Enshrining Black Countermodernism & New Deal Skepticism

Zora Neale Hurston at Federal Writer’s Project booth (NYPL)

J.J. Butts’ new work, Dark Mirror: African Americans and the Federal Writers’ Project, provides a close reading of the ways that Black Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) intellectuals expressed their skepticism about the New Deal state. By examining works of fiction and nonfiction, Butts demonstrates that many Black FWP writers were deeply worried about the federal government’s emerging and persisting problems across genres. The varying works featured in Dark Mirror, created across geographies and chronologies under the auspices of the FWP, are what Butts terms “intertexts”: the writings of Black FWP authors which often referenced one another. These intertexts, as Butts shows, gave FWP writers the opportunity to comment on popular and contentious topics put forth by their FWP coworkers, friends, and adversaries including the importance of folk culture, the possibility of New Deal success, and the seeming perpetuity of white supremacy. Primarily, Butts is able to show that Black New Deal intertexts created a body of work that resoundingly represented the ambivalence Black intellectuals felt about the New Deal’s promises of progress.

In the first two chapters of Dark Mirror, Butts shows how Federal Writers’ Project Guidebooks described and pathologized the “civic pluralism” of quickly diversifying American cityscapes. Guidebooks often included the histories of many different communities, including the struggles of Jewish Americans, Black Americans, and Chinese Americans. And while the guidebooks showed moments of clarity when describing that the histories of discrimination in these communities was often antithetical to the American dream, those publications still maintained support for state-led reform and tried to funnel histories of hardship into New Deal promises of improvement (33). For more than half the book, in the following four chapters, Butts constructs Black FWP writers’ repudiations of and responses to FWP texts like the guidebooks. Chapter 3 examines folk histories in Zora Neale Hurtson and Richard Wright’s work. Chapter 4 highlights the differences between FWP writings that came out of Chicago and those which came out of New York. And Chapter 5 highlights the intricacies of Ralph Ellison and Anne Petry’s conceptions of state power in the lives of individuals.

One of the best parts of Butts’ examination of Black FWP authors is his dutiful devotion to their skepticism of the New Deal. Across the book the reader can feel how unsettled and uncomfortable many of the authors felt, torn between visions of hope that were repudiated by reality. For instance, in Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices, Wright’s briefly hopeful view of including Black Americans more fully into the citizenry is tempered by his estimation that if they continued to be excluded, Black workers should seek out cross-racial anti-capitalist alliances (91-92). Roi Ottley, for his part, urged the federal government to more strongly embrace Black citizens, warning that if the New Deal did not, Black nationalism would grow into a more tempting route for marginalized people as an alternative to the state (116-117). Thus, undergirding the cautious hope Black FWP writers had in equitable state-led futures was their acknowledgement that the rights of full citizenship were nearly always thwarted by white supremacy. So while Butts shows that writers like Wright and Ottley at times entertained hope in the New Deal, and were sometimes allied with the state, they saw white supremacy as its fatal flaw.

By disentangling the romantic view of New Deal reform from the reality that Black citizens shared few of the spoils, Butts shows that Black FWP writers directly repudiated ideas of simple linear progress (3-4, 19). This skepticism of societal advancement, what Butts refers to as the “countermodern,” laces every Black-authored text referenced in Dark Mirror. If progress did not include the betterment of Black lives, then it was not modernization. Especially enthralling are passages in which Butts shows that Ralph Ellison’s use of time travel, the collapse of linear time, and the transfiguration of places and objects into their former or untrue selves were often markers of a repudiation of sequential time or progress (150-151). The confusion and uncomfortability Ellison’s characters experience, while unable or unwilling to move through time in order, in Butts’ view, acts as a foil for the convergence of old and new problems of society in the lives of individuals.

