Jeff Allred


On his book American Modernism and Depression Documentary

Cover Interview of March 09, 2010

A close-up

Earlier, I began to develop a contrast between Wright’s first person plural in 12 Million Black Voices and Roosevelt’s rhetorical performance of “seeing” the economic violence wrought on the poorest “one third of a nation.”  Now, I would like to take a closer look at Wright’s “we” via a different comparison, one I develop in the final chapter: that of Time, Inc. board chairman Henry Luce in his famous essay “The American Century,” also published in 1941.

As I mentioned above, Wright’s text is structured around an antagonistic relationship between a narrating “we” that speaks for the titular “black voices” and a “you” that is initially designated as bourgeois and white.  At the beginning of the text, the implied white reader is left blindly picking at the “knot” of blackness whose “snarled strands converge from many points in time and space.”  By the end, Wright shifts to a different metaphor, of blackness as a “dark mirror,” to emphasize the extent to which white readers are themselves implicated in African American history and vice versa:

Look at us and know us and you will know yourselves, for we are you, looking back at you from the dark mirror of our lives!

What one sees in this dark mirror is not a neatly framed self, but an uncanny mixture of self and other, a nascent “we” whose coalescence is promised but not yet achieved.

The complexity of Wright’s revision of “we, the people” comes into clearer view in contrast to that of Luce, whose “The American Century” was originally entitled “We Americans” and was published in the pages of Life around the time of Wright’s book’s appearance.  Luce’s logic is a nearly perfect inversion of Wright’s, assuming the internal coherence and transhistorical persistence of the very “we” whose internal divisions and historical development Wright takes such pains to trace out.

Moreover, Luce’s “we” is explicitly imperial in ways that anticipate the neoconservative ideology of the last several decades.  He urges readers to view America, not as a “sanctuary” of democratic ideals but as “the powerhouse from which [these] ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”

In the final chapter, I examine some ways in which Luce’s flagship publications—Time, Fortune, and especially Life—model this coercive vision of collective identity.  I pay special attention to the way Time Inc. publications, no less than the avant-garde work of the period, experimented with new media and new ways of combining images and text.  But they did so to nearly opposite political ends, constructing a world in which “we Americans” is a product rather than a process, an answer rather than a question, and outside of history rather than continually produced within it.