Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult

Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult

by Susan Gillman

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The United States has seldom known a period of greater social and cultural volatility, especially in terms of race relations, than the years from the end of Reconstruction to the First World War. In this highly original study, Susan Gillman explores the rise during this period of a remarkable genre—the race melodrama—and the way in which it converged

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The United States has seldom known a period of greater social and cultural volatility, especially in terms of race relations, than the years from the end of Reconstruction to the First World War. In this highly original study, Susan Gillman explores the rise during this period of a remarkable genre—the race melodrama—and the way in which it converged with literary trends, popular history, fringe movements, and mainstream interest in supernatural phenomena.

Blood Talk shows how race melodrama emerged from abolitionist works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and surprisingly manifested itself in a set of more aesthetically and politically varied works, such as historical romances, sentimental novels, the travel literature of Mark Twain, the regional fiction of Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Gillman then uses the race melodrama to show how racial discourses in the United States have been entangled with occultist phenomena, from the rituals of the Ku Klux Klan and the concept of messianic second-sight to the production of conspiracy theories and studies of dreams and trances.

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Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult

By Susan Kay Gillman

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Susan Kay Gillman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226293904

Chapter One: American Race Melodramas in the Culture of the Occult

An introduction


W. E. B. Du Bois is known for a lifetime of speaking out on, and against, what was known as the Negro Problem. (The term, capitalized and in singular form, makes visible the derogatory grammars of nineteenth-century racial science and social policy: "the Negro" is a "problem" to be studied, managed, disciplined.) In doing so, he employed various formulations, ranging from the neutral and scientific (titling his influential 1897 address to the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences "The Study of the Negro Problems"), to the disturbingly personal (posing the rhetorical question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" in his 1903, multigenre The Souls of Black Folk), to the aphoristic (asserting at the 1900 Pan African Conference, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line," a statement repeated so often it became almost a signature in-cantation). All three formulations ring changes on the term/concept the Negro Problem.

Du Bois invoked the famous color-line aphorism most famously in The Souls of Black Folk, whereit is repeated three times by the end of only the second chapter. (The repetition is internal as well: twice in the line the term the problem is used.) Formulated in this fashion, the problem gestures both back to the grounds of its own solution, in the form of the thesis statement of "The Forethought" (as the preface is titled), and forward to its restatements in chapter 2 of The Souls of Black Folk, those framing the opening and closing. If the lines all echo one another in a kind of call-and-response, they also amplify their own sound, for chapter 2 begins with a revised and expanded version of the refrain: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,--the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea" (SBF, 107). From these generative moments, Du Bois went on to numerous other reformulations, restatements, and replayings of the Negro Problem in other texts and venues throughout his career.

The point of all the citations is, invariably, to make plural the stubbornly singular formulation the Negro Problem. The social, political, and intellectual challenge of such redefinition--from the singular Problem to the plural problems, from the Negro being the problem to the Negro having problems--is viscerally present in the sheer number of times that Du Bois repeats the term. The multiple formulations refuse the concept of a single problem or question, adding up, rather, to "a plexus of social problems, some old, some new, some simple, some complex," as he insists in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. "Perhaps it is wrong," he concludes at the climactic end of a climactic chapter, "to speak of it at all as 'a concept' rather than as a group of contradictory forces, facts, and tendencies," correcting the grammar of the book's subtitle (An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept) as well as that of the chapter title ("The Concept of Race"). To pluralize the "race concept" as a set of contradictions is to historicize the notion of race itself: "Because of a firm belief in a changing racial group," Du Bois notes in Dusk of Dawn and repeats in his last, 1968autobiography, "I easily grasped the idea of a changing, developing society rather than a fixed social structure." The "I" that does the grasping here is constitutive rather than coincidental. Meditating in Dusk of Dawn on the generic challenges of writing "an autobiography of a race concept," Du Bois argues, "My life had its significance and its only deep significance because it was part of a Problem; but that problem was, as I continue to think, the central problem of the greatest of the world's democracies and so the Problem of the future world" (DD, vii-viii). "Elucidated, magnified, and doubtless distorted" through the autobiography, repeated "in the thoughts and deeds which were mine" (DD, viii), the singular racial terminology of Du Bois's moment--the Negro Problem, alternatively upper- and lowercase--both masks and indicates the excesses, the contradictions, and the ambiguities of race relations in the longue duree of the global "American 1890s."

