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the fire in the flint

6 september 2021

Walter Francis White's 1924 novel The Fire in the Flint attacks many injustices: lynching, sharecropping and debt peonage, sexual harassment, the denial of voting rights and of due process to African-Americans. But its most far-ranging insight comes in a characterization of Southern segregationists that I think goes a long way toward explaining how a certain kind of American conservatism has prevailed in the century since White wrote it:

They opposed every move for better educational facilities for their children, for improvement of their health or economic status or welfare in general, if such improvement meant better advantages for Negroes. (90)
In the decades after White's death in 1955, I'd argue that nominally non-racist conservatives with a national constituency made common cause with these Lost Causers. Southern-Strategy Republicans, Reaganites, deficit hawks, right-libertarians, and Compassionate Conservatives alike opposed improvements in health, wealth, education, and welfare for all anyway, and Southern racists were their natural allies.

Of course, the newer right-wing coalitions have tended, at least till the Trump era re-validated white supremacists, to be officially race-neutral in language and legal strategy. If you never mention race and in fact claim that noticing "disparate impact" is itself racist, you can go a long way toward blocking the progress of black Americans while butter remains unmelted in your mouth.

But the racists depicted in The Fire in the Flint are distinctly not of this new circumspect variety. White's novel contains a higher percentage of N-words than most gangsta-rap lyrics. The most well-meaning of his white characters, Judge Stevenson barely softens the epithet to "nigra" (112), a bit of code-switching that conveys condescension and its attendant veiled power.

White addresses anti-miscegenation laws, which we now tend to identify with fears of racial mixing and concerns for the "purity" of white womanhood under siege from black sexuality. While acknowledging those motives, White traces the ban on interracial marriage more squarely to the sexuality of white men. Free to exploit black women without any danger of having to marry them or even of acknowledging paternity, white men, in White's analysis, turned Southern towns into a gamut of sexual harassment for black women. "The laws were passed," says White, "because white men wanted to have their own women and use colored women too without any law interfering with their affairs or making them responsible for the consequences" (64).

Though as that wording suggests, White was still a man of the 1920s. His protagonist, the surgeon Kenneth Harper, is a man, as is the second male "lead" in the story, Ken's brother Bob; the mutual-aid society they organize is led by men, and their powerful enemies are white men. White is ruefully aware that women often lead from behind the scenes. The cooperative that Ken forms is not his idea, but that of his girlfriend Jane Phillips. But when it comes down to it, sexual honor in White's world is a struggle among men, not a right possessed by self-determined women. "If [black] Bud wanted his wife kept inviolate, hadn't he as much right to guard her person as [white] George Parker?" asks White (67). Female chastity is a man's possession, to be contested with other men.

For all its unflinching horrors and ultimate pessimism, The Fire in the Flint may go easier on some white characters than they deserve. I sense that the novel's eclipsed reputation since the rise of writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison may be related to this lenity. The Klan that White depicts is silly (if murderous), its members not so much evil in themselves as "duped so long by demagogues" (90) that they have lost the ability to see reality. Good white characters abound, though none are able to swim against the current: Judge Stevenson, and the Ewings who are swung from racism to respect when Ken Harper saves their daughter's life with an emergency operation.

Yet the novel contains no white saviors. Black people in the South are on their own aside from some local white well-wishers, and any help from the federal government is notional and remote. And the racists in the novel are too powerful, too violent to be withstood, so the dreams of all the characters come crashing around them. Yet for all its sledgehammer representations of defeat and despair, there is something oddly optimistic about The Fire in the Flint. It represents African-American activism and capability.

It's a class-conscious book. White was clearly of the "talented tenth" himself and his protagonists are highly-educated professionals; poorer black people are sometimes represented as superstitious and ineffectual. But White also notes an interesting code-switching. His African-American preacher, Ezekiel Wilson, counsels patience and fitting one's back to the burden, in broad dialect. But when Wilson is alone with Ken Harper, he speaks Standard English and rapidly endorses Ken and Jane's cooperative venture. The nine-tenths, in The Fire in the Flint, may be oppressed, but they have talents of their own, and we see the hope that perseverance will some day reward the exercise of those talents in the struggle for civil rights.

White, Walter Francis. The Fire in the Flint. 1924. Kindle Edition.