In his work on science and culture in Victorian England, Douglas Lorimer identifies “the dimension of change over time” as among the most difficult aspects of racial thought to grasp.1 This claim rings especially true for the postbellum US where the emerging social sciences rationalized the link between national identity and race just as millions of former slaves gained citizenship. Multi-racial democracy was not easily imagined within the new race historicism. Shaped by evolutionary theory, this method defined history as a predictive record of unequal racial development toward the perfection of values, social systems and attributes closely identified with western European races. Invidious racialism prevailed within postbellum scientific discourses—this much is known. What needs attention is the process through which new ideas of difference and history emerged to challenge scientific racism. Familiar narratives describe a scientific shift from biology to culture and a moral climb from intolerance to acceptance. These descriptions have their uses but can belie more nuanced realities. Associating white supremacy with conservatism, anxiety and sin can conceal race’s postbellum function as a powerful but unwieldy vehicle of desire. While those who promulgated racialized accounts of progress could not fully escape the shadowy threats from below that [End Page 1] such narratives created, evolutionary constructions of human history were not merely defense mechanisms, nor did they simply consolidate self-serving systems of value and authority. Indeed, as I will show, a major postbellum argument for immediate, equitable integration derived from a deeply racialist conception of history.
Toward a less familiar idea of what race meant and to whom, what it could do and how its meaning and power changed over time, this essay examines the multi-disciplinary work of George Washington Cable. The era’s leading white voice for black civil rights, Cable explored the South’s inter-racial realities in history, literature, ethnology and sociology. Because he studied race so intently from so many angles, Cable has often served as a point of entry into postbellum conceptions of difference. Starting with Edmund Wilson, who stressed the enduring timeliness of Cable’s challenge to Jim Crow, twentieth-century critics and historians typically aligned Cable with progressive racial views that resembled their own.2 Critical interest increased markedly during the civil rights movement, and it peaked again with the transnational shift in literary studies. This mini-revival is not surprising, as Cable viewed his native New Orleans not merely as a palimpsest of indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, European and Anglo-American cultures but as a multivalent site of repressive power relations and unique cultural exchanges. Several compelling studies have noted that Cable assembled and dramatized an impressive archive of hemispheric slave insurrections and coerced, voluntary and unconscious cross-cultural intimacy.3 Alongside this non-linear approach to history and culture, however, Cable also practiced race historicism as an analytical method and an end in itself, most notably in his race history, The Creoles of Louisiana (1884). In separate studies, George Handley and Stephanie Foote excavated the evolutionary narrative that runs through Cable’s most acclaimed fiction; this narrative, each points out, placed a racial limit on national citizenship.4
My essay triangulates these approaches to produce new insight into how and why Cable conscripted race’s vast narrative power for his multi-racial vision. Specifically, [End Page 2]
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I am interested in three tensions in Cable’s work: 1) the co-presence of race historicism and a powerful indictment of racism; 2) the co-presence of a great white narrative of civilization and a Christian historicism that explicitly rejects racial classification; and 3) the tendency to shift between uneven ideas of cultural value: one set to western standards—the art of civilization—and the other open to what Laurence Rosenwald terms “the plenitude that the world is full of...