Time for a New Essay -- Eric Walrond's "On Being Black"
Let’s do some retrieval this morning. Let’s talk about an essay I suspect you don’t know – Eric Walrond’s “On Being Black,” which appeared originally in the November 1, 1922 issue of The New Republic. I’ll introduce you a bit to this essay, but because it’s in the public domain you can read it for yourself (I’ll link to it here) so mostly I’ll talk about why you may not have heard about it already.
“On Being Black” is an innovative and important example of a kind of African-American essay that focuses on shocking, awakening and yet seemingly small instances of racial injustice. These Jim Crow moments instructed the author and are meant to instruct readers, especially white readers, about how racism works. Other, better known examples of this kind of essay are “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by Walrond’s good friend Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.”
Walrond’s version of this kind of essay is especially efficient. It consists of three numbered scenes, each depicting a racial slight. These anecdotes share the same narrator (identified only as “I” and “Mr. –”) and are all written in present tense. The opening section describes an experience the narrator has as a customer in an optician’s shop; the second focuses on an unsuccessful job interview; the last chronicles a frustrating attempt to buy a ticket for a cruise to Jamaica. The narrator is wry and educated, a genteel black man who has lived and worked in Latin America.
But why was this essay lost in the first place? One reason it disappeared was because Walrond disappeared. When he wrote “On Being Black,” he was just twenty-three, a recent immigrant to New York from the Caribbean who was working as an editor for Marcus Garvey’s The Negro World, a weekly paper which at the time had a circulation of over 200,000. Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, advocated Black self-reliance and a return to Africa. Soon after the piece was published, Walrond broke from Garvey, began working for Opportunity magazine, and became a leading member of the younger generation within the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, he published a widely acclaimed short-story collection, Tropic Death. It would be his only book but would win him a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation to write a history of the Panama Canal, tentatively entitled The Big Ditch. Guggenheim in hand, Walrond left for Europe to write the book, but it never appeared. Countee Cullen visited him in France for a couple of months in 1929, but that seems to have been his last contact with his friends from Harlem. He stayed in Europe, did a little freelance work, and settled into obscurity, dying in London in 1966.
“On Being Black” was also lost for other reasons, reasons that have to do with how the essay canon is constructed in the first place. Race and nationality undoubtedly contributed to the reason the essay isn’t more widely known. Literary canons are largely national constructs, but Walrond was transnational, a global citizen, and not identified with any one nation or its literature. He was born in British Guyana and raised in Barbados and Panama before moving to the United States and then on to Europe. He wrote everything from short stories to travel pieces, and his multinational, multi-genre career may have kept him from fitting the criteria of nationalist canon formation.
Compounding this is the fact that American essay canon is in many ways narrow to begin with. It is, as Lynn Bloom has pointed out, a teaching canon, built largely of the short, accessible, easily taught essays that fill our first-year writing anthologies. And yet, “On Being Black” is short and accessible, and well known to critics of African- and Carribean-American literature. Since the 1960s, when the student and Civil Rights movements called for a democratization of our culture, the American literary canon has become more inclusive, though the broadening of the essay canon has proceeded more slowly. Gerald Early did include “On Being Black” in his indispensible two-volume anthology, Speech and Power: The African American Essay and Its Cultural Content from Polemics to Pulpit (New York: Ecco, 1989), but the essay remains largely unknown, hence this morning’s intervention.
I believe another reason Walrond’s essay has been overlooked has to do with the fact that is there has not been agreement that Walrond’s narrative piece is even an essay, though again Early called it that, as did Charles Egleston in a history of Boni & Liveright, Walrond’s publisher, that he edited. More often, however, critics and editors have called it a short story, though others have carefully reserved judgment. Cora Agatucci, for instance, referred to it as a “vivid, impressionistic collage.” The pre-eminent Walrond scholar Louis Parascandola has been most explicit about the uncertainty surrounding the piece. Like Agatucci, he has opted for middle-ground terms—calling it a “sketch” and a “series of three vignettes”—but he has also gone on to point out that “On Being Black” represents a period during Walrond’s apprenticeship when he was experimenting “with the permeable boundaries between journalism and fiction.”
That this founding text of the Harlem Renaissance was a product of such experimentation and has come to inhabit what Doug Hesse has called “the boundary zone” between “first-person short stories and narrative essays” raises several questions: Why might Walrond have decided to work at the intersection of these two genres? What exactly is the difference between a narrative essay and a short story? And why have critics and anthologists scooted it one way or the other on the spectrum of genres?
