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Reckoning Day

Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America

Jacqueline Foertsch

Publication Year: 2013

Too often lost in our understanding of the American Cold War crisis, with its nuclear brinkmanship and global political chess game, is the simultaneous crisis on the nation's racial front. Reckoning Day is the first book to examine the relationship of African Americans to the atom bomb in postwar America. It tells the wide-ranging story of African Americans' response to the atomic threat in the postwar period. It examines the anti-nuclear writing and activism of major figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lorraine Hansberry as well as the placement (or absence) of black characters in white-authored doomsday fiction and nonfiction. Author Jacqueline Foertsch analyzes the work of African American thinkers, activists, writers, journalists, filmmakers, and musical performers in the "atomic" decades of 1945 to 1965 and beyond. Her book tells the dynamic story of commitment and interdependence, as these major figures spoke with force and eloquence for nuclear disarmament, just as they argued unassailably for racial equality on numerous other occasions.

Foertsch also examines the placement of African American characters in white-authored doomsday novels, science fiction, and survivalist nonfiction such as government-sponsored forecasts regarding post-nuclear survival. In these, black characters are often displaced or absented entirely: in doomsday narratives they are excluded from executive decision-making and the stories' often triumphant conclusions; in the nonfiction, they are rarely envisioned amongst the "typical American" survivors charged with rebuilding US society. Throughout Reckoning Day, issues of placement and positioning provide the conceptual framework: abandoned at "ground zero" (America's inner cities) during the height of the atomic threat, African Americans were figured in white-authored survival fiction as compliant servants aiding white victory over atomic adversity, while as historical figures they were often perceived as "elsewhere" (indifferent) to the atomic threat. In fact, African Americans' "position" on the bomb was rarely one of silence or indifference. Ranging from appreciation to disdain to vigorous opposition, atomic-era African Americans developed diverse and meaningful positions on the bomb and made essential contributions to a remarkably American dialogue.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-5


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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Introduction: Mapping Ground Zero in Postwar America

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pp. 1-30

Since the genre’s inception in August 1945, atomic narrative has located its characters with painstaking precision with respect to the bomb. Most of the footnotes in Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary (1955) record distances from various possible blast sites to the location of wounded friends and narrators; in Hiroshima (1946) John Hersey records the exact yardage between the...

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1. "Extraordinarily Convenient Neighbors": Servant-Savior-Savants in White-Authored Post-Nuclear Novels

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pp. 31-54

In the introduction, I referred to a map positioned at the narrative moment of nuclear impact in Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow!, which itself positioned the “Negro District” at the literal dead center of ground zero. This layout reflects the demographic realities of mid- and large-sized cities in the postwar period—an inner city inhabited mainly by persons of color surrounded by racially...

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2. "Tomorrow's Children": Interracial Conflict and Resolution in Atomic-Era Science Fiction and Afro-Futurism

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pp. 55-100

In a remarkable story called “The Equalizer” (Williamson), published in Astounding Science Fiction in early 1947, a group of space-traveling scientists and military advisors return to Earth when an abrupt halt to communication from the home planet (attributed later to nuclear war) raises concern. The repatriated men land their space craft at “Fort America,” where a president-dictator...

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3. Sidebar: Covering the Bomb in the African American Press

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pp. 101-136

Across the front page of the Chicago Defender, 27 October 1962, James Meredith’s heroic attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi predominates. Though the story had broken weeks earlier, the Defender probed further in this week’s edition, including a recap of Meredith’s first days on campus; a headline on Meredith’s wife, now also to enroll at Ole Miss; and a serene...

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4. Against the "Starless Midnight of Racism and War": African American Intellectuals and the Anti-Nuclear Agenda

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pp. 137-170

Early in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterwork A Raisin in the Sun (1959), an anxious and distracted Walter Younger reads the paper, as per the playwright’s stage directions, “vaguely” and announces to his estranged wife Ruth, “Set off another bomb yesterday” (1.1.6). The average postwar playgoer—and even the skilled contemporary critic (e.g., Matthews 556)—approaching this renowned...

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5. Last Man Standing: Sex and Survival in the Interracial Apocalyptic

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pp. 171-202

“When it comes,” observed Norman Mailer at a climactic moment in his Beat classic “The White Negro” (1957), “miscegenation will be a terror” (292), and he described this terror in suggestively post-nuclear terms. Though Mailer denounces the bomb and the moods of fear and conformity it has instilled, he deploys the atomic metaphor positively through the later...

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Conclusion: "Don't Drop It, Stop It, Bebop It": Some Final Notes on Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America

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pp. 203-212

In January 1951, the Los Angeles R&B artist Frankie Ervin recorded “I’d Rather Live like a Hermit,” in which he informs some “jive cats standing on the corner” that they had “better find some place to hide, / Because when those bombs start falling, / You gonna jump right out o’ your hide.” Ervin’s “Hermit” is one of dozens of atomic-themed novelty songs performed by...


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pp. 213-224

Works Cited

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pp. 225-248


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pp. 249-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780826519283
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826519269
Print-ISBN-10: 0826519261

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 857769856
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reckoning Day

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Atomic bomb -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Antinuclear movement -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • African American political activists -- Biography.
  • African American intellectuals -- Biography.
  • Atomic bomb in literature.
  • Race relations in literature.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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