How It Happens Here: Race and American Antifascist Literature




IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 antifascist dystopian novel highlights the incredulity of the novel’s liberal and leftist characters when confronted with the rise of a populist presidential candidate who appeals to the nation’s disaffected voters with bombastic rhetoric and nationalist demagoguery. Such incredulity might sound familiar in our present moment, rife with heightened political tensions, unconventional political playbooks, and bombastic candidates. Lewis’s novel is undoubtedly the most famous novelistic thought experiment to imagine the rise of an American fascism, though it was not the first antifascist dystopia in American literature. Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1908) — sometimes called the first dystopian novel — imagined the rise of a repressive state through a consolidation of corporate and political power in the decades following the novel’s publication, and its far-future setting offers hope for throwing off the chains of 20th-century fascism, even if it might take a few hundred years. And Lewis’s novel was not, by any means, the last. Among the numerous speculative fiction versions of fascist dystopia, such as Philip K. Dick’s alternative history The Man in the High Castle (1962), even more conventionally literary attempts have been recently made to wrestle with the possibilities and shape of an American fascism. Though it also traffics in alternative history rather than near-future speculation, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) imagines a United States of the 1940s under an anti-Semitic president Charles Lindbergh, who forges a treaty with Nazi Germany and implements concentration camps for Jews, including the novel’s young narrator.

In response to the emergence of Donald Trump, critics have dusted off Lewis’s novel of fascism in the United States in an effort to find an analogue or an explanation. But such comparisons are necessarily unsatisfying, given Lewis’s nearly exclusive focus on economic promises and the welfare state, with more attention to fiction candidate “Buzz” Windrip’s anti-elitism than to any racial dynamics. This vision of the rise of fascism owes as much to Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” program as it does to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. The novel’s relatively minor attention to race might seem unusual in hindsight, but Lewis, who wrote and revised It Can’t Happen Here between May and August 1935, didn’t necessarily foresee the Nuremburg Laws, passed in September, which ratcheted up the persecution of Jews and other non-Aryans. As a result, his imagination of a fascist United States that lacks a racial dimension specific to the American context remains incomplete.

However, Lewis wasn’t the only writer of the 1930s working to imagine the contours of an American fascism. The critical and commercial success of Lewis’s novel attested to an appetite for near-future dystopian literature about what an American fascism might look like. At the same time, the success of It Can’t Happen Here appears to have spawned at least one curious — and virtually unknown — response, a response that reveals a more insightful perspective about the potential for an American fascism. From June through August 1937, the African-American weekly newspaper The Baltimore Afro-American published a serial by William Thomas Smith called “The Black Stockings.” The Afro-American, like the Pittsburgh Courier and other nationally distributed black newspapers, published original fiction by and for African-American audiences on a weekly basis from the 1920s through the late 1950s. The stories and serials published in these newspapers constitute a massive, unacknowledged archive of African-American literary history, and they represent virtually every popular genre of the period: romance, mystery, western, horror, adventure, and science fiction. Drawing on, adapting, repurposing, and reinventing genres popular in contemporaneous pulp magazines — where African-American writers and protagonists rarely, if ever, appeared — this black newspaper fiction offered complex and fascinating rebuttals to standard genre conventions and expectations.

“The Black Stockings” shows that middle- and working-class African-American audiences were just as interested in antifascist dystopian fiction as the readers of Lewis’s novel. Smith was an African-American newspaperman and fiction writer who published genre fiction in African-American newspapers and pulp magazines, and later published a passing novel titled God Is For White Folks (1947) and a memoir titled The Seeking (1953) under the name Will Thomas. When he wasn’t passing under now unknown pseudonyms in the pulps, his fiction explicitly confronted the problems of racism. He brought this focus to his most compelling newspaper serial, the near-future dystopia “The Black Stockings,” which also charts the rise of a fascist presidential candidate, and certainly recalls Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. Smith’s “The Black Stockings” introduces trenchant observations about race and American fascism into its high-octane adventure story. For Smith, fascism was not modeled on a foreign movement; it lay just barely dormant in the American political mindset. In “The Black Stockings,” the rise of fascism is no anomaly, and it has little to do with perversions of economic populism. Instead, it has everything to do with American race relations. Smith’s serial resonates with a variety of contemporary issues — from xenophobic and race-baiting campaign rhetoric to the concerns of Black Lives Matter — and attests to how this unknown archive of African-American popular fiction offers valuable insight into the links between popular culture and racial justice.