Making plural the singular Negro Question is a fundamental aim, his and mine. The history of race in America, long told as a master narrative, the Manichaean drama of black and white, appears finally to be coming to an end. We hear so many announcements, invocations, and prophetic calls willing a postmodern "beyond" race, spoken by academics, activists, and politicians alike on both the Left and the Right. Such institutional changes as the category mixedrace on the 2000 U.S. census are another index of the rising call against the continued use of race as an analytic, social, or legal category. Yet so many of these pronouncements continue, willfully or willynilly, to depend on the old, supposedly outmoded racialisms for their political and ethical utopian force. The American race melodrama of black and white, at once so familiar as to breed contempt and so strange in its ability to assume uncanny new guises, has had an exceptionally long shelf life. Promiscuous is the historian Barbara Fields's word for the boundless facility of racialist ideologies to adapt to new experience while continuing to draw on apparently fixed attitudes. The results for how Americans think about their history have been both a misconception of the historical continuity of racism (reflected in the view that racial attitudes "have a life of their own") and the enduring narrative of race as the "tragically recurring central theme" of American, and not just Southern, history. The persistence, both in mainstream U.S. historiography and in popular culture generally, of according race "a transhistorical, almost metaphysical status," of assuming that race is a phenomenon outside history, accounts for the extraordinary burden and challenge of the effort to historicize race that drives the race melodramas that I explore in this book.

Du Bois establishes how the project of making plural the Negro Problem was coextensive with demonstrating that the race concept has, and is, a historical development. To recognize race as a product of history, not of nature or metaphysics, rejects both the dominant arguments from biology and the notion of the "tragic flaw"; most critically, "the history of the development of the race concept" (DD, 97), such as that on which Du Bois embarked, insists on "the idea of a changing, developing society rather than a fixed social structure." If the race concept changes over time, then racial groups have both a past and a future. One could say that American race relations at the turn of the century were forged and fought for on the terrain of history, both U.S. and world. Foundational events (the American Revolution) and locations (Africa) provided the grounds (battle- and epistemological) of debate over how to narrate "race history." If only not to exaggerate the rumors of its death (to invoke the spirit of Mark Twain, another central figure in the nineteenth-century culture of the color line), we need to revisit yet again the longue duree of the master-race narrative's greatest cultural authority.

I define that turn-of-the-century moment formally and historically through two keywords: race melodrama and the occult. Turning first to the former, my point of departure in Blood Talk is a pattern of derogatory references, made by cultural commentators then and now, to a wide variety of turn-of-the-century race representations as "melodramatic," simultaneously heightened and hyperbolic, flat and wooden. Such objections mirror the misconceptions about race and history that Du Bois and so many others have fought. Just one example should suffice. Oscar Micheaux's 1925 silent classic Body and Soul is, according to a New York Times review of a screening of the film at the 2000 New York Film Festival, "an old-fashioned melodrama," the screening redeemed only by the original score composed for the occasion, which lent "the melodrama the resonance of a historical fable." The assumption here that melodrama is at once dated and ahistorical deepens as the review continues, the reviewer commenting scornfully on the good twin-bad twin plot, "'Body and Soul' is a silent film after all, and the movie employs the melodramatic formulas of the period." Old-fashioned and a period piece, yet lacking historical resonance: melodrama is, like the "beyondrace" talk today, dismissed as archaic yet without and outside history.

Invariably a term of opprobrium, even when used simply descriptively, melodrama provides for that very reason the key to my subject. In noun form, it encompasses both a worldview of race crisis and conflict, in a period that Rayford Logan called the "nadir," and a protean narrative mode embracing a variety of forms, including sentimental, regional, and historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction, and scientific and social-scientific discourses derived from race law, racial science, and allied discourses of family, ethnos, and nation. Temporally, race melodrama is an equally mobile cultural mode, cutting across histories and ideologies and producing a wide-ranging textual history that we can trace from pre-Emancipation semiobscurity (William Wells Brown's Clotel ) and fame (Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) to the mass-cultural filmic and legal texts of the twentieth century (Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and the televised cases of Anita Hill, O. J. Simpson, and others). Finally, the term race melodrama points to the irreducible historical identity of race itself as melodrama in the United States.

