Interview with James Davis, author of "Eric Walrond," Part 2

James Davis, Eric Walrond

The following is the second half of our article with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. You can read part 1 here.

Question: One of the more fascinating aspects of your biography are your descriptions of Walrond’s youth in Panama during the building of the canal. How did this episode shape Walrond and how does the Panama of this period fit in with the larger story of the Transatlantic Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth-century?

James Davis: Walrond described himself as “spiritually a native of Panama,” despite having spent his childhood in Guyana and Barbados. Panama during the construction of the Canal (1904-1914) was at once a new frontier for a United States eager to consolidate power in the hemisphere and an extraordinarily diverse contact zone in which laborers and their families from the entire Caribbean region converged. Panama attracted people from other parts of the world, to be sure, but economic precariousness in the Caribbean led to emigration in large numbers.

The U.S. occupation imported to the Canal Zone a Jim Crow form of racial segregation, which introduced an acute form of race consciousness many West Indians had not felt previously, despite living in European colonies with perceptible hierarchies of color. Walrond was among those for whom life in Panama compelled a new self-understanding as a West Indian (rather than, more parochially, a Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc.) and as a Negro. Recall that outside of the United States, the most successful branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association emerged in Panama, where the imprint of white command was stark, and in neighboring Costa Rica, where the United Fruit Corporation, a North American concern, effectively ran things. Despite segregation in the Canal Zone, however, Walrond was inspired by Panama’s tremendous ethnic diversity; it provoked the cultural tensions, collaborations, and hybridity that always intrigued him.

Q: Jumping ahead to later in Walrond’s life, is it fair to characterize his time in England as a letdown from the promise he showed as a writer during his time in Harlem?

JD: I struggled with this exact question while writing the biography. The record is clearly stacked against Walrond’s later career; he published much less after leaving the U.S. and didn’t publish another book, despite having composed several. It’s also hard to tell the story of someone who committed himself to a mental hospital for five years late in life as anything other than a tragedy. So from a certain empirical standpoint there’s no question that Walrond’s post-Harlem career was a letdown; he felt it acutely himself.

Nevertheless, the one-hit wonder label that affixed itself to Walrond distorts the real story. Very little of Walrond’s post-Harlem writing was available to readers until recently, with Louis Parascandola’s two collections, so any assessment of promise fulfilled or unfulfilled must attend to this work. Examining it closely, placing it in context, one realizes some things that complicate the idea that his career simply declined. First, although Tropic Death contains much of Walrond’s best fiction, some of the stories he wrote in England equal or surpass its quality, and some of his non-fiction prose in England definitely rivals his work for Negro World, Opportunity, and the mainstream publications for which he wrote in the mid-1920s. It just crackles with anti-colonial militancy and acerbic wit.

Second, we should recognize that while writing by non-white Americans was published in book form with increasing frequency after World War I, it would not be until the 1950s that writing by non-white Britons – or by colonial subjects in England – appeared in book form with any regularity. Exceptions occurred but they were few and far between. The real cultural action in black letters in England was in periodicals, and here Walrond was, if not prolific, then quite present. So I don’t dispute the idea that Walrond disappointed expectations, nor do I explain away his shortcomings, but I definitely revisit the criteria by which we judge matters of success and failure and offer a sustained analysis of what his later work represents when considered on its own terms.

Q: What happened with his long-planned and long-worked on history of Panama?

JD: The disappearance of this book, The Big Ditch, was one of the mysteries that provoked my interest in Walrond’s career. It was publicized as forthcoming from Boni & Liveright’s Fall 1928 catalog, but that proved premature. There were problems getting the manuscript into finished shape, but as my book documents, the real reason it was not published was that Horace Liveright—publisher of Tropic Death but unreliable in the best circumstances—tore up the contract when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in. Since Walrond was living in France at the time, it was difficult for him to intervene, and he had to borrow money for return passage to New York to negotiate the manuscript’s release from the extortionate terms Liveright imposed. Already struggling, this was a blow from which Walrond’s career never fully recovered. He did publish excerpts of The Big Ditch in serial installments in the 1950s, but they appeared in the journal of the mental hospital at which Walrond resided, hardly the thing to salvage a faltering career. The real shame of it is that despite its unevenness this history of Panama is a fascinating document, a work of prodigious research that sought to challenge prevailing accounts of how Panama and the Canal came to be.

Q: How does Walrond’s life and writing change the way we think about black identity in the twentieth century?

JD: In both his journalism and his fiction, Walrond’s writing suggests that one is not born black and remains so, one becomes black and performs blackness. Which is not to say that race may be selected, as if from a menu, or that race is simply an act, but that it is an extremely powerful fiction, a construct that is lived differently in different parts of the world and at different times. He believed that although it was critical for people of African descent to find common cause against oppressive social structures and white supremacist ideology, black “identity” was itself a kind of concession to white supremacy, which presupposed that African descent was the social marker that trumped all others.

The self-sameness that “identity” suggests came under scrutiny in Walrond’s writing, which insisted on the extraordinary diversity of cultures, classes, and ethnicities conventionally designated as “Negro.” This insistence did not make him any less passionate about advancing black freedom struggles or raising the profile of black voices, but it accommodated a sharp recognition of the varying processes of racialization, of the way, for example, West Indians “become” black in the United States or in England, without of course having changed physically. Such a recognition compels us, in turn, to consider some unsettling truths about how race has functioned to sort people and to allocate power, and to appreciate the efforts people make—without necessarily being conscious of them—to negotiate processes of racialization in highly stratified societies such as ours.

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