U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reparations Roundtable: Kinship and Resilience: Kingsblood Royal, Stories, and Reparations

First of all, I’d like to thank Robert Greene II for organizing this roundtable. The intrinsic power of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations was immediately obvious, but I am very grateful to Robert for encouraging us to see that US intellectual history might have much to say about the longer conversation on reparations as well as much to take from the history of that conversation.

I want to pick up, to some extent, where Kurt Newman left off in his Tuesday post on the legal scholar Boris Bittker. Kurt points us to Bittker’s first engagement with the legal aspects of institutional racism and potential state efforts to combat it, in Bittker’s 1962 essay, “The Case of the Checkerboard Ordinance.” As Kurt notes, the essay imagines a fictitious Illinois community called New Harmony through a thought experiment set in Bittker’s near future—1965. This town, which Bittker describes as being near Chicago and only incorporated in 1962, the year of the essay, is zoned such that, apart from “public, commercial, industrial, recreational, institutional, and other nonresidential properties,” all lots are given either an “N” or a “W” designation that is immutable—the ownership and occupation of all “N” lots must remain in the hands of African-Americans and all “W” lots must remain in white hands.[1]

It was interesting to me that Bittker chose to place his fictional town in a real state, and it is worth pausing a moment to offer a few possible reasons why that state was in the Midwest, especially given that the closest contemporary analogue for a totally-planned community with a strong racial policy regarding occupancy and ownership would seem to have been the Levittown settlements in New York and Pennsylvania, with the Levittown, PA riots in 1957 likely still quite fresh in people’s minds.

Bittker’s town’s name, New Harmony, is shared with the real town of New Harmony, Indiana, a utopian community founded originally by a German dissenting sect, then sold to Robert Owen, the Welsh socialist reformer. The Midwest has a history of utopian settlements, and Bittker almost certainly had these in mind. The unsegregated Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, finished in 1962, might also have been an influence. Kurt already pointed out the legacy of the Ossian Sweet case, in which a black man was put on trial for defending his home after a mob had gathered to extra-legally evict his family from their home in a white neighborhood in 1925.

The Ossian Sweet case also had a profound influence on Sinclair Lewis’s 1947 bestselling novel Kingsblood Royal, which is set in a fictional city called Grand Republic, Minnesota, in 1945-1946. Kingsblood Royal may also have played some role in directing Bittker toward the upper Midwest as a location for his New Harmony, but I’d like to argue here that its relevance to our conversation on reparations stands on its own merits, regardless of any possible influence it may have had on Bittker.

The novel is sensationalistic, melodramatic, and unrelentingly provocative—like Lewis’s 1935 anti-fascist novel It Can’t Happen Here, it was written to draw attention and to draw fire, to flush a problem out into the open. It is about Neil Kingsblood, a young banker who has just returned to his Minnesota home wounded in the European theater of World War II, who undertakes a whimsical investigation into his genealogy and who unexpectedly finds out that he is, by the one-drop rule, black, having a Martinican maternal ancestor who was a coureur du bois in the 18th century. Kingsblood Royal is a sort of American existential novel—should he tell? does this revelation really change him, or is it just a social construct? what is his duty? can he be true to himself if he suppresses this information?—but it also should be contextualized as part of the remarkable mid-1940s efflorescence of civil rights literature: there are definite similarities to Chester Himes’s incredible 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, in that both are equally certain that the war’s effects, especially in terms of the employment of African-Americans in formerly “white” jobs, have permanently altered the consciousness of African-Americans. But it is also obviously a relative of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944) and Laura Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), as well as the Popular Front-inspired work of Carey McWilliams, Carlos Bulosan, and Louis Adamic in the 1940s. It is more directly indebted to Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), Roi Ottley’s New World A-Coming (1943) and Gunnar Myrdal and Ralph Bunche’s American Dilemma (1944), Lewis actually having reviewed the latter three books for Esquire in a piece entitled, “Gentlemen, This Is Revolution.” It also worth noting that the year Kingsblood Royal was published, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights released its report, To Secure These Rights.

Lewis’s interest in civil rights was not new—he had been friends with Walter White and through him connected with the NAACP since the early 1920s, even serving for a few years as a judge for the Spingarn Medal—but it is obvious from the text of the novel that the war decisively changed his mind about the real imminence of a breakthrough. His assumption, though, was that it would come through revolution, not through reparations—the novel is filled with threats of violence and, while it is contained within the US only, Lewis’s mind was also on the war’s destabilization of old empires and the promise of the overthrow of European (and US) governance and exploitation by peoples of color worldwide.

