Recently Cited: Eric Walrond’s Delayed Arrival

Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade, eds., Eric Walrond: The Critical Heritage (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2012); 232 pages; ISBN: 9789766402747 (paperback).

• July 2014

For one of the most trenchant new voices in diaspora studies, we must look back over eighty years. Journalist, essayist, and fiction writer Eric Walrond published to considerable critical acclaim in New York in the 1920s, but it would take forty-five years for a substantial scholarly article on his work to appear. In that first article, included in Eric Walrond: The Critical Heritage, edited by Louis Parascandola and Carl Wade, Kenneth Ramchand describes Walrond’s short story collection Tropic Death (1926) as “one of the startling treasures in the lost literature of the West Indies.”1 It would remain so for another thirty years. The publication of Parascandola’s invaluable collection “Winds Can Wake Up the Dead”: An Eric Walrond Reader (1998) marked the beginning of recent critical interest in Walrond, and Liveright’s reissue of Tropic Death in 2013 returned this work to print for the first time in decades. Parascandola and Wade’s collection invites us to account for the obscurity of a figure long recognized as central to the social, artistic, and intellectual life of Harlem in the 1920s. In clarifying Walrond’s place in current discussions of black modernism, American transnationalism, and efforts to situate the Harlem Renaissance within broader, Caribbean-American contexts, contributors to this timely book show that it is we who are late to the table. In addition to theorizing our delayed arrival at the work of this writer, contributors, including Michelle A. Stephens, Louis Chude-Sokei, and James Davis, as well as Robert Bone and Rhonda Frederick, use Walrond’s own time as a vantage point from which to rethink our contemporary approaches to race.

Born in British Guiana and growing up in Barbados and Panama’s port city of Colón, Walrond arrived in New York in 1918 during a wave of West Indian immigration to the city. In the ten years that followed, he would serve as associate editor of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World and as business manager at the National Urban League’s journal Opportunity, publish short stories in the likes of Vanity Fair and Smart Set, contribute to Alain Locke’s The New Negro anthology, and, with the success of Tropic Death, become the third black recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. While assured of a mention in Harlem Renaissance historiography, Walrond “has not fit neatly,” James Davis writes, into “a nationalist narrative of rural, Southern folk coming north in the Great Migration.” “This narrative has always accommodated certain versions of internationalism,” he notes, specifying W. E. B. Du Bois in Germany, Claude McKay in Russia, France, and Morocco, and Harlem writers in Paris, but, tellingly, not Walrond in the diasporic labor capital of Colón.2 Walrond sets Tropic Death in the Caribbean of the American Panama Canal project, but, as Louis Chude-Sokei notes, “though the radically hybrid and polyglot societies represented in Tropic Death were clearly Caribbean, they were intended to signify within and against the racial politics of Harlem.” However, for readers that Chude-Sokei describes as “increasingly trained to equate black experiences and responses with exclusively African American ones,” Tropic Death’s “daring to express a mythic vision of black migration in multiple non-American black dialects, vernaculars, folkways and world views is what may have sealed its fate as the great ‘lost’ work of that period.”3 Without question, Walrond’s unfinished projects count among the great losses of black modernism, yet we need only look to what Chude-Sokei terms Walrond’s daring “wide-angled cross-culturality” to affirm Davis’s position that “reassessing Walrond’s career requires that we unpack the shopworn figure of the tragic colonial intellectual.”4

The truth of this statement finds no better proof than in the past and persisting impulse to find Walrond a geographical, canonical, or ideological home. Essays by Michael Niblett and Carl Pederson offer insight into a political and literary life that unfolded in tense relationship with Marxism, Black Nationalism, and Pan-Africanism. Working to establish Walrond’s place in the “proletarian arts movement,” Niblett looks for crossover between the writer’s association with leftist periodicals (Messenger in the early 1920s, New Masses later in the decade) and his fiction. However, looking to Walrond for “a genuinely alternative, non-capitalist modernity” proves difficult, as Niblett acknowledges.5 Walrond’s fiction doesn’t yield interpretive equations of this kind, and the most compelling moments in Niblett’s essay highlight Walrond’s misfit with the genre and the kind of schematic reading it encourages. Walrond and Garveyism are a more obviously allergic pairing, with pointed essays such as “Imperator Africanus” marking Walrond’s recoil from a movement that, invoking a crudely interpreted “law of compensation,” called for “a black state, a black empire, a black emperor.”6 In tracing the Walrond/Marcus Garvey nexus back to the men’s “similar experience of travel in the Caribbean and Latin America,” Pederson provides a useful historical grounding for both.7 We might look specifically to Panama as well, given that the Jim Crow labor practices in the American Canal Zone galvanized Garvey’s vision of a united black working class, and Colón would become, for Walrond, a key site in the shaping of the politics and aesthetics of black modernism.

