Lane’s Forgotten Writings on Race

Among libertarians, Rose Wilder Lane is best known as the author of the libertarian classics The Discovery of Freedom and Give Me Liberty. Outside of the libertarian movement, she is known – if at all – as the at least partial ghostwriter of her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder’s popular Little House on the Prairie series of books. (See William Holtz’s Lane biography.) A chapter of Lane’s literary career that is relatively unknown to both groups, though it brought her an enormous readership at the time, is her stint as a weekly columnist, from 1942 to 1945, for the Pittsburgh Courier, the u.s.’s leading black newspaper and a prominent voice for racial equality.

Rose Wilder Lane

David and Linda Beito’s article “Selling Laissez-faire Antiracism to the Black Masses: Rose Wilder Lane and the Pittsburgh Courier,” in the Fall 2010 issue of the Independent Review (pp. 279-294), seeks to draw attention to Lane’s neglected work for the Courier. I’ve been hearing about this material informally from David for years, and it’s exciting – though frustratingly tantalising – to see a bit more. (The full article won’t be going online for several months, so consider this an advance plug.)

Before her discovery of the Courier, Lane by her own admission had had a blindspot on the issue of race; she had “heard of lynchings and other racial injustice, but had assumed they were isolated incidents.” After she began reading the Courier’s documentation of the extent of racial oppression in the u.s., she declared that she had been an “utter fool” and a “traitor” to the “cause of human rights.” (p. 284) Soon she had joined the paper’s campaign against racism by becoming one of its regular writers.

Race was not the only topic of her columns; she advanced libertarian ideas across the board, often taking left-libertarian positions. For example, she defended the striking United Mine Workers for “refusing to submit to tyranny” (p. 288); praised Samuel Gompers as a proponent of an antistatist form of labour activism (for Gompers’ actual merits or otherwise, see here); championed “free mutual associations” as an alternative to the welfare state (p. 285); expressed concern about the tendency of women to subordinate their interests and identity to those of men and family (p. 286); and saw the “Big Boys” – politically connected plutocrats – as the chief enemies of the free market, declaring that “they can get themselves murdered in cellars for all I’d care.” (p. 285) (Her views on such subjects could be complicated, though. During her early flirtation with Marxism she’d even written a book praising Henry Ford as a practical implementer of Marxism.)

But her columns did frequently deal with race issues; and in the Beitos’ judgment, “[n]o libertarian has ever more creatively weaved together antiracism and laissez-faire than Lane.” (p. 283) According to the Beitos, Lane “anticipated … the strategy of the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s” by suggesting that blacks should “emulate the crusade of … women like her who had once asserted their right to smoke in restaurants.” (p. 284) She also subverted the assumptions of traditional discourse on race by talking about the need to “solve the White problem” (after all, it’s those doing the oppressing who constitute the problem) and parodying stereotypical portraits by writing:

The American White is generally a friendly fellow, good-hearted, generous, and meaning no harm to anyone. His errors, even his cruelties, come from the false beliefs instilled in him by his environment and training. He needs help to overcome them. (p. 284)

Lane rejected the concept of race as a “ridiculous, idiotic, and tragic fallacy” (p. 283) that “did not exist” (p. 291), preferring the terms “dark-skinned” and “pale-skinned”; nowadays she would be called a social constructionist about race, and like today’s social constructionists she wrestled with the problem of whether and how to make use of existing racial categories and identities. Thus, on the one hand, she called on all people, black or white, to “renounce their race” (p. 283) and even rejected “the idea of a Negro novel” as being as irrelevant as the idea of a “blond novel.” (p. 286) But on the other hand, although she “heartily approved ” of calls for the “abolition of the term Negro,” she also “conceded that doing so was not a decision for her to make,” noting that to “millions,” the term represented “pride in achievement and the fellowship in the struggle for human rights.” The strategic choice between renouncing racial identities and embracing them thus constituted a “genuine dilemma.” (p. 284)

Lane’s recognition of the tensions involved in accepting or rejecting socially constructed racial identity anticipates more recent debates over gender and sexual orientation. Judith Butler, for example, argues in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity that “the identity categories often presumed to be foundational to feminist politics … simultaneously work to limit and constrain in advance the very cultural possibilities that feminism is supposed to open up” (p. 187/200), and that appeal to such categories “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.” (p. 189/203) Yet at the same time she acknowledges that “it still makes sense, strategically or transitionally, to refer to women in order to make representational claims on their behalf.” (p. 181/194)

Here’s hoping that more of Lane’s Courier material gets made available.

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5 Responses to Lane’s Forgotten Writings on Race

  1. Bill St. Clair November 30, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    When the form asks for “race”, I write “human”.

  2. Roderick December 7, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    David Beito has posted the Lane piece on his webpage. (CHT Gary Chartier.)


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