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Gerald Horne. The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States.

Gerald Horne. The Color of Fascism: Lawrence Dennis, Racial Passing, and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism in the United States. New York: New York UP, 2006. 253 pp. $45.00.

This is a fascinating book not simply for what it tells about its subject (Lawrence Dennis, a "Negro" born in 1893 who "passed" and by the 1930s served as America's principal fascist theoretician), but for what, alas, it cannot tell us. As we shall see there are many mysteries about Dennis's life and career, but perhaps the most perplexing is why a black man would embrace an ideology whose tenets implicitly forbade African Americans their place in the sun, not to mention other pariah ethnicities. To be fair, Dennis, whose mother was black, never publicly denied his ancestry but simply managed to evade such inquiries when suspicions were aroused. Nor were such suspicions confined to paranoid white supremacists but to liberals and other assorted leftists as well. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, in The Politics of Upheaval, devotes five or six pages to him and resignedly refers to him as "a dark and saturnine figure." Perhaps to deflect such questions and to affirm his nativist bona tides, Dennis cast himself as being vaguely hostile to Jews--as were most Americans. He attended German-American Bund and America First rallies and spoke favorably of the views of the anti-Semitic priest Charles Coughlin, the autocratic Huey Long, and the isolationist Charles Lindbergh (who feared, incidentally, for the continued dominance of the white race). Abroad he sought successfully to interview Ezra Pound, Mussolini, Goebbels, Goering, and Rudolph Hess. Needless to say there were suspicions, though never proved, that Dennis's activities were funded at least in part by German and Italian propaganda ministries. True or not, Dennis seems to have prospered through the Depression years during which he lectured and published fight-wing books, articles, and newsletters. Ironically, at his sedition trial in the early 1940s, he tried to hire a Jewish lawyer to defend him.

If I follow Horne's argument correctly, Dennis's views do not seem to have evolved much during the decade that led up to World War II. He believed in a ruling capitalist elite that might grant some economic choices to the bourgeoisie but would otherwise take charge and determine the major components of the economy. Since the intertwined complexities of the economy cannot easily be understood by the masses, their support could best be won by appealing to their nationalist, ethnic, and racial biases. But these of course can get out of hand. Indeed Dennis seems to have suggested to Nazi officials that he believed German anti-Semitism too vicious, and that Germans should deal with Jews the way white Americans deal with black Americans. Dennis's more overt espousal of fascism did not, however, become apparent until the mid-1930s. He had worked at a high level for Wall Street banking houses during the Hoover years and on FDR's assumption to office in 1933, he aspired to join the new administration. His ambitions were not as crazy as they sound. Mussolini's fascist model economy probably influenced New Deal thinking. One thinks, for instance, of Roosevelt's National Recovery Act (NRA) whose purpose was to leverage prices, production, and distribution under government direction. In any event, FDR probably thought of Dennis as a kind of loony, while Dennis himself appears to have become more and more convinced of the inevitable triumph of fascism.

Although Horne tells us he cannot account for all the reasons for Dennis's attraction to fascism, he believes that one reason has to be America's all-pervading racism. Home parenthetically informs us he has no quarrel with those who did "pass" but suggests that some among them assumed racist conservative or reactionary personae to stave off fears they might be found out. He further suggests that insight into this phenomenon may be found in Carl Offord's The White Face, Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth, and Richard Wright's unpublished "Black Hope." There are of course any number of other novels by African American authors that deal with passing. These, too, throw light on the peculiarities of their protagonists' transracial psychology. Nor are such fictional figures wholly confined to African American authorship. I would add the problematic characters of Faulkner's Light in August or Philip Roth's The Human Stain. But finally the underlying issue of Horne's book is not Dennis himself--but racism, stupid, wasteful, immoral, and oppressive.

Although Home deplores Dennis's politics, his snobbery, his arrogance, and his rather flattering self-assessments, one gets the feeling that there lies somewhere in the tone of this book a kind of grudging admiration. After all, in his way, Dennis did beat the system--and not simply as America's prime intellectual fascist, but in prior years as an internationally renowned and celebrated boy preacher drawing together white and black audiences. In addition he served as an officer in the military police in World War I, and later as a State Department representative in middling diplomatic posts in Eastern Europe and Central America. In his teen years, Dennis determinedly cast off his mother (his white father died when Dennis was "very young") and attended Exeter and later Harvard. But Horne does not tell us how he managed to pay for his education. Indeed much of Dennis's personal life is given to us in large general outlines while considerable portions of the book focus on Dennis's writings and ideas. The latter derive chiefly from Dennis's papers at Stanford as well as information in FBI files (here, Horne mordantly remarks that the FBI seemed more interested in Dennis's racial origins than in his presumed subversive activities). During World War II, Dennis was tried for sedition along with twenty-eight others, some of these fanatic anti-Semites, Nazis, and assorted reactionary cuckoos. All of them were exonerated in a botched and sloppy federal prosecution. But in its aftermath Dennis never seems to have regained his audience. Fewer and fewer readers subscribed to his newsletter and he himself looked to be drifting gradually leftward, now openly asserting racism as being inimical to America's world interests. His second wife divorced him and despite their curiosity, he never seems to have disclosed his racial past to his grown daughters. Still, at the time of his death in 1971, he had grown an Afro hairdo signaling, perhaps, something about himself. Whatever that may be, the story Horne tells is surely a piece of Americana about which we might all feel a bit queasy.

Reviewed by

Edward Margolies

City University of New York, Emeritus
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Author:Margolies, Edward
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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