Totalitarianism, At Home and Abroad: Vaughn Rasberry’s “Race and the Totalitarian Century”
By Andrew LanhamMarch 26, 2017
Race and the Totalitarian Century by Vaughn Rasberry
Nonetheless, Du Bois never stopped criticizing what he saw as the unjust uses of American military might. “I work and shall work,” he wrote in 1952, even as his literary career was crumbling, “for an America whose aim is not solely to make a few people rich, but rather to stop War, and abolish Poverty, Disease and Ignorance.” He refused to accept the binary Cold War logic that any dissent against US policy was treason. Nor was he alone in trying to carve out a space outside Cold War polarization in order to criticize state violence wherever he found it. As Vaughn Rasberry relates in his masterful new book Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination, Du Bois was part of a large and varied group of midcentury black writers who wrote in opposition to totalitarian violence both at home and abroad, a group that also included the novelist Richard Wright, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the historian C. L. R. James, and the biographer Shirley Graham (Du Bois’s wife). These writers were able, in Rasberry’s words, to “[draw] on an imaginative and rhetorical repertoire of desegregation and decolonization” to attack injustice in both the “democratic and communist spheres.”
Indeed, one of their key innovations was their resistance to the conceptual separation of those spheres in the first place. It was an ideological habit of the Cold War era to divide nations into mutually exclusive categories — free and unfree, liberal and illiberal — in ways that often obscured the real similarities between them. Such political Manicheanism also failed to make space for non-aligned nations, mainly in the postcolonial world, with their own unique histories and challenges that didn’t fit easily in the communist or capitalist blocs.
In this spirit, Rasberry provides a warning, at the opening of his book, about the potential looseness of his own key term “totalitarianism.” Historians, philosophers, and political scientists, he points out, have long debated the usefulness of the category, since its two primary examples, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, had opposite economic regimes, one capitalist and the other communist. Moreover, while the term is often used by thinkers in the American liberal tradition to distinguish foreign regimes from our own liberal democracy, the United States has its own history of totalitarianism, as scholars of slavery and Jim Crow know well. Rasberry traces an African-American critique of totalitarianism back at least to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, which depicts “a formal structure of totalitarian domination” through surveillance and spying that we can also recognize in many Jim Crow–era texts, such as Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography Black Boy. Once we take account of the simple fact that the totalitarianism of slavery and of Jim Crow segregation existed alongside, and even propped up, our vaunted liberal democracy, totalitarianism begins to lose its value as a term for a specific governmental or economic system. It becomes, instead, a tendency that can flourish in many different native soils.
Indeed, the great virtue of Rasberry’s book is his willingness to carefully untangle the various ways that writers like Du Bois understood totalitarianism. “These literary intellectuals,” he argues, “engage the geopolitics of totalitarianism in all the multifaceted and prolific ways that it operates at midcentury.” As Rasberry moves deftly between fiction, film, photography, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, philosophy, and private letters, he places these multifaceted visions of totalitarian terror in balanced counterpoint with one another. The wide scope of totalitarianism and the literary imagination as organizing categories for his book gives Rasberry the latitude to zoom in on historical details at the most local levels and to draw generative connections between them across the wide sweep of history. There is subtlety and power, for instance, in the way Rasberry links a poem by Du Bois about the Suez Canal with Wright’s description of clogged sewage canals in Jakarta to draw out the connections between race, self-determination, and modern infrastructure.
Rasberry’s book is split in two parts. The first half thematically explores literary representations of black soldiers, antitotalitarian writing from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright, and newspaper coverage of decolonization and the Suez Crisis in 1956. The second traces three intellectual biographies — of Du Bois, then Shirley Graham, then Wright — to explore at a micro level how individual writers experienced, wrote against, and reimagined the historical forces reconstructed in the first half of the book.
