Culture writer Ilina Jha reviews Korey Garibaldi’s debut book which revisits the almost forgotten American interracial literary culture which advanced racial pluralism in the decades before the 1960s
Content Warning: The book that is being reviewed contains references to racism and homophobia, and there is use of slurs in quotations in the book too.
Impermanent Blackness (2023) is the first book by historian Korey Garibaldi, Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Garibaldi explores and details the history of interracial publishing in the US from the early 20th century through to the 1960s, examining some of the key authors, publishers, and editors in this dynamic scene.
The focus of the book is how these people worked together across racial lines, determined to foster multiculturalism and promote integration in a time of segregation. The blurb describes this literary culture as ‘almost-forgotten,’ and indeed, it is certainly a topic about which I knew nothing before reading this book. Garibaldi, in his groundbreaking new study, aims to bring this history back to the light and to champion some of the key writers of this period (such as Juanita Harrison and Frank Yerby) who have been largely forgotten.
As the book details, there were many Black authors writing about the issues that mattered to them and who were keen to prove that they were on a par with their 2hite peers. Additionally, there were white writers also keen to tackle racial taboos and promote integration. These authors were aided by the work of highly-reputed Black intellectuals such as the anthologist W. S. Braithwaite, as well as both white and black publishers and editors. Garibaldi also gives examples of the groundbreaking depiction of LGBT+ themes in some texts, as well as highlighting the LGBT+ Black writer James Baldwin.
This interracial literary and publishing culture was not without its problems, of course – there was pushback from white supremacists, and there were some white figures in the literary and publishing scene who did not fully understand the racial barriers that were still in place for Black authors. However, Garibaldi sees this period as a highly important one, and has the most praise for the key Black figures of this time. The book is very focused on Black/White relations in this period, and I would have been interested to know about the presence of other marginalised groups in publishing at this time, such as Asian Americans and Native Americans. However, perhaps these are subjects for another book; Garibaldi’s specific focus is probably for both academic and personal reasons.
The book is well-structured, moving chronologically from the early 20th century to the late 1960s. There is also a chapter dedicated to children’s literature and it is fascinating to see that, in the 1930s, diversity and representation were being discussed by forward-thinking writers and publishers in ways very familiar today. Garibaldi writes in a style that is clear and accessible to all. The use of images of texts, literary magazines, and newspaper cuttings throughout is also very helpful for illuminating the historical facts, as well as for encouraging us to see how racially-themed texts were marketed in this period (for better or for worse).
Overall, Impermanent Blackness is a very interesting and insightful read about a key period in American literary culture and publishing. It will appeal to anyone interested in history, race relations in 20th-century USA, publishing history, American literature by Black authors, and/or ethnic diversity and representation in literature.
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