Reckoning with Apocalypse

— Robbie Lieberman

Reckoning Day:
Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America
By Jacqueline Foertsch
Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013, 251 pages, $24.95 paper.

THE ANTIWAR MOVEMENT has become noticeably more diverse since the Iraq War, and many communities cry out “no justice, no peace” as they respond to incidents of police violence against people of color. Yet there is still a dearth of scholarship that examines the links between racial equality and peace issues, broadly defined.

In this context, Jacqueline Foertsch’s Reckoning Day: Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America offers a welcome look at a historical moment in which these issues were often inseparable.

As she points out, African Americans concentrated in cities were likely to be disproportionately targeted by an atomic attack, and they did not have the means to flee to the suburbs. Thus, her point of departure is to examine cultural responses to the bomb in terms of where writers and artists locate African Americans — metaphorically, geographically, and in terms of social relations.

African American opposition to the bomb is especially intriguing, since so little has been written about the topic, and this study merits attention on those grounds alone. Foertsch addresses a range of sources, with chapters that discuss white-authored post-nuclear novels, science fiction and Afro-futurism, the African American press, African American intellectuals, approaches to sex in the “interracial apocalyptic,” and a conclusion focused on music.

Foertsch’s main purpose is to explore “the complex relationship of African Americans to the atom bomb in postwar America, their dynamic and various positions ‘on’ the bomb that ran the gamut from ‘nowhere’ (. . . most often in depictions by white authors) to profoundly implicated in and committed to a peaceful and permanent resolution to the nuclear threat.” (21)

She states many times that the response to the bomb was itself quite “diverse” and “complex,” but there is little attempt to explain why the range of responses was so broad. Indeed, we even get a hint at the beginning and end that the bomb was sort of beside the point for African Americans, who were already victims of great injustice.

Early in the book Foertsch quotes a disarmament advocate saying, “The Southern Negro may well wonder what fallout can do to him that the local police chief cannot.”(6) By the end, her focus is on the gospel song “Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb,” which dissuades people from any concern about worldly cares (much like the 1930s song, “No Depression in Heaven”).

Are we to assume this was the dominant view among African Americans, simply reflected in popular culture?

The Bomb in Postwar Novels

Several of the chapters have been previously published as articles, and while they give us fresh readings of a number of novels, they do not add up to give us a unified and compelling argument. The strength of Reckoning Day is in Foertsch’s exploration of several genres of writing from the early cold war years in which the potential impact of the bomb was addressed.

For instance, she highlights patterns in a number of postwar novels that illustrate both the similarities and great divergences between the views of white and Black authors.

The first chapter, “Extraordinarily Convenient Neighbors,” is the most persuasive. Here Foertsch focuses on the “servant-savior-savant” characters — African Americans in white-authored, post-nuclear novels who have special powers and enormous strength even as they are dehumanized and removed from history.

In her fascinating analysis of novels by Judith Merril, Philip Wylie and Pat Frank, she notes that all of these writers identified with the left, but still expressed what she calls a “half-hearted interracialism.” (47) One wishes she had more to say about the relationship between these authors’ political views and their cultural expressions.

In the second chapter, Foertsch contrasts the apocalyptic vision of Chester Himes with the more determinedly optimistic outlook of Samuel Delany to illustrate the range of views among Black writers. At the same time, she illustrates how both white and Black authors wrestled with the profound alienation brought on by the possibility of atomic war.

The contrast between a more nihilist and optimistic view of survival after nuclear war comes up again in a later chapter, which addresses both literature and film. Here the author sees some progress in terms of the handling of race relations, but we are also looking at creative work produced in later years. (The films she discusses range from 1951 all the way to 2007, while the discussion of novels is focused on the 1940s and 1950s.)

Again, placing this cultural work in its historical and political context would have served to highlight her particular insights about changing views of the relationship of African Americans to the bomb.

Gender, Race and Peace

Even more to the point of the final chapter, on “sex and survival in the interracial apocalyptic,” Foertsch emphasizes in nearly every case the reticence to address interracial sex. This is hardly a position confined to post-apocalytic films — indeed, it goes to the heart of white fears of Black freedom — but this is left unsaid.