Part I, eponymously titled “Race and the Totalitarian Century,” begins with a comprehensive look at the literary and artistic representation of black soldiers in World War I, World War II, the postwar occupations of Germany and Japan, and the Korean War. Before 1945, the figure of the black soldier stood for the dual fight against totalitarianism in Europe and Jim Crow in the United States, as in Ollie Harrington’s political cartoon “War Aims,” in which a skeletal black soldier with a rifle demands freedom for “ravished Europe” but also the “oppressed colored people of Africa.” After World War II, though, Rasberry argues, the role of black soldiers in the occupation of the vanquished Axis nations made them ambivalent figures of both freedom and American military domination, as in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 film The Marriage of Maria Braun, about a German woman and her black American GI lover whom she eventually murders. “[T]he symbolism of the Negro soldier,” Rasberry writes, “illuminates three possible futures — global totalitarian rule, continued racial oppression, and democracy beyond the color line.” These three possibilities frame Rasberry’s narrative across the rest of the book, as the writers he examines explore each potential future.
In the second chapter of Part I, Rasberry shows how black writers in the 1950s manipulated the rhetoric of the emerging Third World Non-Aligned Movement to critique American and Soviet power alike. The Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, for example, declared in 1957 that every colonialist nation “carries the seeds of fascist temptation in its bosom,” and that “even democratic regimes” take on a “totalitarian aspect” in their colonies. Rasberry links this midcentury antiracist and anticolonial critique to a major vein of African-American literary history, stretching from Douglass to Wright, that portrays slavery and Jim Crow as totalitarian systems meant to control black people’s every word and action. In both Douglass’s Narrative and Wright’s Black Boy, white surveillance forces black characters to speak and affirm lies about the benevolence of slavery and segregation. In this way, the totalitarian system of racial domination in the United States produces its own truths. Fake news is nothing new.
The final chapter of Part I reconstructs African-American newspaper debates about the Suez Crisis, in which Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser seized the Suez Canal and in turn faced an invasion by Britain, France, and Israel. The Suez Crisis occurred at the same time as the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, which put immense pressure on African-American critics of Western neocolonialism who could not easily embrace Russia as an anticolonial champion of the wretched of the earth. Thus, while Du Bois praised “Young Egypt” for defying the colonial powers and extolled the Soviets who “in blood and tears / Have made their socialism strong,” Frantz Fanon praised the Soviets for offering military support to Egypt but also criticized the violent “repression” in Budapest. Fanon and others maintained a carefully balanced stance of nonalignment with the Soviet or American spheres.
In contrast to the book’s first half, which gathers up widespread public discourses about race and totalitarianism, Part II, called “How to Build Socialist Modernity in the Third World,” dives deep into the lives and the sometimes “obscure or buried” works of Du Bois, Graham, and Wright. Rasberry follows these seminal writers as they negotiated their own alternative positions to Cold War polarization through their international travels and their engagements with Third World intellectuals like Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nasser. A particularly fascinating story concerns Graham’s work with Ghana Television. In 1960, Graham became Ghana’s first director of television, working directly under President Nkrumah. She was tasked with building an entire mass media infrastructure in the largely non-industrialized nation. The goal was to broadcast Africa-centered programming, which would be viewed by large groups at community television watching stations across rural Ghana in order to consolidate national identity. Graham traveled to Japan to learn about electronics at the Sanyo company, and wrote that, if television could be used “as an aid to Ghana’s rapidly expanding educational system,” it could provide Ghanaians with the “essentials for exercising citizenship and assuming responsibilities as free men and women.” One hundred Sanyo 12-inch portable television sets were dispatched to Ghana, and Graham worked tirelessly at building Ghana TV, but the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966 left these ambitions unfulfilled. Graham’s efforts to construct a Third World socialism through television infrastructure illuminate the technological, economic, and geopolitical opportunities and challenges of building a postcolonial modernity.
