The first three essays in this issue address interconnected themes of settler colonialism, race, migration, and capitalism, with particular attention to place, space, and the environment. We are also excited to present a forum, “On Sylvia Wynter and the Urgency of Humanist Revolution in the Twenty-First Century,” which reflects on the significance of Wynter’s critical thought to American studies, academe, and the world at large.
Our first Book Review looks at four texts on race, sex, and science, our second Book Review discusses works on reproductive justice and gestational surrogacy, and our third Book Review explores the world of zombies and its metaphors through three recent works on the topic. The Event Review features two sets of exhibits that were part of the Pacific Standard Time project held in the Los Angeles region in the fall of 2017. Finally, the two Digital Project Reviews feature a project on mapping Indigenous Los Angeles and one on black history in Tennessee.
Air Apparent: Amplifying the History of Air Playing, Air Guitar, and Air Bands in the United States
My article weaves together a series of gestural listening practices throughout the early twentieth century, showing how they culminated in air guitar playing as a distinctive cultural practice in the late twentieth century. I focus on how people played with playback devices, finding ways to configure listening technologies into interactive machines. And I argue these gestural listening practices often conjured problematic ideas of race, gender, and pathology, enabling people with privileged embodiments to play up bodily differences through instrumentalizing popular music reception.
I include many performance practices—both mundane listening and spectacular performances—as part of this history, including Joe Cocker’s performance at Woodstock, Elvis playing air guitar on a boat, heavy metal fans headbanging in the U.S. and U.K., Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and the recurring air guitar motif in Bill and Ted films. I demonstrate how these diffuse practices culminated in and reinforced air guitar a distinctive performance genre in 1980s and 1990s, catalyzing air band competitions, air guitar handbooks, and pantomime as a popular fad. Eventually air guitar competitions became an organized musical practice with global competitions in Finland and local competitions in the U.S. These competitions continue today, often in ways that contest the male-centered and white origins of the gestural practice. My article suggests these gestural listening practices are not simply esoteric or insignificant but rather part of a broader cultural shift toward motion-enabled and interactive technologies, which make use of gestural interfaces, wearable devices, and apps that record and aggregate embodied movement. Air playing reveals the complicated desires and practices that have motivated interactions with popular music playback technologies—an impulse and imperative that is becoming part of everyday contemporary listening habits.
“America’s Great Comeback Story”: The White Possessive in Detroit Tourism
Rebecca J. Kinney
This essay unpacks the narrative of Detroit as “America’s great comeback story” by suggesting that the narration of the city as an authentically American frontier of opportunity is rooted in what Aileen Moreton-Robinson calls “the white possessive.” In so doing, the essay emerges from and extends work that poses whiteness and property as co-constructions within the settler colonial state. I argue that tourism narratives of exploration and discovery, in which a majority black city is imagined as open, empty, and ready for exploration and settlement by adventurous explorers and urban pioneers, represent the possessive logics of whiteness. By analyzing the ways in which Detroit has been chronicled in travel narratives of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries such as the chronicles of urban explorers and the state-funded “Pure Michigan” tourism campaign, I show how the mythology of the frontier and its reliance on white possession as the defining narrative of place is redeployed in the attempt to (re)claim Detroit by the State of Michigan, corporate elites, and creative class workers.
Tourism is a way to understand how a location’s growth machines market and situate a place. In the article I discuss two tourism commercials produced by the State of Michigan’s Tourism and Economic Development sector. In these commercials, thirty years apart, we can see the shift in narration of the City of Detroit as place to be avoided to literally, to, as pitchman Tim Allen’s voiceover suggests, “It’s time to meet what’s new and what’s next in Detroit, the downtown playground of Pure Michigan.”
