Re-framing the 1950s: Leave it to Tuskegee

To insert the fact of Tuskegee into the fiction of Leave it to Beaver means coming to terms with the genocidal impulses that masquerade as nostalgia for innocence. To affect such a position, as Jeremiah Wright has discovered, is to risk a symbolic lynching. And this is understatement, not hyperbole.

What would happen if we re-inserted the syphilitic body of the black man into the white American romance? What would happen if we insisted that the white American romance needs the black male syphilitic body?

Asking “what would happen” risks a certain political naïveté, for we have discovered that the facts of history can very readily be turned into inconvenient fictions, occasions not for a self-conscious attempt to reach out but a narcissistic turn inward. Not how does injustice persist but why malign us when we never took part in any injustice. We need not comment on how that “we” and “us” consolidate a group whose very existence, if not formation, is predicated precisely on the violence and injustice it would disavow. And here, I can only remark on the production of racial difference through disavowal.

It is significant, of course, that Leave it to Beaver featured no black characters (as far as I can tell) and equally significant that its contemporary revision, Pleasantville, featured white characters as colored. The term colored lost its racialized meaning, or, should I say, was reconfigured racially to refer to white figures. (I have no patience with the fictional term Caucasian and never use it. It was created as a joke and its persistence only serves to mask the racial distinction on which it depends.)

This re-deployment of “color” and colored tells, of course, a much sadder truth about how non-white racial critique is constantly appropriated to reconsolidate whiteness, if not as dominating then certainly as the wounded object of racial critique. Instead of critique being seen as an invitation it results in withdrawal. This for another day.

Despite the publication of numerous books and poems, the Tuskegee experiment remains one of the unspeakables that allows for the 1950s to be canonized as an “age” of white American innocence. While the experiment ran from the early 1930s through the 1960s, the 1950s are especially important, in my reckoning, because penicillin, the treatment for syphilis, had finally become widely available after World War II. A period that has been consecrated as one of great rebuilding, a fiction Stephanie Coontz rightly refers to as “the way we never were,” relies on masking medical violence.

Now, certainly, the Tuskegee experiment was not the only site of racialized violence—beatings and lynchings abound in the happy 1950s. I use it here much as a scratch on a vinyl record, to interrupt and disrupt the benign soundtrack that the 1950s conjure in an amnesiac collective memory.

3 thoughts on “Re-framing the 1950s: Leave it to Tuskegee

  1. oooh you’re conc as ever!
    I love it!

    tell us more about ‘Caucasian’ the term. I’m ignorant of this history.
    And as you write about disturbing the happy 50s I can’t help but think of Happy Valley in Kenya a few decades earlier but with disease and race just as pertinent.

  2. I love this post as well. I’m teaching the post-war 1940s and 1950s in my class through the prism of various forms of private and public “literary discourse” that strip away this innocence, so we’re reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Bradbury, speeches by Eisenhower and Kennedy, etc., as a way of rethinking and restoring this narrative of “forgetfulness,” which is a willfully, multi-sited, discursive production, no?

  3. Re caucasian–I *think* it might be Carl Degler? I was reading a group of books on the construction of whiteness and they all started to run together at some point. I am, of course, much too lazy to run through them again (not to mention they are back in the library)

    How fortuitous that both comments run together: increasingly, I tend to debate the inter-war and post-war designations that, it seems to me, strategically elide the beginnings of many other wars for liberation. Concentration camps? Check. Mass killings. Check. What seems absent from these latter wars, of course, is the dignity of national identity: not Germans fighting the French, but scrappy colonized people fighting the English and the French. Many of these scrappy people are, of course, ex-soldiers in other wars, so it seems that the “World War” (and here I’m reminded of Derrida’s comment about “and the rest of the world” regarding psychoanalysis’ blindness toward difference) really breaks up into multiple little “warlets.”

    The point, of course, is how to teach the literature of those “warlets.” I tend to think–and will argue for many years to come–that a text like The Palm Wine Drinkard is precisely the kind of work produced as a warlet text.

    Of course, the narrative of forgetfulness, as John points out, can only exist if we don’t actually read the literature being written and produced at that time, if, instead, we prefer Time Life history (which is a class I *will* teach one day!)

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