The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review Essay | Race in the Space Between

Justin Smith
The Pennsylvania State University

Books Reviewed

Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism. By Ben Conisbee Baer. Columbia University Press, 2019. 384 pp. $75.00 (hardcover); $64.99 (ebook).

From the Banana Zones to the Big Easy: West Indian and Central American Immigration to New Orleans, 1910–1940. By Glenn A. Chambers. Louisiana State University Press, 2019. 200 pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California. By Elizabeth E. Sine. Duke University Press, 2021. 320 pp. $104.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper).

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. [. . .] It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East.”—Donald J. Trump, 2015

The long history of white supremacy and its manifestations in the present day require open, rigorous, and critical discussion. In the United States, keeping attention on these issues is as important as ever amid the myriad efforts from states to ban what certain members of their respective legislatures are calling “critical race theory”; it goes almost without saying that what they are actually attempting to ban is any teaching about racism, which is different than critical race theory properly understood. According to Education Week, as of writing, fourteen states have already restricted teaching about race and fifteen other states are experiencing ongoing attempts to do the same. These attempts, however, are steeped in irony. In 2020, Donald Trump’s administration released a memo condemning critical race theory and, shortly after, then-President Trump issued the executive order from which many states have cribbed language for these proposed bans. One section of the executive order prohibits teaching that “an individual's moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race.” Yet, while one would be hard-pressed to find a legitimate work of critical race theory that made any such claim, one often finds Trump doing so, as he indeed did when he announced his Presidential run with the infamous words quoted in this essay’s epigraph. The reference to Mexican people is among the most inflammatory of the speech, although this remark should overshadow neither the linking of all Latin and Middle Eastern people nor the generalized racial antagonism that textures the speech. Even before advocating a belligerent posture towards immigrants from South and Latin America and “probably” from the Middle East, the future President Trump speaks of “beating” China and Japan in trade deals and “beating” Mexico at the border. The speech bounces among China, Mexico, and the Middle East in a mélange of racist rhetoric; to Trump, people from these countries are “not the right people” to enter America. The idea that Trump’s words constitute anything other than a condemnation of “moral character” based on race is, of course, preposterous.

I place Trump’s speech beside the attempts to ban critical race theory both to demonstrate the racism that undergirds these supposed attempts to ban talking about race and to demonstrate white supremacy’s generalized antagonism of people of color worldwide. White supremacist rhetoric is not selective but instead moves effortlessly between narrow targets and sweeping attacks on people of color as a collective. In his speech, Trump does not even mention Africa or African diasporic populations, despite the Black Lives Matter movement and the conservative backlash it propelled largely framing Trump’s implementation of anti-critical race theory policy in 2020.

The books reviewed in this essay chronicle the histories that elicit these white supremacist rhetorics and demonstrate how marginalized groups have comprehended and resisted these maneuvers to eradicate multiracial resistances. Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism by Ben Conisbee Baer reframes the work of Alain Locke, Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, D.H. Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi through the lens of educational theory. From the Banana Zones to the Big Easy: West Indian and Central American Immigration to New Orleans, 1910-1940 by Glenn A. Chambers documents the history of Latin and Central American migrants entering the United States through New Orleans as a case study for the formation of immigrant communities in the context of Jim Crow. Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California by Elizabeth E. Sine recovers 1930s California as a place of multiracial coalitional efforts that influenced art, labor, and elections. Together, these three recent books offer insight into the history of the interconnected struggles of people of color.

Baer’s Indigenous Vanguards recontextualizes how indigeneity is thought, or not thought, in educational systems. Baer characterizes the first half of the twentieth century as one in which “the expansion of common schooling” is entangled with the “unprecedented emergence of new anticolonial movements in Africa, Asia, and the Americas” (2). As the title suggests, Baer is interested in these anticolonial movements less from the perspective of the masses and more from that of individual “vanguard” artists and thinkers whom Baer considers responsible for molding the masses into active agents in the formation of nonimperial worlds. Partially, this focus extends Baer’s argument that art is a form of education because “the dream or desire of the literary work is to train, instruct, or educate its reader in a singular curriculum of previously unthought-of competencies” (43). As a result, Baer examines singular artists as quasi-teachers rather than the would-be students who potentially consume their work. The chapters reflect the discrete nature of the singular artists and, outside of the consecutive chapters on Négritude, the sequencing of the monograph is secondary to the content of the individual chapters. Additionally, though each chapter revolves around the notion of education as a pharmakon—simultaneously a poison and cure—the complexity of each chapter’s theoretical considerations defies easy summary. The first half of the book focuses on Black writers, and the second half turns to a white writer and several Indian writers, a division that could lend itself to comparative race studies, although Baer does not opt to engage with this lens.