The material subject of Blood Talk is the voluminous "race literature" produced in the late-nineteenth-century United States, interpreted against a period of crisis and transformation in global race relations. If 1877, the end of Reconstruction, marks the start of this seemingly amorphous era, the close might be placed in 1920, when Du Bois published Darkwater, the second of his multigenred autobiographies, in which lyric race history and global anticolonialism produced a classic race melodrama in the shadow of World War I. The work's sweeping critique of race relations on the home front also points to another watershed, the year 1915, when D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation completed the post-Reconstruction project of rewriting American history, with the ex-slave as scapegoat, in order to heal sectional divisions and reunite the nation. In response to this volatile phase of American social history and historiography, new narrative modes, derived from earlier forms and adapted in the context of emerging racial discourses, surfaced to narrate the history of the race concept. The mode of race melodrama, associated earlier with such abolitionist classics as Uncle Tom's Cabin, reemerged, encompassing a set of otherwise aesthetically and politically heterogeneous texts, including the historical romances of George Washington Cable, Charles Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Thomas Dixon, the sentimental novels of Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins, the travel and regional writings of Mark Twain and Kate Chopin, and, perhaps subsuming them all, the mixed-genre work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Not only do these race melodramas reflect widely variant politics, from the one extreme of white supremacy to the other of black nationalism (with a range of civilizational and uplift positions in between), but, crossing the boundaries of literature, law, history, and science, they also represent widely variant formal locations, from the high-canonical (Du Bois, Twain), to the noncanonical (Griggs, Dixon), the recently canonized (Harper, Hopkins, Chopin), and the emergent recanonized (Chesnutt, Cable). These multiple political and formal locations offer one indication of just how fundamentally protean race melodramas of the period were.

The writers on my shortlist--Hopkins, Griggs, Dixon, Twain, and Du Bois figure here most prominently, with supporting roles played by Chesnutt, Cable, Arthur Schomburg, John Bruce, and Marcus Garvey--are also all activists, notable for careers in a variety of institutional and public spheres, from the pulpit, to the periodical press, to the lecture circuit. They can often be found speaking to and against one another, across a range of geographic, intellectual, and political locations: both Griggs and Du Bois respond publicly to Dixon's Klan trilogy; both Hopkins and Du Bois work within the emergent historical study of Africa and blacks; both Twain and Du Bois address black-Jewish questions. They also all share a range of references to the same unruly set of nominally mainstream and fringe elements: ancient Egyptian and African history; secret societies and mystic symbologies (such as those of the Ku Klux Klan and the Masons); racial sciences old (craniometry, ethnology) and new (archaeology, anthropology, psychology); empires and imperialism. Such crosscutting dialogues establish the cultural milieu, local and international, and the far-flung venues for racial discourses that shape and are corroborated by the protean quality of race melodramas in the longue duree.

At the same time, the work of my race melodramatists defines the contextual limits of the race melodrama. One way to place the figures on my shortlist is to see them as exceptional, even brilliant practitioners of a degraded mode, as much symptom of as strategic response to the contradictions of the race concept. In that sense, the Manichaean logic and affective intensity of the melodramatic mode are perfectly attuned to the heightened polarities, the sheer violence, of U.S. race relations and race representations at the turn of the century. But, in the hands of Hopkins, Griggs, Dixon, Twain, et al., the binary structures of melodrama are, as we will see, exploded by the barely hidden excess of race that they make visible (the regional, socioeconomic, political, and gender divisions that exceed racial categories) while formally and narratively containing--ostentatiously but nevertheless only imperfectly--the occluded plurals that are Du Bois's subject. When racialized, the melodramatic mode becomes relational rather than divided and divisive, imagining a range of crosscutting, contradictory alliances and conflicts across groups variously defined, not only by race, gender, and nation, but also by competing political, economic, and sociocultural identities and differences. The results outline, as I hope to show, the limits and possibilities of melodrama as an aesthetic and cultural form.

