The Technology of Race: White Supremacy and Scientifiction.
While it is something of a critical commonplace to note that sf is "largely 'color-blind,' depicting racial discrimination as a relic of the past and races as a biological fiction" (Lavender 18), this article argues that some early sf, mostly published in Hugo Gernsback-helmed "scientifiction" magazines between 1926 and 1935, responds to the "problem of the color line" by explicitly reframing race in technological terms--that is, by imagining race as subject to some mad inventor's newest technological device. These imaginary technologies render race inessential, something that can be changed with the touch of a button. In doing so, these tales of technologically mediated race can destabilize social hierarchies predicated on a fiction of racial fixity. But rather than leaning into the revolutionary implications of imagining race as technology, scientifiction tales work to close the rupture in racial essentialism. The ways that they do this collectively prefigure a more general solution to racial strife: color-blindness. In other words, sfs frequent depictions of color-blind futures are not just a trope or a description of what sf authors believe the future will be, but in fact function as a strategy, as a solution to the problem of the color line.
This color-blind approach works a lot like evasion, pushing race into the background so as to avoid the difficult conversations a mature discussion would entail--as Mark Bould puts it, "if race was going to prove unimportant, why even bother thinking about it, when energies could instead be devoted to more pressing matters, such as how to colonize the solar system or build a better robot?" (177). The color-blind approach of sf is more than mere evasion, more than a way to define the genre's concerns as technological rather than social or bodily, and more than a way to cater to the racial anxieties of the genre's presumptively white readership (though it is all those things). Rather, sfs supposedly color-blind vision of the future scripts a particular kind of response to the problem of the color line, one characterized by a careful balance of erasure and misdirection. (1)
To better understand the history of sf's color-blindness, this article looks at a collection of early sf stories I call "techno-passing"--that is, stories that have, as their technological novum, a fantastical technology that changes one's appearance from phenotypically white to phenotypically black or vice versa. These stories are especially useful for probing the role of race in early sf because their racial themes are explicitly laid out, rather than sublimated into the parables of aliens or robots that passed for racial engagement in much post-Gernsback genre-sf. This explicit engagement with race helps to make sfs racial politics more obvious, and constitutes an unacknowledged branch in the genre's lineage.
The color-blind approach common to later sf did not spring forth fully formed, but rather can be traced back to the overt racism that structured early genre-sf. Racism is encoded in the DNA of early American sf in much the same way that colonialism structures the early British sf John Rieder analyzes in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. By looking at the way early sf pulps theorize race, we can get a sense of how these marginal publications helped to script a theorization of race that later becomes embedded in science fictional discourses; discourses which, by the dawn of our current century, are tough to distinguish from technocratic discourses writ large. American sf emerges at a time when, as Saidiya Hartman puts it, "the abstractness and instability of rights make possible their resignification" (122-23). Technopassing stories address this instability and participate in a resignification of racial hierarchy--genre-sf mostly uses the techno-passing trope to reinscribe the familiar hierarchy, though George Schuyler's 1931 techno-passing satire Black No More demonstrates the subversive range of potential rewritings.
It is easy enough to reduce sfs early racism to its historical context--and certainly much of the casual racism of the early Edisonades and their immediate sf descendants can be seen as a reflection of the racist tropes of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century popular culture writ large. (2) But putting racism in the context of technocratic fantasy, as pulp sf does, also performs a particular sort of work, resignifying the rights of Man--that is, the subject of liberal humanism; he whose rights are self-evident--as technocratic. Hugo Gernsback's eponymous character in Ralph 124C 41+ (1911) is a case in point: a universally recognized genius, Ralph drifts through a series of melodramatic happenings, saving what and whomever he deems valuable through the deployment of high-tech inventions that allow him to master any situation. The "+" at the end of his name is especially significant as he is "one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name" (1, italics in original), marking Gernsback's ubermensch as superior in a public and almost instantly recognizable way--not quite the visual mark of positive difference that whiteness was, but a rough literary equivalent. The plot of this serialized story often pauses for extended descriptions of the fictive science behind his fanciful inventions, explaining to the (only slightly less superior) reader what their hero is doing, implicitly involving them in the currents of technological mastery that Ralph embodies. This somewhat awkward narrative tendency gives the story the explicitly didactic and implicitly political function that Gernsback later formalized in his editorials.
Techno-passing stories in pulp sf magazines organize racism into technocultural narratives, often featuring a protagonist with whom the reader is strongly urged to identify, and whose position with respect to the technocratic ideal is also a position in an explicitly racial hierarchy. As John Huntington notes, though the figure of the genius often forms the center of classical sf texts, the genre works less to emphasize this genius's exceptionality than to naturalize a genius-centric world: "The science fiction imagination ... trusts that a technocracy will inevitably be also a meritocracy. The genius, science fiction's version of the technocratic hero, does not have to earn status. The achievements of the genius, like the 'works' of the Calvinist elect, merely confirm the correctness of the technocratic selection" (Huntington 4, italics in original). This is one way that a putatively progressive, forward-looking genre is able to refigure socially conservative positions: by relegating racial issues to the background, color-blind sf effectively confirms the correctness of the existing order. Contemporary racial problems will be fixed in the normal course of things; no need, then, to give them any further thought.