Baer’s central argument that education is a pharmakon informs the discussion in each chapter. In the first chapter, focusing on Alain Locke’s The New Negro, Baer shows how Locke portrays himself as a vanguard of the New Negro movement in a way that grants African Americans what Locke sees as cultural maturity while simultaneously and as a result positioning Africa and indigenous Africans as confined to the past. The New Negro exhibits this tension in that it both attempts to let contributors serve as teachers to the readers and displays Locke’s compulsion to serve as the ultimate pedagogue. Locke, Baer notes, subtly edits contributors’ meanings at key moments to control the definition of the New Negro. The next two chapters, both considering Négritude, feature Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Baer examines formal education in both these sections, with Senghor reimagining key aspects of education in the French West Indies by promoting the value of students learning about their African heritage and intra-Caribbean connections rather than thinking of themselves solely in the context of French history and culture. Baer praises Senghor for thinking beyond the metropole while acknowledging that Senghor is “overly idealistic” in doing so and fails to fully abandon orientalist tropes about the colony (138). Baer does not fully indict Senghor’s ideas but instead frames them historically as cutting-edge and therefore finding the limits of the environment (Baer acknowledges that Senghor himself later critiqued his early trust in rural schooling). The existing school system may not have been capable of carrying out Senghor’s vision, but the vision itself, if imperfect, remained relevant. In the next chapter, Baer reads Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal next to actual French schoolbooks (cahiers) used in Caribbean classrooms. Césaire critiques the more traditional cahiers by transforming his text into an indigenous commentary on the ideas of “native land, land of birth, pays natal” (180, emphasis original). This chapter does not so much critique Césaire as question how Césaire imagined the vanguard functioning within decolonization. Baer accomplishes this goal using Frantz Fanon’s revision of Césaire’s idea of a “transitionless transition” out of colonization as a counterpoint: Césaire compares decolonization to “ripping out the roots” of a plant; Fanon reframes this idea as a “mirage of…immediacy” and doubts the primacy of art in fostering this process (154).

The penultimate chapter, the first that departs from African and African diasporic contexts, turns to D.H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent as an attempt to grapple with what Baer calls the “double bind of the indigenous vanguard” in the context of the Mexican Revolution (242). Although Lawrence is not indigenous, Baer litigates Lawrence’s appropriation of indigenous Mexicans as mouthpieces in this novel, which follows the character Kate Leslie as she visits from Ireland and becomes entangled in Mexican religion and politics. Baer sees Lawrence as advocating the need for a vanguard to organize the masses while also cautioning against the vanguard’s complete erasure of the masses’ political impulses. Lawrence, Baer argues, opts for a “cautionary, counterfactual fantasia” in Serpent that prevents readers (presumably unfamiliar with the details of the Mexican revolution) from learning any actual lessons (238). Baer praises the book for its willingness to examine “the double bind,” but he sees it as a limit case for modernism and scholarly attempts to read modernism in global contexts. Baer argues that even as modernism’s “diversities of place” expand, its “class-specific perception and structure of feeling” do not (44). The Plumed Serpent illustrates the limited perspective of modernist texts even when the authors attempt to expand their range.

