I am now switching gears a bit with the independent study to look at five books published from 1947-1956 that were written by black authors but focused primarily on white characters (and, from what I know about them now, do not focus primarily on race): Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Savage Holiday by Richard Wright, Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston, Country Place by Ann Petry, and Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley. When discussing my goals for this study one month ago, I raised a few questions about these books: Does the focus on white make race more or less visible? Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial difference meant to allow the author to focus on other issues? How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book? These questions still remain.
When I wrote those questions, I hadn’t realized when these books had been written. The decade they represent provides quite an interesting ground for inquiry. While this period is often taught in high schools as the “era of conformity” when soldiers returned from World War II to start families and move to the suburbs, the decade was experience was very different for the majority of blacks. The GI Bill, which entitled returning soldiers to subsidized education and easy access to home loans, largely created the modern middle class. However, these two important benefits were largely denied to blacks. The majority of black soldiers still lived in the South where universities were segregated (and black universities could only cater to a very small minority of eligible students), and therefore the tuition benefits were worthless. Simultaneously, restrictive covenants, red lining, and other forms of housing discrimination. (For more info on this subject, see “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America” by Ira Katznelson). 1943 saw large race riots in both Detroit and Harlem. There were also 31 lynchings during the 1940’s.
On the other hand, this period sees a tremendous amount of progress made in the black freedom struggle. A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement successfully led to FDR’s Executive Order 8802 in 1941, prohibiting discrimination in private contractors with government defense contracts. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was founded in 1942 and developed many of the mass-action techniques that would mark the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Jackie Robinson was signed to the Dodgers in ’47, and the Armed Forces were desegregated a year later. The close of this period saw the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, and the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 which marks the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Writing against the backdrop of such events, I am very curious to see how writing at a time of drastic racial change effects how the authors’ deal with issues in a homogeneously racialized world.
Next: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones