American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 311-333
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Before the White Negro:
Sin and Salvation in Kingsblood Royal
In 1947 Sinclair Lewis wrote a now forgotten best-seller that was advertised as "the story of a man who resigned from the white race" (Kingsblood 9). Kingsblood Royal told the story of a white banker who overcomes his Rotarian destiny by embracing the newly discovered 1/32 Negro within him. Long before Noel Ignatiev's "race traitors" and before Norman Mailer hailed Negroness, Lewis found a path out of the soul-killing existence of modern life by repudiating something called whiteness and accepting the sacrifices that entailed. Reading the novel today, one is struck by both its forward-looking critique of white racism and its inability to transcend the phenomenon it purports to critique.
On the one hand, Lewis foresaw much of the recent scholarship on "whiteness" and race. Like George Lipsitz, Lewis catalogued the hidden material privileges that came with being white in America. Like Ignatiev and David Roediger, he portrayed whiteness as a corrupted state of being that could be, and ought to be, overcome. 1 Like recent studies of what is variously labeled racial cross-dressing, reverse passing, or ethnic transvestism, he exposed the fluidity of racial categories and explored the attractions blackness held for white people. 2 Moreover, Kingsblood Royal inverted the common literary equation of blackness with sin and whiteness with salvation. Alone among the myriad tolerance novels of its time, it made whiteness a sin to be overcome and blackness the means to salvation. On the other hand, however, as James Baldwin pointed out, the novel relied on the racial stereotypes and ideologies it sought to expose. It was sentimental and unbelievable.
Rather than merely accept the truism that this novel is both racially progressive and limited by its author's assumptions, this essay will explore why it is necessarily, not coincidentally, both of these things. Kingsblood Royal's radical critique of white racism [End Page 311] was the logical, even predictable, outcome of Lewis's ongoing angst about American culture. Lewis's protagonist rejects his whiteness, suffers, and becomes black not as a rebellious pose, norto affirm whiteness or masculinity, but to redeem the nation. While bold in the 1940s, this narrative of cultural redemption is significant not for its impact on American race relations, which was nil, but rather because it tied an existing critique of American society to notions of whiteness and blackness and sin and salvation in the years following the Second World War.
1. The Historical Context
Kingsblood Royal was just one of the many novels about intolerance and racism that came out after the Second World War. It ran up the New York Times's best-seller list in the fall of 1947 with Laura Z. Hobson's tale of anti-Semitism, Gentleman's Agreement. It was reviewed alongside other tolerance novels of 1947, all but forgotten today, such as Will Thomas's God Is for White Folks, John Hewlett's Wild Grape, and Cid Ricketts Sumner's Quality. 3 The tolerance genre was popular fiction or journalism that depicted the tragedies and irrationality of white racism. Also categorized as "social problem" books, they were often, but not always, written by white people who, like Lillian Smith and Margaret Halsey, brought their experiences as whites to their explorations of racism. 4 These books were generally well received, although they were not seen as great literature. The lessons within them reflected the new thinking about race and racism that had emerged during the war.
The Second World War brought unprecedented attention to the problem of American racism. As Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake observed in Black Metropolis (1945), "The war operated to change the Negro problem, almost overnight, from a chronic social difficulty which the hopeful thought time and education might solve to a crisis in our national life" (760). The war exposed the contradictions of American democracy—namely, the denial of basic citizenship rights to 12 million Americans—just at the moment...