The Comet and the Crisis

Peter James Hudson, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017); 368 pages; ISBN 9780226459257 (hardcover)

• June 2018

At the steps of a Wall Street bank, Jim Davis, the protagonist of W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1920 “The Comet,” opens the short story with the utterance, “Nothing.”1 In the course of the tale, this “nothing” will delve deep into the entrails of finance before launching, at full and cosmic tilt, into the future: while sifting through the bank’s subterranean vault, a comet strikes, ostensibly killing everyone in Manhattan. Jim is propelled into a postapocalyptic and, it would seem, postracial future in which he and a white woman named Julia are the lone survivors. Their Edenic flight from the very bottom of the island to the top—Wall Street to Harlem—is interrupted, however, by the discovery that not everyone has been killed. Jim Crow order leads the day, and the practice of speculation is rescinded from the utopic imaginings of science fiction and restored to our dystopian political reality, that is to say, at the center of capital accumulation and the extraction of labor from black bodies.

In the story, Du Bois leaps from the local to the cosmic with a literal “boom” and, in doing so, elides a number of other geopolitical scales. This does not, of course, mean that he is uninterested in those scales. On the contrary, in the same year as the publication of “The Comet” he wrote in the Crisis, “The United States is at War with Haiti. . . . [The Secretary of the Navy] is carrying on a reign of terror, browbeating, and cruelty, at the hands of southern white naval officers and marines.”2 Du Bois’s words are consonant with a growing African American critique of the US occupation of Haiti. However, read within the context of his fiction, Du Bois’s editorial assumes even greater weight: in “The Comet,” the tale of the precarity of black life under the aegis of racial capitalism—a tale DuBois would masterfully renarrate in 1935’s Black Reconstruction—runs parallel to the US occupation of Haiti. Read these two texts side by side, and Jim Crow America seeps into the Caribbean.

Peter James Hudson’s tremendous Bankers and Empire bridges the gap between the comet and the crisis, Wall Street and the Caribbean, international private banking interests and the seemingly hegemonic arm of US imperialism. Operating within a genealogy of studies in racial capitalism, from Du Bois to Cedric Robinson, Hudson’s work is an extremely important contribution to the history of finance, comparative Caribbean studies, and critical race theory. More generally, any scholar working under the vague but ubiquitous rubric of “transnationalism” should benefit from this book, which carefully pushes against the assumption of the nation as a stable unit of analysis. Instead, Hudson shows how we are always ensconced in overlapping and multilingual structures of affiliation that do not necessarily follow the nice lines of imperial or anti-imperial narratives. For example, he repeatedly draws attention to the competing projects of individual banks; the occasional friction between US imperialism and the profit-driven interests of private institutions; and the rise in antihaitianismo as a response to finance capitalism in the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Drawing from multilingual sources, this careful transnational study expertly merges hispanophone, anglophone, and francophone scholarship. Through this methodologically sophisticated archive, Hudson narrates an understudied but crucial period in histories of racial capitalism, one in which “‘profits’ came in the form of both shareholder dividends and the reproduction of global white supremacy” (14). While most scholarship has focused on the legacy of early Atlantic economies or the afterlives of the antebellum plantation, Hudson extends the timeline of race-based economic exploitation, offering a rigorous affirmation of Eric Foner’s suggestive claim in 2015: “The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo.”3

In addition to this institutional account of nascent global capitalism, Hudson reveals a keen aesthetic eye, which often centers on the local—specifically, architecture. Hudson’s careful exploration of the spatial politics of financial institutions not only reveals how ideology is embedded in the everyday but also metonymizes his historical method: the house of finance, as it were.  Elegantly telescoping from plush rooms at 55 Wall Street to the abstracted circuits of global capital flow, Hudson offers a structural analysis of racial capitalism as well as a multiplicity of unique apertures. Some of these perspectives are from within (American and Canadian bankers and politicians), some from without (US critics such as James Weldon Johnson), and many elude the binary of outside/inside altogether (where, for example, do we place the Haitian people chanting “Aba la banque!” [91]?). Through this architectural figure, Hudson embeds individuals and their practices within institutional analyses that cut across multiple political, financial, and legal systems. Or, in Hudson’s words, “Such anecdotes . . . were not merely an incidental cultural membrane stretched over the inner workings of banking, racial capitalism, and imperialism” (16). These “anecdotes” are often extremely grisly, from the City Bank Minstrel Show, which ran in the company’s Wall Street headquarters from 1911 until the late 1920s, to celebratory Havana luncheons in which meals were renamed after the City Bank’s executives (“Canfainta de Guinea—à la Farnham” [117]), a genteel inversion of the kind of financial cannibalism that would characterize the Bank’s exploitation of Cuba.

Just as the face of racism has morphed from the slaveowner to the suit, so too has financial meddling in the Caribbean evolved: NGOs, rather than the City Bank, now erode Haitian sovereignty, for example. Hudson’s study, however, demonstrates how these earlier systems made the contemporary exploitation of the Caribbean possible (just as Foner’s Wells Fargo banker would not exist without the slaveowner). And, of course, many of these early-twentieth-century practices remain familiar: from the Panama Papers, to Banco Santander’s culpability in Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, or, looking a bit farther afield, to Goldman Sachs’ support of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. More generally, in a post-2008 context, Hudson’s work sheds important light on new capitalist studies, the rise of corporate narratives, and debates on corporations and personhood. Indeed, while the financial crisis instigated a wave of scrutiny, this look inward has seldom been accompanied by a look backward, and even more seldom does a look backward contemplate a transnational stage. After concluding Hudson’s book, I could not help but recall the claim made by former  governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King: big banks are “global in life, but national in death.”4 Hudson ends his book with a number of deaths across a number of nations—showing how the crash of 1929 led to continued intervention, exploitation, and race-based violence throughout the Caribbean. But unlike King, Bankers and Empire is not contented with a pithy phrase, the blithe balancing of unbridled global profit with domestic regulation. Instead, Hudson’s story ultimately asks us not what but who is allowed to live and condemned to die in the age of global capitalism.


Mary Grace Albanese is an assistant professor of English at Binghamton University (SUNY). Her work has appeared in American Literature, ESQ, and Critical Inquiry, among other venues. She is currently at work on a book project that explores black women prophets in the long nineteenth century.


1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Comet,” in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (New York: Verso, 1920), 236.

2 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Hayti, Crisis 19 (April 1920): 297–98.

3 Eric Foner, “The Face of Racism Today Is Not a Slaveowner,” interview by Elias Isquith, Salon, 24 June 2015, 

4 Mervyn King, speech to British Bankers’ Association, Mansion House, Bank of England, London, 17 June 2009.


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