“Racism is one of those subjects that gives the feeling that there is no end to what you can find out once you start reading.” So writes the novelist and critic Darryl Pinckney in Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy (New York Review Books, 112 pp., $14.95). With its graceful marshaling of historical scholarship and primary documents, Blackballed, originally published in 2014 and reissued with a new concluding essay, proves its own assertion. Pinckney’s two novels, High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), both feature bookish, deeply ambivalent Black narrators engaged in the task of self-fashioning. As the narrator of Black Deutschland puts it, “I’d lived my life camping out in other people’s stories, waiting for my own to begin, but unable to get out of the great head and into the actual.” Blackballed shows that to understand American electoral history you have to understand race, and that to understand race you have to read Ralph Ellison and Nella Larsen, W.E.B. Du Bois and Michelle Alexander. The great head (books; the life of the mind) doesn’t have to be a distraction from the actual (politics). In fact, it can be one route toward it.
Pinckney seems to have read everything, from Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, published in 1945, to 2008’s Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, and this reading has shown him that the history of race and voting in America isn’t a simple tale of progress, despite what the Roberts Court proclaimed in its decision decimating the Voting Rights Act. (The “40-year-old-facts” on which the Act was based have “no logical relationship to the present day,” the court argued in the midst of widespread Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters of color.) “One thing about pessimism,” Pinckney writes, “is that it feels sane. Pessimists are those who can’t be taken in, people who can’t be fooled.” He wrote that after the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama. Four years later, with the election of a candidate whose main appeal lay in racial resentment, the pessimists felt even saner. Four years after that, with that same hate-spewing candidate receiving close to half of the national vote, it sure doesn’t seem like the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice. As an American citizen, it’s hard not to be despairing, even depressed. As Pinckney puts it, “If a person cannot imagine a future, then we would say that that person is depressed. But if a country cannot envision a future, how do we describe its condition?”
Yet the history of race and voting in America isn’t a simple tale of suppression and despair, either. Pinckney tells us about Promised Land, South Carolina, a community of freedmen that, despite the efforts of domestic terrorists, kept voting after Reconstruction. (Pinckney’s great-great-grandfather was a member of this community.) This history, which Pinckney read about in Elizabeth Rauh Bethel’s Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community (again, there’s no end to what you can find out once you start reading), is worth remembering:
In one story about elections in the early 1880s, a white sheriff warned the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary group, that the blacks in Promised Land had a reputation for using their Winchesters and shotguns. Black men walked three miles to the polls at the post office in the next town. They went in groups, the better to protect themselves. There was one box for ballots cast by blacks, a separate box for those of whites.
It’s easy to tell a just-so story about the history of the Black vote: the radical democratic experiment of Reconstruction gives way to suppression gives way to the civil rights movement; Republicans move from being the party of Lincoln to being the party of Strom Thurmond. But just-so stories just aren’t true. The men of Promised Land continued voting; Trump rose to political prominence when our first Black president was winning reelection.
History doesn’t arc toward goodness; it doesn’t arc toward evil, either. It doesn’t arc at all. The book ends in the present, with an essay written this past July—a summer of pandemic and protests, with corporations desperately aligning themselves with Black Lives Matter and President Trump desperately aligning himself with white-supremacist vigilantes. As is his wont, Pinckney finds himself in a position of ambivalence. He’s freaked out by the fireworks: “It sounds like Tet,” his partner, the poet James Fenton, remarks. He’s moved and unsettled by the speed and force of the protests: “The world was taking a knee. The sheer scale and brutal directness of what was going on urged me to look inward at my own symptoms of the philistine terror of change.”