- On Modernism and Race
A few years ago I had occasion to spend a year in Corvallis, Oregon. Coming from New York and New Haven, I found Corvallis a revelation, seemingly the original clean, well-lighted place. Put one toe off the curb and traffic stops to let you cross. Sit down in a restaurant and your waiter crouches down next to you to ask you where you’re from, how you’re liking Corvallis, and why you’re there. Convenient mart employees are unwaveringly pleasant. Because Corvallis was so generally (even eerily) friendly and well-mannered, the two big controversies in town that year stood out. One, more regional than local, involved the last few months of the campaign over Proposition 9, one of the first of the anti-gay initiatives organized around the deceptive clamor against so-called “special rights.” Corvallis took pride in being one of the many Oregon towns, like Portland and Eugene, to give overwhelming support to equal rights for gays and lesbians, pride in celebrating multiculturalism and cultural difference. The battle over Proposition 9 seemed, if anything, to build solidarity and good feeling in town.
The second controversy, which was much more local, proved far more divisive. That fall the university’s Native American Center had been all but taken over by whites with a passion for native ritual. After months of tension, things came to a head in the fall with protests over the white students and faculty who met at the Native American Center for a weekly afternoon of drumming. They and their supporters felt that if native drumming was of value it should be open to all, regardless of race or cultural background, and that any other position was [End Page 157] racist and exclusionary. Some of the cannier drummers charged their detractors, including Native American ones, with naive essentialism for suggesting that culturally appropriate behavior could be tied to racial identity. On the other hand, those who found the all-white drumming ceremonies embarrassing and outrageous argued that such an appropriation, without the involvement of any Native Americans (who refused to have anything to do with the drumming or, eventually, the Native American Center), was racism born of shameless disrespect. Given how quickly the boiling point is reached when whites accuse one another of racism, this controversy quickly turned ugly.
Two recent studies of modernism and race, Walter Benn Michaels’s Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism and Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, take up debates over multiculturalism and identity politics by tracing, on the one hand, modernism’s investment in identity politics and racialism, and, on the other hand, its profoundly multicultural character, its blending of divergent traditions and practices. Both Michaels and Douglas turn to the twenties because they see that decade as particularly portentous, one that offers especially important lessons about the possbilities for multiculturalism and interracial understanding. Our America, which offers a densely argued case against all forms of identity, will be read closely; Terrible Honesty, which offers a vast array of modern writers, celebrities, artists, events, and structures, will be read widely. Both will be much discussed.
Our America aims to intervene in debates like those of Proposition 9 and Native drumming by providing a rich genealogy of modern notions of identity, beginning with the turn of the century and Progressivism. More than an astute study of American literary modernism’s recourse to the language of race and identity, Our America is a critical account of how identity became the privileged category of citizenship debates and, especially, how our own notions of identity have come to depend on an inextricable and, for Michaels, highly problematic linking of culture and race.
Michaels’s central objection to our modern notion of cultural identity is that, emulating the modernists, we cling to racialized—which Michaels does not distinguish from racist—“identity essentialism” (140): constituting our identities not on the basis of what we do...