Taken together, Rasberry’s biographical portraits of Du Bois, Graham, and Wright track a series of intense but varied attempts to build such modern industrial, educational, and political structures in newly postcolonial nations, with an eye toward a socialist future of economic security for all. Graham sought to use mass media to bring that future into being. Wright, in contrast, advocated militarization. He thought African populations had to be mobilized to build modern infrastructure and industry before they could be recaptured by the Cold War superpowers. “You must be hard!” Wright wrote in an open letter to Nkrumah. “Our people must be made to walk, forced draft, into the twentieth century.” Under threat of invasion by the United States or the USSR, as well as the constant looming specter of nuclear war, their visions of a socialist future range from the utopian to the militaristic to the bitter and nearly nihilistic. Du Bois and Graham, Rasberry writes, “remain ebullient, wily, and constructive,” while Wright balances “solidarity with pessimism and ambivalence in equal measure.”
Race and the Totalitarian Century paints a nuanced, sympathetic, but not uncritical picture of this rich midcentury African-American and Third World literary tradition. Rasberry teases out writers’ complicated political views with clarity and verve, taking care to examine the contradictions and dangers of those views just as much as their promise. In doing so, he reconstructs a vital set of ideas and debates to fill in an important piece of the puzzle of 20th-century American thought. Above all, he offers a provocative account of the political and imaginative value of literature as a way to envision alternative futures in a nation both entangled in global conflict and roiled by domestic protests against racial violence.
Race and the Totalitarian Century is part of a significant trend in African-American Studies and 20th-century literary criticism over the last 10 to 20 years toward a focus not on periods of modernism and postmodernism separated by World War II but rather a coherent midcentury period reaching from the 1920s or ’30s to the 1960s or ’70s. This trend includes important studies by Penny Von Eschen, Lawrence Jackson, Eric Porter, Nikhil Singh, and Kate Baldwin, as well as the recent articulation of a distinct midcentury phase of American literature by Mark Greif. This new focus on the middle of the 20th century shifts the framework for literary studies from a previously dominant sociological approach attuned to American institutions toward a more geopolitical approach (to borrow a term from Rasberry’s subtitle) that tracks how the intertwining of domestic and international political contention shapes and is shaped by cultural production. In such a geopolitical orientation, culture looks importantly continuous, if continuously changing, from the rise of total war in 1914 through our various globalized problems today. With climate change and the ongoing War on Terror occupying central positions in both public debates and academic research, this geopolitical framework seems here to stay.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm always spoke of a “short 20th century,” a 75-year phase of history from World War I to the fall of the Berlin Wall defined by total war and totalitarianism. The slew of commentators on the threat of fascism in the United States today seem to want to extend that 20th-century period of history to encompass the first decades of the 21st century too. With all his talk of a nuclear arms race and a world war on Islam, Donald Trump apparently agrees. Race and the Totalitarian Century is such an important book because it adds crucial dimensions to our picture of that midcentury period that feels eerily relevant today. Throughout the presidential election and in its wake, critics and historians have felt increasingly moved to evaluate the totalitarian tenor of our times. Robert Paxton, for example, describes Donald Trump’s campaign tactics as “directly out of a fascist’s recipe book,” while Alex Ross opines that the Frankfurt School philosophers saw shadows of American fascism in 1950s repression and that their fears have finally materialized in Trump. What’s missing from this conversation, which draws heavily on the ideas of European émigrés like Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno, is the vibrant homegrown critique of totalitarianism that emerged in midcentury African-American literary and print culture, from Du Bois to Langston Hughes to Ann Petry to Gwendolyn Brooks. These writers’ unique perspectives on racial domination and totalitarian rule deserve to play a central role in our political thinking today, in both the academic and the public spheres. With Race and the Totalitarian Century, Rasberry brings their voices to the fore. We would do well to listen.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Roger Berkowitz reviews Hannah Arendt’s landmark “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” framing the book within the context of contemporary politics.
Brooks E. Hefner on "The Black Stockings," William Thomas Smith's 1937 serial aimed at working- and middle-class African-American readers.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!