Korey Garibaldi

ISBN 978-0-691-21190-9  Princeton  £25

reviewed by Alan Dent


Remove from your shelves the books by white supremacists and much would go. Walt Whitman for a start who wrote: “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of the races, history. A superior grade of rats come and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” Allowing for a margin of irony, it’s appalling. Ezra Pound, Eliot, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Allen Tate, Kerouac whose  romanticisation of the lives of blacks was inherently racist, Conrad, Lawrence, Larkin. Could Jane Austen remain, in spite of her opposition to slavery, which doesn’t presuppose a belief in equality? Maybe Chaucer would have to go on the basis of what’s in The Man of Law’s Tale, or simply because he absorbed the wrong-headedness of his time. For five centuries at least, the world has rested on conquest, founded on racism in pursuit of lucre. It would be surprising if literature were not marinated in the assumption that a white skin means superiority.  

Garibaldi has explored American publishing and editing from the early 20th century to the 1970s and discovered a positive seam: interracial collaborations which permitted some black writers to thrive. Frank Yerby was highly commercially successful, selling in total some fifteen million books. Garibaldi doesn’t enter into literary criticism: was Yerby a good writer? That isn’t his territory here. He’s asking whether the interracial means could close the divide between white and non-white writers. The evaluation of literary value is for another time.  

What he uncovers is that in spite of the success of the venture the push-back was persistent and vicious. 

One of the unusual aspects of the book is its references to publishing data, usually ignored on the grounds that discussing the politics of these matters is sour-grapes. In 1906, for example, 7,139 books were published in the US, by 1910, the figure was 13,470. This was the cultural renaissance of the years leading up to the First World War, which had fallen apart by the end of the 1920s. W.S. Braithwaite was enhancing the status of poetry by publishing his anthology, in response to which Pound wrote of the US being “stung by the negroid lash of Mr Braithwaite.” Pound was nasty and demented, but for popularity he couldn’t match Thomas Dixon, Baptist minister, whose novel The Clansman, venerating the KKK was first shown in Woodrow Wilson’s White House and became, in 1915, The Birth of a Nation. The extraordinary success of the film is indicative of the breadth and depth of white supremacism in the U.S.A. at the time and also of the denial and confabulation which form the essence of the reactionary strand of U.S. non-thinking. In such an atmosphere, what chance was there for interracial editing and publishing?  

Seminal in resisting, was Ray Stannard Baker, whose series of essays, published from 1907, are seen as the first attempt to discuss rationally and objectively the question of “race” (we ought to dispense with the term as it depicts a fantasy – white supremacism ought to take its place). Garibaldi points out the irony that Baker’s essays were published in book form by Doubleday and Page, who had issued The Clansman. Walter Hines Page, who ran the publishing house, claimed to be committed to a wide range of authors, but was in truth probably simply commercially opportunistic. Gertrude Stein had to bring out Three Lives at her own expense. When it found a publisher, she was told it was too unusual to tempt book shop buyer: part of its oddness was certainly ints treatment of inter-racial relations.  

Tagore’s The Gardener (1913) sold a hundred thousand in the UK. A sign of shifting opinion, but  it was far too early and the success too limited to start thinking, as Tagore did, that doors had burst open. In the year Tagore’s book appeared, Pound wrote: “Sorry to learn Braithwaite is a nigger…A Boston coon!! That explains a lot.” He had earlier described Hitler as a saint, a Jeanne d’Arc. Incidentally, there are those who say, keep the writer the work separate. Unfortunately, it never works: the vile attitudes Pound embraced can be discerned in the form of his poetry.  

The economics of publishing makes a difference: between 1917 and 1919 the cost of paper in the USA doubled, which meant fewer opportunities all round, which had a significant effect on black writers. Charles Chesnutt sent the manuscript of Paul Marchand: Free Man of Colour to Hoghton Mifflin in 1921. They responded that conditions were unfavourable. The book appeared in 1999. Trying to cash in on Charles Wood’s trend in Nigger; A Novel (1922), Ronald Firbank published Prancing Nigger in 1924, an example of the gross misrepresentation of people of colour by white writers. It seems admitting people of colour into literature as half-wits and gabbling fools was taken by some whites  as a step forward. Carl Sandburg advocated the use of the term “nigger” as the standard description in 1925. Sandburg had earlier written of Braithwaite as a fungus. When Sandburg published a collection of essays in 1919, Walter Lippmann wrote the introduction, arguing in favour of segregation, effectively apartheid. Lippmann was, of course, a chief spokesman for the notion of keeping the interfering masses out of decision making.  