Yet Kingsblood Royal is also suffused with the issue of racial legacies and the ways they are filtered through and produced by the state. Neil Kingsblood actually discovers his lineage by going to the Minnesota Historical Society, after a comic interlude in which he wonders, “Was there some fellow in the Government whose job it was to explain how you got historical facts?” It is also surprisingly attuned to the compounding injustices that have, over time, produced the whiteness that Neil has, for his entire life, taken for granted: Lewis repeatedly directs the reader back to the dispossession of Native Americans as the foundation of the community in which Neil lives, and in fact, even before he finds out about his Martinican ancestry, he discovers that on the same family tree he has a Chippewa great-great-great grandmother.

Yet Lewis’s novel is not intended to yield the answer “reparations” to the question “what is to be done,” and while that is in part for historical reasons—no one was offering reparations as a solution at the time—it is also for narratological reasons: it is extremely difficult to tell a story about racism such that reparations seems like an answer.

That difficulty comes from two dilemmas: how to handle empathy and how to handle agency. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s reparations essay, I think, is so successful largely because he delicately manages both problems, inviting and estranging the (white) reader’s sense of empathy, and balancing praise for the resilience and resourcefulness of African Americans throughout history with a realistic insistence upon the real damage of systemic racism. Kingsblood Royal is an effort to meet these problems head-on as well, and while it is not entirely successful, it is worth pointing out where it departs from contemporary and prior efforts in fiction and in other arts to do so.

The central conceit of the novel—that a white man metaphorically wakes up as a black man—was by no means new: the Populist politician Ignatius Donnelly (like Lewis, a Minnesotan) wrote an 1891 novel titled Dr. Huguet which featured one of the earliest uses of a body-swap plot when the minds of a white Southern intellectual and a black petty criminal are temporarily transposed into one another’s bodies; we can see some element of it in the scene in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man when the narrator as a child “discovers” he is black; the 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow turns a race-baiting Southern Senator black temporarily; a bit later, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me constructed this situation when the author used a variety of methods to darken his skin to go undercover to experience Jim Crow. The spirit, at least in the Donnelly and Griffin examples, is a literal rendering of the famous line from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his [sic] point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or, in other words, don’t just take their word for it, try to feel it—try to “feel right,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended in the concluding chapter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Kingsblood Royal considerably complicates this circuit of empathy: Neil doesn’t just take a walk in a black person’s skin, and his situation isn’t a temporary body swap—once he tells the world he’s black, he’ll stay that way.[2] Furthermore, the latent hint of the novel is that the white reader cannot feel empathetic toward Neil because there may very well be no “safe” distance from which to view his plight. The reader who asks herself “What if this thing that never could happen to me hypothetically did happen to me?” may very well be deceiving herself—who is to say that there is not a black ancestor in her allegedly white family tree? Kingsblood Royal uses the specter of kinship—attenuated as it might be—to erode the distance of empathy; only solidarity is worthwhile when you might, in some way, however remote, be the kin of those with whom you are trying to empathize.

Kingsblood Royal also is an insightful, if flawed, examination of the issue of agency, of the question of how to acknowledge the courage and resiliency of African-American culture—there is a great deal of humor in the book, especially during the “race-talks” Neil attends, including the anecdote related by one of Neil’s friends, “The other day, in the bathroom, I read a label ‘facial tissues’ as ‘racial issues’”—while also acknowledging the reality of the damage constantly sustained in the teeth of everyday slights and humiliations. Kingsblood Royal largely finds the politics of respectability suspect and prizes a more vernacular, lower-middle class attitude toward the realities of internalized racism and the false promises in much of uplift ideology.

Lewis is also insistent upon showing us the ugliness of romanticizing African-American resilience as something both super- and sub-human. There is a terrible scene where Neil and his friend, an African-American chemist, are paraded as token blacks before the progressive set of Grand Republic and urged to sing a spiritual as an example of their people’s mournful glory. Neither man knows any, and the white liberals are snappishly disappointed: they wanted to be reassured that all African-Americans had the resources to bear their indignities gracefully and courageously. Neil himself does some romanticizing of the first black people he really gets to know, but he is persistently and intelligently put in his place: he must come to love his fellow African-Americans as people, not as mental constructs to buffer his own attempts to come to terms with and ultimately to appreciate his ancestry.

