Anti-Communist handbill distributed by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham in the 1930s

My main concern, however, is that Europeans sometimes provide Americans inappropriate, or should I say incomplete, models. In my field of labor history, for example, the enormous contributions of European styles of analysis must be balanced against their silence on fundamental facts of American history: the existence of race as a potent social and economic category and the relationship between race and class. It is true that Europeans like Comte Joseph de Gobineau invented the scholarship of racism in the late eighteenth century, but until quite recently race has not figured as an important theme in European social thought. In the United States, however, race and labor have gone hand in hand ever since the institutionalization of slavery.
Despite the salience of race and racism in American history, they have been difficult for American historians who were not black to confront. (Genocide, gays and lesbians, and, of course, women also have long histories of oversight. These are topics that have been, as the French would say, "occultes.") The civil rights movement and the concomitant black studies movement would have seemed to have ended the silence on race: Most certainly the field of African-American studies has grown tremendously, with many of its most active participants being non-black scholars. Yet the very vigor of African-American studies provided historians of labor a pretext for continuing to produce lily-white analyses—race, they could say, belonged exclusively to black studies. Turning their backs on African- American studies, many labor historians took the further step of embracing paradigms from European history that seemed more sophisticated theoretically than American analyses but that have disregarded race.          
The result has been an outpouring of interesting yet flawed labor history that pretends that non-black workers are not affected by the existence of a workforce segmented by race. Although they know that non- black as well as black workers have been affected by racism in this country, labor historians sometimes only admit to this fact when the question is put to them directly. They often prefer to wrap themselves in fashionable Europeanisms and to write as though their favorite, northern, European- American workers lived out destinies divorced from matters of slavery and racism, as though, say, Chartism meant more in the history of the American working class than slavery.

With such struggles over American labor historiography in mind, confess the fear of having to start all over again with historians of women. My nightmare is that this Annales article [“Culture et pouvoir des femmes : essai d'historiographie” the subject of discussion in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Women’s History, in which this essay appears], with the customary European blindness to matters of race, will play the E. P. Thompson role in women's history, with historians of women adopting the myopia along with the genius of European thought.

Perhaps things ought also to be going the other way around. As we read them, French scholars should be consulting Americans who recognize the importance of race, for late-twentieth-century European populations, including the French, now include large numbers of southern-European, Arab, and African working-class immigrants. A glance at French newspapers reveals the popularity of demagogues like Jacques Le Pen, whose xenophobia has begun to alert Europeans to the power of race right there at home. Le Pen is the best-known racist now active in Europe, but the continent is full of racists and proto-racists of the sort who are familiar to Americans. It would be a pity if European historians remained blind to the importance of the relationship of race and class in their own societies, several of which were imperialist, continuing instead their traditional pre-occupation with peasants and shopkeepers of European ethnic backgrounds.
Nell Irvin Painter, “French Theories in American Settings: Some Thoughts on TransferabilityJournal of Women's History 1:1 (1989)
Marx wrote somewhere that literary scholars make their own canon. But, he said, they do not make it just as they please, but rather under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. This dictum seems unexceptionable, stressing as it does a particular kind of historical determinacy. Yet, what it does not clarify is the ideological orientation Marx was gesturing toward. The "past" is always a selected phenomenon, arranged for class usage. The past conditioning canons—their discussion, implementation, pedagogy, or other uses—is always an ideologically conditioned version of events and occurrences gone by.

In recent United States literary study, Marx's insight—like other considerations of history—has been pointedly ignored in pursuit of theory. Rather than looking to either the immediate or distant past of the United States to arrive at useful observations on such matters as the founding rhetoric and representational practices of, say, Colonial America or questions of canons and canonicity in the New World, United States literary scholars have bent their best attention toward theory. In their discussions, theory has been both a covering term for literary study in general and, I believe, a disguise of sorts. It has allowed scholars to avoid a self-conscious perspective on their specific historical situation in the United States and the active implications and imperatives of such a situation.

The stance taken by United States scholars has, more often than not, been that implied by Isaac D'Israeli in his 1791 essay "Literary Fashions": "prose and verse have been regulated by the same caprice that cuts our coats and cocks our hats." Whirled around by the whirligig of theoretical taste, United States literary scholars have recently been concerned only with next fall's fashionable theoretical line rather than with history. It would be fair to say, I think, that "theory" has implied—especially in its poststructuralist manifestations—an ideological and sometimes willed blindness to any version of the past that suggests real events, actual human bodies or a responsibility to such phenomena on the part of literary scholars themselves.        