In contrast, the final chapter takes up education in India through the writing of people indigenous to the country. This chapter moves across several perspectives on colonial education with a focus on the well-known figures of Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. Tagore speaks to what is lost when education occurs “through the alien medium of English” (273), but Baer suggests he is also “too idealistic” about precolonial education (275). Similarly, Gandhi’s use of the general strike could invoke “the ‘myth’ of an apocalyptic or catastrophic end to the present order” (248), but his “express instructions [. . .] were often propagated in an attempt to quell or control peasant movements” (260). Baer explores these tensions in three modern Bengali novels, Ghare Baire, Jagori, and Hansuli Turn.1

The idea of education unifies Indigenous Vanguards, but the book’s focus on indigeneity seems to call for more explicit coverage of indigenous residential schools in the Americas than a brief reference to “the role of missionaries and religious reformers in modernizing and spreading educational structures in colonies” (23). This historical injustice would seem to epitomize Baer’s argument about education as poison and cure: even when educators (erroneously) believe themselves to have good intentions, they can cause irreparable damage due to a disregard for indigenous histories and epistemologies. However, Baer is still thorough in drawing on a wide range of philosophical thought to challenge readers to think critically about both indigeneity (real and imagined) as well as the range of what education has been and can be.

Glenn A. Chambers, in From the Banana Zones to the Big Easy, takes a contrasting approach to Baer’s in Indigenous Vanguards. By focusing on mostly anonymous migrants travelling between the U.S. and West Indies or Central America rather than more well-known vanguard figures, Chambers seeks to capture lived experience above theory-based knowledges. One of Chambers’s central interests is the structural and individual impacts of Jim Crow’s rigidity on immigrants from countries with a radically different understanding of racial categorization. To uncover lived experiences under those conditions, Chambers draws on government records to create a community-level study that grounds individual biographical studies by earlier scholars in a broader context. Additionally, Chambers uses comparative racialization to demonstrate how the interactions and perceptions of multiple groups inform and co-constitute contemporary racial formation.

The first chapter focuses on life in Latin America and the Caribbean as it shapes patterns of immigration into New Orleans as well as the cultural and economic relationships between these regions. Chambers uses this chapter to explore how immigrants’ points of origin mattered to their settlement patterns. For example, Chambers notes that “higher-class immigrants maintained their privileged status while on board ships and with immigration authorities” (26). The second chapter focuses on immigrants from Honduras (including those who had already migrated from other parts of the West Indies to work in Honduras). Here, Chambers explains the racist pressures that forced many West Indians out of their home countries and details how immigrants from Honduras had to shift from thinking about their identity in terms of class or ethnicity to thinking about it in terms of race due to the decisions of U.S. immigration authorities and the rigid Black-white binary of America. In the third chapter, Chambers switches focus from immigration and its immediate aftermath to life in the U.S. To begin this portion of the book, Chambers analyzes citizenship, employment, and marriage records to explain how “arbitrary” decisions around racial classification led to radically different outcomes in the everyday lives of individual Central American immigrants (72). Chapter four moves from the individual to the community, tracking how New Orleans communities formed, and re-formed, based on arbitrary racial decisions. For example, Chambers qualifies New Orleans’s status as a “heterogenous city” with racial mixing and a hybrid culture (119) by charting how many West Indians and Central American immigrants, because of their racialization upon immigration, wound up living in predominantly Black areas of the city, which “further racialized them as black” (112). The fifth chapter contrasts the experiences of Latin American immigrants with their West Indian and Central American counterparts: “these new immigrants were lighter, whiter, and better connected both economically and politically, both in their home countries and in New Orleans, which enhanced their profile in the city” (128). Although Latin Americans’ whiteness was always contingent on the spaces they occupied and their proximity to other racial groups, “These social advantages facilitated their transition to whiteness upon their arrival” (128). Chambers concludes with an epilogue that traces this history into the present and suggests that urban documentary history can serve as a model for other scholars to explore immigration without collapsing the experience of individuals into the experience of the entire group.