Post-modernism, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, the James Frey episode, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s Life Span of a Fact, and the re-branding of the personal essay as “creative” nonfiction might lead us to think that the blurring of genres and the confusing of realms are new phenomena. They are not. When “On Being Black” first appeared in The New Republic, the magazine referred to it a “general article” in its table of contents. Just a few weeks later, William Ferris, who worked with Walrond at The Negro World, challenged that label. In an article subtitled “The Short Story as Propaganda,” Ferris declared:
Mr. Walrond does not contribute an article after the customary manner of dealing with the race question as a sociological, political or racial problem, but he tells three short stories showing the psychic reactions of an intelligent colored man who has been discriminated against.
This angling by Ferris was part of a debate within the New Negro movement about the role that art and literature should play in the world.
In December 1921, Walrond himself had taken the standard Garveyite position on the question. In an article (or is it an essay?) called “Art and Propaganda,” that also appeared in The Negro World, he criticized the renowned African-American poet, lawyer, diplomat, and educator James Weldon Johnson. Walrond took Johnson to task for, as he put it, saying that the Negro writer “must first purge himself of the feelings and suffering and emotions of an outraged being, and think and write along colorless sectionless lines.” To do such a thing, said Walrond, was impossible. The Negro writer will remain a Negro “for centuries to come,” an “underdog in revolt” whose “music” must be not “half-hearted” and “wishy washy” but “a piercing, yelping cry against his cruel enslavement.” He associated art with an avoidance of racial difference and propaganda with a needed, indeed Garveyite, militance.
That the 23-year old Walrond would gravitate toward Garvey’s militant separatism and take such an audacious position is not all that surprising given the times in which he was living and who he was. As a citizen of the Caribbean, Walrond had grown up in cities and towns that were overwhelmingly black, places where racism and political repression, while hardly extinct, were less rampant and overt than in the United States. In the four years since he had arrived in New York, 365,000 steel workers and 400,000 coal miners had gone out on strike; a black person was lynched somewhere in the United States every six days; riots and attacks by white mobs in 26 communities during the “red summer” of 1919 had left hundreds of Black people dead and another 1,000 wounded; and in a few days at the end of 1919 and beginning of 1920 U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his young assistant J. Edgar Hoover had, with the help of local authorities, raided homes, union halls, and newspaper offices, arresting over 10,000 people, many of them immigrants, that these officials considered subversive.
In May 1922, less than five months after his “Art and Propaganda” piece appeared, Walrond changed his position. In an article in Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent, he argued that writers should not “desert…folk-life for propagandism.” He singled out Charles Chestnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois as writers who had done just that. Chestnutt, said Walrond, had a terrific ear for dialect and “the language of the cotton fields,” but he had opted to become “a purpose novelist, a propagandist.” Du Bois, said Walrond, was “one of the most brilliant prose writers in America,” but should “stop writing history and sociology and stick to the art of fiction!” He also criticized “educated Negroes” such as Du Bois for “objecting strenuously to stories that do not depict the ‘Higher Form’ of Negro life.”
Walrond was facing a crisis. He was trying to decide what he should write, what he should write about, and what he thought of Garvey. He was caught between extreme positions, trying to find a new position of his own. He did not agree with the Harvard-educated Du Bois’s genteel, best-foot-forward approach and still respected Garvey’s popularity among working-class Blacks, but he was growing disenchanted with Garvey himself, whose militant separatism and business ventures were proving to be anything but strategic. That spring, The Negro World was banned in Africa, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud, his Black Star shipping line went bankrupt, and then, in June, Garvey met with the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta, separatist to separatist, to explore common ground. Like most of Blacks in America, Walrond was shocked and disillusioned. Garvey had been his employer, publisher, and mentor. Suddenly and figuratively adrift, Walrond decided to actually go to sea. He shipped out on a freighter to the Antilles and South America as a cook’s helper to think about his future. Immediately upon his return, he signed with a prominent New York literary agent and began shopping pieces to a wide range of magazines. He soon published stories, essays, articles, and book reviews in The Saturday Review of Literature, The New York Herald Tribune, H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set, Du Bois’s The Crisis, and even Chandler Owen and A. Phillip Randolph’s The Messenger, which had spearheaded a “Garvey Must Go” campaign.
W. E. B. Du Bois
But the appearance that November of “On Being Black” in The New Republic was Walrond’s first publication in a white mainstream magazine. It was also a direct answer to Du Bois, who had published an essay with the same title in the same magazine in February 1920 (available here). A comparison of the two is revealing.
Du Bois’s essay was an excerpt from his book, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, which came out shortly after and was an attack on the supposedly scientific racism of Lothrop Stoddard. Du Bois’s title was an ironic jab at Stoddard’s recent tirade, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. Here is how Du Bois’s essay opens:
My friend, who is pale and positive, said to me yesterday, as the tired sun was nodding: “You are too sensitive.”
I admit, I am—sensitive. I am artificial. I cringe or am bumptious or immobile. I am intellectually dishonest, art-blind, and I lack humor.
“Why don’t you stop all this?” she retorts triumphantly.
You will not let us.