- The first, from 1986 is a three-minute, state-themed tourism ad was released with the tagline, “Yes Michigan, the Feeling’s Forever.” This commercial kicked off the state’s Yes!Michigan! campaign, inaugurated to run alongside the state’s 1987 sesquicentennial celebration. The commercial can be seen in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4ybpNJM26E
- This second set of videos, from 2016 are part the first ever Detroit-specific commercials produced by the State of Michigan. The commercials are part of the award-winning “Pure Michigan” travel campaign.
This is the 60-second commercial entitled “Detroit Soul” which I discuss in the article. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGS2Yt_59pg
The same images were cut into a 30-second version entitled “Story of Detroit” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkkUWRhZdzk
Finally, if you’re heading to Detroit for a visit here are two resources that offer tours of the city rooted in black, Indigenous, and activist history:
- Jamon Jordan and The Black Scroll Network, History & Tours, L.L.C: https://www.facebook.com/BlackLectureTours/posts/910531219064449
- Boggs Center Detroit Tours: http://boggscenter.org/
“Wynter with Fanon in the FLN”
This essay underscores the intellectual importance of Frantz Fanon for Sylvia Wynter’s body of work over the course of several decades. It reveals how she has engaged the complete Fanon so marvelously instead of the filtered Fanon of the U.S. academic establishment which came late to his writing and focuses almost exclusively on selected passages of Black Skin, White Masks (1952), his first book which was written before his revolutionary transformation in Algeria and continental Africa at large. From the mid-to-late twentieth century to her most recent publications of this twenty-first century, Wynter proffers extraordinary readings of Fanon from Black Skin, White Masks to The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and more. The focus here is how her new critical coinage of “mono-humanism” syncs with the Fanon of the Front de Libération National (FLN) or the articles he wrote for El Moudjahid in the middle of the Algerian Revolution and which were posthumously collected as Toward the African Revolution (1964). Following a Fanon unread and misread by “post-colonialism” and conventional academic intellectualism, Wynter continues to craft a heretical discourse on Western bourgeois humanism that echoes his unacknowledged discourse on the “rights of peoples” over and against the “Rights of Man.”
Based in France, PMN Éditions is a small young collective that publishes a range of radical texts in a revolutionary internationalist tradition, such as the first French translation of Huey P. Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide (featuring a fantastic preface by Ahmad Saadat, the currently imprisoned Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) as well as Assata Shakur’s autobiography – along with books by Dr. Samah Jabr of Ramallah and Mohamed Boudia of Algeria and the PFLP. As a view of its website will demonstrate, this exciting publishing project represents the essence of Fanon’s new-humanist writing for El Moudjahid and in Toward the African Revolution. “PMN” stands for “Premiers Matins de Novembre,” invoking the beginnings of the Algerian Revolution, which launched in the early morning hours of the first day of November in 1954.
Musically speaking, “Diaz” and “Donquishoot” are two members of MBS, the pioneering rap group from Algeria. MBS stands for “Le Micro Brise le Silence” or “The Microphone Breaks the Silence.” Their legacy is well-established in the Arabic and French-speaking world of music especially. “La Bataille d’Algers 2016” is the song made by two parts of the MBS whole; “La Bataille d’Algers 1954/2016,” one could say, is the music video they made by looping footage from Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film, The Battle of Algiers, which itself used Fanon’s writings to compose its cinematic script. The film, the revolution, and Fanon resound as live referents today here through Diaz and Donquishoot’s global Hip-Hop.
Abdenour Zhazha is a filmmaker from Blida, Algeria, the very place where Fanon would convert to revolution and begin to practice revolutionary psychiatry in Africa. The first of Zahzah’s cinematic projects on Fanon in Blida was a documentary. (The second now is a work-in-progress and a feature film.) The Africultures web portal offers some information in French as well as English on this Zahzah collaboration with Bachir Ridouh: Frantz Fanon, memoire d’asile (or “Frantz Fanon: Memories from the Asylum”).
