Recent years have seen renewed scholarly interest in Eric Walrond’s 1926 short story collection Tropic Death, a portrait of circum-Caribbean labor migration during the construction of the Panama Canal (1904-1914). This essay argues that Tropic Death not only helps broaden the geographical terrain of the Harlem Renaissance but also introduces US imperialism as a key framework for understanding black hemispheric modernity. By situating its discussion of black folk culture not in the US South but throughout the Caribbean basin, Tropic Death grapples with the specter of US expansion and its implications for black labor, migration, and death. Crucially, Tropic Death’s critique of empire emerges as much through its aesthetics as through its themes. Taking up its reputation as a difficult text (W. E. B. Du Bois labeled it “hard reading͟”), the essay contends that Tropic Death’s formal experiments provide useful challenges to long-entrenched methods of reading and writing about black modernity. Finally, this essay contributes to ongoing debates by suggesting that at the start of the American imperial century, the hemisphere, rather than the diaspora more broadly, is the most immediate and urgent frame of reference for writers such as Walrond.
In 1926 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, fiction writer and journalist Eric Walrond published Tropic Death, a book of short stories set entirely in Central America and the Caribbean during the United States’ construction of the Panama Canal. A native of British Guiana, Walrond moved to New York in 1918 and became an active figure on the New York literary scene. Tropic Death was his highly anticipated book-length debut. In an enthusiastic review, W. E. B. Du Bois called Tropic Death a human document of deep significance and great promise and a distinct contribution to Negro literature: “Here is a book of ten stories of death, which, with impressionistic pen and little plot, show forth with singular vividness the life of black laborers of the West Indies. There is superstition, unusual dialect, singular economic glimpse; but above all, there is truth and human sympathy” (152). Du Bois’s review highlights Tropic Death’s twofold contribution. First, the text performs a significant geographical shift by locating its portrait of black migration and labor in neither Harlem nor the American South but in the Caribbean basin. Second, the text’s artistic innovations—its “impressionistic pen and little plot”—establish Walrond’s reputation as one of the key stylists of the movement, a bright new light of Harlem’s avant-garde.
Despite this promising debut, Tropic Death fell into obscurity1 and remained mostly out of print for decades until recent recuperations by Louis Parascandola, Carl A. Wade, Arnold Rampersad, and James Davis.2 The problem has not been one of total critical neglect, as Walrond is often featured in major anthologies and literary histories of the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, Tropic Death has suffered from a lack of sustained critical engagement despite scholarly claims to the text’s significance. Some reasons for this lack of engagement are arguably foreshadowed in Du Bois’s review.3Tropic Death’s focus on “black laborers of the West Indies” (Du Bois 152) does not fit neatly into US-bound themes that have until recently shaped narratives of the Harlem Renaissance.4 Appropriately, then, efforts to recuperate Walrond have drawn from recent work on the transnational contours of the New Negro Movement, exemplified by Brent Hayes Edwards’s turn to the cultures of black internationalism in The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (2003). Davis’s recent biography makes a significant contribution in this vein. As Davis observes, in light of “a transnational understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and a diaspora approach to Caribbean writing—Walrond’s significance takes on a different cast” (5).
While the internationalist thrust of diaspora studies offers a useful context for reading Tropic Death, the book’s specific orientation is the western hemisphere. To attend to the specificities of Tropic Death’s transnationalism is to note its preoccupation with the specter of US imperialism. Indeed, scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance, even when informed by a transnational perspective, has just begun to address the specific question of US imperialism as it emerges from the pens of black writers. Such a focus illuminates my reading of Tropic Death, in which US empire emerges as a key framework for understanding the black experience in the first decades of the twentieth century. Looming at the center of the text is the construction of the Panama Canal, initiated by France in the 1880s and completed by the United States from 1904 to 1914. Canal construction precipitated one of the largest mass migrations the region had ever seen as workers from across the Caribbean flocked to the isthmus in search of the higher pay promised in the Canal Zone.
Tropic Death revises the dominant narrative of canal construction as exemplary of prosperity and progress, revealing its paradoxical role as both a catalyst of cultural exchange and a symbol of uncanny modern violence. Death reoccurs with grim certainty in each of the book’s settings, which move from the Panama Canal Zone at Colón to the shores of Jamaica and Honduras, and from bustling industrial worksites to obscure “backwoods” villages. Ominously, if implicitly, the book also anticipates other manifestations of American expansion, from the United States’ control of sugar producing regions to various military, economic, and cultural interventions, small and large, throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Broadening critical knowledge of the historical contexts of interwar literary production, Tropic Death reminds us that the artistic ferment of the international New Negro Movement took place at a time when, as Barbara Christian phrases it, “U.S. troops were continually invading one island or another” (56).
