The Black Pacific Narrative

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Author Photo(taketani)1Etsuko Taketani is a professor of American literature at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. She is the author of U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825–1861 (2003) and The Black Pacific Narrative: Geographic Imaginings of Race and Empire between the World Wars (Dartmouth College Press, 2014), and is currently writing a book on the African American “global imaginary” during the Cold War in Asia.

Can you briefly describe your book?

The Black Pacific Narrative is about a shift in geographic imaginings that occurred in African American culture as the United States evolved into a bi-oceanic empire that would fight World War II as a two-ocean war. I have adopted the “black Pacific”—complementing Paul Gilroy’s influential “black Atlantic”—as a heuristic to reframe our current spatial understanding of African American literature. In the twentieth century, the Pacific was no longer simply “just there” as America’s frontier, but had significantly evolved into an international community known as the “Pacific Community,” reflecting a U.S.-led vision to internationalize the Pacific and to institute a modern regional order in the 1920s. This was an order that would ultimately be challenged by the Pacific War, or the Pacific theater of World War II. The black Pacific, in my operative definition, is a sort of “imagined community,” a community imagined contrapuntally to this regional order in the making. I was interested in African American literature and letters in particular as media that ensured the viability of radical alternative black narratives of the Pacific between the world wars.

What initially drew you to your topic?

The “origins” of any academic project lie in a muddle of motives, and I can only narrate my research and writing experiences as a retrospective construction. That being said, in my view the rhetorical shock created by mainstream U.S. media coverage of the 9/11 attacks as a second “Pearl Harbor” was a primal event that drew me to my topic. My book opens with an inverse rhetorical shock created by an African American response to the attacks. Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s 9/11 sermon depended in part on the analogy between 9/11 and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the ground zeros of the nuclear holocaust whereby the United States ended the Pacific War: “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.”

Taketani_BLACK PACIFIC_FrontCvr-page-001Yet another origin of my topic was in 1998, when I saw Pacific War paintings of Saburo Miyamoto, my husband’s late grandfather. Miyamoto was an artist commissioned by the Japanese government to create artwork in the context of the war. Although he was best known for his depictions of generals of the imperial powers (Britain, the United States, and Japan) at the negotiating table, such as The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival and The Meeting of General Homma and General Wainwright, my attention was riveted by Miyamoto’s numerous sketches of Asian and Pacific peoples who had their own lives to live in the region. In one Manila townscape after the U.S. retreat there was a package store with signboards for “Coca Cola,” “7-Up,” “Whiskey,” and “Brandy.” Miyamoto committed this image to canvas, as if referencing what we now might call Coca-colonization of Asia Pacific. I wondered what role arts and literatures had to play in the making and unmaking of a Pacific community.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

In the early stage of my research, I drew significantly on government and intelligence archives on African Americans, including the records of the FBI, the Military Intelligence Division of the Army, the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of War Information, the State Department, the Shanghai Municipal Police, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. The black Pacific, as I have termed it, was primarily an idea, an imagined community forged by African American narratives. I was fascinated by the ways in which these narratives entered the domain of the national security discourse as an object of surveillance, which ironically made the black Pacific “legible.” These were narratives that were significant enough in their time to warrant surveillance and suspicion, and thus significant enough in our time to warrant modern scholarly attention and reappraisal.

As my principal subjects in this study, I chose James Weldon Johnson, George S. Schuyler, the black Federal Theatre Project, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter White. My choice of these producers of Pacific narratives followed from my archival work, as well as my theoretical positioning. I found it not only interesting, but also important that they charted the Pacific space in different, and sometimes even conflicting, configurations. This book may probably offend readers who wanted to see them take sides in political and cultural divides and in opposing camps. However, my reading was undertaken instead to tease out the ways in which they navigated, slipped through, and became implicated and caught in the crisscrossing networks of internationalism and intelligence.

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found while doing research?

My strangest and most interesting finding was that the American occupying forces in postwar Japan “successfully” and with hostile intent uncovered the radical past of Langton Hughes while in Shanghai and Tokyo from the dusty archives of Asia. In 1933, Hughes arrived in Japan from Moscow, quickly fell under suspicion of being a communist “international courier” and was expelled from that country by the Tokyo police. Over the course of a Cold War red-baiting smear campaign, General MacArthur and his chief of military intelligence, Major General Charles A. Willoughby, produced intelligence reports on the Soviet spymaster Richard Sorge and his ring, using confiscated Japanese police and court records and the records of the Shanghai Municipal Police they had procured prior to the communist takeover of China. MacArthur’s reports unsettled the American nation with their revelations—such as their naming of Agnes Smedley, Hughes’s writer friend, as both a principal member of the Sorge spy ring and an American “traitor,” a charge with repercussions that eventually extended to Hughes. Hughes’s autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, in its published version, largely eliminated political undertones that the early drafts retained, to the extent that he chose to accord Smedley only a minimal presence in the text. Nonetheless, a chain of conflated and displaced memories and a slip of pen in the published version suggest that Hughes’s compositional process and textual unconscious were haunted by Smedley and the web of intrigue in which he found himself “ensnared” through her.

