The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940

The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940

The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940

The Color of Race in America, 1900-1940


With the social change brought on by the Great Migration of African Americans into the urban northeast after the Great War came the surge of a biracial sensibility that made America different from other Western nations. How white and black people thought about race and how both groups understood and attempted to define and control the demographic transformation are the subjects of this new book by a rising star in American history.

An elegant account of the roiling environment that witnessed the shift from the multiplicity of white races to the arrival of biracialism, this book focuses on four representative spokesmen for the transforming age: Daniel Cohalan, the Irish-American nationalist, Tammany Hall man, and ruthless politician; Madison Grant, the patrician eugenicist and noisy white supremacist; W. E. B. Du Bois, the African-American social scientist and advocate of social justice; and Jean Toomer, the American pluralist and novelist of the interior life. Race, politics, and classification were their intense and troubling preoccupations in a world they did not create, would not accept, and tried to change.


I remember well when the shadow swept upon me. I was a little
thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark
Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic into the sea. In
a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and
girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards—ten cents a package—
and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall new
comer, refused my card, refused it peremptorily, with a glance.
Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was dif
ferent from the others … shut out from their world by a vast veil.


Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.


When I was twelve years old, I first encountered the ambiguities of race. A group of slightly older boys on bicycles chased me through a small New England town, pedaling furiously and yelling “Nigger!” for the world to hear. It must have seemed strange to those who watched, to see a white boy marked as black. In the middle of an extended family vacation, my parents brought us to the house of a family friend in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a quaint hamlet of two-story wooden houses surrounded by pine trees. After carefully unpacking our bikes from the front of our Chevy Suburban, my brother and I left to explore the town center and the local Ames department store.

Later that day, I returned to Ames alone. “There he is!” The shout came from a rag-tag group of angry-looking boys. “Nigger!” In the mid-1970s my parents had adopted children from Vietnam, Korea, and the South Bronx, turning our household into a microcosm of the American Century. Growing up in a multiracial family in the Cold War United States, I was familiar with the secret suspicions and fears of racism. An earlier well-inten-

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