Early scientifiction stories helped to establish what counted as an important technocratic problem and what didn't. These decisions are necessarily political: "Popular science fiction, both in individual works and in its conversation with itself as a genre, is a thinking through, in a way impossible to the technocrats themselves, of the oncoming paradigm" (Huntington 6). In the case of early sf, that "oncoming paradigm" threatened the existing racial order by challenging white supremacy. In the pulp techno-passing stories examined below--Mort Weisinger's "Pigments Is Pigments," Kathleen Ludwick's "Dr. Immortelle," Charles Gardner Bowers's "Black Hand," and David H. Keller's four-part story series "The Menace"--the threat to white supremacy posed by emerging black middle and creative classes is contained by reimagining race as a form of cultural technology that validates the contemporary racial hierarchy. Reading these techno-passing stories together can help to desublimate the prehistory of sf's racial color-blindness, while reading them against Schuyler's politically subversive techno-passing novel can suggest some alternatives to naive color-blindness.
Passing in Early Genre-SF
At the same time that Hugo Gernsback was first formalizing "scientifiction," the Harlem Renaissance was bringing black culture into contact with white hegemony in potentially dangerous (to white supremacy) ways. In some Renaissance texts, passing--the transgressive potential for some black people to visually pass as white--functioned as an icon for the anxieties of the shifting racial landscape. Transferred to technoculture, these anxieties are less about the instability of racial essentialism than about the danger they posed to the existing structures of social power. Unlike passing narratives such as James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) or Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), which focus on black characters who, by accident of appearance, are able to move through society as white people, the characters in techno-passing stories are unambiguously white or black prior to technological intervention. The technology that enables (or forces) them to appear as members of a different race creates a sudden, violent rupture in their own identity and constitutes an equally sudden and potentially violent threat to the hierarchy grounded in that identity.
The techno-passing stories of genre-sf work to reify the existing racial order, variously suggesting the naturalness of and the danger posed by changes to racial hierarchy. They do so by developing an understanding of what Beth Coleman would later call "Race as Technology." Her understanding of race and technology is predicated on the idea that "technological agency speaks to the ways by which external devices help us navigate the terrain in which we live" (177). Following the collapse of the Reconstruction, a racial system developed in America that functions like a "'levered mechanism,' a thing that is not the main engine of a system but rather an internal part that keeps all running smoothly" (178). The influx of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during and after the First World War threatened racial mechanisms (geographic and ideological) that allowed American society to function as smoothly as it did, at least for white folks, as evidenced in no small part by the variety of racialized legal regimes (known colloquially as Jim Crow laws) that sought to secure a racialized hierarchy against a shifting social order.
The early techno-passing stories meditate on this theme. Three short entries in this sub-sub-sub-genre each reveal one aspect of the anxieties addressed by the techno-passing trope. Mort Weisinger's 1935 "Pigments Is Pigments," for instance, tells a brief story of an inventor, Bob Raynell, who exacts revenge on his erstwhile business partner Max Dribben by turning the greedy capitalist black, literally taking his whiteness for ransom. The capitalist readily offers half of his fortune to get his whiteness back, though he is displeased by the results: "It was true. His face was a snowy white. He gasped. 'From negro to albino,' he muttered to himself, savagely" (1213). In a panic, he offers the rest of his fortune to be turned a "normal" shade of white, a bribe that Raynell accepts before explaining the process, emphasizing that, had Dribben simply waited, he would have turned a "normal" shade of white without intervention. The story is played for laughs (Dribben admits Raynell's superiority, and Raynell gives back the second half of the fortune), but its humor is instructive. As Cheryl Harris argues, whiteness functions as property in American jurisprudence, a legal paradigm that figured racial passing as a form of theft. In practice, this property often takes the form of relatively intangible access to opportunities but, intangible or not, the price it commands is significant. The humor of the story comes from the inventor's ability to manipulate the capitalist's "possessive investment" in his own whiteness (to use George Lipsitz's formulation), first by literally taking away his whiteness, and then by extorting a second payment when the "cure" proves too effective.
The ironic twist at the end posits the inventor as a figure who understands and manipulates whiteness better than his inferior foes. Its novum also papers over the rupture in racial essentialism caused by vitiligo (which results in a loss of skin pigmentation, and whose cause is still unknown). Inasmuch as whiteness is figured as a static, legal category--which it must be if it is to be property--then any scientific fact that challenges the "naturalness" of skin color as a marker of race poses an ideological challenge to white supremacy. Weisinger's story offers one strategy for responding to this challenge, by embedding it in a tale where racial ambiguity is a joking rather than a serious matter. This tactical trivialization extends from the title (a nonsensical pun on the more famous Ellis Parker Butler short story "Pigs Is Pigs," first published in 1905) all the way to the final line, where the title is delivered as a punchline:
"'I learned another thing today, Bob,' laughed Dribben, considerably relieved now. 'What's that?' asked Raynell. 'Pigments is Pigments!'" (1254, italics in original). Butler's story famously pokes fun at a railway agent's literalism and is itself built on an absurd literalist premise. (3) This punning reference suggests that any racial anxieties induced by vitiligo are merely absurd, overly literal extrapolations.