Butts’ consideration of African American women authors is also attentive. While Zora Neal Hurston and Ann Petry’s works are not directly compared to one another in Butts’ chapter structure, his analysis reveals meaningful similarities between their work. Butts points out Hurston’s persistent fear of male despots in her work Moses, Man of the Mountain and Ann Petry’s relentless threat of sexual assault against the main character of her novel The Street. Dark Mirror reads these dangers as a foil for the inevitable failures of state reform, failures which Hurston and Petry thought reaffirmed male power, begot totalitarianism, and reproduced sexual exploitation. Indeed, while Hurston’s character of Moses hones his self-affirming power, other characters’ resistance against him proves futile in a world of “controlling men” and “individual male heroism” (78, 80). And for Ann Petry’s part, while her character Lutie dreams of the day she might escape tenement housing and its dangers, refuge is never presented as a realistic or successful route for any single character in the novel (138-139).

Hurston and Petry, therefore, leave little space for the redemption of hope in the New Deal. While Butts shows that Hurston and Petry identified different problems they found most pressing about New Deal America, their characters’ lack of salvation as a byproduct of those problems remains stark. The special consideration of the viewpoint of Black women writers strengthens Butts’ original contention that Black countermodernism remained a powerful repudiation of linear progress, which Hurston and Petry show remained hopelessly tangled in misogynoir. Dark Mirror does not take a specifically gendered approach in understanding Black countermodernism, but the fears of Black women FWP writers makes a powerful impression on the reader. For Hurston, even reformed nationalisms could enshrine male tyrants. And Petry’s work doubts that centralized state reforms will reach the most vulnerable women.

Because of Butts’ focus on a close reading of FWP intertexts, some broader historical questions raised by Dark Mirror would make future studies rich. For instance, questions about the reception of emerging Black nationalism by FWP intellectuals in Dark Mirror remains a fascinating byproduct of Butts’ work. We are briefly shown how Zora Neale Hurston, while opposed to the increasing centralization of the American government during and after the New Deal, at times defended “the attempts of Black communities to generate their own solutions” (81). Roi Ottley’s work is shown, too, to foray into defining “racial nationalism,” including Garveyism and pan-African organizing (116-117). Different from Hurston, Ottley’s coverage of Black nationalism instead encouraged the federal government to “head off the threat of disloyalty by ensuring African American inclusion in a national community” (118). Future works on Black FWP writers might find a lot to say about why those writers either accepted or rejected emerging forms of Black nationalism, and the extent to which they acted on those opinions in their own lives. Indeed, Butts’s work may pique social historians’ interest in expanding the scope of Dark Mirror to include an examination of how Black FWP writers were swept up (or not) in popular Black social movements, as well as considering what role they played as intellectuals when commenting on bottom-up organizing.

In all, Dark Mirror is an astute reading of a wide array of Black literary and nonfiction work. By asking readers to think about fiction and nonfiction in kind, Butts shows that the Federal Writers’ Project was an employment center that created space for Black intellectuals to flex their emerging talents, as well as exposed those intellectuals to the government functions they would come to profoundly question. Butts is also able to show that Black fiction, while often considered separately from projects in Black history and sociology, featured plot points and conflicts that spoke to the same structural barriers featured in research. The genre-crossing in Dark Mirror is a welcome change from the perspective of a historian, and it is well worth it when the result is an altered reading of some of the most important intellectual productions of the twentieth century.


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Dylan O’Hara

Dylan O’Hara is an urban historian and Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Maine, where she currently holds a distinguished research fellowship. O’Hara’s doctoral dissertation explores the urban secession movements in late twentieth century Boston, Massachusetts, in which economically and racially segregated residents of Dorchester and Roxbury lobbied to leave the city for a chance at implementing equity through self-governance.Dylan O’Hara is an urban historian and Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Maine, where she currently holds a distinguished research fellowship. O’Hara’s doctoral dissertation explores the urban secession movements in late twentieth century Boston, Massachusetts, in which economically and racially segregated residents of Dorchester and Roxbury lobbied to leave the city for a chance at implementing equity through self-governance