not they influenced the individuals’ understanding of “the struggle,” starting with as much as I can understand about an intellectual’s childhood. I also acknowledge similarities between blacks and whites–in other words, if all you see about Juliette Derricotte is the way she lectured against racism, you miss her internal dialogue (happily available through rich letters to her family) and you miss the ways that she unconsciously replicated the discourse of white colonial travelers.  All three are important to understanding how and why Derricotte acted.

On my original post, Tim suggested that I was trying to do “research for research’s sake”–understanding black people’s lives for the pure satisfaction of understanding. I think, though, that adding in personal desire– the internal dialogue of black people (to the extent that we can know it through the veil of dissemblance)–to understandings of political agency, we can more fully assess the strengths and weaknesses of social movements. At the same time, acknowledging and researching the internal lives of African Americans gives us a more nuanced perspectives into the lived experiences of black people and understand when and where race matters by acknowledging that sometimes it matters greatly and sometimes it doesn’t.

Let me end with a final quote from Tate:

“Certainly, race matters. It matters precisely because in the United States ‘race remains a salient source of the fantasies and allegiances that shape our ways of reading’ all types of social experiences (Abel, ‘Black Writing,’ 497). These racial fantasies and allegiances have historiclaly conditioned all social exchanges, and they continue to do so. Indeed, the racial conventions of the United States seem to have sentenced black subjects to protest forever the very deficiencies that white subjects presumably do not posessess. Racism allows white sujbects generally to assume that they have ‘fully developed, complex, multi-layered personalit[ies[‘ (Prager, ‘Self Reflection[s],’ 357). By contrast, racism condemns black subjects to a Manichean conflict between their public performance of an essentialized, homogenous blackness, which is largely a by-product of white ‘ideological formations’ of racial difference (Althusser, ‘Freud,’ 219), on the one hand, and a private performance of individual personality, on the other.” …

“Whether we realized it or not, we all mediate in different ways the hegemonic effects of white male power with whatever authority we personally claim.”

“These novels tell other stories about the desire of black subjects that do not fit the Western hierarchical paradigm of race as exclusion, vulnerability, and deficiency. These works depict what I call a ‘surplus,’ a defining characteristic not generally associated with African American personality and culture.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This may or may not be what you are getting at – but there seems to be some material that relates to this argument in
    A Renegade History of the United States by
    Thaddeus Russell

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