Unbecoming Americans: Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960

Unbecoming Americans: Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960

Unbecoming Americans: Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960

Unbecoming Americans: Writing Race and Nation from the Shadows of Citizenship, 1945-1960


During the Cold War, Ellis Island no longer served as the largest port of entry for immigrants, but as a prison for holding aliens the state wished to deport. The government criminalized those it considered un -assimilable (from left-wing intellectuals and black radicals to racialized migrant laborers) through the denial, annulment, and curtailment of citizenship and its rights. The island, ceasing to represent the iconic ideal of immigrant America, came to symbolize its very limits.

Unbecoming Americans sets out to recover the shadow narratives of un-American writers forged out of the racial and political limits of citizenship. In this collection of Afro-Caribbean, Filipino, and African American writers--C.L.R. James, Carlos Bulosan, Claudia Jones, and Richard Wright--Joseph Keith examines how they used their exclusion from the nation, a condition he terms "alienage," as a standpoint from which to imagine alternative global solidarities and to interrogate the contradictions of the United States as a country, a republic, and an empire at the dawn of the "American Century."

Building on scholarship linking the forms of the novel to those of the nation, the book explores how these writers employed alternative aesthetic forms, including memoir, cultural criticism, and travel narrative, to contest prevailing notions of race, nation, and citizenship. Ultimately they produced a vital counter-discourse of freedom in opposition to the new formations of empire emerging in the years after World War II, forms that continue to shape our world today.


On November 12, 1950, the New York Times ran a lengthy exposé by the journalist A. H. Raskin on what the article’s title deemed the “New Role for Ellis Island.” At the top of the page there is a large black-and-white photograph, shot from behind, of a person sitting in deep shadow staring out through a gated window toward the Statue of Liberty, which stands in the distance bathed in sunlight. Beneath the photo, the article chronicles in sober terms how with the passing of the Internal Security Act earlier that year, Ellis Island had come to serve as a holding prison for immigrants and aliens the state wished to deport. the act, which passed over President Harry Truman’s veto, forced communists and other “subversives” to register with the government and gave the state broad powers to ban any aliens who either had advocated “totalitarianism” or had been affiliated with an organization that had done so. “Ellis Island is probably the most cosmopolitan bit of earth in the world,” Raskin wrote, and then likened it to a more recently founded institution. “It is One World in microcosm, a prototype of the United Nations spirit. Yet the institution that occupies this global dot of land is the antithesis of the U.N. idea. It is the embodiment of isolationism and exclusion, the shutting of America away from the world.” Ellis Island, Raskin concluded, had become a “symbol of an institution that for many newcomers means the end of hope, not its beginning.”

Ellis Island’s use as a detention center for unwanted aliens is a much less well-known story about the institution than its iconic role as the largest port of entry for immigrants. It is also a story that began not in . . .

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