Totalitarian Century: A New Book on Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination

This post is part of my blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Today I am featuring Race and the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination, which was recently published by Harvard University Press.


The author of Race and the Totalitarian Century is Vaughn Rasberry. Professor Rasberry is an assistant professor of English at Stanford University, where he teaches African-American literature, twentieth-century American literature, and philosophical theories of modernity. Vaughn also teaches in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) and the programs in Modern Thought and Literature, African and African American Studies, and American Studies.

An Annenberg Faculty Fellow at Stanford (2012-14), he has also received fellowships from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh. As a Fulbright scholar in 2008-09, he taught in the American Studies department at the Humboldt University Berlin and lectured on African American literature throughout Germany. His writings include: “‘Now Describing You’: James Baldwin and Cold War Liberalism,” which appeared in an edited volume titled James Baldwin: America and Beyond (University of Michigan Press, 2011); “Black Cultural Politics at the End of History” in the winter 2012 issue of American Literary History; Invoking Totalitarianism: Liberal Democracy versus the Global Jihad in Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid” in the spring 2014 special issue of Novel: a Forum on Fiction; “JFK and the Global Anticolonial Movement,” in The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy; and “The ‘Lost’ Years or a ‘Decade of Progress’? African American Writers and the Second World War,” in A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).

Few concepts evoke the twentieth century’s record of war, genocide, repression, and extremism more powerfully than the idea of totalitarianism. Today, studies of the subject are usually confined to discussions of Europe’s collapse in World War II or to comparisons between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In Race and the Totalitarian Century, Vaughn Rasberry parts ways with both proponents and detractors of these normative conceptions in order to tell the strikingly different story of how black American writers manipulated the geopolitical rhetoric of their time.

During World War II and the Cold War, the United States government conscripted African Americans into the fight against Nazism and Stalinism. An array of black writers, however, deflected the appeals of liberalism and its antitotalitarian propaganda in the service of decolonization. Richard Wright, W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, C. L. R. James, John A. Williams, and others remained skeptical that totalitarian servitude and democratic liberty stood in stark opposition. Their skepticism allowed them to formulate an independent perspective that reimagined the antifascist, anticommunist narrative through the lens of racial injustice, with the United States as a tyrannical force in the Third World but also as an ironic agent of Asian and African independence.

Bringing a new interpretation to events such as the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Rasberry’s bird’s-eye view of black culture and politics offers an alternative history of the totalitarian century.

Vaughn Rasberry has captivatingly narrated twentieth-century Black letters through the lens of the Cold War, anticolonialism and Civil Rights. With an adept and detailed consideration of international political history ranging from the Suez Canal Crisis to West African independence struggles, Rasberry reads global Black literature at the crossroads of liberal democracy and communism, modernity and tradition. I highly recommend this brilliant and distinctive text for all students and scholars of Black diasporic history, politics, and literature.” —Imani Perry, Princeton University

Ibram X. Kendi: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?  

Vaughn Rasberry: The term “totalitarianism” is one of the defining, and most contentious, terms in twentieth-century and contemporary political discourse, but one that has appeared remote from African American and African diaspora interests. Consequently, the voluminous literature on this subject—which tends to compare Stalinism and Nazism, or to emphasize the collapse of the western world in total war from 1917-1990, or to describe U.S. anti-communist efforts—omits racial and colonial domination in modernity as a key category of totalitarian experience. My book seeks to redress this deficit and to argue a different proposition about totalitarianism. Inspired by the Nonalignment Movement of the mid-1950s, writers such as Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, Shirley Graham, and W. E. B. Du Bois rejected the official Cold War opposition between democratic freedom and totalitarian slavery, identifying instead the continuities between colonial democracies (or what Albert Memmi called “colonial fascism”) and their anti-liberal counterparts, preeminently Nazi Germany. This skeptical perspective enabled these writers to formulate an independent platform on key geopolitical events of the Cold War that were framed as “totalitarian threats” to the liberal democratic order—especially those that intersected with colonialism or segregation, like the Suez Canal Crisis and Hungarian Revolt of 1956.

With this project, I wanted to conjoin two grand narratives of the twentieth century seldom studied in tandem: the rise and fall of totalitarianism, on the one hand, and the rise and fall of the global color line, on the other. Among other things, the book’s orientation is meant to rebalance dominant Cold War narratives so that the “Third World” achieves a symmetrical relation to the democratic and communist spheres in the world-historical framing of totalitarianism (I want to thank Bill Mullen for helping me to formulate the book’s ambition in this way). In the field of Cold War studies, I hope that my study challenges scholars to take more seriously the excision of racial domination in this field’s nearly de rigueur invocation of totalitarianism; to consider the unacknowledged ways in which western officials deployed rhetoric of the “totalitarian threat” in the colonized world; and to reckon with black intellectual responses to this Cold War rhetorical campaign. For scholarship on twentieth-century African American intellectual history, I hope that Race and The Totalitarian Century provides a new, stylized narrative of black internationalist engagement with crucial geopolitical issues of the post-World War II era.

With respect to where the field is headed, no clear direction presents itself to me, but I want to stay attentive to research on, and experiments in, utopian thought and expressive culture inspired by the black intellectual tradition. Perhaps my reading of Fredric Jameson’s recent An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army has reminded me of the necessary audaciousness of utopian political thought in what seems like a moment of radically diminished possibility. Needless to say, scholarship in African American and Diaspora Studies continues to delineate the multitude of ways in which black writers and activists have mounted a powerful, multifaceted critique of western capitalist modernity. Yet I think the current climate calls for constructive utopian visions to complement (but of course not to supplant) this negative dialectic within black cultural production.

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida and author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.