If Tropic Death identifies empire, migration, labor, and death as historical conditions of a black hemispheric modernity, such a vision is enabled not only by its themes but also by its aesthetic innovations. Walrond’s use of fragments and bits of image (what Du Bois calls his “impressionistic pen” ) are key to his rendering of imperialism’s disorienting violence, a geography that literally shifts and disintegrates. His use of the short story collection reinforces his grim theme with inexorable repetition but also facilitates his multifaceted and panoramic vision of Caribbean identity. Significantly, these innovations won praise for Tropic Death but also earned the book a reputation as difficult. Even Du Bois’s favorable review contained this caveat: “The book’s impressionism, together with its dialect, make it often hard reading and difficult to understand in parts” (152).
Du Bois’s phrase “hard reading” usefully encapsulates both the aesthetic and epistemological challenges raised by a text such as Tropic Death, which, as Jennifer Brittan observes, remained “indigestible” even to later critics who chafed at the “uncomfortable experience of reading this work” (299). Rather than reading this discomfort as incidental to the text’s meaning, I retain a sense of the value of Tropic Death’s stylistic and thematic difficulty. Tropic Death’s various challenges signal its quest for a form and language to communicate a poetics and a politics of migration and death in the American century. Re-envisioning the modernist imperative to “make it new,” Tropic Death’s stylistic experiments seek to illuminate contemporary forms of violence that were insidious, pervasive, and often confounding.
Tropic Death’s moments of illegibility also pose useful challenges to long entrenched methods of writing and reading the “folk.” A prominent discourse of the interwar period, the folk often designated an authentic black culture that was distant in time and space from the stirrings of modernity yet a vital source of raw material for the modern artist. Revising this understanding, Tropic Death resists the notion of a simple folk who yield easily to a voyeuristic gaze—their language immediately decipherable, their bodies and cultural productions readily available to the modern reader. Instead, the text’s alternate geographies of Blackness require a different kind of interpretive labor, demanding “the intense engagement that reading opaque, formally experimental texts requires of the modern reader” (Pinto 4).5
An analysis of several of Tropic Death’s stories can help navigate and address various aspects of the text’s “hardness”: its various stylistic, historical, and even affective challenges. Above all, these challenges serve a productive, revisionary purpose, revealing the need for new conceptual tools to navigate the landscape of black hemispheric modernity. By charting the convergence between Tropic Death’s themes and aesthetics, this essay not only participates in recent efforts to recuperate Walrond but also raises questions about the politics of experimentalist prose in interwar literature. In particular, it urges us to reconsider the role of the experimental text in crafting visions of black modernity that reach beyond the nation to the hemisphere.
Walrond was no stranger to Harlem literary and social circles. After working as a reporter at the Panama Star & Herald, Walrond migrated to New York in 1918. In New York, Walrond served as editor of Marcus Garvey’s The Negro World and later as business manager of Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League. During the early 1920s, he began to make a name for himself in fiction by publishing a variety of short stories in modernist little magazines. In 1925, his work appeared in Alain Locke’s seminal anthology The New Negro alongside other promising young writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. Trumpeting the arrival of a new generation of black writers, Locke singles out Walrond’s literary achievements for special praise: “Walrond has a tropical color and almost volcanic gush that are unique even after more than a generation of exotic word painting by master artists” (52).
Walrond’s contribution stood out but for reasons that Locke does not name. Set in a brothel in Colón, Panama, “The Palm Porch” bursts the seams of The New Negro’s US frame. As James Davis observes, considered alongside works set in the American South or Harlem, “Walrond’s setting diverges sharply, as does his entire frame of reference” (121). Locke’s colorful description notwithstanding, the story’s deadly conclusion was also out of step with Locke’s framing of the movement’s exuberant themes. Walrond’s book-length debut in 1926 would further develop this grim tone. Tropic Death neither celebrates the flowering of black folk culture nor makes unqualified claims for its redemptive powers. Instead, the text offers a relentless catalogue of death, disease, and natural disaster. Moreover, death is repetitive, and this repetition arguably structures the text. A grisly death awaits one or more of the characters at the end of each of the ten stories: a hungry girl dies after stuffing herself with rocks, a rebellious worker is stalked and killed by a white American marine who oversees the Jim Crow worksite at the Canal Zone, and a woman is trampled on a ship (an erstwhile symbol of masculine mobility) as she travels between Honduras and Jamaica. In each case, death is dealt rapidly and with modern, machine-like precision. Unsurprisingly, the book’s bleak atmosphere was a shock to readers with a taste for the “tropical” and the “exotic.” As Mary White Ovington (a founder of the NAACP) remarks with surprise, “To those of us who know the West Indies as a pleasant winter resort[,] … Eric Walrond’s picture is like a stomping blow” (15).