La Rumeur is a radical Hip-Hop group comprised of four emcees based in the banlieues of France, where rap has been criminalized by the State and heavily associated with lumpen riot action. Indeed, this act would face a near decade-long lawsuit launched by the French Minister of the Interior under the Nicolas Sarkozy government. The charge was libel and the menacing tactic, ultimately, unsuccessful at least in legal terms. The YouTube page for La Rumeur is a rich resource. Refusing to equate justice with political integration or cultural assimilation, they create webzines as well as music and videos. For example, one track is entitled “Premier matin de Novembre.” Another is about the Parisian massacre of Algerians in 1961: “17 Octobre 61.” Then there is the track entitled “Peau noir masque blanc,” after Fanon of course. The group has been Fanonist since their first breath on record; and they can appreciatively deploy Fanon’s first book-work while remaining totally in tune with the rest of his work of revolution, in toto, like Wynter’s “The Ceremony Found.”
An e-journal, PROUD FLESH interviewed Sylvia Wynter for its fourth issue, on “Consciousness,” which was posted in 2006. The opening section of this exchange centers around Fanon, unsurprisingly. The rest of the discussion invokes him as well after “Fanon, 'The Man,' Humanism and ‘Consciousness’.”
Finally, on May 29, 2018, I delivered a lecture at the University of Vienna for the Department of African Studies. The title was “The Compete Fanon: African Revolution, Black Power Movement, and Neo-Colonial Imperialism (Beyond the Academic Myths of Post-Coloniality).” It was organized and videotaped by Dar al Janub, a fearless anti-racist association and peace initiative in Austria. The lecture surveys the Fanon’s writings as a whole, not excluding the revolutionary texts highlighted in “Wynter with Fanon in the FLN.”
Reproductive Justice and (the Politics of) Transnational Gestational Surrogacy
In my review essay, I discuss and contextualize five recent studies affiliated with the concept and activist practice of reproductive justice (“RJ”). Ross and Solinger have provided a general introduction to RJ, Briggs, Pande, Rudrappa and Jacobson specific focus studies; as part of the “ethnographic turn” the latter three are devoted to the realities, politics, and rhetoric of (transnational) gestational surrogacy as practiced in India and, in the case of Jacobson, the USA.
Next to Ross and Solinger’s “RJ primer,” the edited volume by Ross et al. might also be very helpful:
- Loretta Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples and Pamela Bridgewater, eds. Radical Reproductive Justice – Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique (New York: Feminist Press, 2017).
- Loretta Ross is co-founder of “SisterSong - Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective;”on her personal website she provides ample material and links to her work.
Together with Laura Briggs’ superb exploration of How all Politics Became Reproductive Politics in the USA, highlighting themes such as welfare, the care-work gap, immigration, structural infertility and ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies), gay marriage, and the foreclosure crisis, the book by Laury Oaks on American baby safe haven laws might also be of interest. She argues: “Safe haven advocacy campaigns conceal and advance antiabortion politics, stereotype marginalized women as bad mothers, encourage newborn adoption up the economic social hierarchy outside of established adoption norms, and transfer visibility away from other interventions that can support women and girls who are faced with a lack of resources during pregnancy and childbirth” (203);
- Laury Oaks, Giving Up Baby. Safe Haven Laws, Motherhood, and Reproductive Justice (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
- For a class room, P!nk’s song and especially the music video “What about Us” offer a powerful starting point for discussions about current social justice and politics issues.
In traditional surrogacy, a woman carries (a) child(ren) to which she is genetically related, since her oocyte(s) is/are used with donor sperm or sperm by the intended parent/father (be reminded of the Biblical antecedents – Hagar carries a child for Sarai and Abraham (Genesis 16:1-6) and Bilhah and Zilpah both bear two sons for Jacob and his wives Rahel and Lea (Genesis 30: 1-13).