A less absurd example, Kathleen Ludwick's 1930 short story "Dr. Immortelle," implicitly incorporates conservative racial politics into a narrative with considerable racial instability. This story follows a more overtly romantic trajectory, clearly indebted to Dracula but spun to be scientific rather than supernatural. The plot pivots on the self-sacrifice of an old slave, Victor de Lyle, who was turned white by his mad-scientist master a century or so before the narrative begins. The master discovered a way to stay alive indefinitely by transfusing himself with the blood of children; he forces his slave to undergo the same treatment, slowly whitening him by transfusing him with the blood of docile white children. By the narrative present, they have settled in a town and employed a beautiful white woman who is the love-object of the story's narrator. The woman's beauty and goodness eventually works on Victor, who chooses to kill his master and himself rather than harm the white woman. The story ends with the narrator congratulating himself on his good fortune in landing such a superior bride.
The racial transformation of the story does touch on the history of racial mixing in the US inasmuch as it shows such "whitening" to be a function of the desires of evil white masters, but it frames this history in such a way as to neutralize (or neuter) the former slave: Victor, despite his whiteness and perpetual youth, does not desire the woman for himself, but rather works to secure the desire of a white couple by taking himself out of the picture. The story functions as an inversion of contemporary discourses of black men's supposed sexual aggressiveness. These discourses, which often underwrote the extrajudicial violence of the lynch mob, are inverted but not subverted: Victor, the "black" man, still dies for the sake of a white woman's virtue. Though race may shift through technological means, the racialized character's structural position vis-a-vis the white characters never changes.
Framing racial purity in this way serves to reinscribe racial hierarchies by other means, echoing the legal and cultural efforts Saidiya Hartman describes in Scenes of Subjection:
The cultivation of proper conduct exceeded admonishments about duty and defiance; indeed, what amounted to the self-immolation of the free individual was required for the reconciliation of former masters and slaves. Not only were the freed encouraged to be subservient, obedient, and humble and remain with their former owners until death, but also they were asked to refrain from asserting their liberty in every meaningful and imaginable way. (149)
Ludwick extends this notion to include even those whose race is technologically mediated--that is, she rearticulates an older mode of subjugation in light of race's (technological) constructedness, repeating a move described by Hartman as replacing "the whip" with "the will": "In the case of the freed, the cultivation of conscience operated in the whip's stead as an overseer of the soul, although the use of compulsion was routinely employed against those seemingly remiss in their duties" (126).
A third story, also brief, introduces a surprising note of sophistication to the techno-passing trope. Charles Bowers's 1931 story "The Black Hand" offers a quick narrative about a new surgical procedure, as an executed black man's hand is transplanted onto a white artist amputee. Though medically speaking the operation is a total success, the artist eventually becomes unhinged, first losing his air of refinement, then becoming a serial killer (exclusively targeting black men), before being committed to a mental hospital where he finally kills himself by severing the artery on the offending hand. Interestingly, the psychiatrist's report that relays this information blames the artist's breakdown purely on the psychological trauma associated with the miscegenated hand.
A generous reader could take this as a parable condemning white intolerance, though the story doesn't quite support such a reading. That is, in the context of early-twentieth century white supremacy, the story reads as a reactionary parable about the dangers of miscegenation, even when said miscegenation is performed for the benefit of a white genius. But the story's "scientific" conclusion ultimately does lay the blame for the white man's insanity at his own feet: "Summary: A patient with a negative psychiatric history became criminally insane following a graft of a negro's arm, although the operation was a physical and physiological success. From this we may conclude that it is advisable for a surgeon to consider the mental, as well as physical, aspects of any such similar operation" (923). The psychological, rather than physiological, explanation functionally acknowledges the groundlessness of anti-miscegenation fears, while the passive voice of this conclusion ("it is advisable for a surgeon to consider ...") rhetorically erases any agency that may be exercised to try to change this psychology.
The Technology of Whiteness
Each of the preceding stories presents one aspect of a technocultural engagement with the notion of whiteness: its property value, its naturalized structural position, and its anxieties, respectively. At stake in all three is the notion that new technology--which we can read as a metonym for modernity--exposes the constructedness of race. Following Coleman, we can understand race to function as a sort of technology in these stories, and as Coleman argues, this acknowledgment can be used to destabilize racial discourses, though for these sf stories the potential instability of race represents an anxiety to be contained rather than a potential to be exploited. Each story offers a strategy for dealing with this anxiety, but it is the earliest, lengthiest, and most sophisticated example of techno-passing in genre-sf that best articulates a programmatic response to the technology of race: David H. Keller's "The Menace." This sequence of four loosely connected stories, published together in the summer 1928 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, depicts the various conspiracies of a group of black scientists and entrepreneurs called "The Powerful Ones," always printed in caps.
David H. Keller, MD, is one of those mostly forgotten early sf forefathers, a prolific writer for Gernsback who never quite made the jump to paperback sf and the genre's collective memory. His body of work deserves more consideration than it has hitherto received, though not because it stands out stylistically or politically from the mass of early pulp sf. Rather, Keller (described by R. D. Mullen as "a psychiatrist whose professional work was mostly at insane asylums and whose crude stories on psychological and sociological themes made him for some years the most popular contributor the SF pulps" [268-69]) played an important role in the development of pulp sf's underlying cultural conservatism because his writing is plain and quite explicit about its politics.