Refusing the sentimentality of the pastoral mode, Tropic Death’s first story, “Drought,” opens with the sudden blow of a work whistle, hurling the reader into a disorienting industrial landscape:
Introducing Tropic Death’s theme of labor, these jarring lines demonstrate what Langston Hughes called Walrond’s “sun-bright hardness” (9), a phrase that usefully articulates a thematic and poetic toughness. As Hughes’s description implies, Walrond’s prose is full of rich yet abrasive description that is not softened by sentimentalism. The sun is a ubiquitous, oppressive force, burning all in its path and precipitating the central crisis of the story. As industrial drills pulverize the land, the men also seem to disintegrate as the work reduces them to fragments: parched throats, hungry stomachs, chigger-cracked heels. The emphasis on the “white burning hillside” and the “white earth” not only indicate a scorched landscape but also hint at an oppressive racial presence from which the workers must “wrench” themselves free. Walrond’s use of fragments signals a visceral yet fraught relationship between the “sun-crazed” folk, the ravaged landscape, and the unnatural effects of modernization.
The whistle blew for eleven o’clock. Throats parched, grim, sun-crazed blacks cutting stone on the white burning hillside dropped with a clang the hot, dust-powdered drills and flew up over the rugged edges of the horizon to descent into a dry, waterless gut. Hunger—pricks at stomachs inured to brackish coffee and cassava pone—pressed on folk, joyful as rabbits in a grassy ravine, wrenching themselves free of the lure of the white earth. Helter-skelter dark, brilliant, black faces of West Indian peasants moved along, in pain—the stiff tails of blue denim coats, the hobble of chigger-cracked heels, the rhythm of a stride … dissipating into the sun-stuffed void the radiant forces of the incline. (21)
Alluding to T. S. Eliot’s poetic answer to modern crisis, Michelle Ann Stephens observes that Tropic Death “literalised the metaphor of the modern wasteland on Caribbean shores” (“Eric” 173). Stephens’s phrasing captures Tropic Death’s spirit of modernist disillusionment while also attending to the text’s regional and historical specificity. Although it shares the bleak, disorienting tone of other modernist texts,6Tropic Death may instead belong to what Seth Moglen calls “another modernism … that emerged alongside the familiar canonical works—and, like them, developed experimental formal strategies in order to map a process of social transformation so vast that it could be perceived only in fragments” (45). Unlike the diffuse, generalized anxiety present in these better-known texts, these works “insist on the historical specificity of the destructive social forces at work in a modernizing America—and, in varied ways, they are committed to resistance” (46). Moglen does not name Walrond specifically yet suggests a useful frame for understanding the intersection between Tropic Death’s experimentalism and historicity. Tropic Death expands the existing repertoire of historical themes in modernist writing by marking, rather ominously, a period of transition in the Caribbean: the turn from the plantation economy to industrialism, the subsequent waves of migration to industrial centers, and the changing shape of racial violence and systematic oppression in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Caribbean and African American intellectuals had explored the role of US expansion as a major catalyst of hemispheric change since the turn of the century, perhaps most famously in José Martí’s 1891 essay, “Our America” (“Nuestra América”). Writing from New York during his fourteen-year exile from Cuba, Martí predicted that as the “islands of the sea” sought to find their collective voice in the coming century, they would have to come to terms with the imperial designs of their formidable neighbor to the north (129). Speaking in more blatant terms, Charles W. Chesnutt remarked in 1900: “If certain recent tendencies are an index of the future, it is not safe to fix the boundaries of the future United States anywhere short of the Arctic Ocean on the north and the Isthmus of Panama on the south” (49).
Walrond’s generation was poised to witness that expansion firsthand. He was born in British Guiana in 1898, the year the United States gained control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam and would soon intervene in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Panama.7 The construction of the Panama Canal crucially set the stage for further intervention in the hemisphere. Symbolically, the project bolstered US imperial identity, signifying “white Americans’ triumph over tropical disorder” (Colby 87). The racial overtones of the phrase “tropical disorder” (part of the official US rhetoric) should not be missed. The term signaled not only an unpredictable tropical landscape but also the unwieldy notions of racial, cultural, and national identity that converged on the isthmus.
Tropic Death explores the experiences of a Caribbean migrant workforce that official narratives of canal construction often render invisible. Through a dynamic regional lens, Tropic Death traces the contours of this labor migration as it moves between Panama, Barbados, Honduras, and Jamaica. Walrond himself was a product of isthmian migration. After living in British Guiana and Barbados, Walrond and his family moved to Colón in 1911. In Colón, he attended secondary school and became fluent in Spanish, trained as a stenographer, and became a clerk in the Health Department of the Canal Commission in Cristóbal. He also made his start as a journalist, working as a reporter and sportswriter for the Panama newspaper Star & Herald before migrating to New York 1918. Walrond’s experiences in Panama shaped his transnational outlook and his views on imperialism and migration, topics on which he became increasingly vocal in his later writings.
