Cold War America was a world of binaries. In a quest for patriotism, white United States citizens defined themselves by mirroring against what they were not: they were Capitalist because they were not Communist, heterosexual not homosexual, coupled not single, Americans not Russians. Black Americans also adapted this mode of thinking, knowing perfectly well that they were black because they were not white. Additionally, African Americans viewed themselves through the lens of what W.E.B. Du Bois called a double consciousness—seeing themselves through their own eyes and the eyes of their white neighbors, thus simultaneously becoming both of these images and neither. Ann Petry's characters reckon with a country whose self-perception has been collapsed into terms of good and evil, and a government that brands blacks—especially those concerned with attaining civil rights—as Reds.
[...] The 15-year-old narrator, for example, is a “bathroom dawdler” while her father is a “cherry-tree dawdler;” Aunt Sophronia's voice is “low-pitched, musical” while the mother's voice is harsh; her father's skin is a “deep reddish brown” while her aunt is “lighter in color” than her mother. Furthermore, in describing a variety of African American skin tones, as well as mentioning the Granite family—a black family claiming to be Mohawk Indians—Petry hints at the Cold War era shift in racial identities. Despite the new of the expert,” Thomas Borstelmann notes that very idea of race as a biologically meaningful way to distinguish between peoples was fast losing its scientific authority.” Racial hierarchies began to deteriorate as the color line was tested and readjusted. [...]
[...] And while the Truman administration pushed aside the issue of domestic racism in favor of an ongoing battle against the intruding forces of Communism, for African Americans the issue was at the forefront of daily life. For Charles Woodruff and the Layen family, daily activities like running a drugstore or teaching an English class were wrought with struggles of self-perception. African Americans struggled not only with the reflection in their own mirrors, but also against the reflections in opposition to the white side of the binary. [...]
[...] In Witness,” Charles Woodruff breaks nearly every negative stereotype of the black male: a successful and educated man, he owns a new expensive station wagon and cashmere coat, and as a Wheeling High School English teacher, he holds a position of power over a class of white students—in fact, he is a “black man speaking with a white man's voice.” Still, one stereotype Woodruff is afraid to fulfill is that of black sexual identity—he “chickens at the thought reporting a rape, knowing full well that “those horrible toadlike hoods would say he had touched” the blond, innocent Nellie. According to May, nation's political ideology has held a special place for [white] women as the nurturers and educators of future citizens.” The purity of white female sexuality as happy housewives was held up as key to the procreation of a thriving American nation, and the black male, an encroachment upon this white family value system, thus weakened America's defenses against Communism. [...]
[...] Du Bois consistently presented the struggles of the black community in international terms; struggles for civil rights in the United States were therefore deeply tied to the global struggle against imperialism and colonialism. In fact, the Chicago Defender once wrote that America's enemy was not the Soviet Union, but rather the government's attempt at bringing a Jim Crow mentality to their foreign policy. As Borstelmann points out, with the paralleling domestic and international civil rights movements, the “largest change in the international system was coming not from Communist revolutions but from the decolonization of nonwhite peoples.” Thus racial change was central to the American Cold War experiences, and the Truman administration's racist policies of colonization contrasted the supposed positive model of America as racially diverse. [...]
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