In this essay I look specifically at the embodied and actual past of the United States, summoning for sight and hearing rhetorics that imply a promised canonical body described neither by the term "dismantling" (as in taking apart existing canons) nor "replacement" (as in a liberal substitution of Invisible Man for Henderson the Rain King). To set such a uniquely American historical and scholarly scene, I suggest immediately that the most impressive sound in the domain of United States canon formation during recent decades was that of tens of thousands of Civil Rights marchers singing "We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree that's planted by the waters / We shall not be moved.”

The song is a metonym for historical and radical African American energies that exploded like TNT on the American scene. It is a name for the resonant topsy-turvydom that marked every walk of American life in recent decades. A dramatic social initiative was seized and overseen by Black Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and preeminent in this initiative were questions of canons and canon formation-questions, that is, of binding contractual cultural texts, the production and reproduction of culture, and cultural axiology.

And when Black Power and the Black Arts Movement in combination with the Black Aesthetic found their way (under the aegis of Black Studies) onto the stage of the American academy, the black initiative became a reality for every student, woman, or man-every secretary, security guard, resident advisor, professor, or administrator. If the Black Power epoch was tragically short-lived (I believe the window of opportunity opened for no more than a decade-from  assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), it nonetheless dramatically altered long-standing modes of literary creative and literary critical understanding. It seems appropriate, therefore, in any discussion of canons, to emphasize a United States situation. To do so we might look first at that New World interaction of actual black and white bodies and historical conjunctions that wrote themselves in unique ways during the eighteenth century.

Houston Baker Jr., “The Promised Body: Reflections on Canon in an Afro-American Context,” Poetics Today 9:2 (1988).


The seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (via the New York Society Library)

On June 10th 1911 Paul Dimishky set off from Bombay towards Port Said. In the four and a half years prior, the Reverend Dimishky had faithfully served the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’s (SPG) mission in Bombay. The mission’s purpose was to convert the western Indian city’s heathens—Mohammedan, Hindoo, and otherwise—into Christians. Dimishky’s focus were the Muslims in particular, on whom he was a kind of expert. In an article penned for The Moslem World, Dimishky produced an ethnic and sectarian taxonomy of “The Moslem Population in Bombay.” In it he clarified the differences between “Shaiks,” “Sayids,” and “Pathans,” as well as those between “Bohras,” “Khojas,” “Julhais.”¹ The first three among those Muslims in the city of “foreign extraction” and the latter three of “Hindu descent.” At the end of the article he—like so many missionaries before him—registered his frustration over the lack of Muslim conversions. While missionaries failed, Dimishky lamented, Islam’s false teachings—through the efforts of a growing number of reformist associations—flourished, “reinforced every day by hundreds of co-religionists from almost all parts of India and Arabia.” The misfortunes of Dimishky’s Indian career and the circumstances that precipitated his departure from India speak to the entanglements between the missionary enterprise and colonialism, race and religion, and South Asia and the Middle East.  

Paul was the son of Hanna Dimishky, who was born in al-Lyd in 1847 and ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Jerusalem in 1889. As his name implies, Hanna’s family originally hailed from Damascus. Hanna’s father, Joseph Antoine Safi, was himself an early Arab convert to Protestantism who moved to Palestine in the 1830s. The elder Dimishky was an enthusiastic pastor who for many years ran a school in al-Lyd which much excited visiting European missionaries. In 1887, one observer was impressed by this “very energetic Native Agent” who “throws great life and spirit into the work.”² Some time later, while traveling through Syria on his way back home to Scotland from India, the Reverend Doctor George Adam Smith stopped by Hanna Dimishky’s school. Upon witnessing him expound on the Gospel to his young students, Smith wrote that there is “no more important a station in Palestine” than al-Lyd.³ When Paul joined the family business, he had quite the reputation to live up to.


After working as a deacon in Beirut and Haifa, Paul was ordained as a priest in 1906 and made his way to another port city shortly thereafter, Bombay. Paul quickly learned Urdu, a helpful language to master if one was going to save the souls of Indian Muslims. But his relationship with others in the mission were strained from the beginning. “The Arab Dimishky is a brave fellow,” wrote the Bishop of Bombay Edwin Jones in 1909, “but grossly tactless and self assertive. Why on earth was he brought here?” Dimishky’s Arabness had seriously disrupted the racial order of the mission. Dimishky and his wife, Jones continued, “are certainly not like any Indian ever born, but the Indians resent their taking up the attitude of Europeans towards them.” For Indians as for Europeans, Dimishky’s race posed a problem. In another letter, Jones spelled out the concerns clearly: “I think the difficulty is this, he is not an Englishman and is not an Indian, but is employed by you as a member of the European staff. He insists of his position more violently than any Englishman would do. The Indians regard him as an Oriental, and will not take from him what they would readily take from an Englishman.” Dimishky’s race was further demarcated by his salary, a European’s of £200 a year. This financial arrangement lays bare the implications of Dimishky’s place in the mission’s racial hierarchy. To be paid more is to be worth more, and by one calculus Dimishky’s was worth as much as a European. Nevertheless, despite his salary and faith, his being a not-European was inescapable. This racial anxiety—coupled with his family’s history in the missionary enterprise—no doubt contributed to his self-conception and social relations.

