restricted access Black Fascisms: African American Literature and Culture between the Wars (review)
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Reviewed by
Mark Christian Thompson. Black Fascisms: African American Literature and Culture between the Wars. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2007. x + 232 pp.

This book's intriguing premise—that African American thinkers and writers, despite the fact that their drive for civil and human rights always had dignity as its engine, nevertheless embraced fascist ideals at various moments—is perhaps uneasily approached by readers. We usually allow ourselves a venue no farther than the one that finds these thinkers in their frustrations and thus their dark places; we ordinarily drift toward no more distant sensibility than that which suggests that these black thinkers—socialists, Communists, fellow-travelers—when confronted with racism and lynching, were just plain angry. Outrage had to be the order of every day in the 1920s and 1930s, and contemporary readers are prepared to share that with them. As this author contests, however, whether we prepared to share the outrage or not, these writers had ideations that desired more.

Thompson's list of "black fascists" includes Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright, though at least by the end Wright manages to extricate himself from the list by using philosophy and history to expose fascism's elements in the postwar world via the career of Cross Damon, the protagonist in his 1957 novel The Outsider. With respect to black fascism itself, or even fascism taken more generally, Garvey was always a usual suspect, having taken on, in violent rhetoric, the iconic Haile Selassie even as Mussolini's armies were crossing into Ethopia, and, finally, having had his danse macabre with the Ku Klux Klan. Schuyler's conservatism, even later in life, showed some of the old flashes of the despot-in-waiting in Slaves Today and his later autobiography Black and Conservative. Elsewhere, however, Thompson's text seems hampered by fundamental instabilities. It is hard to see some of the others in quite this vein. Even the fiery McKay—for whom an entire life of racial and class injustice, going back to his days in Jamaica as the observant, reflexive policeman of his book of poetry Constab [End Page 394] Ballad—seemed to be only his portion. Additionally, where black anger over the American occupation of Haiti is concerned, why are James Weldon Johnson's remarks about his writing having triggered the US literary response to it "immodest" (14)? Thompson's omission of Johnson's lengthy four-part series of articles in The Nation in 1920 that caught the attention of at least one US senator, thus marking a stir in Washington, would seem to make easier his notion of a pure intervention of capital that encouraged a blind support of Haiti's authoritarian regime by African Americans.

While Thompson is not saying that black intellectuals of the mid twentieth century became, ideologically and irrevocably, jackbooted minions of the Reich, he also does not quite seem to allow for the varieties and vagaries of thought, regardless of race, that could have contributed to the era's rightist absolutism. At least as much as lynching and everyday anti-black discrimination as engines that drove the frustration of African Americans was the generalized feelIng of dread that defined the Depression. The closer the artist was to labor, its struggles, and its deprivation, the easier it became to embrace ever more violent scenarios through which new histories and new mythologies could be imagined. Thompson seems to recognize this when he writes that he sees fascism as "a psychological event that is symptomatically represented in historical-material reality as well as in fantasy and myth. Behind any fascist pageant and work of art, fantasies and myths of power lurk and inform all of their partial representations" (34). One might want then—since the McKay whose "agenda in the 1930s and 1940s for social transformation is radically different from the one he adopted during the early twenties while actively pursuing (all the way to Moscow) the full measure of Communist ideology and activism" (88)—a fuller accounting of the progression toward the firebrand of middle years who wrote the segregationist Harlem: Negro Metropolis, or its unfinished sequel Harlem Glory, from the ideals he held...


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