Traditional surrogacy entered the general public’s awareness with the highly mediated case of “Baby M” (1985/86); it has become an (in)famous example for the ethical, emotional and legal difficulties traditional surrogacy can cause. Mary Beth Whitehead, contracted by William and Elizabeth Stern for $10,000 to carry a child via a traditional surrogacy arrangement using Mr. Stern’s sperm, refused to relinquish her parental rights post birth. She felt she could not part with the child which was genetically hers, and with which she had bonded over nine months of pregnancy. The Sterns sued and the New Jersey court ruled that the contract was binding and that Whitehead had no parental rights. Whitehead appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court which ruled in her favor that the contract was unenforceable. However, the court granted custody to the Sterns and visitation rights to Whitehead. And the Court also declared surrogacy in New Jersey illegal.
- The story about “Baby M” was turned into an ABC mini-series (Baby M), broadcast in 1988, and
- the surrogate, Mary Beth Whitehead, also published a book (written together with Loretta Schwartz-Nobel): A Mother’s Story: The Truth About the Baby M Case (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).
For details on the case, its reception and wider ramifications, one might start here:
- Joyce Peterson, “Baby M: American Feminists Respond to a Controversial Case,” Journal of Women’s History 28.2 (2016): 103-25.
- Debora L. Spar, The Baby Business. How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006).
This landmark decision, together with advances in medical technologies (IVF/ICSI), gradually shifted the practice of surrogacy to gestational surrogacy. Here, the surrogate is not genetically related to the child she carries; through IntraCytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), one oocyte (from the Intended Parent or a donor) is fertilized with one sperm (from the Intended Parent or a donor) ex utero and one to three blastocysts are transferred to the surrogate’s uterus.
- For details on the medical procedures of ARTs (Assisted Reproductive Technologies) cf. the webpages of the American Center for Disease Control.
- A video explaining IVF has been provided e.g. by Mark D. Hornstein, MD, Director of the Center for Infertility and Reproductive Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
That birthmother and genetic mother are now separated has created a new understanding of “mother.” In fact, a child can have no less than three “mothers” – a birth mother (the surrogate), a genetic mother (the egg donor) and a social mother (the Intended Parent). To nurture an embryo in utero therefore no longer automatically establishes (exclusive) motherhood status.
Research on surrogacy in the United States is somewhat rare. Helena Ragoné in her ethnographic study Surrogate Motherhood: Conception in the Heart (1994) had analyzed how “gift giving” was emphasized in the traditional surrogacy narratives over monetary aspects. Today, most surrogacies are gestational surrogacies, and for the North American context, Heather Jacobson’s book Labor of Love: Gestational Surrogacy and the Work of Making Babies (2016) on gestational surrogacy (stories) in the USA is, to my knowledge, a true trailblazer.
With gestational surrogacy, too, some famous “cases” have made the headlines, illuminating the potential complications and human tragedies.
In the case Johnson v. Calvert (1993),brought before the Supreme Court of California, the Calverts, publically presented as a white couple (they self-identified as mixed-race), had commissioned an African American woman, Anna Johnson, as a gestational surrogate. The relationship between the three deteriorated during Johnson’s pregnancy and after the child’s birth, both parties filed for custody. The court decision rested on the understanding that the commissioning woman, the woman who intended to raise the child, is the legal mother (and not the woman who has given birth to the child to whom she is also not genetically related).
- Mark Rose discusses the case in his “Mothers and Authors: Johnson v. Calvert and the New Children of Our Imagination” (Critical Inquiry 22.4 (1996): 613-33).
