Reading the Hidden Racial Life of American Fiction

Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination
By Jess Row

If you were looking for a primer on our nation’s ability to discuss its racial history, you couldn’t do much better than the remarks by the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, on the eve of the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings in June on H.R. 40. If passed, the bill would allow the formation of a commission to study — just study — the possibility of reparations for slavery and subsequent racially discriminatory government policies. But McConnell couldn’t abide discussion. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” he said at a news conference ahead of the hearings. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African-American president.”

McConnell’s remarks bear the rhetorical hallmarks of white America’s stunted engagement with race: the attempt to isolate anti-blackness to the institution of chattel slavery; the gesture toward self-exoneration through a rejection of personal culpability for slavery; and, most important, an insistence that discrete acts of atonement nullify the need for conversation about race. In his new essay collection, “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination,” the novelist Jess Row trains his attention on moments like McConnell’s news conference, when American discourse on race addresses anti-blackness by not addressing it at all — or, at least, not in a serious way, one that would threaten white people’s place atop the nation’s racial hierarchy.

Row, whose 2014 novel “Your Face in Mine” satirized liberal desires to dissolve racial difference into a vague concept of “togetherness,” works like a Freudian analyst in these searching, loosely structured essays. Armed with a bevy of sources, from Flannery O’Connor to Eve Sedgwick, he casts his eye upon a diverse swath of American culture in order to suss out what it has to tell us about race — even, or especially, when it doesn’t mean to tell us anything.

“In these essays I’m only interested in confessions, proclamations of guilt, sudden or absolute or unquestioned epiphanies … to the degree they can be named, understood, redescribed, even satirized,” he writes, charting the critical ground he hopes to cover. Confession isn’t as generative for him as what he calls “the inner racial life of Americans,” an “unconscious life embodied in American fictions, which often sustains, and sometimes undermines, the political conditions of white supremacy the country still inhabits.”

If, as Row puts it, American fiction most often addresses race through silences and omissions, he wants to force these silences to speak, to reveal themselves as self-serving — meant to protect white supremacy. It’s a project that owes a debt to Toni Morrison’s 1992 book “Playing in the Dark.” Morrison wrote of an “Africanist” presence in American literature that amounted to no authentic black presence at all, only static figures representing “notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy or routine dread.” Row extends that analysis by turning his attention to the giants of postwar American literature, in whose work new forms of marginalization take root.

In wrestling with such fiction’s relationship to race, his collection draws its title and central concept from a distinctly 20th-century phenomenon: the exodus of white Americans from inner cities as the federal government experimented with integration policies and social unrest overtook communities across the nation. In his 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that white flight was a socially engineered conspiracy, an attempt to maintain white political and economic domination at a moment when black activism and federal intervention threatened to erode both. For Row, there’s an analogue in contemporary fiction: white authors fleeing the problem of race. Literary white flight — into imagined worlds from which black people and the urgent questions their presence begs have been absented — is no less a matter of power.

Row demonstrates this through astute close readings in which he analyzes postwar fiction with a loving sternness that avoids didacticism even as he pingpongs among cultural artifacts, decoding everything from Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” to emo music. In the title essay, he considers the setting of nearly all Anne Tyler’s work: Baltimore, particularly the neighborhood of Roland Park. Tyler is a writer “rooted in a place that is so comfortable, unthreatening and familiar that it becomes almost featureless, a state of psychic stability that needs no explicit expression.” So, too, Roland Park is a site of timeless normalcy, a place where the white world “will never be significantly altered.”

Yet this normalcy depends on the general absence of black people. If Tyler were to give them a voice, they might recount stories like the one told by a former colleague of Row’s who grew up in Baltimore. “When I was young, our name for Roland Park was Hang-a-nigger,” he tells Row. “My parents made sure I knew never to go up there, not for any reason.”

The effect of literary white flight is to regulate the American imagination and reproduce racialized power. Flight allows whiteness to function as if it were universal, a stand-in for “human,” rather than a particular racial category that relies on blackness for its expression. What Row desires is fiction that acknowledges the ways in which Americans are entwined with one another physically, psychically and socially. In the ambitious experimental essay “Parts of Us Not Made at Home,” he attempts to model such writing by delving into his own interracial background. He writes of his great-grandmother Amy Brazil, a woman who passed as white but who was an immigrant from the Azorean island of Flores and was most likely mixed-race, as many Flores islanders are. In uncovering this history, and perhaps even extending it through fiction, Row hopes to reveal stories of racial purity as what they are — fictions that we must counter with new ones.

For all of these inventive and insightful readings, however, it’s unfortunate that Row does not suggest concrete strategies for intervening in the stalled conversation he picks apart. When he recommends specific texts — Theresa Cha’s experimental novel “Dictee,” James Alan McPherson’s classic story “Elbow Room” or James Baldwin’s “Another Country” — his glosses fail to identify what, on an aesthetic level, makes these titles worthy of admiration. In any case, it seems beside the point to uphold writers of color who do this work, as they have since the nation’s founding, when Row’s chief concern is that white writers should develop their own means for thinking critically about race.

It doesn’t help that the book includes some fumbling gestures. At one point, Row suggests that calling South Dakota’s Black Hills mountain range by the name the Lakota call it, “Khe Sapa,” might be a way of registering racial injustice. “Is it a self-conscious and ludicrous performance of guilt?” he muses. “Maybe I sound like Kevin Costner, in ‘Dancing With Wolves.’” Reading this, I can’t but feel that if one must wonder at such a thing, you should think twice about writing it.

In “Eating the Blame,” an essay that posits Sedgwick’s notion of “reparative writing” as an alternative to a facile liberalism, he announces that he will donate his book advance to a Native-owned art collective in South Dakota. It’s a strange gesture: The essay purports to be about aesthetics and racial justice in writing, only to mutate into a meditation on charity.

But perhaps such disconcerting moments are an inherent feature of Row’s project: How can a white author not stumble when addressing such a fraught topic? “There are only more or less awkward ways for me to name” racial injustice, Row says of the ongoing conversation he hopes we’ll join him in. Despite, or perhaps because of, these flaws and the discomfort they inspire, we should accompany Row through this important inquiry.

Ismail Muhammad is the reviews editor at The Believer.

Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination
By Jess Row
Illustrated. 310 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

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