- Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933
Although still controversial, the account of historian and first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), that the slave trade ended mainly because of economic reasons rather than humanistic ones, had a striking impact on the scholarly worlds of not only African American history but also that of economics. Williams challenged the long-held view that the slave trade and even slavery itself ended because of self-cleansing efforts arising from European Romanticism by advancing instead the idea that the decline of commercial enthusiasm by ship owners, alongside the decline of its benefits, stopped the momentum of the slave trade.
James C. Davis's Commerce in Color: Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933 is another book that has its impact on these fields in terms of the relationships between race and economy. Just as Davis asserts in chapter four, on the one hand, that the trend in recent criticism of James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is more or less set toward separating those two concepts of race and consumer culture, he tries on the other to [End Page 524] focus upon their juncture by "bringing race out of the footnotes of our scholarship on consumer culture" (17-18). He explores and endorses the juncture of consumer culture and race in a remarkable range throughout various subjects such as public events, literary texts, publishing, advertising, and mass culture in the United States in the period from 1893 to 1933, in which the Harlem Renaissance, the remarkably fruitful era of African American arts and their social impact, is included. Given the prosperous growth of the American economy with the co-emergence of the idea of a "New Negro," these forty years he chose to research represent a useful period in which to search for the linkage.
Davis begins in chapter one to explore the relations between consumer culture and race with various illustrations from the writings of Booker T. Washington, Frances E. W. Harper, and W. E. B. Du Bois. This chapter also explains that his argument throughout the book is firmly based on his theory that consumer culture, "primarily served to maintain the viability of racial thinking and normativity of whiteness." For Davis, "the emergence of consumer culture relied on the concept of race and the persistence of white-supremacist thinking" (3). In chapter two, the protest writing of Ida B. Wells at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago best illustrates the broad racial exclusion of African Americans within the confines of a broadening consumer culture toward the turn of the twentieth century. In chapter three, he examines Henry James's The American Scene (1907), pointing out that James's texts have been studied separately in relation to either issues of race or issues of consumer culture, and concludes that "the process of excavating and papering over the problematic of race and national identity leads James to produce a consoling version of whiteness, one that does not reduce to color or blood" (14).
In chapter four, Davis continues to develop his original argument, endorsing the recent trend of criticisms that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is "a constructivist account of race that challenges the dominant biological essentialism of its time," that "consumer capitalism is a crucial determining context for the narrator's repeated movements across the color line" (15). His exploration, then, comes to the commercialization in book publishing of African Americans between World War I and the Great Depression, in chapter five, by focusing on the "revolutionary" publishers Boni and Liveright. Finally, in chapter six, Davis brings two satirists of the 1930s, Nathaniel West and George Schuyler, into the argument that "while West is concerned with mass culture and commodification and Schuyler is concerned with white-supremacist thinking and racialized embodiment, the overt themes of one writer turn out to be the implicit concerns of the other" (16).