“Baby Gammy” was born by a Thai surrogate for an Australian couple. “Baby Gammy” has Down syndrome, the twin sister Pipah is “healthy.” After the twins were born, the IPs returned to Australia with Pipah and left the boy “Baby Gammy” in Thailand. Why they left the boy behind and what role the surrogate played has been contested. It was reported that the Australian IPs had deserted the boy because of his “disability” and a heart condition; this claim was supported by statements made by the intended father who admitted that had they known earlier in the surrogate’s pregnancy about the health status of the embryos, they would have asked the male embryo be terminated. However, in an interview for Australia’s Channel 9, the parents denied all allegations of desertion, claimed to have planned to bring the boy home to Australia as well, and accused the surrogate of having forced them to leave Gammy in her care. The IPs admitted, though, that after their return to Australia they had never tried to contact Gammy and his carers. When news made the headlines that the Australian intended father is a convicted child offender, the Thai surrogate tried to get custody for the girl, Pipah, as well. The Australian Family Court ruled that Pipah should “not be removed from the only family she has ever known” (ABC News, April 14, 2016). This human catastrophe, covered in the media worldwide, led to changes in Thai law: all forms of international, commercial, gestational surrogacy have been banned since July 2015.
Two additional texts which provide insight into the legal context and its solution:
- Jessica M. Caamano, “International, commercial, gestational surrogacy through the eyes of children born to surrogates in Thailand: a cry for legal attention,” Boston University Law Review 96.571 (2016): 571-607.
- Jon Fernquest, “No surrogacy services for foreign couples,” Bangkok Post, February 20, 2015.
“Baby Manji” Yamada’s Japanese parents split before the child was born in India by a surrogate mother. The Japanese woman did not take on parental responsibilities for Manji, but the father applied for custody. Since the birth certificate did not name a “mother,” the child could not receive either Indian or Japanese citizenship. Indian law prohibits adoption of female infants by single men, so that Manji was motherless and stateless in India until the Indian Courts found a way to issue a travel visa for Japan where the child was initially granted a one-year visa on humanitarian grounds and the family could apply for the daughter’s Japanese nationality when the father recognized his paternity. Since 2016, India, too, has closed its borders to international surrogacy.
Hundreds of newspaper articles have covered the case; for a summary of its genealogy and issues:
- Kari Points, “Commercial Surrogacy and Fertility Tourism in India – The Case of Baby Manji,” The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, 2009. Teaching Notes are also provided.
Three texts on transnational surrogacy, the law, and citizenship:
- Victoria R. Guzman, “A Comparison of Surrogacy Laws of the U.S. to Other Countries: Should There Be a Uniform Federal Law Permitting Commercial Surrogacy?” Houston Journal of International Law 38.2 (2016): 619-52.
- Seema Mohapatra, “Adopting an International Convention on Surrogacy – A Lesson from Intercountry Adoption,” Loyola University Chicago International Law Review 13.1 (2015): 25-55.
- Caitlin Pyrce, “Surrogacy and Citizenship: A Conjunctive Solution to a Global Problem,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 23.2 (2016): 925-52.
In recent years, a number of studies have been devoted to surrogacy in India (cf. footnotes 5-9 in the review essay). They range in their judgment of the practice from outright condemnation
- cf. Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s Swedish study with the programmatic title Being and Being Bought: Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self (North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2013),
to very neoliberal views of surrogates as “repropreneurs”
- cf. Charlotte H. Krolokke and Saumya Pant, “’I only need her uterus’: Neo-liberal discourses on Transnational Surrogacy,” NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 20.4 (2012): 233-48.
In the middle of the spectrum, so to speak, are the ethnographic studies by Pande and Rudrappa.
- Sharmila Rudrappa’s commentary on the 2016 anti-surrogacy legislation in India sums up some central points and concerns (“Why India’s Surrogacy Bill Is Bad For Women,” Huffington Post, August 27, 2016).
It is also noteworthy, that Alison Bailey had already in 2011 called for a framing of “normative and ethnographic responses to Indian surrogacy work as issues of Reproductive Justice” (716) to steer clear from both discursive colonialism (i.e. uncritically “writing Western moral values [...] onto Indian women’s lives” (712) and “weak moral absenteeism” (the potential to under-theorize “the structural harms and injustices shaping surrogacy workers’ lives” (715).
- Alison Bailey, “Reconceiving Surrogacy. Toward a Reproductive Justice Account of Indian Surrogacy,” Hypatia 26.4 (Fall 2011): 715-41).
