U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reconsidering my reconsideration of "the racial protocol"

You might remember my prior meditations on the “racial protocol” here and more recently here. Today I’m writing a stream-of-consciousness meditation on both the “racial protocol” and black internationalism.

My inspiration for reconsidering the “racial protocol” came from Anastasia Curwood’s book Stormy Weather:

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.

I was discussing this idea over dinner with a friend and colleague. He suggested that I border, if not tip over into, the offensive by attacking the “racial protocol,” because it sounds like I am neglecting (if not negating) the oppression, in which, as a white person, I am implicated.

I removed the above quote from my talk and instead focused on this quote from Claudia Tate herself (in her book l, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocols of Race, 1998):

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.

This makes my analysis both/and rather than either/or. Both oppression/struggle and three dimensional subjective individuals are important. Both race and other identities are involved in the identity formation of my research subjects. I believe that this both/and emphasis is more reflective of what I do in my work, in which race/oppression/struggle matters as one primary category of analysis, but in which they are not the only categories.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this is in contradistinction to 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). 

By analyzing the three-dimension subjectivity of individuals, I can understand how Eslanda Robeson’s and Emma Goldman’s relationship was primarily social, but through the click of their personalities, the aging Goldman persuaded the young Robeson toward a more radical stance on economic issues. West and Martin’s formulation makes it seem predetermined that a black person would choose struggle, when in fact that choice was born of dark nights of the soul and wrenching decisions to put oneself and one’s loved ones at risk.

At the same time, I’ve been pondering what makes black internationalism distinct when compared to Pan-Asian or Wilsonian inspired anti-colonial movements (I’m relying upon Erez Manela’s Wilsonian Moment there). West and Martin offer a very succinct explanation of difference.

Reading some Social Darwinists for my USIH class, though, makes struggle as a defining characteristic unattractive. William Graham Sumner argues that “life on earth must be maintained by a struggle against nature, and also by a competition with other forms of life.” (American Intellectual Tradition, p28).

Perhaps, then, it is not the fact of struggle that is defining so much as what is being struggled towards–the dream of “a circle of universal emancipation, unbroken in space and time.” The meaning of that emancipation for a Christian missionary returning to Africa to civilize it, or Marcus Garvey’s desire to also return to Africa to impose his own kind of civilization, is not so uni-dimensional or clear-cut.

One of the essays in West and Martin’s collection offers a more nuanced alternative. Lara Putnam, in “Nothing Matters but Color: Transnational Circuits, the Interwar Caribbean, and the Black International” argues

First, that migration and migrants’ activities created a West Indian-centered black internationalist world in the first decades of the twentieth century; second, that this world came under attack as a result of the rise of narrow, racially defined nationalism and imperial closures in the interwar years; and third, that the attacks reinforced ‘race consciousness’ among migrants, spurring increasingly explicit black internationalist critiques of imperial and neocolonial power.

She follows this with the conclusion that “In the interwar years, West Indian community leaders of diverse class positions and ideologies came to a common conclusion: only by putting race first could people of African descent attain collective uplift in a modern, racist world.” [I wonder about the contrast between this quote and her title, in which she foregrounds color. It does not seem to me that color and race were the same thing in the Caribbean; indeed intraracial discrimination often occurred along color lines]

I’m so compelled by that statement, because some of the people that I study reached the opposite conclusion. Juliette Derricotte decided that fellowship could only be achieved, not by ignoring race, but by concentrating on similar religious convictions (she was among a diverse body of Christians, all trying to find a way to overcome racial and national animosities in 1928). Ralph Bunche, on the other hand, decided that the only way to overcome racism was by finding and attacking its economic root.

One of the things that most intrigues me about West and Martin’s edited collection is the way that internationalism actually solidifies nationalism (is this the same as the thesis that Italian nationalism was created in America by Italian migrants? It is by being in a place where you are different that you search for someone who is similar). I think Erez Manela makes a similar argument in The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Manela argues that the emergence of the circumstances for decolonization was due “to the establishment, for the first time, of international institutions and norms that allowed, indeed invited anticolonial nationalists to challenge colonial powers in an external arena, circumventing and thereby weakening the imperial relationship.” Manela is looking particularly at internationalist organizations like the League of Nations, while Putnam is considering more the experiences of individual British West Indian migrants, but both express the vibrancy of the international dialogue during the interwar era.

Putnam writes, “The black internationalism articulated by British West Indian migrants in the interwar years was not a revival of tradition, but a particular vision of the future, developed in dialogue and in step with the other nationalisms that defined North Atlantic modernity.”

She and Manela certainly aid my argument that the interwar era represents a distinct moment in black American and black international history, rather than the culmination of the nadir or the beginnings of the Long Civil Rights Movement.

Another interesting consideration around the question of the black international is when does someone become a nationalist, when does someone become a Pan-Africanist (with or without becoming a nationalist) and when does someone become what Nico Slate terms a “colored cosmopolitan” (someone who felt common cause with other people of color in an anticolonial struggle)? I think that question of motivations and decisions will become a central one for my book.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “I was discussing this idea over dinner with a friend and colleague. He suggested that I border, if not tip over into, the offensive by attacking the ‘racial protocol,’ because it sounds like I am neglecting (if not negating) the oppression, in which, as a white person, I am implicated.”

    Your friend actually said that? I’d have sworn people who think like this were really just bogeymen made up by the conservative PC scare police. I guess the caricature isn’t wholly unfounded.

  2. I think he made an important point. It is easier for me as a white person to intentionally or unintentionally under-represent the importance of struggle and oppression in African American history, because I haven’t experienced racial oppression or the difficult choice to protest it while experiencing it. This is something I’ve been keenly mindful of for a long time. At the same time, I offer the perspective I offer, which is not better or worse than someone else’s, but it is different.

    A white mentor of mine characterized my reconsideration of the “racial protocol” a bit like her mother telling her that having a disabled child is a joy, when in reality it is terribly difficult. It can seem condescending. I need to be mindful of that. This is why I forefront my sources as much as I can while still developing analysis and a thesis.

  3. This post reminds me an interesting discussion I heard last week about developments in Southern Studies. As I understand it, among both literary scholars and (to a lesser extent?) historians, there is a move in New Southern Studies away from the customary regionalist/nationalist understanding of “the South” and towards an idea of the “Global South.” This redrawing of disciplinary boundaries de-centers and re-situates the U.S. South within both a geographically hemispheric and an economically global context. Much is gained by this perspective.

    But de-centering the U.S. South can also mean de-centering the black/white binary and the history of slavery/reconstruction and the long Civil Rights era. There is a sense among some that moving away from an “exceptionalist” paradigm/perspective on the “uniqueness of the [U.S.] South” minimizes the history and legacy of slavery/race relations/the civil rights struggles.

    The discussion served as a good reminder that there is much at stake in disciplinary boundaries, and that how we draw our epistemic map has profound political and personal implications.

Comments are closed.