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Honor Bound

Race and Shame in America

David Leverenz

Publication Year: 2012

As Bill Clinton said in his second inaugural address, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse.” In Honor Bound, David Leverenz explores the past to the present of that divide. He argues that in the United States, the rise and decline of white people’s racial shaming reflect the rise and decline of white honor. “White skin” and “black skin” are fictions of honor and shame. Americans have lived those fictions for over four hundred years.To make his argument, Leverenz casts an unusually wide net, from ancient and modern cultures of honor to social, political, and military history to American literature and popular culture.He highlights the convergence of whiteness and honor in the United States from the antebellum period to the present. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama represent racial progress; the Tea Party movement represents the latest recoil.From exploring African American narratives to examining a 2009 episode of Hardball—in which two white commentators restore their honor by mocking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after he called Americans “cowards” for not talking more about race—Leverenz illustrates how white honor has prompted racial shaming and humiliation. The United States became a nation-state in which light-skinned people declared themselves white. The fear masked by white honor surfaces in such classics of American literature as The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in the U.S. wars against the Barbary pirates from 1783 to 1815 and the Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to the present. John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers is used to frame the 2008 presidential campaign as white honor’s last national stand.Honor Bound concludes by probing the endless attempts in 2009 and 2010 to preserve white honor through racial shaming, from the “birthers” and Tea Party protests to Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” in Congress and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the front door of his own home. Leverenz is optimistic that, in the twenty-first century, racial shaming is itself becoming shameful.

Published by: Rutgers University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Among the many people whose conversations and e-mails have provoked fresh research and rethinking during the last eight years, I’m particularly indebted to Joanne Braxton, Bill Hardwig, Jonathan Holloway, Evelin Lindner...

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pp. 1-7

In 1959 Bo Diddley experienced what he later recalled as the most humiliating moment of his life. When he and his band were playing in Las Vegas at the Showboat Casino, one afternoon they jumped into the hotel’s swimming pool...

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1. Fear, Honor, and Racial Shaming

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pp. 8-29

Racial shaming affirms the coherence of a dominant racial group. When that fails, the next step is to terrorize. Then come brutality and murder, and finally ethnic “cleansing,” a word that exposes the group’s preoccupations...

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2. How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

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pp. 30-57

A year after Bo Diddley jumped into the Las Vegas swimming pool and faced a sign declaring “Contaminated Water” and days after the 1960 presidential election, John Lewis and two black companions went into a Nashville fast-food...

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3. Honor Bound

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pp. 58-84

“Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away, or as each individual may determine.” That declaration was Point Twelve of a 33-point agenda drafted...

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4. Four Novels

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pp. 85-108

In the last chapter, I sketched the expansion of the honor code from protecting a small group’s survival to protecting a very large group’s racial supremacy. Racial shaming not only separated insiders from outsiders but also helped...

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5. Two Wars

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pp. 109-141

Growing insecurity about white cohesiveness wasn’t restricted to canonized novels. American foreign policy reveals similar tensions. Racial shaming has played a key role in gaining support for wars, though the targets have shifted...

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6. The 2008 Campaign

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pp. 142-166

Near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, a young white woman working for John McCain in western Pennsylvania appeared with a backward B carved on her cheek. Ashley Todd said she had been sexually assaulted and mutilated...

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7. To the Tea Party - and Beyond?

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pp. 167-184

Racial shaming has by no means disappeared in the United States. It focuses on Muslims and Mexican immigrants or pours into the ceaseless cascade of films about aliens. Some argue that it has shifted from race to class. New modes...


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pp. 185-260


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pp. 261-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780813553313
E-ISBN-10: 0813553318
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813552699
Print-ISBN-10: 0813552699

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 781542951
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Honor Bound

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Race relations -- History.
  • Honor -- United States.
  • Social values -- United States.
  • Race relations in literature.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Shame -- United States.
  • Racism -- United States -- History.
  • National characteristics, American -- History.
  • Political culture -- United States -- History.
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