Following Dorothy Roberts’ critique of the state as a degrader and manager of black women’s reproduction (in Killing the Black Body),
- Jennifer M. Denbow’s Governed Through Choice: Autonomy, Technology, and the Politics of Reproduction (New York: New York University Press, 2015)
looks at how conceptions of “free choice,” “informed consent” and autonomy serve and subvert the governance of women as reproductive sites with foci on abortion and voluntary sterilization.
Excellent collections of essays on ARTs in general and surrogacy in particular are:
- Martin Richards, Guido Pennings, John B. Appleby, eds., Reproductive Donation. Practice, Policy and Bioethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
- Miranda Davies, ed., Babies for Sale? Transnational Surrogacy, Human Rights, and the Politics of Reproduction (London: ZED Books, 2017).
- Yasmine Ergas, Jane Jenson and Sonya Michel, eds. Reassembling Motherhood. Procreation and Care in a Globalized World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
On (globalized) ARTs I wish to draw attention to:
- Marcia C. Inhorn, Cosmopolitan Conceptions: IVF Sojourns in Global Dubai (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
- Elizabeth F. S. Roberts, God’s Laboratory: Assisted Reproduction in the Andes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
- Charis Thompson, Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technologies (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
- Kalindi Vora, Life Support. Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Some women, who have employed a gestational surrogate to become mothers/parents, have written about their motivations for and perspectives on surrogacy, about their experiences as Intended Parents (“IPs”), and their personal roads to motherhood.
These “IP memoirs” (ESZ) are a distinct subgenre of “mommy lit.”
On “mommy lit:”
- Heather Hewett, “You are not Alone: The Personal, the Political, and the ‘New’ Mommy Lit,” in Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (New York: Routledge, 2005), 119-39.
On “IP memoirs:”
- Eva-Sabine Zehelein, “Sara, Bill Kristine, ... you’re pregnant!: Gestational Surrogacy, Biomedicalized Bodies and Reconceptualizations of Motherhood,” Hektoen International. A Journal of Medical Humanities. Fall 2017.
- Eva-Sabine Zehelein, “Mothers, ART and Narratives of (Be)longing,” CoSMo12 (2018): 77-94.
- Eva-Sabine Zehelein, “’India is our twins’ motherland’: Transnational Cross-Racial Gestational Surrogacy and the Maternal Body in “IP Memoirs,” Feminist Encounters – Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics 5/6 (2019): tba.
A memoir by a gay man and his partner who became parents to twins through an egg donor and a surrogate from Thailand is
- James Phillip’s Surrogacy: Our Family’s Journey (Kibworth: Matador, 2017).
- “Surrogacy: Wombs for Rent?” (by PBS) – a half hour documentary on gestational surrogacy in the USA for a general audience; featuring professor Debora Spar, author of The Baby Business. How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006).
- Frozen Angels (by Frauke Sandig and Eric Black, 2005) – a documentary on egg and sperm donation as well as surrogacy, with a focus on the USA; it is a German production, but the film is in English.
- Google Baby (by Zippi Brand Frank, 2009) – an Israeli documentary about egg donation and gestational surrogacy in India.
The BBC World Service has also devoted a radio episode to transnational gestational surrogacy in India:
- Your World: Womb for Rent (2011); it is available as a podcast.
- Baby Mama (directed by Michael McCullers, 2008) – a romantic comedy starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, set in the US.
THE (revived) fiction classic is certainly
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, originally published in 1985 and as timely as ever.
- The novel has been turned into a Hulu TV-series.
Also of interest might be Margaret Atwood’s Acceptance Speech of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (“Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels,” October 2017). Atwood lifted her lantern to some aspects of the “strange historical moment” we are living through. She said that today, The Handmaid’s Tale “no longer seems like a far-fetched dystopian fantasy. It has become too real. Red-clad figures are appearing in state legislatures in silent protest at the laws being enacted there, largely by men, to control women. Their aim seems to be to push back the clock, to the nineteenth century if possible. What sort of world do these legislators want to live in? They want a very unequal one: so much is clear. [...] The citizens of every country must ask themselves the same question: what sort of world do they want to live in?”
