Friday, September 4, 2009

Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro

“White people who say they ‘understand’ the Negro merely mean that they have seen a lot of Negroes around; but this does not imply a mastery of their psychology any more than living next door to Einstein implies a mastery of the theory of relativity.”
--Margaret Halsey

In November, I’ll be presenting a paper on Margaret Halsey’s Colorblind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro (pub. in 1946) at the 2009 Modern Language Association’s Southern Atlantic regional conference (SAMLA) in Atlanta, Georgia. I'll be a part of the American Humor Studies Association panel, titled
Laughing on the Inside: Humors of Race and Ethnicity. For now, though, I’ll just post a few paragraphs about the life of this fascinating woman, with more to come later.

Margaret Halsey (1910-1997) was the best-selling author of 1938’s With Malice Toward Some, a humorous take on British customs. The book sold more than 600,000 copies and her fame was seemingly assured. Yet, today, her reputation is no more than a footnote in one or two books and journals, although she is a mainstay on quotation pages. Halsey followed With Malice Toward Some with Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers, A Kind of Novel in 1944, this one based on her experiences throughout World War II as a supervisor of hostesses at New York’s famed Stage Door Canteen. At the time, she was married to Henry Simon, younger brother of Dick Simon, co-founder of the Simon and Shuster publishing company. The marriage to Simon, who was Jewish, heightened Halsey’s awareness of American anti-Semitism. Some of My Best Friends are Soldiers garnered respectable reviews, although nowhere near the esteem or financial success of her first book. Halsey’s experiences at the canteen (one of only two interracial ones in the U.S. during the war) fostered a burgeoning curiosity about the contradictory racial attitudes held by white liberals toward blacks in the post-War atmosphere, so she decided to take a close look.
Margaret Halsey begins Colorblind with a response to the question of why she, a humor writer, felt the need to attempt a book on race relations, observing that “The professional humorist catches cold, is jilted in love, pays income tax, and worries about the atomic bomb. If at any time he appears to be merry and relaxed about these phenomena, it is only because he has signed a contract with somebody involving the receipt of money.”
Colorblind, emerging from her growing interest in the nascent civil rights movement, is by turns mock-anthropological, pedantic, satiric, and haughty, as she goes about dispensing advice on what white people should know about the “Negro.” Although she insists that her intention is not to write another humor book but to write seriously on the problems of race relations in the United States, Colorblind retains Halsey’s droll comic sense as she uses humor to underscore her outrage over continued racial prejudice: “At college I was first introduced to the social sciences and read in books about the chronic and systematized injustice with which our Negro citizens have to contend. This filled me with a sense of outrage, but the people around me persisted in being Caucasian and I could think of nothing specific and immediate to do.”

In writing Colorblind, Halsey notes that she is troubled by the mixture of “innocence, ignorance, indifference and inexperience” she perceives in herself and among “a great many other well-meaning white Americans” who are also concerned about race relations. “I thought that they, in particular, might be interested in the reflections and conclusions hereinafter contained.” Her aim also is to destroy myths about blacks that she felt were detrimental to the ideals of American democracy. She states at the outset that her book is written to and for whites—blacks already are painfully aware of prejudice and discrimination, but whites are often blind to its devastating effects. In Halsey’s view, lack of proximity is a problem—propinquity would help to resolve it. That is, white prejudice would lessen if whites knew more about blacks and were around them more—Halsey also explains the feelings of guilt on the part of enlightened whites toward blacks when they confront their own prejudices: “The Caucasian is a startled and uncomfortable citizen the first time he discovers that equality is not automatic, but has to be learned.”

Halsey herself is not immune to these feelings, either. She admits to her own initial discomfort in dealing with blacks as equals: “Freedom from prejudice is one thing in theory and quite another in actual practice. …it is impossible for white people who have been accustomed to Negroes only in menial roles to be entirely at ease when they first start meeting educated Negroes on a footing of equality. All the good will in the world will not keep one’s eye from bouncing off the dark skin or one’s mind from forming the breathless thought, ‘I’m talking to a Negro.’

Halsey provides examples of her own awkwardness in attempting to get to know blacks and offers an anecdote about the first time she ever invited a black person to her home: “She [was] a pretty girl, and of a most engaging color, but I was not entirely comfortable when I walked down the street with her…I was afraid that some hot-eyed Confederate would leap out from behind a lamppost and start denouncing me—in which case I knew that my reply would not measure up to the Gettysburg Address.” This tone remains consistent throughout the book, humorous and yet oddly distancing. One must keep in mind that she is talking to whites, a specific audience, and yet there is something unsettling about the casualness of her tone.

The Stage Door Canteen in New York City was one of only two canteens which served black as well as white soldiers. The no-discrimination policy at the canteen offered her a window through which to experiment with integration in a microcosmic world. Why not bring it to the rest of society, she wondered. One way that the canteen was able to avoid fights was due to a rule by the military that the servicemen had to stand at attention whenever “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played—thus, whenever a fight broke out, it was played. Halsey writes (proudly) that they only had to play the song once due to a racially-based disturbance.

In a chapter entitled “Color Conscious,” Halsey begins to instruct her white audience on developing social relations with blacks
—she candidly acknowledges that she does not know how blacks feel. I should mention here that, although she mentions the plight of black women in terms of their sexual exploitation at the hands of white men, Halsey clearly positions her construct of "the Negro" as male: “…no white man can, with any accuracy, claim to know the Negro until the life patterns of the two groups are considerably close than they are now. White people who say they ‘understand’ the Negro merely mean that they have seen a lot of Negroes around; but this does not imply a mastery of their psychology any more than living next door to Einstein implies a mastery of the theory of relativity.”

This is Halsey’s main thesis—that integration will breed acceptance and equality. In her 1977 autobiography, N
o Laughing Matter: The Autobiography of a WASP, Halsey notes that NAACP chapters all over the United States bought up scores of copies of Colorblind upon publication. Some bookstores in the South refused to sell it, and it was removed from the shelves of libraries on the charge that it was obscene. Colorblind is a fascinating and funny period piece, with Cold War anxieties present in numerous references to the atomic era, although it is clear that the ticking bomb Halsey feels more likely to explode, and which she seeks to disarm through humor, is a racial one. I will post more on Margaret Halsey after my conference presentation in November.

All best, Rebecca


olddoc said...

PERSONAL: Rebecca, what conference? I wish I knew more about you.Your blog and periodic commenatries are a breath of fresh air in stagnant Plainfield. HSY

Author said...

Hi, Doc,

The conference is one of 6 regional Modern Language Association-associated (est. in 1883) conferences held each year. The MLA is a professional organization for higher education teachers and scholars of language and literature. The main conference is held in December--this year it's in Philadelphia, so I will be able to attend that as well. Regarding your comment, I guess I should post a little bit about myself, as a couple of people have asked for details.

Chris Estevez said...

Please tell all!

Anonymous said...

Tell "all," Chris? Gosh, the blogosphere isn't big enough--ha! I will prepare a nice, brief, "sanitized" bio--leaving out the FBI, Red Diaper years, and general mayhem!