But the novel’s most intuitive attempt to resolve these problems of empathy and agency comes at its close: the climax of the novel occurs when Neil and his wife are joined by an assortment of white and black friends to defend—by force—their home from a mob of enraged citizens who want to expel Neil from the lily-white neighborhood in which he has been living all along. Neil himself fires not warning shots, but a volley actually kneecapping the first row of assailants. Then a group of policemen, waiting nearby, spring into action and arrest Neil. Neil’s wife (ridiculously named Vestal) demands to be jailed with him and, when refused, strikes a police officer with the butt of a pistol to force the issue. “Move along,” they order the Kingsbloods. “We’re moving,” Vestal replies.

That last sentence is meant to be portentous: “we are on the move” more than “we’re leaving.” But it also neatly encapsulates the central dilemma of the narratology of reparations: “We’re moving” can be construed as leaving behind no pause, no moment of sufficient stillness to contemplate coming to terms with the “story” up to this point. The novel directs us to an unsettled vanishing point somewhere beyond itself, leaving the shape of the story that has come before it muddled, lumpy: how do we begin to sort out the actions of the characters when we don’t know how it all turns out, when they continue “moving” beyond the scope of the novel?

Coates presents us with an identical problem—one approaching a paradox—at the end of his essay on reparations.

In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.

As long as we construct the narrative of reparations as an effort to catch up to the end of the story, these payments look like ironic failures: the people had already “moved” on beyond the scope of the story, refusing to stay still long enough for the reader to catch up to them. It is, I think, the virtue of Coates’s essay—and of Kingsblood Royal—that this desire to catch up to the end of the story is not indulged, or is at any rate not decisive: Coates presents us with many ways to think about what kinds of repayment might constitute justice, and how different kinds of repayment might interact and reinforce one another. To think of reparations as a conclusion to a story narrows those options to one, and it is above all the refusal of that constriction that I think we can gratefully acknowledge in both Coates and Kingsblood Royal.

[1] There are many interesting nuances to this thought experiment which Bittker folds into this basic idea, some of which are notable for their acuity when it comes to imagining the US as a multiracial, and not merely a biracial, society. For instance, Bittker writes that “The ordinance accommodates persons who are neither Negro nor white by providing that, upon settling in New Harmony for the first time, such a person may acquire or occupy property regardless of designation, but thereafter he [sic] may not acquire or occupy property in the other category; and similar provision is made for parties to mixed marriages [n.b., Loving v. Virginia was still five years off when this essay was published]. Servants are not subject to the occupancy rules, but may live with the families for whom they work.”

[2] Lewis acknowledges the possibility that Neil and his family could try to move somewhere else and pass, or even say that Neil’s research into his genealogy was in error, that there was no black ancestor, but Neil refuses to consider these real possibilities—the suspicion would always be inescapable, if nothing else, and Neil actively disavows wanting to be white any longer after experiencing prejudice.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, this is really just an amazing essay. Extraordinary writing.

    Thanks so much for tying the discussion to this fascinating novel, which–if I am not incorrect–is not as commonly read these days as it should be. I feel like I understand Bittker’s essay much better, too, after having it contextualized in the Midwestern historical context.

    I wonder if the title “Kingsblood Royal” points us to political theology–the “king’s two bodies,” the overlap of the blood of Christ and the blood of kings and the perverse economy of racial bloodlines–and to Oedipus Tyrannus (the usurper with the “wrong blood” causing the Gods’ angry attack on the city).

    There is a significant political theology literature that overlaps with reparations history (both in the tradition associated with Cone and in the newer post-Lacan/Derrida/Zizek/Badiou revival of interest in left/anticapitalist/queer political theology); I recommend in particular a special issue of Law and Literature from 2008 edited by Joseph Jenkins, and featuring an essay by the very smart reparations scholar A. Brophy (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1525/lal.2008.20.2.129?uid=3739560&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21104479347443)–I don’t think I agree with Brophy, but his essay provides excellent guideposts.

    Jenkins’s work is incredible, and incredibly relevant to your reading of Kingsblood Royal. I recommend very highly his book on related questions in Shakespeare and Milton: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409454847

    Your post also made me think of Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” and Alessandra Raengo’s recent book “On the Sleeve of the Visual: Race as Face Value.” One of Raengo’s most provocative discussions is of the artist Keith Obadike, and Obadike’s “Blackness for Sale” (a conceptual art piece in the form of an ebay auction for the artist’s “blackness”):

    “In his product description, Obadike draws a very definite distribution of the sensible, among other things, that the “blackness” he is selling can be used to create black art, but not serious art; it can be used to say the N-word without repercussions, but it is not recommended while seeking justice or employment. It offers “cool,” but not fairness.

    Following the marketplace’s rules of engagement allows Obadike to describe the commodity blackness in its contemporary form; that is, as a phantasmatic entity — valued for what it enables, both discursively and socially.