“It’s That Spanish Blood”: Langston Hughes Imagines Race in Harlem and the World
I first read Langston Hughes’s short story “Spanish Blood” in a wonderful collection entitled Beloved Harlem: A Literary Tribute to Black America’s Most Famous Neighborhood, from the Classics to the Contemporary, edited by William H. Banks, Jr. (New York Broadway Books, 2005). https://www.amazon.com/Beloved-Harlem-Literary-Neighborhood-Contemporary/dp/0767914783
In an explanatory note describing Hughes’s background and influence, the editor explains that “’Spanish Blood’ is a story set in East Harlem in the 1950s,” and dates its publication as “1959.”
As readers will see from my article in American Quarterly, I found “Spanish Blood” to be a fascinating piece that significantly expands our understanding of Hughes’s transnational inclinations, and also his interest in the social dynamics of racial exchange in Harlem. The fact that the story has received relatively little critical attention (in the voluminous scholarship on Hughes) intrigued me, and as I was thinking about why that might be the case I began to investigate “American Studies” questions, around production, consumption and circulation. My research assistant at the time, Tom Berenato, discovered that “Spanish Blood” was originally published in 1934, not 1959.
Rather than approach this detail as an error, I find that Banks’s misdating helps us think about the relationship between the many lives of a literary artifact and historical conditions of production and interpretation. In the first phase of publication history, "Spanish Blood” appeared in three “little magazines,” Metropolis, Modern Story and Stag, in 1934, 1935 and 1937 respectively. At any time during this period the story could speak to racial anxieties related to dwelling and more, as my article discusses. When Hughes included “Spanish Blood” in the 1952 collection Laughing to Keep from Crying, it was nestled among other stories about the ironies of race, and three stories therein, “Little Old Spy,” “Tragedy at the Baths,” and “Powder-White Faces,” actually foregrounded the internationalism that was on the minds of so many at the time.
And indeed the 1940s and 1950s were a time of continued tensions between a variety of social groups in Harlem, but with a slightly different edge, as Hughes himself asked after the promise of integration during World War II: “What happens to a dream deferred.”
Recounting and describing these different moments suggests at the very least that it is not true that “Spanish Blood” was not about the 1950s, even though it had been first published many years earlier. That imagined shift, from 1935 to 1959, reverberates for us, as we think about how we might read this story now, in 2018, amidst intense debates about the racial claims to place, and the represented competition between minoritized peoples. We might add that a diagnosis of our political present should also be informed by careful analysis of the history of coalitions and solidarities between racial and ethnic minorities [see Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office, by Frederick Douglass Opie (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); and http://www.latinorebels.com/2014/12/26/solidarity-brief-accounts-of-black-and-latino-unity-from-the-late-1800s-to-the-present/
Hughes was an observer of and participant in Harlem. The Academy of American Poets has assembled a wonderful walking tour of the Harlem that they imagine Hughes to have been moving through in the 1920s: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/walking-tour-langston-hughess-harlem-1926. But to complicate the matter slightly, we might also think about all sorts of edges Hughes lived at, and was interested in. He moved into his house, on 20 East 127th Street in Harlem in the early 1940s [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxP2fSgSpX0]. Certainly this address, above 125th Street, was in black Harlem, but Hughes, who we know walked extensively, might certainly have crossed more fully into “eastern” and otherwise racially and ethnically defined sections of the space. And in unpacking his transnational imaginary, how can we not put into the mix the fact that Hughes traveled to Cuba in the 1930s, walking the streets of Havana, and thinking about race, language and space in a way that surely influenced what he saw in Harlem. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/harlem-havana-langston-hughes-helped-nation-connect-its-african-roots-n781556