"The Menace" was enthusiastically received by Gernsback even though it almost completely contravenes the Gernsbackian ideal: at first blush, it is not clear what the story offers in the way of a technological idea that will "prove an incentive" for some future inventor. Its fantastical technologies are all developed and deployed by The Powerful Ones rather than the odd protagonist, Taine, and they are threats rather than exciting possibilities, needing to be circumvented rather than deployed.
For instance, in the first story Taine is called on to infiltrate the mysterious Powerful Ones after some unknown white corpses turn up and a few government agents disappear. He poses as a light-skinned black millionaire, eventually discovering that The Powerful Ones were formed out of a desire to find a technology to turn themselves phenotypically white. They first invented a device that converts sea-water into gold, and then used that unlimited funding to underwrite the rest of their plan. By the time Taine is subjected to their monologue, they have successfully developed a serum to make themselves appear white. They used this new technology to infiltrate elite American society, amassing great privilege and influence that they then used to found and fund new projects, all aimed at the eventual goal of social equality. This may seem like an oddly progressive project for criminal masterminds, but Keller would disagree. The editorial note at the beginning of the story promises "you will follow the adventures of the arch villains breathlessly until the end" (382). What the story delivers is a group of evil geniuses who scheme not for wealth (The Powerful Ones have an infinite supply of gold, after all) or power, or their own perverse pleasures. Their ambitions are greater than any of that: they aim to destroy whiteness.
The absurdity of this plot is partly by design--later accounts of Keller note his willingness to engage in satire and humor (4)--and partly evidence of a tendency identified by George Lipsitz: "that white Americans are encouraged to invest in whiteness, to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power, and opportunity" (vii). The value of investing in whiteness is made clear by The Powerful Ones' single-minded determination to steal it for all African Americans, even when they have already attained a lush and privileged lifestyle as wealthy and apparently white elites.
This first story makes for some especially strange reading for the modern scholar because it incorporates a fairly sophisticated attack on the concept of racial essentialism and its corollary white supremacy. The scientist who developed the race-changing technology, for instance, argues that "the difference between the negro and the white is mainly a matter of pigment" (388), and the tremendous success of those who are passing at infiltrating the highest levels of commerce and society, to say nothing of exceeding the white world's technological and scientific achievements, should properly read as an indictment of the regressive racial legislation of the day. The implication is that, freed of the social constraints of race, African Americans would outshine all others. Add in the leader of The Powerful Ones, a powerful black woman whom Taine calls "Ebony Kate" and who scorns her followers for their desire to be white, and you have all the makings of a black power fantasy.
The fantasy, though, is played for laughs. The stories function as satire, apparently intended to undercut the issues they raise. What reads today as honest critique was likely read by original audiences as a joke. Just as in "Pigments is Pigments," the notion that racial difference is merely a matter of pigment is laughable. The strangely un-heroic Taine works as a parody of the Gernsbackian ubermensch because no such heroics are needed: the threat is ridiculous, pre-destined to fail. The force of this satire comes from the script it offers to the technocratic reader for how to engage with any apparent threat to white supremacy: treat it as absurd.
Across the four stories, the geniuses are uniformly the black men and women struggling against their position in society, while Taine, whom we are invited to call the hero of the stories, is a smallish and somewhat effeminate man who, at different points, is able to pass both as an "octoroon" (a person with a one-eighth black ancestry) and as a charming young woman. He overcomes the hi-tech inventions of the evil Powerful Ones variously through luck, race-baiting motivational speeches, deceit, and sabotage. He goes about his missions with literally unlimited funds (provided by a panicked US government) yet invents no earth-changing technologies; he is not particularly strong, nor smart, nor attractive. He is simply white, which means he can be anything that he chooses and that what he chooses will invariably be right: "It seems there really is a controlling destiny. Every time these criminals started to harm our country it ended in good. It makes me more of a Presbyterian than ever" (Keller 431).
Thus, Keller's rebuttal to pages of compelling evidence of racial injustice is nothing more than a literal tom-tom, played when Taine first reaches the inner sanctum: "He looked at the men seated around the table. Without exception they seemed to be autocrats of the business world, cultural leaders, Chesterfields: yet all of them were gently moving their heads and bodies in harmony with the rhythm of the drum-beat" (387). That is, apparently, all it takes to be racially compromised in Keller's world.
This minimalistic rebuttal plays on a long history of literary representations of African drumming, most notably the interminable beating of drums in the Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The drumming that Conrad dramatizes was, in fact, a misinterpreted communication technology. James Gleick, in a history of information technology, notes that the early accounts of "talking drums" came at a time when this African communication technology was the fastest in the world: "For now, in fact, no one in the world could communicate as much, as fast, as far as unlettered Africans with their drums" (18). African long-distance communications devices were, ironically, interpreted in Western culture as the archetypical sound of savagery, perhaps in part thanks to their role in slave uprisings. They are then redeployed here by Keller to undermine the notion of black technology. The drums misunderstood by early ethnographers get encoded in this farcical scene as emblems of the very impossibility of black technological modernity.