On one hand, the circum-Caribbean migration depicted by Walrond is compatible with narratives of modern agency and mobility. It exemplifies the pattern of “movement, transformation and relocation” that Paul Gilroy describes as part of the condition of black modernity (xi). However, Tropic Death revises Gilroy’s focus on sites in the North Atlantic by illustrating a range of black migrant experiences at a crucial moment in history for both the Caribbean and the United States. The text adds to our knowledge of black migration narratives by introducing routes of migration that defy a north-south trajectory. Circum-Caribbean migration, Tropic Death argues, is as much a part of the modern black experience as the northbound flight from “cotton, cane, and rice fields” that looms so large in the African American artistic imagination.8
Remittances from Panama and other industrial sites often paved the way for later travel to the United States. However, prior experiences in Panama and elsewhere are a reminder that Caribbeans are already transnational citizens by the time they arrive in Harlem, a fact which, as Lara Putnam argues, “should shift our sense of the origins of the black internationalist thinking and organizing that made interwar Harlem ‘new’” (471). It is toward such realities that Tropic Death directs our gaze, emphasizing a uniquely modern experience of cultural exchange and flux far from the streets of Harlem.9 Such a meeting of elements imbues the isthmus with a mysterious, pulsating energy: “As it grew dark the hewers at the Ditch, exhausted, half-asleep, naked but for wormy singlets, would hum queer creole tunes, play on guitar or piccolo, and jig to the rhythm of the coombia. It was a brujerial chant, for obeah, a heritage of the French colonial, honeycombed the life of the Negro laboring camps” (Walrond, “Wharf” 67). The hybridity of the Canal Zone is salient above all in its cultural practices, a “queer creole” mix that infused the labor camps with a vibrant, transformative power in the face of impossible conditions.
On the other hand, as the scene above also suggests, Tropic Death troubles an easy correspondence between migration and agency. Its rejection of triumphant models of transnationality or diasporic homecoming has perhaps posed another obstacle to its recuperation. To begin with, Tropic Death challenges triumphant Caribbean narratives of isthmian migration. The scenes of grueling labor, violence, and poverty in many of Tropic Death’s stories are a drastic departure from popular narratives that portrayed the “migrant-as-dandy, known for his jewelry, assumed accent, cosmopolitan air, and North American-styled clothes” (Frederick 127).10 In Tropic Death, the possibilities of migration are inextricable from its risks, and often ironically so. For example, in one story, “Panama Gold,” a worker returns to Jamaica, his experience on the canal marked by his gold chains, his colognes, and a missing leg.
Framing the canal project in terms of danger and death was no imaginative stretch for Walrond, who cataloged not only beatings and brawls but also a staggering number of deaths while working as a journalist at Colón. Indeed, work on the canal was a treacherous enterprise.11 Beyond documented threats to life, limb, and livelihood, however, is the idea that the imperial presence operated as an unwieldy force whose workings were not fully understood and were made all the more insidious because of that mystery. Walrond’s vision anticipates the description of Panama Canal migration that opens Maryse Condé’s 2014 essay “What is a Caribbean Writer?” in which she describes Canal construction as an epic tragedy on the stage of modern Caribbean life. The workers who built the canal would “pay with their lives for this technical feat, this marvel that split the world in two, and would die buried in the mud of Gatun. Marcus Garvey … saw for himself the immense misery of his fellow countrymen and thought up the idea of a massive return to the lost continent, Mother Africa” (1). The image of the canal as a mass grave reverses the narrative of modernity’s triumphant march. In Condé’s account, the material and symbolic consequences of the event reach far beyond the region, with specific implications for black leadership and cultural production. To be a Caribbean writer, Condé suggests, is to encounter death as a historical condition of black hemispheric modernity.
Walrond anticipates Condé’s call for attention to the entanglements of migration and death in Caribbean writing, a task that involved, for Walrond, questions of both form and content. He faced the challenge of depicting forms of violence and complex historical relationships that were not easily representable. How might literary language respond to the vast changes transforming the Caribbean and the hemisphere? Many of these concerns converge in “Subjection,” a story that takes place at the Canal Zone, and which also inhabits the physical center of the book, halfway through the ten stories. “Subjection” may also be called Tropic Death’s conceptual center, for it is where the brutal enforcement of the color line, the exploitation of people and environment, and the manipulation of official narratives are shown to constitute the business of industrial imperialism.
In “Subjection,” a migrant worker named Ballet challenges a corrupt American marine engaged in the brutal beating of another worker. Young and defiant, Ballet is the only man who manages to “whip up the courage of voice” in support of his peer (101). He pays for this transgression with his life, and evidence of his murder is promptly erased from the record. In addition to exposing Ballet’s murder, Walrond takes pains to illustrate the devastating pervasiveness of the color line, from Jim Crow wages and housing to surveillance and the systematic erasure of diverse migrant identities.
