Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

No Black Utopias

By Charles Henry

In the mid-seventies I co-authored an article entitled, “Imagining a Future in America: A Racial Perspective.” It was prompted by the publication of Ernest Callenbach’s popular 1975 novel "Ecotopia". In Callenbach’s work the West Coast of the United States has seceded from the rest of the country to form a utopian society based on harmony with nature. Pollution, economic conflict, and sexual oppression (the president is a woman) have been overcome – except for one problem. Black citizens live in separate city-states in the California central valley and are still driving cars and eating meat!

Callenbach’s failure to incorporate Blacks in his utopian vision is typical of utopian literature in general whether success is achieved through harmony with nature or technological innovation. Nathaniel Hawthrone’s pastoral community in "The Blithdale Romance" simply ignores the racial conflict tearing the country apart in 1852. In one of the most popular works of the 19th century, "Looking Backward" (1888), Edward Bellamy relies on technology to solve the problems of a rapidly industrializing nation but is silent about the development of “Jim Crow.”

It would seem that some of our most creative thinkers cannot escape our racial history. After all, no mainstream political leader in the ante-bellum period imagined a future that included Blacks and Whites living together as equals in the same country. Lincoln was exploring options for colonizing the newly freed right up to the time of emancipation. And while it proved physically impossible to remove Blacks from this land, there was no space occupied by them that was not owned or controlled by Whites. It became a joke to Black Power advocates when the question was raised of “why do African Americans burn their own communities?” when very few owned either the businesses or homes in their neighborhoods.

What about the opposite of the ghetto—the ivy-covered halls of the university. Black academics are just as likely as Black students, but not Black service workers, to be stopped and questioned on campus. Not too many years ago a senior Black colleague and I were waiting for our car keys near the entrance to a campus parking garage. A woman drove into the garage and mistaking us for valets asked where she could park. A Black colleague at Stanford reported he, as well as others, was walking around a track on campus as part of his exercise routine when approached by someone White asking if he was the driver of a bus parked nearby. He said no and continued walking. On the next lap she approached again and asked, “what do you do here?” A former professor of mine, the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin, relates that he was mistaken for a waiter at the very reception where he was the guest of honor. In fact, it is difficult to find any Black scholars who have not had similar experiences.

If we cannot imagine Black faculty in spaces other than kitchens and parking garages and Black students in computer science classes rather than the locker room, then we can hardly imagine a country where police protect protesters who want a better future. If the figures we memorialize are symbols of White supremacy, there is little hope that our future will be any better than our past. Martin Luther King, Jr., said Whites and Blacks had different definitions of integration. For Whites it simply meant “desegregation” or the absence of forced separation. For Blacks it meant inclusion, a positive coming together, a “beloved community.” That is my kind of utopian vision.