Later, when things inevitably go sideways (Ebony Kate was on to him the whole time, it turns out), Taine interprets the rhythmic response:
Your race can change the color of their skins but they cannot change the color of their souls. No matter how white they may become, they will always remain black inside. When the tom-tom sounded a while ago, these white men of education and refinement and wealth swayed in their chairs and inside them their souls fell at your feet to worship you and your snake. I have seen that sort of thing on the Congo. A sea of white-wash cannot change you. The race was made black and will stay black. (390)
The weakness of Keller's argument here is self-evident; what is interesting is that he and his readers seem to have found it compelling. Even narratively it is all for naught. Taine is improbably left on his own, he slips his bonds, randomly (but "firmly," we are assured) punches a bunch of buttons on a table, slides down a barely obscured escape chute, and finds himself safely away from the devastation wrought by his button-mashing: the headquarters of The Powerful Ones is completely destroyed. The story ends with Taine heading home to San Francisco: "You can send me a check for any sum you think the job was worth to you" (391). The value of obtaining whiteness may exceed all the gold in the world for black folks, but its maintenance bears no cost at all.
The following three stories unfold along similarly ludicrous lines, with new existential threats and new improbable victories. In the second installment, "The Gold Ship," Taine is called in to investigate the mysterious source of the gold that is suddenly offered to the US by all of its debtors. He goes undercover and thwarts The Powerful Ones once again, this time by hiring Bill, "the best female impersonator in the world; really he is clever, and this time he went by the name of Angeline Pleasance, a half breed from Asia. She had a lot of jewelry and I bought her some more and a new wardrobe and I dressed up as her maid. It was the first time I had done anything like that, but I had a good teacher and we sure made a hit" (399). The gender-bending solution serves much the same function as the absurd climax of the first story: it seems calculated to be ridiculous, thus minimizing the apparent menace posed by threats to white, and now masculine, supremacy by the devious practitioners of blackness.
In the third story, "The Tainted Flood," Taine is called in again to thwart The Powerful Ones, this time by discovering their plan to turn a sizable portion of the population of the Eastern seaboard black by means of a chemical poured in the water supply. At one point, Taine is tasked with proving that the chemical really will turn people black. Eventually, a young man elects to try the concoction, and he does in fact turn black. The response of another man in the room is indicative of Keller's approach:
Oh! I know that you think it is brutal of me and all that, but I could not help it. You could not have helped it either if it had hit you the way it did me. I know the boy. For a year he has been in love with an octoroon, a nice girl and all of that and almost white. She would not marry him because she did not want to spoil his life and he would not live with her unless they were married. That was why he wanted to make the experiment--he thought that if he was colored too, she would marry him. She might have if he were just a little bit colored--just a shade off white like she is, but he turned black. I saw his face as he went out and it hit me all of a sudden that she would never recognize him as Jamison, her former white lover. He will never be able to explain it to her, how it happened. She is almost white and do you think she would marry a black man? He was brave and in love and all that sort of thing but fate has played him a sorry jest--I am sorry that I laughed--but--I--just-- couldn't--help it! (407)
The currents of love, authenticity, sacrifice, and tragic social constraint that drive more literary examples of the passing narrative are reduced in Keller's universe to an extended guffaw. The apparent horror of being turned black is undercut by uproarious irony. Nothing more is said about the young man or his decision, nor is the man who delivers this speech reprimanded. His explanation seems to suffice.
The final story, "The Insane Avalanche," is especially notable for the length to which it takes Keller's racist satire, bending techno-passing to eugenic ends. In this story, The Powerful Ones scheme to turn most Americans insane. By the time a few remaining scientists figure out what to do, the plan has almost succeeded: "The day the work [of containing the insane people] was started it was estimated that there were one hundred and ten million insane and one million sane people in the states" (413). Only the most superior people manage to stay sane, and they are faced with an impossible decision: be crushed under the pressures of caring for so many insane people, or do something immoral to resolve the situation. Everything looks hopeless until a strange quartet of scientists--a senior researcher and his three research assistants, two men and one woman who form a farcical menage a trois--discover a wasp venom that can put mammals into a state of suspended animation, thus providing the remaining sane people an ethical way to contain the madness.
In a final, desperate bid to have their ultimate revenge, the remaining core of The Powerful Ones return to America and replace the sleeping potion with its opposite, hoping to wake the hundred million sleepers who will then overrun the country. They think they have succeeded (they received reports of waking sleepers before fleeing the country) and return to their island hideout, where they had left their former leader, Ebony Kate. In the meantime, Taine has tracked them to the island. When he tells an increasingly senile Kate of his plans to kill the remaining Powerful Ones as revenge for their deeds, she decides to do it for him, keeping his hands (and soul) clean: "You are a Christian man, Mr. Taine. Please don't go to your God with blood on yer hands" (416). When Taine returns to America he learns that the waking potion worked, but that sleepers soon crumbled into piles of dust and/or spontaneously combusted, leaving the country clear for the superior people to spread in endless waves of small-town communities, free from any sort of menace: "For nearly forty years every person that was criminal, alcoholic, syphilitic or with psychosis was put to sleep. They had no children. Only the superior adults, perfectly clean in soul and body, were allowed to marry" (431). This resolution is clearly informed by eugenic thinking contained in popular semi-scientific tracts like Madison Grant's 1916 The Passing of the Great Race and Lothrop Stoddard's 1920 The Rising Tide of Color. Any non-insane, non-criminal black people were given a thousand dollars each and shipped back to Africa, enacting an old solution to America's racial problems and also implicitly suggesting that anyone who opposes such a solution--white or black--would clearly be among the inferior people taken out of the equation in the natural course of things.