The narrator and his white female friend continue arguing, but while her comments are always in quotation marks, his are not and so we don’t know if what he is saying is said aloud or are thoughts that he wishes he could or had say aloud. The white woman to whom he talks is a kind of surrogate, standing in for the New Republic’s predominant white readers. A difference, however, is that she is from Atlanta and “positive” in both senses of the word—that is, optimistic and sure of herself, intent on talking her Black friend out of his gloomy color-blinded view of the world. The argument continues with the narrator giving evidence of how he is regularly treated by white people. Restaurants refuse to serve him, policemen are “truculent,” he is forced to sit in the smoking balcony at the movie theater. Then, addressing her (or is it us?) and asks (though still not in quotation marks), “Did you ever see a Jim Crow waiting room?” Knowing the answer will be no, he takes us on an extended tour of such a waiting room in all its squalor and humiliation. Then, he turns to himself and discourses on the Souls of White Folks and how Europe is, at least in part, great because it was built on foundations provided by Asia and Africa, foundations laid by colored people such as Mohammed, Rameses, Confucius, Buddha, and even Jesus Christ.
It is an impressive disquisition, spiraling out from a single parlor conversation into all of human history, but to Walrond, it was also a grandiose. Darkwater, Walrond allowed, was “a beautiful book, but it reveals the soul of a man who is sorry and ashamed he is not white.” Walrond felt Du Bois was too focused on the “Talented Tenth” of the Black population and on proving that they could hold their own in an argument with a white person in the white person’s parlor. So, when he wrote his own “On Being Black” for The New Republic he chose to depict racism in three everyday situations instead of dramatizing a large and sweeping argument. First, his narrator goes to buy some eyeglasses, but at the optician’s shop the salesman assumes he is a chauffeur there to buy driving goggles. Next, he arrives for a job interview, hoping to be hired as a secretary, but it quickly becomes clear that the agency did not realize from his letter of application that he was Black. A female supervisor is summonsed to deal with this problem, this Negro applicant. Before she has said a word, the narrator tells us, “She is from Ohio, I can see that.” This All-American female supervisor who must send him away does it in a kindly but paternalistic way, feigning interest in his resumé before explaining that he is not quite right for this job, but that there is another she knows of that he is “just the man for.” It is uptown on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. The woman doesn't know it, but the contact for this second job is one of the narrator's former students and he would be humiliated to apply.
In the third and final section the narrator tells of the difficulties he encounters when he attempts to buy some tickets on a Caribbean cruise for his wife, who is feeling poorly and needs a vacation. He thinks “the beauty of Montego Bay” might cheer her spirits and he tries to take advantage of an advertised special, but during the course of a run-around he finds out that this deal is not available to him. The ship’s Jim Crow rules require him to buy tickets in a shared berth at a higher cost. His goose chase begins when he calls about the special and is asked, “White or colored?” He replies, “Colored,” and is told after a delay while the clerk consults with his supervisor that he must come to the office in person, but he will have to get there by five o’clock. He rushes over:
It is three minutes to five. The clerks, tall, lean, light-haired youths are ready to go home. As I enter a dozen pairs of eyes are fastened upon me. Murmuring. Only a nigger. Again the wheels of life grind on. Lots are cast—I am not speaking metaphorically. The joke is on the Latin. Down in Panama he is a government clerk. Over in Caracas, a tinterillo, and in Mexico, a scientifico [sic]. I know the type. Coming to New York, he shuns the society of Spanish Americans. On the subway at night he reads the New York Journal instead of La Prensa. And on wintry evenings, you can always find him around Seventy-second and Broadway.
The events and at least some of the analysis are reminiscent of Du Bois. In his essay, Du Bois also had to pay extra for inferior tickets (in his case to the movies). And in his essay, Du Bois dreamt of Montego Bay, a getaway to natural beauty in a Black majority country, and he too included the racial epithet “nigger” by way of free indirect discourse.
But there are differences as well. By merely dramatizing the situation instead of pitting his narrator against the clerk in open argument, Walrond is able to show, more effectively I think, how racism dehumanizes everyone – first the optician’s clerk who is oblivious, then the kind but paternalistic lady from the Midwest, and now the Latin clerk, whose impossible desire for assimilation has him haunting the old Italian neighborhood around Verdi Square, hoping to pass for Italian and rub shoulders with the up-and-comers who are gentrifying that neighborhood. The Latin clerk has abandoned his heritage and better job opportunities at home for the American Dream, only to end up in a dead end job and charged with the task of waiting on (and putting off) black customers.
Maybe an essay like Walrond’s is old-fashioned. Maybe the election of a Black president has ushered in a post-racial society where all such slights are a thing of the past. Maybe our essay canon is complete. Maybe there is no need to add work by authors such as Walrond and Du Bois to that canon. But I don't think so.