A section on women’s writings suggests that women played essential roles in organizing “the integrated, international peace movement that led to the ban-the-bomb accord of 1963” (124) while also contributing to cultural expressions of such views. As important as their political and cultural work was, it did not receive the attention it merited in the early years of the cold war.

As in several other chapters, the author mentions left organizations, publications and people — in this case Chicago Women for Peace, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and the writings of Margaret Burroughs — but again there is no discussion of the pattern one might discern here, i.e. the impact of McCarthyism on cultural expressions (and organizing) about the peace movement, the feminist movement, and the Black freedom struggle, to say nothing of the connections among them. It is odd that the author never mentions the challenges any American faced in challenging U.S. development of atomic weapons, a position generally considered to be unpatriotic.

Clearly Foertsch is aware of this pattern. Her chapter on African American intellectuals, “Against the ‘Starless Midnight of Racism and War,’” focuses mainly on those who sought to bring together issues of peace and racial equality: W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry.

(Here I think she misreads James Bald­win, suggesting that he largely ignored the nuclear threat when in fact he was quite critical of U.S. cold war policies.(1))

She especially admires Hansberry, “whose commitments to both racial justice and bomb opposition” she regards as “most consistent, simultaneous, and successfully integrated.” (143)

Given these views and the striking number of writers Foertsch discusses throughout the book who had ties to the left, it is surprising that this is not addressed as a phenomenon itself. One must read between the lines to gain a more political understanding of the diverse responses to the atomic bomb and race.

A couple of final examples may bring this point home. Langston Hughes is something of a touchstone in the book, and Foertsch returns to his writings several times. On the one hand, she highlights his radical views on the subject of the bomb, yet on the other she avoids being too explicit about his ties to the left.

The section on Hughes’s complaining — through the character of Simple — that “Peace ain’t wonderful when folks ain’t got no job” is followed by another short section on more mainstream views expressed in the Black press and the way in which “atomic” became a trendy word.

Thus, Foertsch concludes, “one must characterize the Black press’s response to the bomb as diverse, complex, and deeply ambivalent.” (109) This is hard to argue with, but again it begs the question of why the response was so diverse — why some writers were willing to challenge the cold war consensus and others were not.

Divided Loyalties and Dilemmas

The lack of historical and political context make it difficult for Foertsch to deliver what she promises: “The story told in this book is thus made up of actions and reactions; of subtle nuances, divided loyalties, and difficult dilemmas; and yet most often of the fruitful and productive give-and-take of two causes — nuclear disarmament and civil rights — that shared many features, strengthened each other rhetorically, and saw great successes in this era.” (21; emphasis added)

The obstacles to a “fruitful and productive give-and-take” were many, and surely the author is aware of these, yet the literature that explores those challenges is underrepresented in this study.(2)

By the same token, the “great successes” are not highlighted clearly. Is she defining success in terms of literary contributions? Is she making the “cold war civil rights” case, that the cold war put pressure on the United States to live up to its promise of freedom? Or did U.S. possession of atomic weapons and its waging of power around the world make it more difficult for African Americans to claim their rightful place as full U.S. citizens and to express their critiques of the bomb?

Although Foertsch overstates her case in emphasizing the “give-and-take of two causes,” her book brings together much rich material and she offers some important insights — her highlighting of Martin Luther King’s anti-nuclear writings is an important contribution to our understanding of his thought.

Nevertheless, this reader (and I suspect most readers of Against the Current) would like to see further work on this subject, situating literary expression in a more detailed historical context and explaining — as opposed to illustrating — the complexity of cultural responses to the atomic bomb.

Notes

  1. By the same token, she treats John O. Killens as a Black nationalist and ignores his early cold war writings that explore the relationship between war and race relations.
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  2. See, for example, Marian Mollin, Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Kimberly Phillips, War! What Is It Good for? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to Iraq (University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Jacqueline Castledine, Cold War Progressives: Women’s Interracial Organizing for Peace and Freedom (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
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January/February 2015, ATC 174

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