Trice: How vertical views shape race in fiction

U. of C. assistant professor examines role of skyscrapers in shifting attitudes

In its early years, the skyscraper was mesmerizing in the way it shifted our perspective and challenged us to re-conceptualize the world. It said: You recognize the view near the ground, now try it from the 10th floor, the 15th floor and beyond.

Distance blurred what we thought we knew. You couldn't tell if the person below was rich or poor, black or white.

It is from the vantage point of tall buildings and even urban and suburban planning that Adrienne Brown, an assistant professor in the University of Chicago's English Department, examines race in fiction. And it's quite an interesting perspective.

I talked to Brown recently and began our conversation, which I've edited here, by asking her how she arrived at her work.

A: I went to high school in Fort Meade, Md., home of the National Security Agency with a racially and economically diverse group of students. They had grown up on farms, in housing projects, inner-city enclaves and the suburbs. I had been interested in race and class, but it became clear to me that geography is always mediating those two.

Then in college, my roommate majored in architecture and that fascinated me. I wrote my senior thesis on the author John Cheever and how the suburbs shifted the entire category of "whiteness." The misconception is that there was this category of whiteness in the city, and when people moved away it was reconsolidated in the suburbs. But the way we define whiteness now didn't really come about until the middle of the last century.

Q: Maybe not as much in the North, but it did exist in the South because of Jim Crow laws, right?

A: Yes. There, race resided in the blood and being white was based primarily on Anglo-Saxon bloodlines. But when the suburbs formed in the late 1940s, what mattered was whether you could pass for white. Various groups of immigrants became "white" when they left the city and moved to the suburbs.

If you were Polish, Italian or Irish, for example, there was enough of a veneer of connectivity that you could move into a community and residents wouldn't automatically think it would affect their property values.

 

Q: Cheever wrote quite a bit about the suburbs. Which of his stories illustrates how race is reprocessed in towns outside the big city?

A: In his short story collection, "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," there's a story called, "The Five Forty-Eight," which is set in a suburb of Shady Hill. It's about a man who works in the city and is having an affair with a secretary. It's clear to me that she's a woman of color who's passing for white, although Cheever doesn't make an explicit reference to her race.

The man winds up firing her in a cruel way and she eventually follows him onto a train and holds him hostage at gunpoint. In a climactic scene, they get off the train and walk to a dusty area, where she pushes his face into the dirt and he, in essence, is now in blackface. Her anger then dissipates and she leaves. Both realize that this suburban world isn't as idyllic as either believed.

 

Q: How did the introduction of the skyscraper affect the way race played out in literature?

A: The first skyscraper was Chicago's 10-story Home Insurance Building built in 1884. By 1929, construction had begun on the 103-story Empire State Building in New York. With skyscrapers, the scale of the big city, its blocks and boulevards, was changing at an incredibly rapid pace. How you encounter people — including people of different races — and react to them had to change.

 

Q: So, perception begins to be fragmented in real life, but also in fiction. What books show this?

A: I found some novels and short stories about 1920s middle-class and wealthy white people who said that skyscrapers were pushing them out of the city. They said the buildings made them feel like mere specks, or chattel slaves.

In George Allan England's science fiction story, "The Last New Yorkers," there's a race war and a group of white people fall asleep atop a skyscraper. They wake up a thousand years later and the world has been taken over by blacks. In "The Jolly Corner," author Henry James has a character who's an expatriate and he's invested in tall buildings but he's obsessed with the old family home. He imagines himself as a ghost and talks about a black stranger who's following him.

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