Like the vignette of labor that opens the text, “Subjection” begins with the image of land being pulverized by black workers: “Toro Point resounded to the noisy rhythm of picks swung by gnarled black hands. Sunbaked rock stones flew to dust, to powder” (99). The men sing a work song to the rhythm of the picks, adding their own voices to the industrial soundscape. However, the song is suddenly interrupted, or perhaps completed, by the harsh voice of a white American Marine:
The marine’s voice induces an ominous silence, stifling the agency of the story’s opening lines. Moments later, the reader becomes aware of some strange conflict at the worksite, presented only as a mysterious sequence of images:
The blows rained. The men sang—blacks, Island blacks—Turks Island, St. Vincent, the Bahamas—
Diamond gal cook fowl botty giv’ de man
“I’ll show you goddam niggers how to talk back to a white man—.” (99-100)
Here we encounter not the beating itself but its shadow. The assailant is invisible. His presence is indicated only by the phrase “white bludgeon,” and this only after the moment of impact has occurred. The images highlight the way both body and earth respond in the immediate aftermath of the violence. On one hand, the land is indelibly marked by the violence done to the body: as it lands, the nameless, faceless, “ramshackle-body” forces a dent in “crisp, caked, earth.” On the other hand, the imagery goes even further to join body and nature: the half-severed ear is like an “exhausted leaf or flower,” the body is a “tree,” and the blood is a “sticky milk” that literally crimsons the dust and earth. By the end of this sequence, body and earth are indistinguishable from each other. But as Mark Whalan writes of Jean Toomer’s Georgia soil in Cane (1923), this is not an organic connection. The land is “crisp” and barren. Like those who work on it, it has been exhausted by the violence that has occurred there.12 With a force of imagery that anticipates Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1939), this beating scene depicts both body and land as sites of disorienting violence.13
“A ram-shackle body, dark in the ungentle spots exposing it, jogged, reeled and fell at the tip of a white bludgeon. Forced a dent in the crisp caked earth. An isolated ear lay limp and juicy, like some exhausted leaf or flower, half joined to the tree whence it sprang. Only the sticky milk flooding it was crimson, crimsoning the dust and earth” (100).
The passage is often cited as evidence of Walrond’s “impressionistic” style, although with little accompanying analysis. Such a description, however vague, provides a clue to the effect of Walrond’s stylistic choices. If Walrond succeeds in giving an “impression” of a scene rather than representing it with photographic realism, his point is precisely to capture those connections that the camera cannot see. As Jesse Matz observes, the use of fragments can often suggest, through its very abstraction, a fuller and more nuanced version of reality: “If ‘fiction is an impression’ it mediates opposite perceptual moments. It does not choose surfaces and fragments over depths and wholes but makes surfaces show depths, make fragments suggest wholes, and devotes itself to the undoing of such distinctions” (1). A series of such juxtaposed fragments suggests relationships that would not otherwise be perceivable. Walrond’s use of image certainly “makes fragments suggest wholes,” revealing startling historical entanglements of race, violence, and geography.
The numerous moments where Walrond’s prose erupts into impressionism are therefore not merely ornamental but designed to deepen the content of his anti-imperialist critique and, in some cases, mobilize the plot of his stories. In “Subjection,” for example, the scene cited above serves as a catalyst, a crucial event that precipitates the rest of the story’s action. As the marine carries out this brutal beating, another young worker looks on in anger: “Irrefutably, by its ugly lift, Ballet’s mouth was in on the rising rebellion which thrust a flame of smoke into the young Negro’s eyes” (99). On the worksite, silence has become the code of survival, and the other workers are well aware that defiant speech is a form of resistance for which one pays with one’s life. Yet Ballet nevertheless manages to “whip up the courage of voice”: “Yo’ gwine kill dat boy,” he ventures, as the “older heads” of the gang look on in incredulous disapproval. “Yo’ coward yo’—a big able man lik’ yo’ beatin’ a lil’ boy lik’ dat. Why yo’ don’ hit me? Betcha yo’ don’ put down yo’ gun and fight me lik’ yo’ got any guts” (101). The marine, a nameless, khaki-clad white American, turns on him:
Aside from foreshadowing the marine’s act of retaliation against the outspoken worker, this scene illustrates his attempt to categorize the men in the homogeneous language of US racism, irrespective of their various backgrounds. The victim of the beating, “Mouth,” probably named so because of his penchant for “talking back” to white men, is called a “half-white coon.” Ballet is labeled a “thick-lipped upstart” or simply, as the marine adds later, a “black bastard” (101). Yet the men are by no means a homogenous group. Among them are migrants from San Andres, Colombia, St. Vincent, and the Bahamas. There are “Bajan creoles” (100), “black taciturn French colonials” (99), and tempestuous Jamaicans, as well as Panama men from “Bottle Alley,” Boca Grande, and Silver City. Walrond’s rendering of the incredible diversity of the Canal Zone provides a vivid contrast to the marine’s homogenizing epithets. The marine’s act of naming is revealed here as part of an attempt to “handle” the men: to establish the familiar racial order in this new context and acquaint the West Indian and Central and South American workers with the rigid workings of the color line.