What surprised you while writing this book?

The answer is simply: a black Pacific is unpredictable. For instance, one intriguing, and to my mind significant, aspect of African American narratives of the Pacific between the world wars was their engagement with “Empire”—rather than “democracy” as might be expected—mirroring and seeking to resolve the tensions between the different forms of empire, modern and premodern, in the Pacific Community.

Do you see Pacific scholarship as part of more traditional transnational scholarship, or do you think there’s something unique about looking at how a society imagines an oceanic community?

In African American studies, references to China, Japan or other Pacific Islands, alone do not constitute Pacific scholarship, which, after all, entails imagining a break with the black Atlantic-centered (read “global”) worldview. Equator-based Mercator mapping, the standard projection for maritime navigation since the 16th century, is a resilient paradigm that continues to exert a profound influence on scholarly and popular perceptions of the world. Manufactured in separable hemispheres, the long-accepted Mercator map divides the Pacific, placing its halves at the extreme left and right sides respectively. Black Pacific scholarship decenters, rather than extends, the Atlantic-centric planetary geography.

I am working on my next project on African American narratives of the Pacific in the Cold War era. However, my project would necessarily be a limited one unless I address the air-age spatial paradigm shift that occurred in 1940s America, a shift that eroded any sense of hemispheric isolation and the Earth’s division into separate oceans, moving beyond the black Pacific.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

In the early stage of my research, I drew significantly on government and intelligence archives on African Americans, including the records of the FBI, the Military Intelligence Division of the Army, the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of War Information, the State Department, the Shanghai Municipal Police, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. The black Pacific, as I have termed it, was primarily an idea, an imagined community forged by African American narratives. I was fascinated by the ways in which these narratives entered the domain of the national security discourse as an object of surveillance, which ironically made the black Pacific “legible.” These were narratives that were significant enough in their time to warrant surveillance and suspicion, and thus significant enough in our time to warrant modern scholarly attention and reappraisal.

As my principal subjects in this study, I chose James Weldon Johnson, George S. Schuyler, the black Federal Theatre Project, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Walter White. My choice of these producers of Pacific narratives followed from my archival work, as well as my theoretical positioning. I found it not only interesting, but also important that they charted the Pacific space in different, and sometimes even conflicting, configurations. This book may offend readers who wanted to see them take sides in political and cultural divides and in opposing camps. However, my reading was undertaken instead to tease out the ways in which they navigated, slipped through, became implicated, and became caught in the crisscrossing networks of internationalism and intelligence.

What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found while doing research?

My strangest and most interesting finding was that the American occupying forces in postwar Japan “successfully” and with hostile intent uncovered Langston Hughes’s radical past in Shanghai and Tokyo from the dusty archives of Asia. In 1933, Hughes arrived in Japan from Moscow, quickly fell under suspicion of being a communist “international courier,” and was expelled from that country by the Tokyo police. Over the course of a Cold War red-baiting smear campaign, General MacArthur and his chief of military intelligence, Major General Charles A. Willoughby produced intelligence reports on the Soviet spymaster Richard Sorge and his ring, using confiscated Japanese police and court records and the records of the Shanghai Municipal Police they had procured prior to the communist takeover of China. MacArthur’s reports unsettled the American nation with their revelations—such as their naming of Agnes Smedley, Hughes’s writer friend, as both a principal member of the Sorge spy ring and an American “traitor,” a charge with repercussions that eventually extended to Hughes. Hughes’s autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, in its published version, largely eliminated political undertones that the early drafts retained, to the extent that he chose to accord Smedley only a minimal presence in the text. Nonetheless, a chain of conflated and displaced memories and a slip of pen in the published version suggest that Hughes’s compositional process and textual unconscious were haunted by Smedley and the web of intrigue in which he found himself “ensnared” through her.

What surprised you while writing this book?

The answer is simple: a black Pacific is unpredictable. For instance, one intriguing, and to my mind significant, aspect of African American narratives of the Pacific between the world wars was their engagement with “Empire,” rather than “democracy” as might be expected, mirroring and seeking to resolve the tensions between the different forms of empire, modern and premodern, in the Pacific Community.

What do you see as the relationship between Pacific scholarship and other forms of transnational scholarship?

In African American studies, references to China, Japan, or other Pacific Islands alone do not constitute Pacific scholarship, which, after all, entails imagining a break with the black Atlantic-centered (read “global”) worldview. Equator-based Mercator mapping, the standard projection for maritime navigation since the 16th century, is a resilient paradigm that continues to exert a profound influence on scholarly and popular perceptions of the world. Manufactured in separable hemispheres, the long-accepted Mercator map divides the Pacific, placing its halves at the extreme left and right sides respectively. Black Pacific scholarship decenters, rather than extends, the Atlantic-centric planetary geography.

I am working on my next project on African American narratives of the Pacific in the Cold War era. However, my project would necessarily be a limited one unless I address the air-age spatial paradigm shift that occurred in 1940s America, a shift that eroded any sense of hemispheric isolation and the Earth’s division into separate oceans, moving beyond the black Pacific.

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