Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination

2016
Author(s)
Publisher
Harvard University Press
Race and the Totalitarian Century

Few concepts evoke the twentieth century’s record of war, genocide, repression, and extremism more powerfully than the idea of totalitarianism. Today, studies of the subject are usually confined to discussions of Europe’s collapse in World War II or to comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In Race and the Totalitarian Century, Vaughn Rasberry parts ways with both proponents and detractors of these normative conceptions in order to tell the strikingly different story of how black American writers manipulated the geopolitical rhetoric of their time.

During World War II and the Cold War, the United States government conscripted African Americans into the fight against Nazism and Stalinism. An array of black writers, however, deflected the appeals of liberalism and its antitotalitarian propaganda in the service of decolonization. Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, C. L. R. James, John A. Williams, and others remained skeptical that totalitarian servitude and democratic liberty stood in stark opposition. Their skepticism allowed them to formulate an independent perspective that reimagined the antifascist, anticommunist narrative through the lens of racial injustice, with the United States as a tyrannical force in the Third World but also as an ironic agent of Asian and African independence.

Bringing a new interpretation to events such as the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Rasberry’s bird’s-eye view of black culture and politics offers an alternative history of the totalitarian century.

About the Author

Vaughn Rasberry studies African American and African Diaspora literature, twentieth-century American fiction, postcolonial theory, and philosophical theories of modernity. In 2016, Harvard University Press published his first book, Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination, recipient of the American Political Science Association's 2017 Ralph Bunche Award ("awarded annually for the best scholarly work in political science on ethnic and cultural pluralism"). His book also received a 2017 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was shortlisted for the Christian Gauss Award from the Phi Beta Kappa Society.

Race and the Totalitarian Century questions the notion that desegregation prompted African American writers and activists to acquiesce in the normative claims of postwar liberalism. Challenging accounts that portray black cultural workers in various postures of reaction to larger forces--namely U.S. liberalism or Soviet communism--his project argues instead that many writers were involved in a complex national and global dialogue with totalitarianism, a defining discourse of the twentieth century.

During World War II and the Cold War, his book shows, the United States government conscripted African Americans into the fight against Nazism and Stalinism. An array of black writers, however, deflected the appeals of liberalism and its anti-totalitarian propaganda in the service of decolonization. Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, C. L. R. James, John A. Williams, and others remained skeptical that totalitarian servitude and democratic liberty stood in stark opposition. Their skepticism, Race and the Totalitarian Century contends, allowed them to formulate an independent perspective that reimagined the anti-fascist, anti-communist narrative through the lens of racial injustice, with the United States as a tyrannical force in the Third World but also as an ironic agent of Asian and African independence.

His article, "'Now Describing You': James Baldwin and Cold War Liberalism," was published in an edited volume titled James Baldwin: America and Beyond (University of Michigan Press, 2011). A review essay, "Black Cultural Politics at the End of History," appears in the winter 2012 issue of American Literary History. An article, "Invoking Totalitarianism: Liberal Democracy versus the Global Jihad in Boualem Sansal's The German Mujahid," appears in the spring 2014 special issue of Novel: a Forum on Fiction. In 2015, he published a book chapter, "JFK and the Global Anticolonial Movement," in The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy. He has another book chapter, "The 'Lost' Years or a 'Decade of Progress'? African American Writers and the Second World War," published in A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

Online Writing:

     "The Shape of African American Geopolitics," Al Jazeera English

     "The Devil Wears Pravda," Public Books

An Annenberg Faculty Fellow at Stanford (2012-14), he has also received fellowships from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Vaughn also teaches in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) and the programs in Modern Thought and Literature, African and African American Studies, and American Studies. 

(Photo by Ved Chirayath)