Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past

By David R. Roediger | Go to book overview

3
White Looks and
Limbaugh's Laugh

The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites.

Herman Melville in Benito Cereno (1856), on the
execution of Babo, the leader of a slave revolt

The chauvinism and churlishness with which I begin this otherwise modest and even-tempered essay both derive from my having grown up along that part of the Mississippi River that divides Missouri from Illinois. It is easy to be chauvinistic about that stretch of the river, the lone portion of the Mississippi to divide slavery from freedom. Along the river and its banks, from Hannibal to East St. Louis to Cairo and the Missouri Bootheel, great artists and great art have long been made. To an unrivaled extent, that art has challenged the lie of white supremacy both implicitly through its celebration of Black beauty and creativity and explicitly in its probing of the relationship between race and freedom. Geniuses such as Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Scott Joplin, Katherine Dunham, Redd Foxx, Tina Turner, Quincy Troupe, Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, and Mark Twain have drawn on experiences along the river to chart, move, explode, and ignore the color line. Along the river in the Missouri Bootheel a half-century ago, adventures with Black and white sharecroppers afforded C. L. R. James seminal insights not only into American life and religion but also, as he remembered, into Hegel's Phenomenology.1 Even T. S. Eliot, the writer ultimately most eager to lose the region's accents, carried much of the racelore and popular culture of the river with him. 2 As a setting for

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