Like many of these popular texts, “The Black Stockings” fully exploits its newspaper context. Featured on the full back page of the Afro-American along with a striking and disturbing illustration of a fascist political rally, the first serial installment’s sub-headline “All Colored Must Leave U.S. in 1945” appears in type exactly like one of the newspaper’s regular headlines. Such placement ensured a sensational effect on passers-by who might have caught a glimpse of someone reading the paper’s opposing front page. Set during the near-future 1944 presidential campaign, the first installment of the serial opens with the report of a radio address by presidential candidate Hugo Heflock: “Warm Gulf, May 15, 1944 — In a radio and television broadcast over an international hookup today, Hugo Heflock (white), ‘Aryan Party’ candidate, stated that if he is elected to the presidency in the fall elections, ‘there will not be room in the United States for colored people or Jews.’” What follows is a lengthy quotation of Heflock’s speech, a host of stock nativist rhetoric. Heflock emphasizes an American purity: “I am a believer in America — or that portion of the Americas which is not peopled by a polyglot, bastard race, as are Central and South America, our dangerous neighbors to the south.” And his solutions include expulsion and extermination: “So much for the blacks. We must be purged of them. I do not care where they go, so long as they leave our great nation to flourish freed of their poisonous virus.” Heflock’s vicious nativist demagoguery — and his proposals for expelling African Americans and Jews from the United States — sound like the race-baiting characteristic of the recent presidential election, and this language takes part in a longstanding American nativist discourse that produced strict immigration laws based on racial pseudo-science in the early 20th century.

What is both impressive and prescient about Smith’s take on the possibility of American fascism is that he locates the source of such a threat neither in populist economics (as does Lewis) nor in the military, but in a nativism already present in mainstream American life. In Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, for example, Buzz Windrip rises to the presidency on the appeal of his promises to give every American a guaranteed income of a few thousand dollars, a generous sum in the depths of the Great Depression. Lewis’s novel imagines a kind of fascist bait-and-switch, in which largely disempowered working-class whites usher in an authoritarian regime under the assumption that they will receive a direct financial benefit. “The Black Stockings,” on the other hand, imagines the rise of fascism as rooted almost purely in racial animosity and American nativism, a fear and hatred of others that generates an irrational cycle of blame and resentment. In Smith’s serial, in fact, the “Black Stockings” of the title are Heflock’s informal militia, a group that has risen from the ashes of the Ku Klux Klan. They have given up the white hoods, and now wear black stockings over their heads, ensuring anonymity as they terrorize non-white groups, acts inspired by Heflock’s campaign. For Smith, the Black Stockings — and the Klan — are a form of fascism in miniature, and with his savvy control of the media (he owns a powerful radio station) the presidential candidate Heflock taps into a deep-seated American fascism that is ripe for development. These axes of fascist populism remain grave questions in our current moment. Analysis of the appeal of Trump’s campaign, for example, has oscillated between claims of economic populism for the disenfranchised white working class and the deep racial division of “white grievance” politics.

After introducing Heflock’s white supremacist presidential campaign, “The Black Stockings” wrestles with a question vital to the newspaper’s readership: given the broad appeal of race-baiting and fear mongering in the campaign, how might the forces of antifascism and antiracism prevent the rise of fascism in the United States? For Smith, the answer lies in the generic conventions of adventure fiction. The serial focuses on challenges to Heflock’s fascist campaign by a complex, multiethnic operation known as the Sons of Light. Formed by a group of African-American leaders and intellectuals — including a Dr. Du Lunt (a thinly veiled version of W. E. B. Du Bois); Dr. Carter, a “world famous Tuskegee scientist”; and others — this resistance campaign uses various techniques to organize against the violent reign of the Black Stockings. Using superior war and communications technology — a trope essential in early science fiction — the Sons of Light retaliate against the Black Stockings and bring the country to the brink of a civil war. The violence of “The Black Stockings,” which includes kidnappings and assassinations on both sides of the conflict, not only emphasizes the prevalence of racial violence through the 1930s, when lynching was a regular occurrence, but also draws on the conventions of popular genre fiction of the period.

