- The Empire at Home and the Empire Abroad
The movement away from US-centered approaches to America enables scholars to cross disciplinary boundaries and delineate the global forces operating in literary texts. Specifically, as Caroline Levander and Robert Levine put it in special issue of this journal, hemispheric considerations of American literature “excavat[e] the intricate and complex politics, histories, and discourses of spatial encounter that have been generally obscured in US nation-based inquiries” (399). The work of Ifeoma Nwankwo, Keith Cartwright, Martyn Bone, and others has recently demonstrated that such a critical methodology is especially appropriate for African-American literature. This is particularly the case in connection with those texts published in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century when the country aggressively pursued an imperialist agenda and acquired an overseas empire.
For US blacks, the Spanish-American War had significant implications. First, it served as a vehicle of reconciliation between the North and the South because it was the first conflict fought against a foreign nation since the Civil War. Although the southern-led campaign to rewrite the war between the states as a misguided conflict that had little or nothing to do with the abolition of slavery had been underway for some time, the Spanish-American War came to be seen as a defining moment of heroic cooperation between the two sections, and African Americans did not fit easily into this picture. Second, because the war appeared to present opportunities for African Americans to demonstrate their patriotism and bravery by directly participating in the conflict, blacks in the US took a keen interest in the actions of these “Smoked Yankees,” their portrayal in the mainstream [End Page 891] media, and their treatment by the government. Theodore Roosevelt’s accusations of black cowardice in his account of the Battle of San Juan Hill, and in his assertion that black soldiers were dependent on white officers, in the April 1899 issue of Scribner’s Magazine generated considerable resentment and provoked rebuttals by black combatants (Holliday; Washington 54–62; Kaplan 121–45). Third, as Willard Gatewood has noted, having staunchly supported the party of Lincoln since the Civil War, African Americans who were allowed to vote had to decide in 1900 whether to cast their ballots for the pro-expansionist Republican incumbent William McKinley, no champion of the rights of blacks, or the anti-imperialist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who unabashedly advocated white supremacy. Fourth, because the war involved the fate of nonwhite peoples in the Caribbean and Asia, several black leaders regarded it as having potentially major consequences for the status of their people within the US.
In the “Forethought” to The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois famously declares, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (100). This statement originally appeared in “The Present Outlook for the Dark Races of Mankind,” a speech he gave at the third annual meeting of the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C., in March 1900, in which he uses these words specifically in the context of the “new imperial policy” (53) the US was in the process of implementing in the wake of its victory over Spain and amidst the ongoing Filipino insurgency: “Indeed a survey of the civilized world at the end of the 19th century but confirms the proposition with which I started—the world problem of the 20th century is the Problem of the Color line—the question of the relation of the advanced races of men who happen to be white to the great majority of underdeveloped or half developed nations of mankind who happen to be yellow, brown, or black” (54). The Spanish-American War may have appeared to the vast majority of US whites to be, as John Hay declared it, “a splendid little war,” but, as Du Bois and other African Americans would argue, the conflict had wide-ranging domestic as well as foreign ramifications.
Two of the three books under consideration focus on African-American public intellectuals who in their writing directly engage the relationship between institutionalized racism in the...