From the Banana Zones to the Big Easy demonstrates a remarkable ability to take something that might at first seem rather narrow in scope—the immigration of two specific groups, West Indians and Central Americans, to a specific city, New Orleans, within a specific set of years, 1910-1940—and makes it broadly applicable to those interested in racial formation and challenging the Black-white binary. From the Banana Zones is commendable for its compelling argument about the enduring consequences of capricious racial decisions (including denial of entry) that individual actors within a larger structure of white supremacy made at the point of immigration. The book also lays bare the intersection of race and capitalism, whether that is the role of the banana industry in importing certain types of workers regardless of the feelings of the local population, the correlation between the accumulation of capital and the accumulation of whiteness, or a National Maritime Union report that found that certain shipping companies “chose to go out of business rather than integrate” (88). If there is one mild critique to make of the book, it is that Chambers sometimes opts for less radical critiques of anti-Blackness than are otherwise available. For example, Chambers refutes the criminalization of West Indians in Honduras not by pointing to literature on the social construction of crime or the over-policing of Black people, but only by citing statistics to suggest that, during the period under consideration, “West Indians were no longer a noteworthy criminal element” (66). Still, such critiques are minor compared to the overall contributions of the book to thinking about the complex history of race.

Elizabeth E. Sine’s Rebel Imaginaries probes similar themes of comparative racialization and the intersections of race and capitalism in a study of the radical potential of multiracial coalition in early twentieth-century California. Sine frames the Great Depression as a moment of the intensification of capitalism's failures and suggests Californians, a particularly diverse population during this time, considered their sense of self “less around national, ethnic, or racial affiliations than around a sense of their relationship to broader, global circulations of grassroots struggle” (2).

Sine divides the book into three parts, each consisting of two chapters: part one focuses on multiracial labor unions, part two on electoral politics, and part three on surrealist art. The first chapter analyzes a farmworkers’ strike that defied the normal attempts to divide workers along lines of race. Sine observes how this solidarity begins among Mexican and Filipinx workers and eventually spreads “to include Chinese, Japanese, Punjabi, African American, and White workers as well” (26). The next chapter analyzes how racial capitalism shaped the demographics of San Francisco in the leadup to the Big Strike of 1934 and how workers managed to connect their class struggles across racial and ethnic lines. Chapter three chronicles conflicts between labor activists and politicians by examining the stakes of deportation and repatriation as tools of racial capitalism’s regime of exploitation. Through this analysis, Sine demonstrates that many immigrants did not fear returning to their home countries as much as American employers and politicians imagined. Simultaneously, deportation could still represent a serious form of state violence. Sine explores the realities of deportation in terms of how many U.S. residents necessarily decentered “a politics that privileged citizenship” to achieve their economic goals (97). Beyond the political implications of citizenship or the lack thereof, Sine also conveys the very real lived experience of the deportation process and connects these histories to state-sanctioned practices that continue today, including “separation from family” (94) and calls for “‘voluntary’ departure” from American authorities (89). Chapter four examines the impact of these and other racialized discourses on the gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. While Sinclair challenged the economic policies of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program from the left, his views on racial justice issues prevented him from creating the strongest multiracial coalition possible. Chapter five commences the final part of the book, shifting from the more traditionally political stakes of the first two parts to argue—through examinations of mural work, theater, and jazz—for the stakes of the cultural sphere and its ability to produce grassroots resistance. Sine demonstrates how various artists, such as painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, members of the Hawthorne House community center, and jazz trumpeter Clora Bryant, deployed race to disrupt the white supremacist, racial capitalist myth of Los Angeles as a homogenously white city. Chapter six looks at jazz in the indigenous community of Round Valley. Sine explores the forces that shaped the demographics of Round Valley and shows how the local population used music to resist attempts to suppress their culture and to exploit their labor. In the conclusion, Sine argues that although the radical efforts highlighted in the monograph did not achieve all their goals, they did plant the seeds for continuing radicalism during the Civil Rights Era and beyond.

Rebel Imaginaries impressively blends historical rigor with applicability to the world today. It takes little imagination, for example, to see the parallels between the attacks on Upton Sinclair as “a Communist,” whose leadership would cause “the downfall of Christian morality, the erosion of the sanctity of marriage and the opening of California to a torrent of unwanted immigrants” (123) with attacks on leftist politicians nearly a century later. The book exemplifies the potential of comparative race work, moving deftly among the concerns and actions of several communities while outlining the connections that allowed actual people to build multiracial coalitions. At a time when focus on anti-Blackness risks overshadowing the full scope of white supremacy and modes of resistance to it, this book provides a needful intervention.