Turning now to my second keyword, the occult, I was struck by the persistent entangling of familiar U.S. racial discourses with another, more shadowy zone, less well-known but equally disreputable, defined by a range of transnational cultural phenomena that we might colloquially, and loosely, call occultist. In the late nineteenth century, thinking through race as a mode of historical consciousness, and not simply as a category of biology or identity, meant engaging with a variety of emerging disciplines and belief systems in which consciousness was the explicit object even if it was not always explicitly racialized. Examples of such systems range from the New Psychology of Jean-Martin Charcot, Sigmund Freud, William James, and the Society for Psychical Research to the mystical symbologies and rituals that characterized not only such explicitly race-based groups as the Ku Klux Klan (or, as the Klan officially called itself, "The Invisible Empire of the South") and the Garveyites, but also such fraternal and cultic organizations, less overtly racially defined, as Freemasonry and Theosophy. The cultural appeal of these social movements stemmed from their protean functioning both as threat and as promise. Invisible empires imagined in the same breath racial fraternity and race war in their search for the "hidden transcript" of political affiliation among subaltern groups, of the mainstream Right and Left both. Many of these groups are linked by the roots that, drawing on quasi-mystical, quasi-scientific sources, they trace to imagined racial pasts: Anglo-Saxon Scotland and black Egypt (with the race of the ancient Egyptians hotly contested) are most frequently claimed. There is also a connection to be made between the uses of specific occult iconography, such as the Egyptological sphinx and pyramid, in the many varieties of street theater, political performance, and historical pageantry staged in U.S. cities during and immediately following World War I. These would include openly racial spectacles, such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) parades, Du Bois's pageant "The Star of Ethiopia," and the public celebrations of Carter Woodson's Negro History Week, as well as the apparently racially unmarked cultural production of the left-wing culture critics and activists known as the Lyrical Left. Their "racial occults" are all also, again to varying degrees, projects with valences of the political, the performative, and the historiographic.

The paradigmatic literary example of such a racial occult may be found in Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, in which the guilt of the black rapist is revealed under hypnosis by the white Southern doctor, "like an ancient alchemist ready to conduct some daring experiment in the problem of life." Dr. Cameron's "powers of hypnosis," gained during medical study abroad in Edinburgh and Paris ("Southern doctors are always pioneers in the science of medicine"), allow him to prove, by a combination of the "mystic" and the "scientific," the identity of the criminal, a local ex-slave, now captain of the "African Guards" under the occupying federal troops. However clear the racial forces that make necessary such self-appointed counterterrorism, when he is asked to account for his experimental powers, the doctor explains that he cannot: "They belong to the world of spiritual phenomena of which we know so little and yet which touch our material lives at a thousand points every day. How do we account for sleep and dreams, or second-sight, or the day-dreams which we call visions?" The particular cluster of occult terms here is echoed by Sutton Griggs's theory of "racial hypnotism," by Pauline Hopkins's vocabulary of the "supernatural phenomena or mysticism" associated with the "great field of new discoveries in psychology," by Mark Twain's fascination with dream states and waking visions, and, finally, by Du Bois's well-known language of the veil, messianic second sight, and double consciousness. As a racialized formation, the occult was both capacious and mobile.

A figure for other worlds beneath the "veil" (to use the spiritualist language appropriated as a defining racial image throughout Du Bois's work), the occult provided a means to express both racial problems and solutions to those problems. Racial hypnotism is Sutton Griggs's term for the practice of engendering in both races a psychic sense of black inferiority and white superiority, a subtle form of social control far more effective than overt racial violence. Theories of double and multiple personalities spoke to the internal psychic state of Du Bois's racial double consciousness, while mystical notions of past lives and reincarnation, in concert with archaeological evidence of ancient civilizations, were transmogrified into racial mysticism. To unearth a glorious racial past, as in the theory of the African origins of Western civilization, was also to signal a prophetic future, as in Ethiopianism's signature biblical refrain ("Princes shall come out of Egypt, and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God" [Ps. 68:31]). Finally, the occult vision of an infinite universe, unbounded by space or time, provided a medium of transracial contact and the promise of trans-racial consciousness. In conjuring such a racial occult, my race melodramatists seek to historicize race consciousness itself and, thus, to reveal the ideological and geopolitical contours of racial thinking.


Excerpted from Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult by Susan Kay Gillman Copyright © 2003 by Susan Kay Gillman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Susan Gillman is a professor of literature and American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain's America and coeditor of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson: Race, Conflict, and Culture.

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