“You mind yer own goddam business, Smarty, and go back to work,” said the marine. He guided an unshaking yellow-spotted finger under the black’s warm, dilating nostrils. “Or else—”
He grew suddenly deathly pale. It was a pallor which comes to men on the verge of murder. Mouth, the boy at issue, one of those docile, half-white San Andres coons, was a facile affair. Singly, red-bloodedly one handled it. But here, with this ugly, thick-lipped, broad-chested upstart, there was need for handling of an errorless sort. (101)
“Subjection” does in fact explore the possibilities and limitations of resistance. But if Ballet’s rebellion represents an alternate possibility, the consequences of his transgression are clearly foreshadowed. The marine “grew suddenly deathly pale. It was a pallor which comes to men on the verge of murder” (101). From this moment on, the march toward death is inexorable. The sole provider for an impoverished household, Ballet is compelled to return to work the following day. Ballet speeds through Colón on his way to the work site. Assailed by the sun’s oppressive heat, he flies past “dinky bathhouses … grog shops, chink stores and brothels,” and scores of black men trekking to work. As one group clears a patch of jungle with cutlasses, they sing a work-song that simultaneously foretells Ballet’s fate and heralds the relentless march of modernity: “Comin’ Ah tell yo’! One mo’ mawin,’ buoy” (110).
On Ballet’s arrival, he has his inevitable confrontation with the marine. “Stand up and take yer medicine, yer goddam skunk,” cries the marine. Afraid, Ballet flees, taking shelter behind the spokes of a wagon wheel in a toolshed on the edge of the jungle. His situation now hopeless, he is quickly tracked down. With chilling matter-of-factness, the narrator relates the youth’s final moments:
The dry realism of this passage stands in stark contrast to the fragmented prose of the pivotal beating scene at the beginning of “Subjection.” Serving as bookends, these two scenes create a violent atmosphere that ranges between the uncanny and the quotidian. Indeed, the story’s unceremonious ending suggests that the erasure of black life was a routine occurrence. The true nature of Ballet’s death goes undocumented in the Canal Commission’s official publication, or rather, it is incorrectly documented as a consequence of a “native labor uprising.” In addition to denying his murder, the Canal Record subsumes Ballet’s identity and entire history under the category of “native,” a term that is misleading at best in the context of the Canal Zone’s largely migrant labor population. Yet the term reveals the canal authorities’ attempts to keep a non-US black population “under de heel o’ de backra” (103). Before the marine kills Ballet, for example, he exclaims, “I’ll teach you niggers down here how to talk back to a white man” (111, emphasis added). Moreover, as Frederick observes, the manipulation of the record enables the “fiction of US benevolence at the Canal Zone to continue” (161). This unmistakably deliberate erasure constitutes “Subjection’s” final and perhaps most devastating act of violence.
Behind the wheel, bars dividing the two, Ballet saw the dread khaki—the dirt-caked leggings.
His vision abruptly darkened.
Vap, vap, vap—
Three sure, dead shots.
In the Canal Record, the Q.M. at Toro Point took occasion to extol the virtues of the Department which kept the number of casualties in the recent native labor uprising down to one. (111)
Importantly, although the canal stands at the literal and conceptual center of Tropic Death, it also serves as a flashpoint whose effects ripple outward. Several of the stories establish a link between that large-scale project and the many smaller industrial projects taking place far from the shores of Panama. This connection is achieved, in part, through imagery: a ubiquitous white “marl” dust, unleashed by the drilling at various worksites, quietly pervades many of the book’s ten stories. Baked and dried by the oppressive heat of the sun, the suffocating industrial waste takes on a life of its own: “Marl … dust” (Walrond, “Drought” 34), “thick adhesive marl” (21), “hot creeping marl” (22).
The marl’s sinister presence is illustrated best in Tropic Death’s opening story, “Drought,” in which a ravaged landscape is produced by a combination of natural disaster and industrial drilling at a rock quarry. The story follows a protagonist, Coggins Rum, a worker at the site. On his daily trek home from work quarry, Coggins gasps at the “consequences of the sun’s wretched fury”: “The sun had robbed the land of its juice, squeezed it dry. Star apples, sugar apples, husks, transparent on the dry sleepy trees. . . . Undug, stemless—peanuts, carrots—seeking balm, relief, the caress of a passing wind, shot dead unlustered eyes up through the sun-etched cracks in the hard, brittle soil” (26). The people are equally robbed of their vitality. In the face of this “dizzy spectacle” (27), they sink to their knees and pray for rain. With the crops dead, and with Coggins’s meager wages barely sustaining the family Coggins’s wife Sissie is “running a house on a dry-rot herring bone, a pint of stale, yellowless cornmeal, a few spuds” (28). But the focus soon shifts to Coggins’s daughter, Beryl, standing in the marl road: “Six years old; possessing a one-piece frock, no hat, no shoes. . . . Victim of the sun—a bright spot under its singeing mask—Beryl hesitated at Coggins’ approach. Her little brown hands flew behind her back” (27). In light of the all-around scarcity, the girl has adopted the habit of eating the only thing that the landscape provides in abundance— marl rocks. Coggins frequently admonishes her behavior, to their mutual distress: “A gulping sensation came to Coggins when he saw Beryl crying. When Beryl cried, he felt like crying, too [,] … [b]ut he sternly heaped invective upon her. ‘Marl’ll make yo’ sick … tie up yo’ guts, too. Tie up yo’ guts like green guavas. Don’t eat it, yo’ hear, don’t eat no mo’ marl’” (28). These warnings quickly grow ominous, painfully highlighting the family’s inability to provide any alternative. In the face of poverty, the physical environment has become deadly.
