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Unbecoming Americans

Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960

Joseph Keith

Publication Year: 2013

During the Cold War, Ellis Island no longer served as the largest port of entry for immigrants, but as a prison for holding aliens the state wished to deport. The government criminalized those it considered un-assimilable (from left-wing intellectuals and black radicals to racialized migrant laborers) through the denial, annulment, and curtailment of citizenship and its rights. The island, ceasing to represent the iconic ideal of immigrant America, came to symbolize its very limits.

Unbecoming Americans sets out to recover the shadow narratives of un-American writers forged out of the racial and political limits of citizenship. In this collection of Afro-Caribbean, Filipino, and African American writers—C.L.R. James, Carlos Bulosan, Claudia Jones, and Richard Wright—Joseph Keith examines how they used their exclusion from the nation, a condition he terms “alienage,” as a standpoint from which to imagine alternative global solidarities and to interrogate the contradictions of the United States as a country, a republic, and an empire at the dawn of the "American Century.”

Building on scholarship linking the forms of the novel to those of the nation, the book explores how these writers employed alternative aesthetic forms, including memoir, cultural criticism, and travel narrative, to contest prevailing notions of race, nation, and citizenship. Ultimately they produced a vital counter-discourse of freedom in opposition to the new formations of empire emerging in the years after World War II, forms that continue to shape our world today.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: The American Literatures Initiative

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

It is a pleasure to write these acknowledgments, not only because they mark the end of a longer than expected road that this book took me down, but also to recognize the many friends, colleagues, and mentors without whose support and guidance it would have never been possible. ...

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Introduction: Shadow Narratives of the Transnational

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pp. 1-24

On November 12, 1950, the New York Times ran a lengthy exposé by the journalist A. H. Raskin on what the article’s title deemed the “New Role for Ellis Island.” At the top of the page there is a large black-and-white photograph, shot from behind, of a person sitting in deep shadow staring out through a gated window toward the Statue of Liberty, ...

Part I: Novel Forms: Writing at the Limits of Citizenship

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1. Neither Citizen nor Alien: Rewriting the Immigrant Bildungsroman across the Borders of Empire in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart

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pp. 27-65

Early on in Carlos Bulosan’s novel America Is in the Heart (1946), the young protagonist, Carlos, is forced to leave home due to the loss of his family’s rural farm in the Philippines and find work in the commercial town of Baguio doing odd chores to survive. ...

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2. The Epistemology of Unbelonging: Richard Wright’s The Outsider and the Politics of Secrecy

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pp. 66-104

Feeling unsettled and more than a little homesick, especially given the struggles and deprivations of France in the aftermath of World War II, Richard Wright and his family returned to the United States at the start of 1947 after having lived in Paris for the previous eight months. ...

Part II: Peripheral Forms: Literatures of Alienage, Incarceration, and Deportation

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3. Richard Wright’s Cosmopolitan Exile: Race, Decolonization, and the Dialogics of Modernity

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pp. 107-130

Near the end of his lengthy confrontation with a Communist Party leader at the end of The Outsider’s fourth book, the main character, Cross Damon, finally expresses what he understands to be the true underlying historical conflicts of the age. ...

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4. The Undesirable Alien and the Politics of Form: Telling Untold Tales in C. L. R. James’s Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways

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pp. 131-162

Buried beneath The Outsider’s main story of the existential antihero Cross Damon is another tragic tale that Richard Wright’s novel tells. It is the story of Bob Hunter, a minor character whose eventual fate reflects not only the broadly repressive political climate of the period but also curiously echoes a much more specific historical episode from the time of the novel’s writing. ...

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5. Talking Back to the State: Claudia Jones’s Radical Forms of Alienage

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pp. 163-196

C. L. R. James was not the only Trinidad-born black radical housed in what became informally termed the “McCarran wing” of Ellis Island. Two separate times the writer, journalist, and communist activist Claudia Jones was imprisoned there—first briefly in 1948 by warrant for deportation under the 1918 Immigration Act, ...

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Conclusion: An Empire of Alienage

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pp. 197-204

On the eve of Claudia Jones’s deportation from the United States, on December 7, 1955, a banquet was held in her honor at the Skyline Ballroom in Harlem. Speaking at the occasion, William Patterson, a leader of the CPUSA and secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, envisaged how Jones’s deportation would lead not to her silence ...


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pp. 205-228


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pp. 229-239

About the Author

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pp. 254-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780813559681
E-ISBN-10: 0813559685
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813559667
Print-ISBN-10: 0813559677

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The American Literatures Initiative
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OCLC Number: 852896329
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Unbecoming Americans

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- Minority authors -- History and criticism.
  • Immigrants' writings, American -- History and criticism
  • Citizenship in literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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