H.L. Mencken referred to Braithwaite as a “coon”, Allen Tate and John Gould Fletcher thought Braithwaite’s anthology too inclusive and Tate was one of the Fugitive Poets whose definitive statement was their collection I’ll Take My Stand, with its obvious reference to the Confederacy. Robert Penn Warren was a contributor who argued in favour of higher education for coloured people, but doubted its worth without segregation. Sherwood Anderson expressed the view that too many people of colour were doing “too much of the contributing”.  

In 1933, Langston Hughes submitted a story to Scribener’s which included a white woman who gives birth to a child of colour. It was rejected on the grounds “it would frighten our good middle-class audience to death”. It’s interesting to speculate how much work is still rejected for the same reason.  

Gertrude Stein, who got to know Richard Wright in Paris, advised him against publishing Black Boy, suggesting it was too predictable. The book sold six hundred thousand copies in six months. Native Son had sold two hundred thousand in three weeks. Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door (1947) (praised by Eleanor Roosevelt) sold nearly one hundred thousand, tying for first place  with Yerby’s second novel in 1947. Of course, none of these figures say anything about literary quality, though Wright is obviously a serious figure. Motley’s novel, made into a film starring Bogart, has a Italian rather than a person of colour at its centre. It may tilt more towards pulp than Tolstoy, but Garibaldi’s point is that if whites are publishing commercial books and doing well, why shouldn’t people of colour? There always has been a division between high lit and the throwaway stuff and always will be, just as people will always be tempted by sweet foods; but Garibaldi is charting how, in spite of appalling hatred and opposition, some writers of colour managed to make their way.  

There’s an enlightening chapter on children’s literature. Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo was the best children could expect in the early twentieth century. Muriel Fuller, whose mother Olive was a stereotypical southern white supremacist who feared “nigs” were getting into influential positions, worked to change things. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard man of colour asked the pertinent question about the depiction of coloured people in books: “Why not exploit, enslave, or exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior?” Virginia Kirkus, one of the pioneering women in publishing, was blasé about the depiction of coloured people as subservient in children’s books and also remarked that “publishing must be a business, first and foremost”, an assumption which deserves some examination. Garibaldi doesn’t enter this territory: is there an alternative to capitalist publishing? If there is an alternative to capitalism, which is beyond doubt, there must be. Why shouldn’t publishing be first and foremost about quality. Commercial publishing, as Garibaldi points out, is always about how much not what or how good. Edward Uhlan who tried to establish an alternative to commercial domination commented that “shoddy-looking books” don’t sell. Such is the cleft stick little presses find themselves in.  

The Committee for the Negro in the Arts was smeared as a communist front, a false accusation which destroyed it. Lorraine Hansbury’s FBI file ran to more than a thousand pages. When James Baldwin, Lena Horne and others met Robert Kennedy at his family’s New York penthouse (whose address he didn’t know) Kennedy dismissed Jerome Smith: “I’ll talk to you who are civilised. But who is he?” Hansbury told him Smith was the person he should be listening to. Kennedy was interested in statistics, but was incapable of emotional connection to the experience of coloured people and couldn’t accept that white supremacism was a moral issue.  

Garibaldi argues for the interracial efforts up to the 1960s, but is dubious about the Black Power movement and the Civil Rights campaign, on the grounds that they incited division. Hansbury’s excellent play. A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which inspired hope of betterment in its time, couldn’t be replicated twenty years later: there was too much accentuation of divisions between whites and non-whites. Garibaldi suggests a work like Michelle Obama’s autobiography rehearses an older tradition of literary celebrity for coloured people. This is where his argument breaks down: the book is simply cynical cashing in. In the same way, his contention that Obama himself is the best example of integration, ignores the President’s dismal record, especially in foreign policy where he continued the work of the Bushes, and indeed, every U.S. Leader since 1945. 

Garibaldi’s thesis is pushing towards the notion that integration is possible: people of colour can participate as equals in American capitalism. Somewhat questionable given the crucial role of white supremacism in the history of America’s wealth and power.  His sense that the sixties overturned the steady vessel of integration is dubious. That people of colour should have a fair deal in the existing system is a sound moral position, but equality between whites and people of colour is best attained and preserved by the attainment of equality in general. Equality is a moral urgency. 

In spite of his unconvincing concluding argument, Garibaldi’s book explores a little considered territory, is thoroughly researched and replete with necessary detail.