Once again, a series of absurd solutions present themselves in a most perfect way--perfect, that is, so long as the reader identifies with the superior one percent of survivors, which Keller seems to presume will be the case. The story ends with a scenario so far-fetched and condescending that it may have driven E. F. Bleiler to label this series "probably the most offensive to be found in early science fiction" (212). Kate stows away on Taine's rescue ship, eventually begging to be taken along: "Somehow he thought of the little black puppy" (417). She ends the narrative working as a mammy for Taine's grandchildren: "In the years that followed, Ebony Kate delighted in telling the little Taines how their grandfather and she had fought those white-black-boogers. Whenever they asked him for the truth of the stories, he always said that old Mammy knew as much about it all as he did" (431). This resolution functions as white supremacist wish-fulfillment on multiple levels: the undesirables are all gone, a narrowly idealized small-town, white, middle-class lifestyle is now the only lifestyle, and throughout it all the racial hierarchy is preserved. Taine never has to make overtures to Kate: she comes crawling (almost literally) to him. She is unhappy inasmuch as she has resisted her "natural" position, and contented once she submits. Taine's good humor with respect to the Mammy figure does little to undercut the racist overtones; indeed, it invokes the pastoral nostalgia then circulating about life under slavery. Whatever absurdity precedes this closure, this final domestic scene makes it clear that the politics of Keller's post-racial American future closely mirror those of its pre-emancipation past.
Keller was not merely possessed of a retrograde racial attitude toward African Americans: in his other stories he proves himself to be just as deeply anti-feminist, anti-"oriental," anti-labor, and generally anti-change as he is anti-black in "The Menace." And he wrote many, many other stories; in fact, the few biographical and bibliographical sources about him make a point of noting his prominence in the early pulps. By 1928, just two years after Gernsback began publishing his scientifiction pulps, the introduction for "The Menace" calls Keller: "Our well-known author, who has endeared himself to the hearts of Amazing Stories readers" (382). Despite pedestrian writing and absurd plotting, as well as the lack of rigorous scientific and/or technical grounding that would become characteristic of sf under Campbell, this narrative trope was popular enough to sustain four stories and be reprinted, in its entirety, in 1933, speaking to the power of Keller's vision for the security of racial division, at least among Amazing readers. How did such a curmudgeonly conservative catch on in the early days of sf fandom? In part, I think, because he offered a vision of the technological future in which white supremacy was challenged but ultimately not overthrown. The technology he previews is less a technique for racial passing, or gold creation, or anything of that sort; it is rather a vividly imagined future in which superior, selected (read: white, heteronormative, "Presbyterian") people will win the day as a result of normal technological progress. Implicitly, it also posits normal scientific/technological progress as coherent with white supremacy, such that any deviation from the existing racial structure would signal a failure of progress as well. It is, in other words, a somewhat clumsily written restatement of white supremacist doctrine for a technological age.
Race as Technology
While Keller and the other sf pulp writers deployed the notion of racial technology in a sort of racist rear-guard action, the notion of race as a form of technology circulated beyond the political purview of white supremacy. George Schuyler's satirical Harlem Renaissance novel Black No More is also a technopassing narrative, though it was printed for a vastly different audience. Both Keller and Schuyler built their stories around similar themes--R. D. Mullen even suggests that "The Menace" may have had "some slight influence" on Schuyler, given Schuyler's documented engagement with some of the more canonical sf of his day, and the similarity between his "Black-No-More" novum and the Powerful Ones' invention in the first installment in "The Menace" (269). For both Keller and Schuyler, the idea of race as a constructed performance undergirds the narrative, despite their disparate political goals (white supremacy in Keller's case, and something approaching an egalitarian socialist critique in Schuyler's).
George Schuyler's take on techno-passing in Black No More also seems to work from some of the same social assumptions as does Keller's: that contemporary racial politics threatened the support structure of American society in the early twentieth century; that an advancing technological culture imperiled notions of racial essentialism; and that a black man in possession of a white body must be in want of a scheme. But whereas Keller's satire targets threats to white supremacy, Schuyler uses the instability of race to skewer all racial politics, which he depicts as built upon flawed essentialist understandings of race, targeting both black and white racial leaders. If Schuyler's story explores themes that are consonant with the white supremacy in Keller's story, it does so in a way that effectively deforms the base on which white supremacy was built: for instance, given the choice, almost every black person in the novel chooses to become white, and almost every white person strives to demonstrate their own authentic whiteness, doubly confirming the superior value of whiteness. This is not, however, because of some irrational desire for whiteness itself, nor because of any innate superiority, but rather because of the material benefits that come from possessing whiteness and the material harm that comes from lacking it.