This foreshadowing nevertheless fails to prepare us for the story’s startling climax. Approaching the family’s empty rainwater keg, Coggins encounters Beryl’s motionless body: “Beryl, little naked brown legs apart, was flat upon the hard, bare earth. The dog, perhaps, or the echo of some fugitive wind had blown up her little crocus bag dress. It lay like a cocoanut flap-jack on her stomach” (32). The tone here is one of almost clinical understatement; the flat description belies the horror of the girl’s demise. Here the lifelessness of land and body merge with disturbing clarity. Soon, the narrative abruptly shifts to the girl’s autopsy, a scene revealed only in fragments:
The precise moment of death eludes us. Afterward, the reality of the girl’s demise slips in and out of consciousness only in “swirls” of sound and image. Yet it is precisely in this moment of fragmentation that the link between the family’s impoverishment, the exploitative labor, and the disintegration of the landscape becomes remarkably vivid. Ironically, the “noise” of the autopsy mimics the preparation of the food items that the girl’s family lacks: “dry Indian corn,” “[g]inger,” “[c]ow foot,” and “[s]tew.” The incessant pounding and sawing, which elevate at the final moment to drilling, are reminiscent of the backbreaking industrial labor that fails to provide sustenance for the workers and their families. Here, as elsewhere in the text, Walrond’s use of the fragment actually brings into focus a harsh and disorienting reality. Although the connections are not spelled out for us, we are forced to confront the stark reality of it all: death.
“Marl … marl … dust. . . .” It came to Coggins in swirls. Autopsy. Noise comes in swirls. Pounding, pounding—dry Indian corn pounding. Ginger. Ginger being pounded in a mortar with a bright, new pestle. Pound, pound. And. Sawing. Butcher shop. Cow foot is sawed that way. Stew—or tough hard steak. Then the drilling—drilling—drilling to a stone cutter’s ears!
“Too bad, Coggins,” the doctor said, “‘too bad, to lose yo’ dawtah.” (34)
The story’s matter-of-fact, unsentimental examination of the cause of death performs its own kind of autopsy. The text goes beyond realistic documentation to uncover a visceral relationship—a malevolent one— between the people, the land, and the work that is done there. Tropic Death enacts a poetics of labor that emphasizes the fraught relationship between black bodies and the modernity they help to facilitate, even as they are deprived of its promises. We might imagine, for example, that the harvested rock is shipped elsewhere and turned into building materials for modern cities.
In this way, Walrond’s text approaches an almost Marxist theory of uneven development, hinting at the more explicit critique of empire and capital that emerges in his essays:
What is distinct about Tropic Death, however, is that it situates this critique in the realm of the literary, painting with not only the broad strokes of history but also allowing us to see, for instance, the historical contingency of a little girl’s death in a backwoods village. This critique is enabled by the aesthetic of the text—its descriptions of a disabling physical environment and use of language that mirrors the disintegration of black life.
If the Negro is to be free he must rid himself of whatever illusions he may still have about the social and economic system that has grown up under capitalism and imperialism. A system that fattens off the labouring masses—black, yellow and white—and that enriches the privileged few is one which he can never be reconciled to” (Walrond, “Negro” 288).
To return to Tropic Death’s experimental prose is to attend to the text’s imperative to grapple with the elusive effects of imperial violence that resist mimetic representation. It is also to reevaluate Walrond’s persistent, yet vague, designation as an avant-garde writer. As Louis Chude-Sokei observes, Tropic Death’s “linguistic excesses,” were not uniformly praised or understood (76). If Tropic Death’s reception is any clue, the book stretched existing vocabularies for talking about black experimental writing. For example, Ovington’s impression of Tropic Death as a “stomping blow” was as much a commentary on style as it was on theme: “Mr. Walrond’s style … is at times trying. . . . He has the modern method of making sentences out of words. . . . He does not seem to realize that his milieu is unusual and that if he wishes us really to see the pictures that flood his mind he must take a little more pains in presenting them to us” (15). Similarly, Benjamin Brawley’s otherwise glowing review contained the observation that “certainly a writer of Mr. Walrond’s ability can now dispense altogether with hectic writing in gaining his effects” (234). Significantly, such stylistic critiques of Tropic Death were echoed by modernist writers. In an Opportunity review titled “In Our American Language” (1926), Waldo Frank (a staunch advocate of his friend Jean Toomer’s experimental prose) regards Walrond’s language as a distraction from its subject matter: “The reader … finds himself thinking of Mr. Walrond’s language: finds himself seeing (and often being moved by) Mr. Walrond’s words; rather than by the pictures and the dramas they are supposed to flesh” (352).