Displacement is as much a practice as a lived experience for Walrond. Even as he documents the uneasy accommodation of Caribbean immigrants to American racial logics, he does the inverse, making black Americans differently legible within broader geographies of racial intersection and identification. Michelle Stephens makes this argument: “Walrond was unique in his attempts to extract African Americans, with their narratives of racial history intact, from the United States context, relocating them in a New World of colour, an American archipelago, that made visible the hemispheric and colonial genealogies within which various national racial stories were created in the first place.” With this “more deeply historical and lateral” reframing of race comes, Stephens writes, “the continued eruption of submerged racial histories onto the colonial landscape, and the exposure of the bones of history that lie beneath epistemologies of the skin.”8 This image fits well with the work of the dredge in Walrond’s descriptions of the canal construction, emblematic of diaspora historiography in its reminder of the underworlds excavated while forging connections across space.

Overemphasis on Walrond’s outsider status obscures the important point that diaspora for Walrond is unthinkable apart from the sign of the foreign. Never a Garveyite abstraction, shared racial identity for Walrond is inseparable from division and discord, with the “foreign Negro” marking the site where entrenched or improvised racial orthodoxies enter volatile relation. This is as true of the most parochial settings in Walrond’s fiction as Colón and New York. Placing Walrond within Harlem Renaissance historiography means rewriting this moment without its American “racial vanguardism” and “assumed cultural exceptionalism,” Chude-Sokei argues. Tracing what he terms a Caribbean/black immigrant “modernist cross-current or a movement within a movement” has a broader purpose still.9 In looking back at this period of large-scale West Indian immigration to Harlem and Brooklyn, as do Parascandola and Davis, and the “unique moment of political encounter” that Stephens claims it made possible, we become aware, Chude-Sokei suggests, of how familiar, how comfortable, even how deceptive the concept of diaspora has become. He specifies: “To completely historicize the deployment of a black concept of diaspora in American literature and cultural politics, it is necessary to return to this work.”10 Walrond’s Harlem—multiple and displaced—gives us “the diasporic” at its most daring, most speculative, most fiercely questioned, and makes a writer long in the waiting most vitally contemporary.

 

Jennifer Brittan recently completed her doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a focus on hemispheric American studies. She is the author of “The Terminal: Eric Walrond, the City of Colón, and the Caribbean of the Panama Canal” (American Literary History, 2013).

 


1 Kenneth Ramchand, “The Writer Who Ran Away: Eric Walrond and Tropic Death,” in Louis J. Parascandola and Carl A. Wade, eds., Eric Walrond: The Critical Heritage (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2012), 22. Ramchand’s essay was originally published in Savacou, no. 2 (September 1970): 67–75.

James Davis, “A Prism so Strange: The Biography of Eric Walrond,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond, 169, 170.

Louis Chude-Sokei, “Foreign Negro Flash Agents: Eric Walrond and the Discrepancies of Diaspora,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond, 95, 76.

Chude-Sokei, “Foreign Negro Flash Agents,” 94; Davis, “A Prism so Strange,” 173.

Michael Niblett, “Eric Walrond and the Proletarian Arts Movement,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond, 141.

Eric Walrond, “Imperator Africanus: Marcus Garvey: Menace or Promise?,” in Louis J. Parascandola, ed., “Winds Can Wake Up the Dead”: An Eric Walrond Reader (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 122.

7 Carl Pederson, “Exile on Main Street: Eric Walrond and Garveyism in Great Britain in the 1930s,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond, 204.

8 Michelle A. Stephens, “‘All Look Alike in Habana’: Archaeologies of Blackness across Eric Walrond’s Archipelago,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond, 59, 64, 66.

9 Chude-Sokei, “Foreign Negro Flash Agents,” 73, 76.

10 Louis J. Parascandola and James Davis, “A West Indian Grows in Brooklyn: The Early American Experience of Eric Walrond,” in Parascandola and Wade, Eric Walrond; Stephens, “‘All Look Alike in Habana,’” 61; Chude-Sokei, “Foreign Negro Flash Agents,” 96.

 

 

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