The serial’s conclusion highlights the contradictions of white supremacy, while offering narrative resolution for the newspaper’s readers. Whereas Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here charts the success of a fascist campaign and its aftermath, “The Black Stockings” ends with an election where Heflock’s Aryan Party loses. The incumbent president, a member of the “Fusionist” party and the candidate supported by the Sons of Light, narrowly defeats Heflock despite widespread voter intimidation at the polls by mobs of Heflock supporters. Undeterred by this outcome, Heflock uses his media power to announce that his state will secede from the Union. Immediately after this announcement, Heflock is assassinated. His “blond” killer is revealed to be Cabot Glick, a light-skinned supporter of the Sons who readers discover is Heflock’s son, the offspring of Heflock’s rape of a black woman many years before.

In the pages of 1930s science fiction and adventure pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Adventure, or Weird Tales, the Sons of Light — a secret organization of blacks and Jews formed to prevent the rise of nativist Aryan rule — would likely appear as one of the sinister racial conspiracies that threaten white supremacy; in “The Black Stockings,” the Sons are a multiracial and multiethnic group allied with the US president and presented as the only hope for preserving American democracy. For Smith, the sinister racial conspiracies emanate, not from subjugated non-white races, but from the racist and nativist mobs that support Heflock’s “Aryan party.” With its exciting conclusion, “The Black Stockings” aggressively resists the repetitive racialized formulas of pulp serial fiction, replacing them with an exposure of white nativism, anxiety, and hypocrisy. The deadly conspiracy here is perpetrated by Heflock’s Aryan party and its militia wing, Heflock’s hatred is rooted in a twisted obsession with black women and his own predatory sexual violence, and the multiracial (but African American–led) resistance movement the Sons of Light restores order to a fractured American society.

Long forgotten like virtually all black newspaper fiction of the period, Smith’s “The Black Stockings” offers a compelling and important revision to Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, for Heflock’s fascist rise transmutes any and all economic concerns to the plane of racial and ethnic animosity, stoking the fires of American nativism. This bold acknowledgment that any brand of American fascism would be first and foremost about white supremacy — or “white identity politics” as it has been called in recent iterations — has a particular resonance in our contemporary moment. With its presentation of the threat of deportation, the encouragement of racial violence, the sinister power of media control, and the refusal to accept election results, “The Black Stockings” imagines a world where racial fault lines and the legacies of white supremacy have undermined American democracy. Its utopian solution — a narrow electoral victory by a multiracial democratic movement — does not necessarily solve the problems of Jim Crow and white supremacy, but at the very least it holds the power of such movements in abeyance. With a journalistic focus on racial injustice, black newspapers of this period were perfectly positioned to offer such radical and politicized revisions of genre fiction, and the diagnosis of problems these fictions provide suggest that a consideration of black genre fiction published in African-American newspapers is long overdue.

“The Black Stockings” is merely one of the hundreds of examples published in African-American newspapers in the mid-20th century. The heyday of this original African-American popular fiction lasted for about 30 years, from the late 1920s through the late 1950s, and encompassed virtually every popular literary genre, from romance to science fiction, mystery to western and beyond. The specter of white supremacy loomed over much of this fiction, and in its most radical guise — in serials like “The Black Stockings” — this genre fiction offered not only prescient visions of the future of race in the United States, but it also offered respite for middle- and working-class African-American readers in popular fiction that put forth critiques of global and national racial injustice. Newspaper fiction like “The Black Stockings” used popular forms to tell powerfully innovative stories in which the forces of antifascism and antiracism could triumph in dramatic fashion, a reminder of the value of popular entertainment as a repository for cultural fears, desires, and utopian resolutions.

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Brooks E. Hefner is associate professor of English at James Madison University. His book, The Word on the Streets: The American Language of Vernacular Modernism, is forthcoming in 2017.


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