Grace Halsell and the Strange Career of Racial Liberalism
American Studies Association
November 7–10, 2019
In the summer of 1968, a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King incited riots from New York to Los Angeles, Grace Halsell, a white staff writer in the Johnson administration, took a course of the skin-darkening medication Trioxsalen, boarded a bus for Harlem, and passed as a black woman. Inspired to, as she put it, know “the mind-deadening malady of second-class citizenship” from inside, Halsell spent the next six months posing as black, first as a hospital administrator’s assistant in Harlem and then as a housekeeper in Mississippi. She reported her experience the next year in her book Soul Sister, which, promoted with a blurb from her former boss Lyndon Johnson, went on to sell more than a million copies.
All but forgotten until the parents of an NCAAP chapter president named Rachel Dolezal outed their daughter as a white woman masquerading as black, Halsell, who died in 2000, reemerged in the 2010s as an antecedent to Dolezal and another example of misguided white liberalism, identified with other famous (and then notorious) white passers, including Ray Sprigle and her mentor, John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me (1961). But the case of Grace Halsell, this paper argues, offers something the others don’t: a glimpse of how white people who identified as good antiracists responded to the first crisis of racial liberalism brought on by a spiraling war in Southeast Asia and the rise of black power and other radical antiracist and anti-imperial movements. Soul Sister arrived at a time when black power confronted white liberals with the limitations of incremental civil rights and modeled how they would respond not by recognizing those limitations but by abandoning white integrationism for the pursuit of white self-knowledge––not blurring racial lines, as it might seem, but hardening them.
In the 1944 tome An American Dilemma, a kind of bible of racial liberalism, Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal declared that “the American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American”––the heart of the white American, he implied. Twenty-five years later, Soul Sister marked the culmination and transformation of Myrdal’s vision. “I had only to imagine myself black and then, for the first time, I saw myself white!” Halsell exclaimed of her six months as a black woman. This paper, drawing on the work Jodi Melamed, Khalil Muhammad, Nikhil Singh, and Mary Helen Washington and materials from the Grace Halsell Papers, identifies a shift in white racial thought at the end of the civil rights era as white liberals convinced themselves that nothing could be more antiracist than learning about themselves through difference. The strange career of Grace Halsell reveals how the strange career of racial liberalism ended in an anti-redistributive color blindness on the right and an anti-redistributive multiculturalism on the left. In the sixth year of the Black Lives Matter movement and amid a second crisis of racial liberalism, it warns against the forces of containment and the hazards of an uncritical “whiteness studies.”
Operation Homegoing: Tourism and American Veterans in Postwar Vietnam
Modern Language Association
January 9–12, 2020
In 1985, Vietnam began offering trial visas to American veterans and their families. The vets reported being astonished by how welcoming Vietnamese were and described the trips as healing returns to the places where they had left something of themselves and become men––all were men, most were white. News media delivered glowing coverage of the veterans’ tours. Some of the vets wrote memoirs about their time in postwar Vietnam, including Newsweek editor William Broyles, poets W. D. Ehrhart and Bruce Weigl, and Veterans Administration official Frederick Downs. The men wrote about their trips as if they were homecomings to a land to which they belonged and which held the secret to who they were. Ehrhart, a former marine, wondered what compelled him to return. “Catharsis? Curiosity? Adventure?” he asked himself. “Perhaps it is as simple as the Vietnamese proverb: ‘Go out one day; come back with a basket full of knowledge.’” But the knowledge Ehrhart and others came back with had nothing to do with Vietnam. This paper argues, through news media and memoir and building on the work of such scholars as Yen Le Espiritu, Vernadette Gonzalez, and Mimi Nguyen, that the vets’ postwar tourism offered not a staging ground for a reconciliation between Americans and Vietnamese but a white racial reconciliation between American men, a reconciliation that depended on the transformation of Vietnam into a different kind of imperial “home” for the soldier-turned-tourist.
Two Appeals to the World! W. E. B. Du Bois, Harry Truman, and the Turn from Human to Civil Rights
Modern Language Association
January 9–12, 2020
On October 23, 1947, W. E. B. Du Bois delivered the NAACP petition An Appeal to the World! to the United Nations. On the eve of the construction of the UN headquarters in Manhattan, the 155-page petition detailed three hundred years of anti-black racism in America and urged the UN to intervene. “A nation which boldly declared ‘That all men are created equal’ proceeded to build its economy on chattel slavery,” Du Bois wrote. “Its high and noble words are turned against it, because they are contradicted in every syllable by the treatment of the American Negro.” The petition hit the Truman administration, which had pushed hard to see the UN headquartered in the United States, where it hurt. Soon after, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, teaming with Simon and Schuster, published To Secure These Rights, in which it made a different kind of appeal to the world. The committee acknowledged that “our civil rights record has growing international implications” while insisting that the United States, with a people “drawn from all of the races of mankind,” could model “democracy, brotherhood, and human rights” for a decolonizing postwar world.
This paper considers how the United States policed the line between human and civil rights in the postwar years to contain radical antiracist movements at home and authorize imperial wars abroad. Scholars of “Cold War civil rights”––from Mary Dudziak and Brenda Plummer to Nikhil Singh and Chandan Reddy––suggest how the Cold War facilitated and contained the black civil rights movement, necessitating that the government respond to Soviet propaganda about Southern segregation without embracing structural changes that could be mistaken for communism. But the NCAAP petition and the President’s Committee report reveal how the legislative achievements and reformist limitations of the civil rights movement also depended on dropping the “human” for the “civil,” the international for the national, so that the United States could leverage human rights violations against other governments without risking them doing the same to it. The Cold War state sought to draw a hard line between human and civil rights, while Du Bois recognized the rhetorical value and radical potential of blurring that line. This paper returns to 1947 to chronicle how the United States internalized black antiracist struggles and externalized human rights violations, and how black internationalists imagined alternative meanings of the human and the civil.