Black No More loosely centers on Max Disher, a young black man who is the first official patient of Dr. Crookman, inventor of the Black-No-More procedure. Disher sells his story to a journalist early in the novel and takes that money to start a new life in Atlanta as a white man. He soon realizes that "this Black-No-More treatment was more of a menace to white business than to white labor. And not long afterward, he became aware of the money-making possibilities involved in the present situation" (59). This discovery leads him to join a white supremacist group as an anthropologist, where he becomes a powerfully influential member simply by writing (and later speaking) the fears of his white audiences. Eventually, he takes his skills to various business concerns, helping them stoke racial tensions as a way of breaking unions--quite a trick, since there are fewer and fewer visibly black people to be demonized in the first place. Throughout, we are treated to scenes of powerful people-- black and white--whose wealth was built on the existing race system and who are all desperately trying to preserve their power in the face of a shifting racial landscape.
Structurally, Schuyler's plot is almost an exact reversal of Keller's: where Keller deflates racial fears by ridiculing the notion of racial instability, Schuyler depicts the politics of racial authenticity as ridiculous. Near the end of the story a couple of white supremacists take Disher's logic to its extreme, compiling a genealogical history of everyone in America to definitively separate the true whites from everyone else. What they don't realize until too late is that they themselves have black ancestors, a revelation splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the country, putting them ironically among the very few known "black men" under a one-drop rule regime. In their attempt to flee, they are captured, in blackface, by a lynch mob; they manage to wipe away their makeup but are recognized, and in a profound tonal shift from farce to horror, are graphically lynched. In this final ironic twist, the instability of race punishes those whom it once served. This scene in Schuyler's story underlines the unnaturalness of contemporary race relations and works to make that contingency a source of discomfort for the white reader. It also links the absurdity of authenticity in the preceding chapters to the brutal realities underlying such absurdity for those subject to its judgments.
While for Keller "you were born black and will stay black," in Black No More there is no essential blackness, or whiteness, in the body or the soul. Disher becomes, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from a white man--indeed, his racial consciousness allows him to be a better white man than most. This seems to parody the race-man rhetoric of figures like Booker T. Washington, who utilized what Houston Baker calls "mastery of form" to appeal to white audiences (33). Disher uses his understanding of white people's fears, and his willingness to let go of his "authentic" racial self, to play the role of white supremacist in virtuoso fashion. He occupies his white body with full knowledge of the inessential character of race, which gives him a privileged understanding of just how much whiteness is worth, and like most people with a privileged understanding of wealth, he is able to invest for greater yields than those with less fiscal sophistication.
Disher is principally employed by business interests in the second half of the novel, suggesting that race is not so much a technology for making society run smoothly as it is a technology for serving the interest of capital writ large. Not only does the smooth functioning of the racial hierarchy have value for those possessed of whiteness, but it also has value for those invested in the structure of whiteness, and in particular a value for a technocratic elite who use race as a screen for capitalism's more outrageous excesses. Disher is successful at his post-race baiting thanks to whites' drive to demonstrate their whiteness. Disher's mastery of racial form alongside his newly acquired whiteness helps to expose the way that race, for Schuyler, is a technology of and for class oppression. Black No More makes manifest the way whiteness functions not as a neutral norm but as a technology of accumulation, at least in the hands of those with the proper race consciousness. Race, in this techno-passing narrative, is not the natural order of things, but neither is it principally a way to oppress black folks; rather, as Coleman suggests, it is a sort of "levered mechanism" in the larger capitalist machine, one which, as it turns out, doesn't actually need racialized people so much as the fear of racialized people. For Schuyler, race is just one of a variety of potential technologies for sorting people.
The stakes of racial authenticity differed significantly across Keller's and Schuyler's audiences. Keller's stories circulated among a primarily white and male readership of pulpy gadget stories, while Schuyler's circulated among a presumptively black (or presumptively-able-to-recognize-caricatures- ofprominent-black-figures) readership. For Keller's audience, the notion of racial essentialism was common sense, so much so that challenges to it could be parodied with very little work. For Schuyler's audience, racial essentialism was by no means obviously true, but it nonetheless accounted for much of the vogue for black art during the Harlem Renaissance, a fashion rooted in a notion of (untutored) black experience as fundamentally different from the Modern (white) experience.
The stakes of Black No More, then, go beyond parodies of racial purity (though the book is farcically dedicated to "all Caucasians in the Great Republic who can trace their ancestry back ten generations and confidently assert that there are no black leaves, twigs, limbs or branches on their family tree"). The satire in Black No More rests on a troubled notion of authenticity, extending the critique Schuyler advances elsewhere. His 1926 essay "Black Art Hokum," for instance, decries the idea that there is an authentic blackness on display in black art, the position taken by Langston Hughes in his more famous response, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." That Schuyler attacked the notion of authentic "Negro Art," and that Hughes felt compelled to defend the existence and value of an authentically black experience, at the same time that Keller--a reactionary white doctor who wrote silly gadget stories--felt compelled to defend the notion of racial essentialism, all speaks to the shifting racial landscape. (5) An ascendant culture of technology provides the metaphor both for race and for its deformation.