Bodleian Library, Oxford, Papers of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Dimishky’s documented quarrels always occurred not with European members of the diocese, but with Indians. In 1908, Dimishky’s feud with an Indian deacon bearing the surname Mukherji led to a reprimand by Bombay’s Bishop. At that time, Dimishky was sent to Delhi for a few months until things cooled down. In an another episode, Dimishky was involved in an “affair of mutual misunderstanding and accusation” with the school-master by the name of Ibrahim. Dimishky likely would have been sent away earlier if he had not been the only missionary in the diocese with knowledge of Urdu. By its own account, the SPG was alone among the missionary institutions in Bombay proselytizing to Muslims. The Bombay mission pleaded with its North Indian counterparts in Lahore and Delhi for an Urdu-speaking replacement to Dimishky to no avail.

By December 1910, Edwin James had had enough: “The Mission has been a hotbed of intrigue and slander for 4 or 5 years now, and the only remedy is that all the persons who have taken part of this horrible pasttime [sic] should go.” Six months later, Dimishky would be gone. At bottom, for the Bishop of Bombay, the Arab evangelist’s flesh was the problem: “Dimishky is an Oriental with wild Syrian blood in his veins, and he must be judged as an Oriental, though he is paid by you as a European Missionary.” Dimishky had swallowed whole the racial ideology of missionary culture, but it had not embraced him back. The mission wanted Dimishky out, but he was set on staying in India. It a last ditch effort, he pleaded with his superiors to find him a post somewhere, anywhere, in India: “India is the place where I would like to concentrate all my energy and strength in this present stage of its unrest. In fact I would give up anything rather than quit India, and would spend the very utmost of my life in helping to bring this vast empire to the foot of the Cross. I shall, therefore be most grateful to you Lordship for any help you can render to keep me in India.” What explains Dimishky’s zeal for converting Indians? Part and parcel of his being European, was a celebration of, in his own words, “western civilization and missions.” By the early twentieth century, Europe’s sense of itself was inextricably tied to the global space where its power was felt. For the beleaguered Dimishky, to be civilized was to spread civilization to darker and lesser peoples.
Weeks before he left Bombay, the tone of Dimishky’s letters turned desperate: “Could you not, for GOD’S sake, try to relieve me from this terrible anxiety by finding me a suitable post in India outside Bombay? Where am I to go during the monsoon with my dear wife and two little ones?” His appeals went unheeded and he was promptly sent off by the diocese’s secretary E. Philip Comber. As a kind of consolation for his dismissal, Dimishky was given a lumps sum of £150 to compensate for the furlough pay he would have received had he stayed in his position for another three years. In his article for The Moslem World, which was published at the end of his Bombay tenure, Dimishky mounted a subtle defense of his work and a critique of the mission’s management. The SPG in Bombay, Dimishky argued, had “rather antiquated methods … strongly in contrast with the splendid Delhi Mission of the same society.” The mission was not well equipped to do the work of preparing for the Lord’s second coming, lacking both staff and facilities. Had it been, Dimishky confidently claimed, “the results would have been incalculable.”

Ussama Makdisi has written that “both Protestant missionaries and European colonial administrators thought of themselves as representing modernity in the periphery of the civilized and Christian world.”⁴ But what did those people in the periphery think of each other? How were their ideas of each other constricted by, mediated through, and built around Europe? And, how, ultimately, did this history move beyond Europe? Dimiskhy’s is but one story in a history of interaction, translation, conflict, and collaboration across the global South that forces us to rethink our histories of empire, orientalism, religion and race. As historians of global migrations and movements have repeatedly warned us, globalization is not the triumphant erasure of barriers, but also the solidification of border regimes and the exposure of differences. In order to write histories of south-south interaction that don't simply romanticize connection or mourn geographies now lost, attention must be paid to domination and it's language.

¹. Paul J.E. Damishky [Dimishky], “The Moslem Population in Bombay,” The Moslem World 1:2 (1911) 117-130.
². J.R. Longley Hall, “Excerpts from the Annual Letters: Palestine,” The Church Missionary Intelligencer and Record (March 1882) 155.
³. George Adam Smith, “Palestine,” The Church Missionary Intelligencer (August 1904) 604.
⁴. Ussama Makdisi, “Reclaiming the Land of the Bible: Missionaries, Secularism, and Evangelical Modernity.” American Historical Review 102:3 (1997) 682.

Esmat Elhalaby
Rice University