Playing in the dark, on the left, and out of bounds: Nelson Algren, World War II, and the cross-racial imagination of blackness

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Through a reading of Nelson Algren's World War II short story, "He Couldn't Boogie-Woogie Worth a Damn" (1947), this essay considers the possibility of anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist representations of African American identity and experience in the work of nonblack authors. The essay approaches the problem of cross-racial representation through Toni Morrison's conceptualization of "playing in the dark" and argues that Algren's story demonstrates that, when undertaken with historical and literary self-awareness, "playing in the dark" can avoid its tendency to fetishize and stereotype blackness and instead contribute to the imagination of international and utopian alternatives to imperialism and capitalism. In "He Couldn't Boogie-Woogie Worth a Damn," Algren reimagines his own experiences in World War II through the narrative of an African American GI who has deserted his unit and is hiding out in Marseilles at the end of the war. The story is informed by Algren's disenchantment, as a Communist writer, with the Communist Party's uncritical support of the Allied war effort, by his sensitivity to the specific challenges the war posed to African American radicals, and by the implications that the lumpenproletarian underworld of Marseilles (with its black markets and furtive transactions) holds for Marxist theories of subjective identity. By self-consciously grounding its play in the dark in specific historical circumstances and by employing Marxism to access an understanding of identity itself as ultimately unfixed and open to articulation, Algren's story is a salient, overlooked example of how cross-racial representation can advance a progressive and inclusive political vision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)146-170
Number of pages25
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


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