Indigenous Vanguards, From the Banana Zones to the Big Easy, and Rebel Imaginaries work together in tracing ideas of race from imagination, to formation, to solidarity. As people continue working to make white supremacy’s manifestations visible to those who otherwise might resist seeing them, these texts describe the longer histories of contemporary racial violence to demonstrate how we got where we are and offer some models for resistance. Beyond that, these books demonstrate that dismantling white supremacy depends not on appeals to any single axis of oppression, nor claiming that racism is something that exists only in the past, but instead on using race to rethink our identities and our relationships to each other in our current moment.

It is no coincidence that as the 2021 Space Between Conference attempted to do such rethinking, it was necessary to do so virtually. The COVID-19 pandemic and the renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement following high-profile killings of several African Americans—including Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery—compelled the conference theme and format both practically and ethically, although the postponement of the conference perhaps made the theme appear even more timely. At the same time people were paying increased attention to public health and Black Lives Matter, there were still several other events occurring: state sanctioned violence at the Southern border of the United States; the uncovering of the bones of indigenous children on the grounds of Canadian boarding schools; and acts of anti-Asian violence due to misplaced anger at the COVID-19 pandemic. The orientalist-inflected early media coverage that abetted the pandemic’s outbreak and the societal inequalities that facilitated its global spread mean that the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in racism. The policies of quarantine, distancing, and isolation meant that more people than ever had no choice but to pay attention to the spectacularized evidence of white supremacy plastering the screens on their phones, computers, and televisions. And so, staring into cameras embedded in our laptops, Space Between conference participants talked about race.

I sometimes wonder whether the spread of COVID-19 would have been different had the President and media referred to the virus as COVID-19 rather than “The Chinese Virus.” Donald J. Trump held on to his usage longer than most, but outlets including CNN, NPR, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and many more all casually referred to COVID-19 as either the “Wuhan virus” or “Wuhan coronavirus” before eventually reversing course.2 My own understanding of the pandemic was shaped by early coverage that often made it difficult to separate fact from orientalist stereotype, and I wonder how much resistance to taking the pandemic seriously now can be traced back to that rhetoric. As this pandemic exacerbated existing divisions in society and continues to leave Black and Latinx communities under-vaccinated and thus overrepresented in case and death totals (Ndugga et al.), early racist coverage of the pandemic is now a racial justice issue not only for Asian and Asian diasporic communities but also for all marginalized people who have been disproportionately affected. As these three books have demonstrated, however, critiquing the immediate past is insufficient when the racist underpinnings of this issue go back much further. Moreover, these monographs show that violence against groups often siloed in scholarship (indigenous people, Black Americans, diasporic populations, and immigrants) is connected in lived experience through the fantasy of a capitalist white ethno-state, developed and sustained systemically. Understanding these connections is vital to building the multiracial coalitions that may prove the best hope of finally undoing these systems.

1 Baer published a translation of Hansuli Turn with Columbia University Press (2011).
2 See Griffiths and Gan; Harris and Renken; Steenhuysen and Kelland; McKay and Deng; Gale.

Works Cited

Gale, Jason. “10-Year-Old Boy Raises Fears Wuhan Virus Could Spread Undetected.” Bloomberg, 29 Jan. 2020.

Griffiths, James, and Nectar Gan. “China confirms Wuhan Virus Can Be Spread by Humans.” CNN, 22 Jan. 2020.

Harris, Richard, and Elena Renken. “Your Questions About Wuhan Coronavirus, Answered.” NPR, 30 Jan. 2020.

“Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack.” Education Week, 11 June 2021. Retrieved Sept. 30, 2021.

McKay, Betsy, and Chao Deng. “First U.S. Case Reported of Deadly Wuhan Virus.” The Wall Street Journal, 22 Jan. 2020.

Ndugga, Nambi, et al. “Latest Data on COVID-19 Vaccinations by Race/Ethnicity.” Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 Sept. 2021.

Steenhuysen, Julie, and Kate Kelland. “With Wuhan Virus Genetic Code in Hand, Scientists Begin Work on a Vaccine.” Reuters, 24 Jan. 2020.

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