Passing was less an exercise in mastery over the technology of the racial self than a means of thinking through the technologies of the racial self (and Other) in the context of a changing racial landscape. Passing marks both a reification of Man and a challenge to the hegemony of the human. For Alexander Weheliye, "The volatile rapport between race and the human is defined above all by two constellations: first, there exists no portion of the modern human that is not subject to racialization, which determines the hierarchical ordering of the Homo sapiens species into humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans; second, as a result, humanity has held a very different status for the traditions of the racially oppressed" (8). Passing hacks the technology of race, challenging the ontological grounds on which stands Man, the liberal human subject. At the same time, desires for and anxieties about passing reinstate humanity on familiar terms, acquiescing to the hierarchy Weheliye describes.
Keller's satire on the threat of passing soon passes out of the collective consciousness of the sf community, living on only in the occasional encyclopedia entry and (often inaccurate) brief note in literature concerned with recovering the history of race in sf. However, the general form of his solution to the problem of the color line--an assertion that racial division and anxiety will naturally disappear on the way to technocratic utopia, and the corollary that worrying about it is absurd--remains in the genre. Schuyler's take on the issue persisted, though his anti-essentialist Marxism had less effect on the trajectory of African American art than did the rebuttals it generated. We know Black No More was read in the early sf community--it received a very positive review by C. A. Brandt in the pages of the February 1933 issue of Amazing Stories (6)--and while it is not clear to what extent Schuyler influenced later sf writers, it is clear that his vision of the technology of race can fit comfortably, if oppositionally, alongside Keller's in the genealogy of the genre's early engagement with race. In sf, the constructed nature of race allows for an imagined solution to the problem of the color line: we will soon overcome our petty differences through a reification of Man into its most liberal category, one in which everyone gets to be fully human. However, the lurking conservatism in Keller's part of the sf genealogy also underscores the way that "fully human" often amounted to "that thing that white middle-class males imagined themselves to be." As explicit engagements with race fade from the pulp sf scene, a white male subject position--characterized by mastery, agency, and cultural centrality--is reified into an archetypal, ideal, and necessarily post-racial vision of the human.
(1.) "Script" here is deployed in the sense developed by Robin Bernstein in Racial Innocence: "The term script denotes not a rigid dictation of performed action but rather a set of invitations that necessarily remain open to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation. I use the term script as a theatrical practitioner might: to denote an evocative primary substance from which actors, directors, and designers build complex, variable performances that occupy real time and space" (11-12). The racial (and quite often, racist) strategies in early sf stories do not determine the behavior or habits of their readers, nor do they condemn the genre at large to a particular racial politics, but they do collectively invite readers and writers to (re)act in a particular way when faced with particular scenarios.
(2.) One representative example in early/proto-sf comes from the Frank Reade, Jr. series (1882-1898), which featured Pomp, a black caricature drawn from Minstrel tropes: "The poor darky was beside himslf [sic] with terror and perplexity. 'Golly sake alibe!' he yelled, with his wool literally standing on end. 'Whatebber am dis yer nigger gwine fo' to do? I'se a gone coon fo' suah'" (Senarens 4). Such racist dialogue and characterization is typical of the blackface performances that were especially popular starting in the 1840s until the form began to disappear after the Second World War (see Lott).
(3.) Briefly: In "Pigs Is Pigs" a man gets into an argument with a railway agent who tries to charge livestock price ($0.30) rather than the domestic animal price ($0.25) to ship a pair of guinea pigs--as he says, "pigs is pigs," and so, guinea or otherwise, he wants to charge livestock price. The guinea pigs are left together in the warehouse as the dispute winds its way through the relevant bureaucracy, while their population grows exponentially, itself an absurd and humorously literalized extrapolation of population growth.
(4.) Sam Moskowitz notes the role of humor in "Kelleryarns" (the title given to Keller's apparently distinctive blend of humor and moral awfulness) in his generous introduction to Life Everlasting and Other Tales of Science, Fantasy, and Horror, an anthology of Keller's stories that does not include most of his earliest, more offensive stories.
(5.) Hughes even deploys the same icon of racial essentialism as Keller, the tom-tom drum: "But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America: the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul--the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile." Hughes's use is less absurd than Taine's, and the essential quality he describes is more complex than Keller can handle, situated between the black experience in America and a more fundamental-sounding Negro soul, but the essentializing notions that Keller draws on also clearly had a life in the realm of black representation.
(6.) "This book 'Black No More' is one of the most amusing books I ever read. True, it is a cruel satire on our present civilization. Mr. Schuyler, a well known Negro writer, does not spare any one, neither the leaders of his own race, nor the whites nor their respective sympathizers. Most amusing is the take off on the Ku Klux Klan, with the absurd trifles resurrected and elaborated in the 'Nordic Knights.' The book will be poison to some people and an exceedingly bitter drink to quaff, because truth is always unwelcome and there is an awful lot of truth in this book. I recommend it with all my heart" (1048). C. A. Brandt's endorsement was significant. When he entered the formal sf community, he was hailed as "the greatest living expert on scientifiction. There is not a work of this kind that has appeared during the last fifty years, with which Mr. Brandt is not fully conversant. This is, of course, a tremendous asset to a publication of the type of Amazing Stories, and one which assures you of getting the best that can be had at all times" ("Experts" 380). Brandt's reputation persisted, as Gary Westfahl notes, long after his former boss had much reason to inflate his prominence: Gernsback describes him thus in 1962: "I considered Brandt the greatest authority on science fiction anywhere at that time" (quoted in Westfahl 90n8).
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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