More than signaling mere stylistic quibbles, these reviews reflect a desire for the accessibility and verisimilitude that many readers had come to expect in literary representations of the folk. Tropic Death’s form—a short story collection—was a typical vehicle for the regional local color tale, yet Walrond’s prose was a departure from the simple description and pastoral imagery normally associated with that mode. Ovington's and Frank’s reviews may also exemplify the presumption that the literary tricks of high modernism were out of place in the hands of black writers. This expectation was especially pronounced for Walrond as a writer of the West Indies, a milieu that was considered foreign and unusual even to some of his African American readers. By suggesting that Tropic Death’s stylistic innovations came at the expense of content, Walrond’s contemporaries hint at something more: his failure as a translator and interpreter. In other words, the book’s presumed shortcoming lay not merely in its lack of clarity but more precisely in its “failure” to provide a document of Caribbean folk life that could be translated into existing paradigms.
Tropic Death's reception exposes ongoing difficulties with contextualizing experimental prose in black writing. Édouard Glissant later observed the pervasive demand for accessibility in black experimental texts: “Western thought has led us to believe that a work must always put itself constantly at our disposal, and I know a number of our folktales, the power of whose impact on their audience has nothing to do with the clarity of their meaning” (Caribbean 107). Insofar as Tropic Death “fails” to put itself at the disposal of its readers, this failure might be understood as an intentional part of the text’s experimental project.14 Anticipating Glissant’s focus on the “right to opacity” (“For” 194), Tropic Death deliberately tests the limits of translatability, experimenting with what may or may not translate across regional boundaries in terms of language, culture, and historical vision. This notion of failure is at work internally between characters from different shores who frequently misapprehend each other. But such failures also herald the text’s commitment to incommensurability, difference, and an experimental relationship to literary language and discourse.
More specifically, Tropic Death might be said to have a translational relationship to the discourse of Southern folk culture that was prominent in the Harlem Renaissance. Within the first few pages, the book announces this relationship outright: “It wasn’t Sepia, Georgia, but a backwoods village in Barbados” (Walrond, “Drought” 22).15 This phrase insists on the specificity of place, yet Walrond’s orientation is also comparative. In defining that setting in terms of what it is not, he leaves behind the trace of that alternative, that Southern elsewhere. Resonating with literary depictions of the US South, Tropic Death’s opening vignette is not unlike the image of black labor that sets the tone for Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923).16 Like Toomer’s Georgia, the Caribbean landscape is no pastoral space. It is also linked to a haunting past of plantation slavery. In both texts, the cane field, that age-old symbol of labor, violence, and resistance in the literature of the Americas, is a reminder of modernity’s insufficient break with an oppressive past.
In Tropic Death, however, the reader returns to the cane field at dusk but finds that the perspective has changed. From the vantage point of that backwoods village, the cane field embodies not only the haunting legacy of slavery but also the modern violence of an emerging US empire. Walrond attempts to map new historical themes and a new poetic language onto a critical terrain not yet receptive to black literary critiques of US empire. Its moments of translational failure serve to expose these interpretive gaps. To recuperate Tropic Death is to restore depictions of Caribbean labor, migration, and death to the literary landscape of the Harlem Renaissance and American modernism. It is also to reassert Walrond’s importance to the Caribbean intellectual tradition as an anti-colonialist and theorist of circum-Caribbean regional identity, anticipating thinkers such as Glissant, Condé, and others.
Equally important is Walrond’s intervention in discourses of folk culture. Walrond’s experimental vision, however bleak, offers a different way of reading literary representations of the folk and the “small places” they inhabit, to borrow a phrase from the title of Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, A Small Place (1988). Going a step further than Toomer’s sepia-toned elegy to a once vital folk culture, Walrond’s focus on dying and impoverished bodies—his concern with the material circumstances of folk life—serves to place his folk more firmly in the present. Their tragic deaths are a marker of their contemporaneity: their paradoxical, yet distinct experience of modernity. Above all, Tropic Death challenges the United States’ racialized premise of “triumph over tropical disorder” by unveiling the vast geographies of Blackness that imperial power struggles to contain (Colby 87). In addition to critiquing the unwieldy and disorienting violence of imperialism, Walrond points toward another potentially generative kind of disorder: the instability of Black identities and the messy exchanges of culture, nation, and language that define black diasporic experience and are epitomized by canal migration and resettlement. Revising the celebration of black culture and identity often performed by his peers, Walrond paints a picture of modernity in which death and transformation are fundamentally intertwined.