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.