Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Honor Bound

Honor Bound: Race and Shame in America

David Leverenz
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 296
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Honor Bound
    Book Description:

    As Bill Clinton said in his second inaugural address, "The divide of race has been America's constant curse." InHonor Bound, David Leverenz explores the past to the present of that divide. He argues that in the United States, the rise and decline of white people's racial shaming reflect the rise and decline of white honor. "White skin" and "black skin" are fictions of honor and shame. Americans have lived those fictions for over four hundred years.To make his argument, Leverenz casts an unusually wide net, from ancient and modern cultures of honor to social, political, and military history to American literature and popular culture.

    He highlights the convergence of whiteness and honor in the United States from the antebellum period to the present. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama represent racial progress; the Tea Party movement represents the latest recoil.

    From exploring African American narratives to examining a 2009 episode ofHardball-in which two white commentators restore their honor by mocking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after he called Americans "cowards" for not talking more about race-Leverenz illustrates how white honor has prompted racial shaming and humiliation. The United States became a nation-state in which light-skinned people declared themselves white. The fear masked by white honor surfaces in such classics of American literature asThe Scarlet LetterandAdventures of Huckleberry Finnand in the U.S. wars against the Barbary pirates from 1783 to 1815 and the Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to the present. John McCain'sFaith of My Fathersis used to frame the 2008 presidential campaign as white honor's last national stand.

    Honor Boundconcludes by probing the endless attempts in 2009 and 2010 to preserve white honor through racial shaming, from the "birthers" and Tea Party protests to Joe Wilson's "You lie!" in Congress and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the front door of his own home. Leverenz is optimistic that, in the twenty-first century, racial shaming is itself becoming shameful.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5331-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-7)

    In 1959 Bo Diddley experienced what he later recalled as the most humiliating moment of his life. When he and his band were playing in Las Vegas at the Showboat Casino, one afternoon they jumped into the hotel’s swimming pool. Immediately all the white people climbed out, and an attendant put up a sign saying “Contaminated Water.”¹

    Fifty years later, Barack Obama became the forty-fourth president of the United States. Grudgingly or enthusiastically, most white people seemed to accept an African American as their nation’s leader. Yet anger at his “intrusive” agenda erupted soon after he took office. There’s some...

    (pp. 8-29)

    Racial shaming affirms the coherence of a dominant racial group. When that fails, the next step is to terrorize. Then come brutality and murder, and finally ethnic “cleansing,” a word that exposes the group’s preoccupations with shared purity.¹ But such racial groups build their bonds on fictions. This chapter looks at the rise and decline of one of those fictions, white honor in America.

    For several thousand years, small groups such as tribes, gangs, or city-states have developed codes of honor that inspire men to fight outsiders. The codes spur courage and loyalty, establish internal hierarchies, and punish cowards or...

    (pp. 30-57)

    A year after Bo Diddley jumped into the Las Vegas swimming pool and faced a sign declaring “Contaminated Water” and days after the 1960 presidential election, John Lewis and two black companions went into a Nashville fast-food restaurant to order ten-cent hamburgers. As Taylor Branch recounts, “A visibly distressed waitress poured cleansing powder down their backs and water over their food, while the three Negroes steadfastly ate what they could of their meal.” When Lewis and James Bevel returned to complain, the manager said that the place was closed for “emergency fumigation.” He then locked the front door, turned on...

    (pp. 58-84)

    “Every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro, by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away, or as each individual may determine.” That declaration was Point Twelve of a 33-point agenda drafted by Martin W. Gary for the Democratic Party in South Carolina that was designed to intimidate black and Republican voters in the 1876 election. Eighty years later, on the day before his reelection in 1946, Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo called on “every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no nigger...

    (pp. 85-108)

    In the last chapter, I sketched the expansion of the honor code from protecting a small group’s survival to protecting a very large group’s racial supremacy. Racial shaming not only separated insiders from outsiders but also helped light-skinned Americans feel more white. Using novels and wars, the next two chapters explore the growing sense of desperation in those attempts to secure racialized honor.

    The first section briefly considers Stephen Crane’sThe Monster(1899) and Jonathan Franzen’sFreedom(2010), with a nod to William Faulkner’sLight in August(1932). These narratives present racial shaming with a shifting mix of empathy and...

    (pp. 109-141)

    Growing insecurity about white cohesiveness wasn’t restricted to canonized novels. American foreign policy reveals similar tensions. Racial shaming has played a key role in gaining support for wars, though the targets have shifted from Barbary pirates, Mexicans, and Filipinos to “Japs” and “gooks.” Recently, as contempt for black people became less acceptable at home, three American wars in the Middle East consolidated American contempt for Muslims abroad, at least until the cascade of Arab protests and revolutions in early 2011 reopened American sympathies for a “them” who suddenly seemed more like “us.”

    This chapter compares U.S. responses to the Barbary...

    (pp. 142-166)

    Near the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, a young white woman working for John McCain in western Pennsylvania appeared with a backward B carved on her cheek. Ashley Todd said she had been sexually assaulted and mutilated by a black mugger six feet, four inches tall who might have been working for Obama. Immediately the Drudge Report featured Ashley Todd’s accusation, right-wing blogs trumpeted the story, newspapers published it, and the McCain campaign pushed it. The campaign’s Pennsylvania communications director told reporters that the B stood for Barack. By that evening McCain had telephoned Ashley Todd to express his...

    (pp. 167-184)

    Racial shaming has by no means disappeared in the United States. It focuses on Muslims and Mexican immigrants or pours into the ceaseless cascade of films about aliens. Some argue that it has shifted from race to class. New modes of segregation and policing, such as gated communities and anti-drug laws vigorously enforced against the urban poor, may have made it less necessary. More young black men are now in prison than in institutions of higher education, and 40 percent of black children under the age of five live in poverty.¹ Despite the new white tolerance for interracial hand-holding, in...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 185-260)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 261-278)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 279-280)