    Just like damali ayo’s rent-a-negro.com , a website where it is seemingly possible to rent a well-mannered African American woman, Obadike exposes a number of factors that determine the variable value of blackness and offers to sell not what blackness is, but rather what it does. In both these works, blackness does not preexist the act of exchange; rather, it exists as the manufactured product of a transaction that the works themselves initiate. Consequently, the works expose that racial identity is not lodged in a preexisting essence, but it is rather reconfigured as a number of possible subject positions in response to the art itself. By being openly set forth in the form of a commodity, it offers the best vantage point on the capitalist system as a whole. Blackness, then, emerges as a structuring principle and a language of social relations.”

  2. I’ve been meaning to comment at length on this blog post, but now that I finally can, I just want to say this was a pleasure to read. And, frankly, I was only dimly aware of Lewis’ book before reading this post.

    The sub-genre of novels about black Americans passing as white is well known, but as you state here, far less known is the opposite: novels where white characters discover they have black ancestry, or become black. I can’t help but think of the Ralph Ellison novel that he was never able to finish, sometimes called either “Juneteenth” or “Three Days Before the Shooting”. There, his protagonist Adam Sunraider passes as white and tries to forget his black background. It’s a shame Ellison never finished it, but I’ve not had the pleasure of reading the published manuscripts of the book.

    I wonder: how was Lewis’ book received at the time of its publication? I think it’s fascinating to conceptualize of the late 1940s/early 1950s as an era rich in writings about race, one that I’d put up against the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement. One element that I do find intriguing about this period, and you allude to it above, is the proximity of this era to the Popular Front period and Myrdal’s work on race and the American Creed. Much to ponder, and I’m quite thankful for your contribution!

  3. Kurt and Robert,

    Thanks so much for your kind words! I am especially encouraged to think that I have drawn some interest to Lewis’s novel. I think it has been written about a little bit, but not so much by historians; at any rate, I would definitely say that it is of considerable historical value, and I do wish this particular moment–the mid-to-late 1940s–would be more intensively studied. Lipsitz’s Rainbow at Midnight is one of the few works, I think, to really give a proper feeling of the massive potential for change that suffused these years, especially in terms of labor and race.

    Kurt,
    You are absolutely right to bring up the importance of the surname “Kingsblood” here because it is a very deliberate (even overdetermined) choice, although I’d need some time to think about what I’d say about the way political theology fits in here (and thank you for these citations–I had no idea there were connections between reparations scholarship and political theology).

    But as you’ve brought it up, I’ll add a few comments that, for reasons of space (this was already around 2400 words, I think), I cut out regarding Neil’s genealogical researches. Neil actually begins to look into his family tree because his father approaches him asking him to get to the bottom of a family rumor–that the surname “Kingsblood” comes from their actual descent from a hidden (possibly bastard, at any rate disavowed) son of Catherine of Aragon. Neil is, of course, skeptical, but is bored and wants to make his father happy. When he runs into a series of dead ends on his paternal side, he starts looking into his mother’s antecedents, and that’s when he makes his discovery. So we have a mixed Chippewa and Caribbean ancestry instead of English royalty–ostensibly, for a WASP, the polar opposites of honor and abjectness.
    But in fact, Neil (and even, to some extent, Vestal) begins to see his real heritage as the more authentic American form of nobility; Neil looks at his Martinican ancestor, Xavier Pic, as a sort of black Natty Bumppo, and regards his Chippewa lineage similarly as a privileged connection to the frontier history of Minnesota. Moreover, Neil begins to appreciate the personal virtues and good humor of his new African-American friends as a real nobility of feeling. So there is quite a lot to unpack in the novel w/r/t issues of blood and royalty, inheritance and ennoblement.

    Robert,
    The reception of Kingsblood Royal is quite interesting in large part because it didn’t quite cause the uproar that most people expected. Although Lewis was hanged in effigy and excoriated after his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, I haven’t found quite the same virulence and outrage for Kingsblood Royal. Like Gantry, Kingsblood was selected by a major book club (the former by the BOMC, the latter by the Literary Guild), and sold a ton of copies. But, according to a NYT roundup of reviews in Southern newspapers, the reaction to its content was relatively mild, with one Southern critic even suggesting (correctly) that the book could be read as an attack on Northerners’ hypocritical assumption that only the South had a race problem. The reaction in the black press was, however, distinctly positive; Ebony gave it an award for the service it had performed for race relations. (However, I’ve read that privately a number of African American intellectuals found it a little shallow, if well-meaning.) Finally, fwiw, the Soviet Union loved it: it was printed in a large run and sold out (though the Russian edition was censored and abridged).

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