Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Multiple Racial Futures: Spatio-Temporalities of Race during World War I

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Multiple Racial Futures: Spatio-Temporalities of Race during World War I

Article excerpt


The biopolitics of race become especially acute during war, when a nation's existential future is perceived to be at stake (Puar, 2007; Saldana-Portillo, 2016). Yet despite war's immediacy, biopolitical time is long-term, and this imbricates racial futures with sexuality, reproductive and otherwise. Consider this anti-venereal disease (VD) pamphlet produced by the US Public Health Service for trainee soldiers during World War I:


Sex-links the man who marries to the past and to the future in a great chain of human beings. His only means of affecting the racial stock of his country is by his physical fitness. By one false step he may infect the stock, topple over the hopes of fathers and mothers reaching back for thousands of years-generations, patiently building up sound bodies and minds-and blight the lives of distinct individuals of generations to come. The spark of life is a sacred trust to be received reverently and transmitted undimmed to future generations. Sex-uncontrolled is disaster and wreck. Sex in control for men means Power. (1)

Such power may be productive, but it is also underpinned by hierarchy and violence. Consider this circular forwarded to the Secretary of War by a South Carolina congressman. Its author was responding to an army commander's threat to court martial any white draftee who refused to salute a black officer:

   Supposedly there to train patriotic and enthusiastic American boys
   for battle, he can think of nothing but the petty indignities due
   to 'insignia and regalia' and singles out the young men of southern
   birth of training and insists that they suffer a wanton
   humiliation, abase themselves upon every casual occasion and
   publicly disavow their people, do violence and treason to the
   principles which are the very foundation of southern social safety
   and offend the women who gave them life. (2)

Both of these calls to secure white futurity crossed the desk of Raymond Fosdick, head of the War Department's Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA). Charged with providing healthy recreation for new recruits as they trained for war in Europe, the CTCA was the frontline in a war at home, a war against VD's spread through the "vice" of prostitution. (1) But as the CTCA's archive shows, it found itself embroiled in another, ongoing war, a war to reinforce white supremacy.

This archival project traces how the Commission problematized and acted upon this entanglement of the war on vice with the Jim Crow-era war on black people through the same governmental apparatus. Both threatened the immediate effort to win the war, as well as the longer-term effort to win the eventual peace in the international marketplace. Through this, I argue that that multiple racial futures were at stake. What I call victorious whiteness, infinite whiteness and static blackness assembled by the CTCA, and an advancing blackness pursued by black elites in opposition to white supremacy, were spatio-temporalities that mobilized different futures to materialize race in their here and now.

After briefly introducing Foucault's account of race in terms of biopolitics, I will turn to work on the biopolitical spaces of race, then shift to cultural grammars and temporalities of race in black and postcolonial studies. I will show how related geographical work approaches temporalities of race, and then shift to the relation of race to sexuality through reproduction, especially through biopolitics of eugenics, prostitution and VD. My reading will be necessarily selective given the burgeoning size of these literatures, but it raises the question of the multiplicity of racialized spatio-temporalities in the face of a tendency to treat futurity in the abstract, or racialized futures as singular logics. I will then offer a more detailed reading of records relating to the CTCA held by the US National Archives in Maryland, including draft and published policy, correspondence between civilian, government and military officials, politicians, philanthropists and the public, inspection reports on conditions in the camps and host communities, and educational and propaganda material. …

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